Three UC Santa Cruz alums are revolutionizing telehealth with their virtual reality physical therapy platform

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Users interacting within the Immergo Labs platform
Users interacting within the Immergo Labs platform
Melissa Weckerle

Incorporating values of tech for social good, inclusivity, and accessibility, three UC Santa Cruz alumni founded Immergo Labs to develop the world’s first virtual and interactive telehealth platform for physical therapy. 

Co-founders and UCSC Baskin School of Engineering alumni Aviv Elor, Michael Powell, and Ash Robbins sought to blend their expertise in virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and bioinformatics to make a difference in the telehealth and virtual physical therapy space. 

“The questions we asked when we started developing this platform were: How can we use emerging technologies and virtual reality to help people in physical rehabilitation and how can we make it more accessible, affordable, and accurate?” said Elor, who received a B.S. degree in robotics engineering and a Ph.D. degree in computational media from Baskin Engineering. 

Immergo uses artificial intelligence and virtual reality (VR) to incorporate telehealth capabilities and enhance the accessibility, experience, and accuracy of remote physical therapy care. With just a VR headset, the platform connects patients and therapists in the same room, as if they were interacting live in person. Therapists can track visual movements and range of motion and provide real-time feedback on exercises. The platform also provides a technical solution to accurately evaluate and provide guidance to patient recovery by recording key metrics and progress, setting a gold standard for remote physical therapy care. 

Bridging academia and industry

Elor, Powell, and Robbins met while working on research projects at Baskin Engineering. Robbins’s research focus was on artificial intelligence and machine learning, Elor’s was on virtual reality and user experience, and Powell’s was on biomechanics. What brought them all together was a research project to aid stroke patients’ rehabilitation with a virtual reality game. 

Around the time they developed the game, Elor suffered a right tricep rupture during a national judo match while competing on the UCSC Judo Team. With the combination of Elor’s personal physical therapy experience and the knowledge and expertise the three of them gained from developing their virtual reality game, they decided to pursue a novel concept as an effort to reimagine and transform telehealth through virtual reality-based physical therapy. 

The Immergo Labs team. From left to right: Greg Gewickey, stategic advisor; Ash Robbins, CTO; Max Kuznetsov, integrations engineer; Sean Wells, physical therapy advisor; Mike Powell, CEO; Aviv Elor, CRO; Sri Kurniawan, UX advisor and UCSC professor; and Mircea Teodorescu, engineering advisor and UCSC professor
The Immergo Labs team. From left to right: Greg Gewickey, stategic advisor; Ash Robbins, CTO; Max Kuznetsov, integrations engineer; Sean Wells, physical therapy advisor; Mike Powell, CEO; Aviv Elor, CRO; Sri Kurniawan, UX advisor and UCSC professor; and Mircea Teodorescu, engineering advisor and UCSC professor 

While still working towards completion of their graduate degrees, the team signed up for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, an immersive, entrepreneurial training program that facilitates the transition from academia research to industry to drive positive social change. Through I-Corps, Elor, Robbins, and Powell gained the knowledge to take their heavily focused academic research concept to the real world. 

Each I-Corps offering requires the cohort of engineers and scientists to speak to their potential customers. The alums spoke with over 130 physical therapists to understand their pain points and gather ideas for an ideal platform. Through the interviews, they quickly grasped that there is a lot of room for telehealth platforms to improve, especially as the pandemic prioritized remote healthcare.

“We were originally thinking of developing an exercise virtual reality game that would allow for better adherence of physical therapy exercises and so on, but we quickly learned from these interviews that physical therapists were looking for help with developing a robust telehealth physical therapy platform,” said Powell, who graduated from Baskin Engineering with a Ph.D. in computer engineering. “So we were able to identify where we needed to pivot to make the most impact in this space, and that’s ultimately when the main mission of Immergo Labs really started to come together.”

After I-Corps, Elor, Powell, and Robbins took their Immergo idea and started applying to other accelerator programs guided by recommendations from Baskin Engineering faculty and UC Santa Cruz Innovation and Business Engagement Hub staff, and news alerts from Baskin Engineering.

“Baskin was our gateway to becoming aware of different opportunities and to move into this entrepreneurial realm,” Elor explained. 

Thanks to their UCSC network, the team eventually joined the CITRIS Foundry and Santa Cruz Works accelerator programs, building a foundation of local community support and positioning them to seek out additional opportunities.

The Immergo platform was further inspired by the team’s combined 15+ peer-reviewed scientific publications completed during their graduate studies, which utilizes a provisional patent with UCSC. The patent estimates range of motion through VR devices and was co-invented with Baskin Engineering faculty and Immergo technical advisors Sri Kurniawan and Mircea Teodorescu. 

Where they are now and where they are headed

Earlier this year, the team showcased their prototype at the American Physical Therapy Association Combined Sections Meeting (APTA CSM), the nation’s largest physical therapy conference. Showcasing their prototype at an event with thousands of therapists was an exciting milestone in their product development cycle. 

“There was one really impactful interaction that I had at APTA CSM,” explained Robbins, who graduated from Baskin Engineering with a robotics engineering B.S. degree and is working towards his Ph.D. in computer science and engineering. “The man I spoke with said, ‘Everyone here that does VR is making some specific game that isn’t accessible or cost-effective, and is usually focused on something specific. What you guys are doing is essentially making a platform that can be the foundation for a whole other wave of how to do physical rehabilitation.’ He became more and more excited as he learned about the platform and got the chance to explore it himself. It was such a great feeling to know that we’re going in the right direction with our product.”

Since the founding of Immergo in 2020, the team’s approach has always been human-first and collaborative. Their advisors include a team of physical therapists who often jump into the platform to try out new features and provide feedback. 

“We’re really trying to assist therapists. We’re not trying to automate the physical therapy rehabilitation process or replace therapists,” Powell said. “There is a lot of value in telehealth and augmenting remote care. The human element is and will remain very important.” 

Immergo secured several partnerships this year. They teamed up with the University of Montana Biomechanics Lab for help in developing an innovative balance assessment testing technology that allows therapists to evaluate patients’ balance while decreasing risk of falling when interacting inside the platform. They also collaborated with the metaverse online 3D avatar creator company Ready Player Me so users can have a variety of avatar options to choose from. Additionally, Immergo received letter of intents from Houston Veterans Affairs and the Stanford Health Care Outpatient Physical Therapy Department to help with user testing, and added two local student interns to their team this summer to help with product development and user experience research. 

The team recently received an NSF Phase 1 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. The $256,000 in funding will allow Immergo Labs to further develop and test their prototype. Next, the team will be applying to the Phase 2 NSF SBIR grant to polish the product, validate the research, and then deploy. The Phase 2 grant provides up to $1 million in funding, intended to supplement venture investment.

Immergo Labs will launch their beta platform in January 2023 to the 70 users currently on their waitlist. They hope to officially launch their product publicly by the end of 2023. And, as of September 22, 2022, the team officially began a startengine fundraising campaign towards their mission in providing accessible and accurate telehealth through the metaverse. To learn more about this campaign, visit immergolabs.com/campaign.