It’s often been said that successful businesses look for the opportunities in every situation – but undoubtedly the challenges thrown up in 2020 have tested this theory to the max.
Irish company VRAI, which provides data-driven virtual reality training for “risky, remote & rare” industries, decided to face the challenges head-on, and subsequently discovered that both Covid-19 and Brexit gave them the opportunity to advance their business plans and grow.
“When Covid hit, the general advice was to hunker down, but we had a different idea, and that was to look at the opportunities and how our technologies could help the situation,” explains co-founder Pat O’Connor. “Our opportunity was in training. Zoom is great for a meeting or a workshop but try training someone for an offshore wind turbine through Zoom – it’s not going to work. We found that when we went to market for investment, there seems to be an understanding that there isn’t a platform out there to enable remote training in the same way that there is a platform available for remote meetings and calls. So Covid has brought forward those market opportunities for us.”
Brexit also brought its challenges, as it has for every business, but for VRAI, it was a no-brainer to mitigate the risk and set up a UK office, which opened in Gateshead in October 2020. “The UK market is very important for us – it’s so close to us geographically, but it’s also one of the largest economies in the world,” says Pat. “A lot of the big companies that we would deal with would have large offices in the UK.
“Specifically, we chose the Northeast for many reasons. 5,000 computer science students are graduating every year, the National Innovation Centre for Data is located in Newcastle, which ties into VRAI data focus. The Port of Tyne is the base for the Dogger Bank, currently the biggest offshore wind farm in the world.. And finally, we are based in the Proto Centre in Gateshead, which is described as the first immersive technology hub in the UK. The decision to open an office there became a no-brainer.”
“Imagine your first day working on an offshore wind turbine 100km from the coast of Scotland, waves as big as your house and the turbine the size of the Eiffel Tower – it’s very difficult to prepare for that scenario properly without some sort of simulation training.”
The features being developed for their HEAT VR training platform came from the company’s experience in dealing with large companies such as the IAG in Heathrow Airport, the United Nations in Somalia, and other Fortune 500 companies. “We learnt that there was a need for an underlying technology platform that enables simulation training,” says Pat. “There are three main parts to the platform – there’s the front end, where you can create training profiles for your employees, then the middle part, which is the simulation training in VR, and finally the back end, the data analytics and insights. We found that VR is an incredible medium for collecting data, as we’re producing about 100,000 data points per minute in terms of who you are, where you are and what you’re doing in the virtual world. We’re now adding biometric sensors, so you can also measure how you’re feeling. We can then analyse this data to improve performance and safety, and personalise training for individuals.”
One of the industries targeted by the company as ideal for their technology is the offshore wind sector. This feeds nicely into the company’s decision to open an office in Gateshead (as the UK is No.1 in the world for offshore wind, particularly in Scotland and the Northeast of England) – as well as their commitment to the “triple bottom line”.
“The triple bottom line means you focus not just on profit but also on your people and the planet,” explains Pat. “For instance, regarding people, we are committed to a gender-balanced workforce. We are trying to do something about it by committing to a gender-balanced shortlist for every job and sponsored Ireland’s first-ever female-only tech apprenticeship.
“On the planet side, we made a decision to look into how we can use our technologies to help the offshore wind industry grow, as this is definitely a ‘risky, remote and rare’ activity, but it also aligns very much with our desire to creating a sustainable business.”
Enterprise Ireland, which established an Offshore Wind Cluster in 2019, proved invaluable to VRAI when moving into the offshore wind industry. We are a part of HPSU with Enterprise Ireland,” explains Pat. “However, they’ve also been really great at helping us understand the market and make those introductions that are so valuable. It’s been a really symbiotic and useful relationship.”