Product | People | Potential – our chat with Valkyrie Industries
We caught up with Kourosh Atefipour, CEO and Co-Founder of Valkyrie Industries. Valkyrie Industries’ wearable suit unlocks new content creation tools for developers by allowing users to explore virtual space and enabling a new touch interaction engine combined with full-body tracking to take immersive technology one step closer to ultimate immersion...
The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with great potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.
ADLIB: Can you please introduce yourself, what your business does, what stage you are at currently and what makes your business and offering unique?
Kourosh: Yeah sure! I’m Kourosh, and I’m CEO and Co-Founder of Valkyrie Industries. We started our journey three years ago. It was a spinout from an incubator called Deep Science Ventures which is backed by Imperial College, where they invest in people and their backgrounds and their skills rather than an idea you might have at the time.
I joined the program and now fast-forwarding to three years later, Valkyrie builds touch-technology for virtual worlds, effectively.
Our end vision is to design and create the next generation of human-computer interface, for head-mounted displays, VR headsets to begin with, then augmented reality headsets when they become more mainstream. We typically like to see where VR is headed. 2017 it was all about gaming for VR. Back then, given our research and the focus groups that we set up, we understood that training was actually a huge potential area. And so it went from there.
ADLIB: As a follow-up question to that – what stage do you find yourself at currently?
Kourosh: Technically, I suppose we’re at seed stage.
ADLIB: Can you share the story behind the origin of your business and Service / Product?
Kourosh: My research during my master thesis was in augmenting technology and it was my thesis that took me onboard to the incubator Deep Science Ventures as a poetic continuation.
I was given an opportunity to come up with a deep tech-related idea that has a commercial exploit. And, although my project during my time at the Royal College of Art and Imperial was very experimental, it didn’t have a clear commercial part. And that’s when they group you up with other people. From the first week, I was partnered up with my still now Co-Founder Ivan – who’s got more of a technical background in Electrical Engineering, whereas mine was design-focused and innovation strategy.
We saw an opportunity. The VR and AR market was a great indication that it was where we were headed in terms of head-mounted displays and we pursued that idea. We made a pitch, we presented it to Deep Science Ventures.
Funnily enough, we weren’t selected by their investors for pre-seed investment, so we applied for Innovate UK. And three days after being told, “It’s not going to happen, you’re not going to get investment, kill the idea,”, the UK government and their research initiative picked us up and funded our project.
ADLIB: That must have felt incredible, particularly after hearing that just three days before!
Kourosh: Yeah, we all met up afterwards and were like, ‘well that’s it, let’s kill it, we can’t do this’. We knew nothing about start-ups, neither of us had ever done anything of this calibre before, so we kind of called it. We did have a few calls to think about new ways we could fund ourselves, but that was ultimately the launch pad – the funding that supports the incubates of the program.
We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the great support and teachings that the two directors of Deep Science Ventures put us through. They didn’t have the ultimate decision at the end of the day, their investors did, but they taught us how to build a venture, they taught us the tools needed to approach an investor. So, we were ready.
But there was still some match funding that was needed. So we did have to struggle to find an investor.
And that’s it. Ever since that day we’ve had further fund-raising rounds, we’ve been through two accelerators, and even though the team always says “no more programs, no more business schools, or accelerators”, we are doing another one! In a weeks’ time!
ADLIB: Speaking of People, can you share some challenges you have faced, are facing or are anticipating around scaling and growing your team? Do you have any top tips you could share with those businesses faced with the same issues?
Kourosh: Finding good talent is always a challenge. The most we’ve been is a team of 7, all mostly engineers.
We’re all builders in our own sense. Us founders are all technically focused. There’s not really a business-minded person on the team from day one, although I have assumed that position by default.
It’s all about learning skills. I would like my team to be able to be happy enough to learn new skills, quickly and fast, because we’re changing all the time. Sometimes we’re changing who we’re delivering for as we’re still in that phase where there is some R&D to be done, so we need to be versatile to respond to whichever customer comes through that door.
The company culture is also still being built. We’re in a really nice start-up hub in Hackney Wick. It’s as start-up cliché as it gets here. Literally have table tennis outside, beer on Fridays and pizza!
ADLIB: Moving to Product, what has been your approach to understanding and implementing product market fit or sales cycles?
Kourosh: We explored ‘well, what’s hot now? What’s happening in the world of 2017 that we can build upon with our ideology of augmenting tech?’
And we saw that VR was a huge bubble in the gaming world. So we sat down and I curated a couple of focus groups with doctors, surgeons, engineers, researchers, and we tried to understand what stopped them from using virtual reality on a more business / day to day work level. And we came out with around 250 ideas, and in each focus group we found touch technology, or haptics, was the missing link.
When we wrote our patent in the early days, we had it in mind that an employee in an enterprise would use it. That persona really changes the USP of a product when you’re aiming it towards a gamer. A gamer doesn’t need to have high definition haptics in order to understand firing a gun. Typically, every action is held with a trigger, but if you’re suddenly a doctor or a surgeon who has to pick up a scalpel to practice opening up a patient, the tech needs to be more complex. For them, because there’s that disconnection in muscle memory, they see the systems as nothing but gamified and novel. And that’s why they shelf it. We’re trying to change that mindset.
We want doctors and surgeons to effectively use this for training. Engineers, scientists, space engineers, formula 1 racers, the industry is endless. We focus on hazardous training, and trying to enable those oil and gas engineers to be able to practice today in the actual oil and gas sea rig they are going to in three months time, rather than watch a TV screen for three hours a day, or wait to have an absolute mental breakdown on the sea rig!
ADLIB: And then Potential, can you share some challenges or barriers you had to overcome to create a Product / Service offering with potential?
Kourosh: The biggest challenge was the budget we had to work with. To get to where we are, a lot of people misunderstand how much money hardware needs to be developed. As well as software, and patents!
On Friday our patent was granted. That was a huge achievement for us. We’re now looking to pursue that in Japan, China, Europe, and America. So if anyone says, ‘can you copy your idea? Have your competitors done it?’, well I suppose the UK patent office hasn’t found anything. And that’s a pretty good indication of having a unique product.
Other challenges include the fact that London is not exactly the best place to nurture a deep tech VR company, especially one that builds hardware. Hardware is hard – that’s the saying. We get so many investors who turn us down the moment they hear the word hardware, because it’s capital extensive. You have to reach out to more than the UK, and it’s not easy when you’re not in that country, especially when it comes to fundraising.
I think that’s mostly been the hardest two challenges. We’ve managed to find a fantastic network and infrastructure here at Barclays Eagle Labs in Berkeley which is where our offices are based. As founders we come from all different alumni groups from universities around the UK.
I’d say budget constrictions due to very difficult funding times have been the hardest challenge. Trying to convince an investor to invest in VR has also really challenging.
ADLIB: Investment can often be a challenge for start-ups & scale-ups. Do you have any piece of wisdom you could share around best approach?
Kourosh: Absolutely. In the early days, consider grants. They’re equity free typically. Just because you don’t get one the first time – and they are incredibly competitive – it doesn’t mean you can’t be patient and try again.
My advice would be: be prepared to bootstrap if you intend on trying to find funding. Because it’s going to take you a while. It can take from half a year, up to 18 months, just to close one round of investment and you need to be prepared no matter what stage you’re at.
Do you have the funds to support yourself in this 18 month span? Of course, if you’re hiring people, and you have people who rely on the success of the company, you also need to know if you have the funds to pay their salaries. They should know ahead of time what’s happening in terms of that timescale of when you’re going to get funded – because all sorts of things can happen!
A very good example of ours: March 2020 we were very close to closing a high value fundraise, and COVID comes around and destroys the economy, and we had two investors back out last minute. So we ultimately had to prepare for the worst. The good news is that we overcame that storm.
And bootstrapping is something I’ve tried to teach my founders and the employees we have, and we’ve been able to navigate through COVID. It’s delayed things, but everyone’s been delayed, and nothing comes higher in a priority than a person’s health. Not just from a pandemic perspective, but a mental health perspective as well. Some people have marriages, kids, mortgages, finances, and you need to take all of this into consideration in a start-up.
Thank you for your time!