Game time! New company leverages virtual reality technology to improve the physical therapy experience.

By: Jane Schreier Jones

Jose Maldonado, an engineering student at Florida International University (FIU), is one of those guys you hear about, the kind of brilliant innovator who decides a new virtual reality headset is too expensive to buy so he makes his own and then has a blast creating his own simulations. Maldonado is the type who’s always dreaming of ideas, including new ways of doing old things.

Maldonado became involved in an FIU research project on physical therapy involving the use of a robotic arm. Maldonado soaked up everything he could learn about the needs of physical therapy patients and an idea soon emerged. What if the virtual reality experience could be merged with physical therapy, to add fun as patients perform their sometimes-challenging exercises?

He began working with some other FIU students – Andrew Bowyer, Alain Suarez, and Cesar Villa-Garcia – and what started as an idea eventually became a technology product: Pilot VR, a virtual reality system to enhance the physical therapy environment. With Pilot VR, therapists and patients work to select the right game (perhaps an enchanted world, perhaps a sports field) to coordinate with patient needs- effectively gamifying the process of therapy.

Maldonado’s next brilliant idea: connect with StartUp FIU.

“I was taking an entrepreneurship class at FIU with Robert Hacker, co-founder and Director of StartUP FIU, and he told us about the opportunities that StartUP FIU offers people just like me,” Maldonado says.

StartUP FIU is a collaborative entrepreneurship hub to help FIU students, faculty, and early-stage startup entrepreneurs create and grow their businesses in South Florida.

“I’m an engineer and I think like an engineer,” admits Maldonado. “But StartUP FIU has gotten me thinking like a communicator, a business planner, a marketer, and so many other roles I need to succeed.”

Program empowers Pilot VR team.

Last fall, Maldonado and his partners became members of the first cohort of StartUP FIU’s Empower Accelerator program. This no-cost 14-week program provides coaches, skills training, advisors, access to speakers, cutting-edge work space, and a wide range of additional resources to first-time as well as more accomplished entrepreneurs. The Empower Accelerator completed Cohort #2 in Spring, 2017.

“We’re here for people like Jose and his partners, for first timers as well as more accomplished entrepreneurs, says Hacker. “The Empower Accelerator program develops scalable traditional and social entrepreneurship ventures.”

“This program pushed me to ask questions and to challenge the assumptions I was so sure were right,” says Maldonado. “I learned to identify with my customers. Plus, I was guided through aspects of the business end of a start-up, an area where I needed assistance.”

As part of the Empower Accelerator program, cohort members have the opportunity to participate in Pitch Day, held at the culmination of the program. Pitch Day takes place on-campus at FIU, as dozens of angel investors and venture capitalist listen to a pitch from each cohort that’s participating. Attendees have the chance to ask additional questions.

“Learning how to listen and how to take feedback are skills I developed in the StartUP FIU program and I used those skills on Pitch Day,” says Maldonado. “It was a very worthwhile experience to learn how to concisely present your idea and then be ready for questions. I was pleased with how our idea was received.”

Maldonado says he would recommend StartUP FIU to other entrepreneurs. “Sure, you have the drive but you need direction,” he says. “StartUP FIU fills in the blanks in your knowledge base. My partners and I are very grateful for how they improved our plan.”

StartUP FIU is currently accepting applicants for the fall cohort of The Empower Accelerator program. For more information and to apply online, visit startup.fiu.edu.