Dr Isabel Van De Keere is founder and CEO of Immersive Rehab. They’ve been taking part in our AI for Good accelerator programme, designed to help advance their AI solutions. Run by Microsoft for Startups UK team and Social Tech Trust the programme provides access to the resources, knowledge, and people they need to help. The unique curriculum will also provide them with business development, marketing, and technical support alongside talks, seminars, and workshops.
In my chat with Isabel, I discovered what empowered her to start Immersive Rehab and her experiences getting funding, support, and tips she has to share.
Please tell us about yourself and why you started your company – Immersive Rehab.
I have a background in engineering – mechanical and biomedical and worked in healthcare technology for quite some time. Then in 2010, I had a severe work accident which took me out of work for several years. I went through a long rehab period with little or no balance for about two years. Throughout the rehab, I found myself often very demotivated, feeling both frustrated and isolated.
As I am an engineer, I found myself starting to look into technological solutions on how to solve the problem of going through these long, rehab periods as well as gaining access to more appropriate rehab. And that’s when Immersive Rehab started forming in my head. It took several years before I made the combination with virtual reality (VR) because of my background in hardware.
I tried VR about four years ago for the first time and made the connection because I was suddenly moving objects around in VR myself. It enabled a much more engaging way for patients to interact with their surroundings–something missing from many current rehabilitation techniques.
What gave you the energy to take this idea forward and create something new?
There are various reasons, but just looking at the moment where I decided to take this leap of faith, it came from an experience I had with a charity called Girls Rock London. It is a music project which runs three-day bootcamps for women where you learn to create and perform music with other women, ultimately raising funds for a longer girls rock camp aimed at 11-16 year olds to help boost their confidence.
In my case, I came together with 20 women, who I did not know and shared an incredible experience. We began on a Friday night, forming four bands, we chose our instruments, wrote our own songs and then performed live in a public bar on the Monday night in front of around 100 people.
It was the most empowering experience–starting from nothing and ending with something in four days; coupled with having that confidence boost of performing on stage became the initiator for me to apply for the Bethnal Green Ventures programme.
I applied the very same week as the Women’s Camp with incredible support from my manager and team at the time encouraging me to take on the challenge–sharing their belief and confidence in me was really important to me making the decision.
I wasn’t afraid anymore.
My perspective would probably have been different if I hadn’t had the accident. I started from scratch again after my accident so I believed I could do it again.
That shows incredible resilience.
Did you ever envisage you would be running your own company?
I think it naturally happened in a way, but I guess I always thought I would stay in academia. An academic career is a bit like running your own company but it’s a safe environment as you are under the umbrella of the university. I’ve always wanted to make a difference but didn’t envisage I would create my own company.
That being said, now I would encourage other women to give it a try. If you really think you have something that could potentially go somewhere, if you don’t try you will never know. Every situation is different – there are obviously different people with different restrictions. For example – family commitments, so it can depend, but you can learn so much from the experience.
Who is your role model and why?
I don’t have a specific role model, but I think there are several women that are very socially driven whether they are someone in a charity organisation or for-profit organisations, that are just there to make a difference.
The way they also want to interact with people around them in a very humane way–they want to pull people up rather than push people down. It can happen on many different levels but those who help others develop and grow–women and men in powerful positions who act like that–they are the people I look up to and who inspires me.
Is there someone you know who does this well who our readers can watch and learn from?
If you look at Michelle Obama, although she is in a very privileged situation now, she’s always worked really hard to get to where she is today. She is not from a privileged background but she always, maintains integrity – still now and when she was First Lady. She comes across very authentic, giving people the opportunity to speak.
If we’re sitting here a year from now celebrating what a great year it’s been for your company, what would you have achieved?
For us, it would be having a clinical trial or long-term clinical study running to completion, and hopefully grown the team with more people and patient groups advocating for our work.
Have you seen any improvements since you began in 2009 in terms of women in business and leadership roles?
I think the effort is there, but it is still very limited. I have to say it depends on the organisations responsible for organising events or workshops and how they address the problem.
Only last month at an event, I was on the only panel with two other women–the rest across the entire two days, including moderators were all men–I was shocked. The organisers curating these events need to make a stand internally–if you say you are not going to sit on a panel because of a lack of diversity, there is a responsibility both on your and the curators shoulders to ensure diversity is heard and you are not just simply replaced with anyone.
You just don’t think things like that can still happen! What can we do as active participants in this agenda to help improve the situation?
I was part of a group of 21 women last year who came together to write a vision statement for women in VR because tech communities can be extremely male dominated and quite non-diverse on many levels.
As the VR community is new, we wanted to ensure this community wouldn’t be discriminatory to women and other underrepresented. Action also needs to come from all sides otherwise if the majority doesn’t see this an issue, nothing will change. For example, the CEO at the Welcome Trust has said if it’s not a 50:50 panel, they are not participating anymore.
Do you see a difference from investors in how female and male founders are perceived?
Yes, there is a very different conversation when it comes to raising capital for my business given only 8 percent of partners in the top 100 Venture Capitalist (VC) firms are women. With women founders, the conversation is very much focused towards risk and questioning how these problems will be solved whilst many of my male founder friends share that investors ask them about their vision and where they see their business going. I have rarely been asked about my own exit strategy.
This is reflected in the numbers, recent Seed Crowdfunding Data revealed that in the UK, over 220 early-stage, digital start-ups found that male entrepreneurs were 86 percent more likely to be VC funded than their female counterparts, and men were 59 percent more likely to secure angel investment.
What have you gained from being involved in our AI for Good Cohort? What lessons or insights are going to stay with you?
Well, on one side we have an amazing group of people within the cohort. The team are diverse in many ways including background and the people are very engaging.
With the workshops, the mix between Microsoft and Social Tech Trust has worked really well. They have been high level, really interesting and motivating. The discussions have always been very interactive, which is invaluable to all our businesses, even though we’re very different.
Finally, it was all about trying to have a strategy in mind about using machine learning and AI in our product and the connections we have made here have been high quality and useful.
One thing I would say to others in this space is to not to be afraid to take to the stage and to talk about where you’re doing – to help others break down barriers. You have to proactively look for it and initially engage with people to actually get the stage or to get that opportunity to talk, but once you get it be visible and don’t be afraid.