1. How did you come to do this work and why is it so important to you personally?
I started working towards EKTO VR back in 2013. I was working at Honeywell Aerospace as a Flight Controls Systems Engineer and decided to transition to part-time to pursue my own interests. This was the same time that Oculus launched their original dev kit and the rebirth of VR was starting. I thought, if VR headsets are successful, what’s the next challenge? It boiled down to haptics, being able to touch and interact with the environment with your hands and arms, and locomotion, being able to move through the environment just as you do in real life. I actually spent a couple of years working on a haptic exoskeleton solution until I realized that I didn’t have sufficient capital, expertise, or network to properly realize the concept.
At this point, I pivoted to pursuing a locomotion solution because it has even greater value potential and the space is less crowded. I was accepted into the MRSD program at Carnegie Mellon University and proposed my own capstone project. While this was unusual at the time, they agreed to support me if I was able to recruit a team and an advisor. I did, and they did, and this served to align on and prove out technical feasibility. I also worked on the business feasibility via Project Olympus and NSF iCorps.
As I was graduating, I was still on the fence - do I join a startup or start my own? One of my interviews was at Anduril, Palmer Luckey’s defense tech startup and he was one of my interviewers. Now Palmer, as the Founder of Oculus, we must have talked for about 5 minutes about Anduril and the bulk of the time about all sorts of things that he had tried while at Oculus and what I was working on. He was excited about my work, so I thought to myself - “he’s excited about it, I’m excited about it … shoot, I guess I’m doing it”. In January of 2018, I went full-time to get EKTO VR started and we incorporated on May 31st (we’ll be 5 years old soon!)
As to the personal connection, as a kid I was a fanatic of ride film experiences - Mission Bermuda Triangle which later became Wild Arctic at Sea World, Back to the Future: The Ride at Universal Studios, and Star Tours at Disneyland. For about 5 minutes, you and a small group were fully immersed in these fictional worlds, but you were just along for the ride. Virtual reality does the same and more in a more personalized experience, making you a main character and active participant in these stories, and I’m very passionate about making these experiences as real as possible.
2. What was your lightbulb moment for Ekto VR?
My lightbulb moment was the first time I used our boots in Half Life: Alyx.. Up until that point, our boots had provided a *more* immersive experience, but still not fully immersive. But when you combined our product, nailing the integration, and the scale and fidelity of Half Life: Alyx, you really do feel like you’re actually *here*, and I definitely had a moment of “wow, we actually did it”.
3. What is the elevator pitch for Ekto VR?
What do Anthony Daniels, Palmer Luckey, Peter Diamandis, and Andrew Yang have in common? They've all enjoyed our boots!
EKTO VR is fulfilling the sci-fi promise of virtual reality with revolutionary immersion-enhancing products starting with our EKTO Voyager boots, which make you feel like you’re really moving around in virtual worlds without tripping over furniture, getting sick, or navigating clunky controls.
According to McKinsey & Company, the Metaverse Market will be valued at $5T dollars by 2030. However, market growth is limited by space restriction hazards, motion sickness, and unintuitive and unnatural movement. Our EKTO Voyager Boots are safe, comfortable, naturally intuitive, and portable and storable. We’re on track to offering our solution to these issues at $500 per unit by 2027.
Our experienced team from CMU has over 50 years in robotics, 20 years in biz ops, and 15 years in premium automotive design. In 2022, we had over $130K in sales including EKTO Adventures, Boot Charters, Boot Purchases, and Marketing Sales. We’ve built all this on $600K and are looking for $4M to get us to the next level. HTC VIVE’s recently announced tracker solves our biggest challenges, making now the time to leap forward!
4. Talk through your strategy in building a team around you.
While our #1 value is Fundamental Safety, another value is Being strategically frugal. From a team perspective, that means keeping the core team tight and hiring paid interns (we’ve never done unpaid internships) and time-bound part-time employees as needed. We’ve also leveraged our network for team-building: I met my Co-founder through a classmate at CMU and we met two of our three advisors through our largest investor, Reinforced Ventures. And lastly, our advisors have been very generous in going above and beyond by providing tactical and implementation support in addition to strategic guidance.
5. What has surprised you most about starting your own business?
What has surprised me the most about starting my own business is the shape of the emotional roller coaster. We’ve climbed to incredible heights of triumph and plunged to infeasible depths of despair, and have gotten whiplash from how quickly one becomes the other and back again. I always expected entrepreneurship to be difficult, but I never anticipated how large the range of emotions could be nor how quickly they could possibly evolve.
6. Talk through one of your daily rituals.
My most steady daily ritual is my morning family ritual. When I wake up, I hug and kiss my fiance, who will hopefully be my wife by the time this video is published if everything goes according to plan. Then I help wake our 8-year-old son up by aggressively tickling him and brushing his teeth and then take our pup out on the front lawn. Startup life doesn’t always allow for the most amount of family time in the evening, so it’s really nice to be able to have some family time in the morning before fully getting into the hustle and bustle of the day.
7. What is a recent challenge you've faced as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome it? What lesson(s) did you take away from it?
By far, the biggest challenge that I’ve faced as an entrepreneur was the initial effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a team, we’re very passionate about creating a product that the mass-market consumer can use and enjoy, but we know that it takes time to develop a product that you can sell directly to that market. So while we were at AlphaLab Gear, the hardware startup accelerator, we focused on selling to Location-based Entertainment as a B2B2C play - delivering experiences to consumers while selling to businesses. Following demos at VR arcades, we had secured our first pilot LOIs and were getting running to launch them when suddenly everything went into lockdown, and eventually, these businesses had to close for good. This forced us to entirely reimagine who are early customers might be.
So once we took a breath and found our footing, we took advantage of the opportunity to learn more about VR users outside of the adventure and gaming space. We joined the first remote CMU VentureBridge cohort, and through a large customer discovery effort, found enormous needs in training, especially for high-risk high-cost industries like energy, defense, and manufacturing. This is where we found our first partners, pilots, and sales. Despite the high need, these industries have long sales cycles, so we’re thrilled that Location-based Entertainment is taking off once again and we’re able to use our experience to refine the product for a wide variety of users, operators, and developers.
The lessons that I took away were 1) always be prepared to pivot in some way, small or large, and 2) figure out how to thrive when everyone else is trying to survive.
8. What does the next year look like for Ekto VR?
Over the coming year, we’ll be growing our team to 10 full-time with a balance between Engineering and Growth. On the product front, we’ll add support for more headsets, including standalone like the Meta Quest, more users at one location, and more game engines for developers, as well as prove out future speed and weight targets. On the growth front, we’ll lean into initiatives like our influencer marketing and strategic partnerships to drive greater engagement and generate a 10x increase in sales and revenue.
9. What is a key piece of advice you've received that you'd want to share with other founders?
This key piece of advice has 5 steps:
Take 3 expert’s advice.
Blend at “ice crush” setting for 90 seconds
Filter through the sieve crafted by your unique knowledge of your customer, market, problem, product, and company.
Test by poking the mix with two people completely uneducated in that area’s advice as a gut check.
10. How can our regional startup community help your efforts?
First off, I encourage our regional startup community to continue growing efforts to attract investors, partners, and customers, especially for hardware pre-seed and seed-stage startups. Secondly, please connect with us on social media, @ektovr on most platforms and @ekto.vr on Instagram. And finally, please join our consumer product waitlist here: https://form.jotform.com/222802822058351.