Ventures With Values

One TCU student's memories of chronic illness and hospital stays leads to a startup that wants to bring virtual reality programming into children's hospitals, helping patients cope with pain, anxiety and depression.

As an elementary school student, Christine Clutterbuck was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, a painful, chronic inflammatory bowel disease. In and out of the hospital for two years, during which she underwent several surgeries, Clutterbuck, now a TCU senior, has been symptom-free since she was 12.

“It just kind of stuck with me,” Clutterbuck, who graduated from Grapevine High School and is due to graduate in December from TCU’s Neeley School of Business, says. “I couldn’t stay in school longer than two weeks. I had allergies to foods. I would get extremely sick for no reason.” Of the hospital stays, and the isolation of the experience, she says, “It’s such a depressing environment. My family couldn’t be there all the time because of work. It makes it very difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

No wonder then that the experience served as fodder for Clutterbuck, who registered last fall for a class on starting a business. Taking advantage of opportunities created by burgeoning virtual reality, Clutterbuck wanted to create content that would ease pain, anxiety and depression among for patients in children’s hospitals.

“The original idea was storytelling, possibly animated,” says Mathew Debilio, a Neeley senior who grew up in an entrepreneurial family in Southern California and is one of two partners who came on board with Clutterbuck. “You’d be sitting in a forest, and the story would be going on around you.”

To develop video, “we envisioned partnering with a developer,” says Kendall Records, a Neeley senior from Sugarland and the third partner in the venture, called Relievr. But that route would have been too expensive. “We had no way to pay for it, to bootstrap it,” Records says. “It was out of our price range.”

So the idea evolved into an open source platform, with existing content provided by third parties that would be paid per view. “That opens it up,” Debilio says.

Clutterbuck, Debilio and Records obtained a camera from TCU and spent three months shooting and producing mock video. They spent one Saturday in January shooting video of two people dressed as princesses. They shot another video of singing and storytelling. They taped pictures of basketballs on seats at TCU’s Ed and Rae Schollmaier Arena and produced a 360-view “I Spy” piece. “There’s a deeper level of distraction” with 3D, Debilio says. The three shot TCU’s annual Christmas tree lighting. Debilio shot pictures during a winter road trip from Southern California to Portland. Clutterbuck also shot pictures and video during a trip to Peru.

The idea: to give children an escape from the hospital.

The three contacted Cook Children’s Medical Center, where Clutterbuck had been treated as a child and where she hadn’t returned for a visit in 10 years, and have been working with the Fort Worth hospital’s child life specialists since the fall.

They’ve been running focus groups with the Cook Children’s Youth Advisory Council, also known as the YAC-PAC, a group of 20 current and former patients as old as 18. “They are there to be the voice of patients,” Clutterbuck says.

With the “I Spy” content, “they immediately caught the destination piece of it,” Clutterbuck says. One 9-year-old patient confided, “When she feels anxious, she goes to Google Maps so she can feel like she’s outside the hospital,” Debilio says. Clutterbuck: “We’ve been trying to get to that age again,” to better understand patients.

Patients told Clutterbuck, Debilio and Records, “‘I want to go see my friends’ birthday parties,’” Clutterbuck says. “‘I want to see my home.’ The kids would love to see the education piece, what this disease is doing to their body. It’s an extremely powerful technology that has so much therapeutic value behind it.”

The feedback on experiences outside the hospital that the children miss during their stays gave Clutterbuck, Debilio and Records an idea for another revenue stream: content customized for specific patients. “We’re not capable of doing that ourselves,” Clutterbuck says. “But what if we were able to partner” with a vendor?

Content would be streamed through a mobile app that Clutterbuck, Debilio and Records plan to develop. Smartphones with the app would slip into virtual reality headsets. The team is using Google Cardboard headsets, which cost $15 apiece, or two for $25. “We’re going to try to work with Google,” Records says.

As for outside content, the trio pitched the idea to the Dallas Cowboys and Dallas Mavericks and drew interest, they said. An idea for customized content: drop a camera into the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium during a game, ask game-goers to cheer for a patient in the hospital, and “maybe [the patient] gets to see the game,” Debilio says. Among other potential content partners: Disneyland, Debilio says.

Michael Sherrod, a serial entrepreneur and the William M. Dickey Entrepreneur in Residence at the Neeley Entrepreneurship Center, is high on the potential being created by advances in virtual and augmented reality.
He believes the potential for partnerships with content providers like the Walt Disney Co. and Marvel. He also believes Relievr can expand into other markets besides children’s hospitals. “It’s a wonderful business; there are other markets,” he says.

Relievr’s potential revenue streams, as they’ve evolved, include selling branding on the headsets, charging a price per view that hospitals would pay, and charging fees to collaborate on customized content.

The Relievr team briefly considered putting its content on YouTube, which pays 7 to 8 cents per thousand views. “But there’s no way to censor those ads,” Records says. “We’ve kind of moved away from that.”

The trio’s work so far has won them TCU’s spot in TCU’s annual international Richards Barrentine Values and Ventures® Business Plan Competition, held in late April in Fort Worth. (Relievr was not one of the nine teams among the 51 entries that advanced to the finals.) Relievr earlier received a $1,500 grant for research from the Shadduck Venture Capital Fund that benefits TCU students.

IBM has expressed interest in becoming a partner, the team says. And just before Values and Ventures, the team received what it’s calling “an early verbal commitment” from Sony as a potential partner, announcing that development during its Values and Ventures presentation.

Sony, among other things, makes smartphones and PlayStation game consoles and has a virtual reality gaming system for PlayStation. The company’s library includes content for PlayStation and Columbia Pictures, owned by Sony. Sony has been aggressively developing its virtual reality portfolio. Another big potential value-add that a Sony partnership could provide, Clutterbuck says: Smartphones.

A partnership with Sony “would just put us in a very unique position,” Clutterbuck said after Relievr’s Values and Ventures presentation.

The team is seeking $125,000 in first-stage funding to build its app, put it into work in Cook Children’s for pilot research and prove the concept. “It’s down to find the right partner,” Records says.

Production of VR content today is hindered by “temperamental” camera technology, with problems in the 360 view and lighting, Debilio says. “We’re almost waiting on the technology to catch up,” he says.

How does the company evolve after the three students graduate from TCU? Debilio and Records, both 22, are graduating in May, and Debilio has a job in sales for IBM that starts in August, giving them the summer to ramp the company up, Debilio says. But even after that, “we’re all planning on staying in the area,” Records says.

Social entrepreneurship appeals. “I really want to make the world a better place,” she says. Debilio, whose grandfather founded a food distributorship and father eventually took the company over, says, “I was always looking for some way to have an impact,” and Relievr “clicked with me.”

How Texas Teams Fared

How about a new greenhouse technology that promises to dramatically increase crop yields? Or a Dallas poke bar that helps move teens from foster care into adulthood and made $1.2 million in sales its first four months? Or a tree wrap that slashes water use? These were three of the entries from Texas schools that were among the total 51 entries in TCU’s annual international collegiate Richards Barrentine Values and Ventures Competition.

University of Texas at Arlington:

Its SolGr team was one of the contest’s nine finalists, winning honorable mention and a $2,500 prize. SolGr provides an embedded plastic that replaces greenhouse canopies with technology that amplifies the sun’s UV light by converting the color spectrum unused by plants into wavelengths needed for photosynthesis. The technology can help boost crop yields to address world hunger. “More food, faster,” one its founders said in presenting the plan to the Values and Ventures judges.

SMU:

Its team’s Pol the Raw Bar on McKinney Avenue in Dallas serves poke raw fish bowls from Hawaii. Through its Imagine X Inspire program, Pok the Raw teams with CASA Youth Shelter to help move teens from foster care into adulthood. In its first four months in business, Pok the Raw reported it made $1.2 million in revenue. It’s projecting $3.6 million in first-year revenue. The Values and Ventures judges awarded it the contest’s annual Ripple Effect award, with a $5,000 prize.

Tarleton State University:

Its TreeMendous Tree-Ps wrap around trees for easy-to-use microecosystems that reduce water, energy and herbicide use by 75-90 percent. TreeMendous donates Tree-Ps to school and community gardens. TreeMendous won the Marjorie and James Sly Award for Entrepreneurial Innovation and a $2,500 prize.

University of Texas at Austin:

Anish Aggarwal launched Top Tier Learning – a peer-to-peer tutor service offering top-performing high school students up as tutors to high school peers who need the service - while he was a senior in high school in Chicago. In the two years since, Aggarwal, now a UT student, and partners have built the company to 16 branches and 170 tutors, serving a total 200 clients and generating $100,000 in revenue. One of the branches is in Mansfield, managed by a high school senior Aggarwal recruited through a friend. “When I was 17, it was hard to establish credibility,” Aggarwal says. Then he teamed up with a YMCA. “Suddenly, I had credibility. When I started this, I didn’t think it would last a month. Then I didn’t think it would last a year. Then I didn’t think it would last two years.”

University of Texas at Dallas:

Easily one of the teams catching a lot of buzz during the content, UTD’s PropelEye team is developing technology that it says law enforcement will be able to use to “recognize weapons and open hands.” PropelEye’s pitch: “When PropelEye discerns that both hands are open, the civilian is considered not a threat, so the system locks the (police officer’s) gun’s trigger.”

Prairie View A&M University:

Triple Time Energy is a conservation system and app and monitors a household’s water, electricity and gas consumption in real time, supplemented by graphs and information to help reduce usage.

St. Mary’s University:

Its Purpose Portraits team donates 5 percent of profits from every paid portrait session to the Military Warriors Foundation and provides a free photography session to a military family.

TCU:

Its Relievr team improves child care through virtual reality, using a community-based platform that delivers engaging and therapeutic experiences designed for children in hospitals.

University of Houston:

SynTire’s process produces an additive that makes tires tougher and more durable, augmenting performance and lifespan and reduced tire-related accidents and disposal.