On Creating a Virtual Reality Platform

Published: March 14th, 2021
Kyle Rand
Founder, Rendever
from Somerville, MA, USA
started June 2016
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270 days
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Hi, my name is Kyle Rand and I'm one of the co-founders and CEO of Rendever. Rendever is a virtual reality platform built specifically to reduce social isolation through the power of virtual reality and shared experiences.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many didn’t understand just how dangerous social isolation can be to our mental health. We’ve been studying the impact for years, as it is one of the most critical health epidemics in modern history. Older adults are affected at an increasingly high rate, and the health implications are alarming. Studies have shown that prolonged social isolation is equally as detrimental to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, and within this demographic, is linked to a 30% increase in mortality rates. This is more severe than the 12-27% COVID-19 case fatality rate and will continue to spread longer than the vaccination rollout if we don’t find a solution.

Our core belief is that the foundation of human connection is shared positive experiences, and we’ve spent the past five years building, polishing, and deploying the Rendever resident engagement platform to empower just that. With Rendever, residents of senior living communities can explore the world, check off bucket list items, return to their childhood home and favorite places from their past, and it’s social, so they do so altogether. We have the data to back up the impact, we have major commercial partnerships with massively influential players like AARP and Verizon, and most importantly: our platform is currently being used in over 250 senior living communities and healthcare organizations across North America (and coming soon to Australia!).


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

Older adults have had a very special place in my heart for as long as I can remember. As a kid, my friends and I spent every summer volunteering and scooping ice cream at a local senior living community. I remember the feeling when the residents’ faces lit up if we knew exactly what they wanted (rum raisin with chocolate sprinkles was a favorite combo!). It was profound to learn how such a simple act of kindness could be so impactful.

The people who tell you that you’re doing amazing, even when you feel like closing your computer and crying, they’re the ones who will get you through the darkest times, and the ones you’ll want to be there alongside you as you celebrate the brightest moments.

I then went to Duke and did a dual program in cognitive neuroscience and biomedical engineering, and worked in two laboratories focused on these quite different areas. Part of my research was centered on studying the effects of social sensory inputs on motor activation in monkeys (the laboratory was behind the Walk Again project so all of our research was building towards functional exoskeletons!), and the other part was dedicated to studying the cognitive decline in the aging population. We were particularly interested in decision-making processes, and understanding the correlation between structural changes in the brain and the deficits in sound decision-making that occur as humans age. The day-to-day activities ended up consisting of many hours sitting in a small room with older adults, walking them through these cognitive experiments. Making connections and chatting with each participant after the study was one of the best things, and I learned a lot about interaction design throughout the process.

As I was wrapping up at school, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, which triggered a pretty tough decision-making process for our whole family (especially my parents and my aunt and uncle). Ultimately, my family helped her move into a senior living community. The transition wasn’t easy on anyone, and it really opened my eyes to the addressable pain points of the modern aging process, and this stuck with me in the back of my mind until I eventually took the leap and co-founded Rendever.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

While I was studying at Duke, I was obsessed with research. I practically lived in the lab and I thoroughly enjoyed it most of the time, although sometimes working with monkeys was a bit of a pain (literally). I was seriously considering pursuing a Ph.D. and an academic career following graduation, but I stumbled upon the Stanford Startup Engineering course the summer before my senior year. And I fell in love.

I had always loved learning programming languages, and so I spent every winter and summer break trying to take on a new language. There was something about that course that put all the technical pieces together into a roadmap towards actualization - building a product was never foreign to me, but building a company was suddenly in sight.

I did ultimately move to Brazil to continue my pursuit of research, given an amazing opportunity to work on the Walk Again project in conjunction with the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Unfortunately, between our lab flooding and getting infected with dengue fever, it was a pretty tough experience and I came home early. At the time, all of my friends lived in Boston, so I moved there on a whim and decided to take a jump into product development. My first role was with a cool company developing a patient-centered social research network for sleep apnea patients through the Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

After we ran out of funding for further development (although I must point out, it’s still alive and growing!), I dove a bit deeper into the world of mission-driven product development. I developed a crowdfunding platform for ecological conservation, created the first major college scholarship program for students of martial arts, and architected a grassroots initiative focused on increasing healthcare access for populations-in-need, which was eventually recognized by the Obama administration. I was fortunate to then join a rapidly growing team that had just raised their Series A with a mission focused on energy-efficiency. Unfortunately, the management team’s go-to-market strategy wasn’t solid and a majority of the team was laid off just 8 months later, but I survived and learned many lessons that have significantly influenced the way I’ve approached startup leadership.

Around this time, virtual reality (VR) was emerging as a promising technology. I joined a few other people that were interested in exploring the use of VR with seniors, and we quickly built a prototype of today’s Rendever platform and initiated research with the MIT AgeLab and Benchmark Senior Living. The results showed that within only two weeks of using Rendever daily, residents reported a statistically significant increase in multiple social health measures, including feelings of trust, and a statistically significant decrease in depression scores. There was no doubt that we were on to something, and we went all-in on educating the market (which, at the time, was understandably full of skeptics).

Between the promising results of our initial research and the pure joy we were witnessing as older adults simply tested the technology, our client list started to grow as they realized there was magic here. Since then, we’ve built a team that dedicates themselves every single day to our mission and works eagerly to build a platform that brings those magical moments to seniors across the globe.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We started 2021 on a profitable note, and I feel lucky to say we’ve just grown our team by four more people. Having bootstrapped since being founded in 2016, we approach hiring from a function of profitability so hiring four people at once (with two more roles available) is a big jump for our team. We’re all super excited to take on the next stage of our growth.

Rendever is a subscription-based company with an upfront capital expense, so we’ve carefully navigated the duality of our pricing to make sure we’re continually optimizing towards driving impact through growth. Our margins are exactly where we need them to be (sorry, I wish I could share more), and while we continue signing on new clients (our total enterprise client count doubled in 2020!), we’re excited about product diversification opportunities because our product team is so incredibly strong. We recently launched EnvisionHome™ to help our clients amplify their sales efforts using the same immersive technology their residents are already using. This way, Rendever is used to help build the community by attracting more residents to move in, and then being used to build the community side of the community by empowering residents and staff to share in the positive experiences Rendever is celebrated for.

One of my favorite things that we accomplished this past year was the launch of our RendeverLive™ platform. Multiple times per week, any of our communities are welcome to tune in together for a full-service virtual tour, delivered by one of our internal experts. They get to learn from the best while experiencing the most amazing places in the world (think: a walking tour of Paris with a French history expert by your side, but you never need to get out of your chair!). What makes this really impactful is that it connects all of our communities, so we have residents all over North America admiring the Eiffel Tower at the same time and competing to see who knows the most trivia during each session.

We have a few other products that we’re really excited about that we’re starting to collect data on and will become available soon, so definitely keep your eyes open for future news here.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

It’s probably safe to say that anyone who starts a business is going to be learning a ton - and that’s kind of the danger. If you’re embarking on a relatively uncharted path (for instance, bootstrapping for five years while accelerating access to cutting edge technology for a demographic that is often overlooked and quite misunderstood), it’s important to understand the difference between lessons that are ubiquitous and lessons that are unique and poorly applicable.

Everyone is on their own journey, and everyone is learning and applying lessons that hold to their experience in their own way. We often become eager to share what we’ve learned and held it as a fundamental truth that the information will be helpful to anyone who is even remotely on a similar journey, which is great, we all want to help each other. The biggest thing I learned early on is to appreciate all help and advice and learn from as many shared experiences as possible but to also take everything with a big grain of salt. This might paint me as a skeptic or a critic, but honestly, it’s easy to deal with the everyday unknowns that are core to entrepreneurship by latching on to advice as a “tried and true lesson” that will apply perfectly. There’s a careful line to walk here, and the line gets thinner the more unique your business model is.

I’ve benefited from a wealth of advice and inspiration from colleagues, mentors, potential partners and clients, and of course my friends and family. Our organization wouldn’t be where it is today without the help of all of these people. But I also know how to discern between helpful advice and advice that is coming out of the left field, and that’s been absolutely critical in charting this new territory. Human relationships are more nuanced than this, but if there’s a simple distinction that I can share: trust the advice that follows a tide of questions, ignore the advice that comes right after you’ve started talking.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We’ve been investing heavily in operational tools that support efficient workflows, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic where we don’t have the opportunity to benefit from the immediate quick conversations and brainstorms that are typical of our office culture. We use all of the classics: Zoom is a no-brainer, it feels like we get progressively more reliant on Asana every month, and I can’t remember the last day in my life where I haven’t been on Slack.

One of my favorites that we’ve picked up in the past year is Front, an email interface that sits on top of your typical email client (e.g. GSuite) and enables team collaboration while focusing all team members on the coveted “Inbox Zero”. It’s been fantastic in quickly improving cross-functional transparency while allowing our team to have a clear insight into where somebody may need some help as things pile up.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Speaking from the lens of the company, there is no book more influential than Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. He writes so beautifully about a topic that’s so raw; it’s required reading for our team. I’m currently reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, and I’m obsessed. I’m really taking it chapter by chapter and giving myself time to reflect and incorporate the lessons in how I think about everyday life, and it’s been a refreshing start to 2021.

The other resource that I think every entrepreneur needs to be aware of is Valor Performance. Especially as an early-stage entrepreneur, there’s so much focus on pure execution that we rarely get the opportunity to take a step back and truly to reflect and learn how to approach performance better - peak performance analysis is almost too meta for a rapidly growing startup. Through Valor, we have a performance coach assigned to each member of our leadership team, and it’s been amazing to see and it frankly helps me sleep better knowing that the leaders on the team get a dedicated coach that can stay focused from a high-level perspective never gets pulled into the weeds.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

Don’t be scared! There are so many things to be afraid of, but don’t let that stop you from leaping faith!

Truly, I encourage this as a daily approach - if fear intimidates you and you’re the type of person who gets excited by that, then you might have the mental fortitude required to build a startup from scratch. But don’t do it because you can - that’s never reason enough. Do it because it excites you because there’s a problem that you can’t stop thinking about because you know there’s a solution and you need to be on the side of humanity that is fixing important problems and impacting people along the way.

And finally, don’t lose sight of the people who matter. This is easy to do, but it’s a recipe for disaster. Seriously, take care of your loved ones, and learn to let yourself rely on your cheerleaders. The people who tell you that you’re doing amazing, even when you feel like closing your computer and crying, they’re the ones who will get you through the darkest times, and the ones you’ll want to be there alongside you as you celebrate the brightest moments.

Where can we go to learn more?

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