tell us about your background and current position.
I am originally from Iran and was fortunate to come to the United States with my family during the regime change in the 1970s. I earned my medical degree from New York University School of Medicine and completed my residency in ophthalmology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. I continued my training with a fellowship in vitreoretinal surgery at the Schepens Eye Center of Harvard Medical School. After graduation, I worked first as an academic physician and later moved to private practice. Currently, I work at the Brooklyn Eye Center.
What was the unmet need that prompted you to develop a solution, and how did you identify that unmet need?
Working with a diverse patient population in Brooklyn, I became increasingly aware that some ophthalmic diagnostic devices are not accessible to all patients. Take visual field (VF) perimetry, for example. To properly perform an automated perimetry test, it is required that the patient place his or her head in an awkward position, stay still, and concentrate for a long period of time. I have taken an automated perimetry test—it is not easy to do! Compounding this, we see patients who are wheelchair-bound or have language barriers. We also have patients who are hospitalized and cannot come to the clinic to undergo VF testing. Obtaining VFs for these patients has been challenging and, frankly, sometimes impossible.
The advent of virtual reality (VR) has provided a unique opportunity to not only meet the challenges described above but also improve current VF testing technology. With a VR device, we are able to conduct VF testing using an instrument that is significantly smaller. Further, the testing is faster, more comfortable for the patient, and accessible via the internet.
tell us about your innovation as it stands today.
Virtual Field offers VF testing in a lightweight, portable VR headset. Our VF testing strategy is proprietary and offers binocular and monocular testing in one headset. There is no need for an occluder. The headset provides auditory instructions throughout the testing progress, guiding the patient through the test.
Through Virtual Field, we have found that VF testing using VR provides reliable results in a streamlined manner. The results are comparable to those achieved with current VF testing, but the VR device takes up less space, is more comfortable to use, is portable, and is less costly.
We are fully deployed in several practices and have a fully developed normative database. The response from Virtual Field users has been overwhelmingly positive, and several practices have placed orders for additional devices.
What were the major lessons learned in conceptualizing your idea?
Thomas Edison famously suggested that innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. At first, the idea of using a VR headset to perform perimetry seemed like an obvious and rather easy solution to a well-known problem. As it turned out, considerable issues had to be resolved in order to normalize the VR technology for VF testing. VF testing using digital screens, as in a VR headset, is considerably more complicated than I expected. Fortunately, I was able to assemble a group of talented engineers and computer programmers to complete this undertaking.
Who or what is your biggest inspiration?
I have been lucky to be associated with an extraordinary group of people in my practice. My partners truly embody the essence of outstanding physicians. They are dedicated, compassionate, supportive, and relentless in honing their ophthalmic skills. The engineers and programmers I work with are also amazing. This team does not know the meaning of “can’t be done”!
What was your biggest challenge early in your project?
One major challenge was putting together the right team for this project. It is crucial early on to find the right people to partner with, especially if your time is limited. Although it is complex, I find solving the technical aspects of perimetry intellectually rewarding and fun. However, as a physician, I find the business and marketing aspects of this venture somewhat challenging, given my limited experience in these areas.
What is your biggest challenge currently?
We have received an overwhelmingly positive response from the marketplace. We have therefore been forced to pick up the pace of development and distribution of the device on a larger scale.
How many people are now employed by your company?
The Virtual Field company is growing every month, it feels like. We started with one software engineer and have since grown to include a project manager, marketing officer, three full stack developers, and a chief operating officer in less than 2 years. We are looking to expand our operations as the demand for Virtual Field grows.
What’s next for your product?
We are continuously working to improve and advance our platform. We have a deep backlog of items that are aimed at simplifying the ophthalmic examination through the Virtual Field device. Fortunately, we developed a platform that enables the device to be updated on the cloud, so new features and improvements are constantly and automatically pushed onto the device. Although we currently offer portable comprehensive VF testing, our company aims to provide a simplified, efficient, and enjoyable eye examination for ophthalmic practices and their patients. The future is very exciting for Virtual Field!
What advice can you offer to other physicians who are interested in entrepreneurship?
Taking an idea from the dream phase to reality is a lot of fun. It will take much more effort and money than you might think, and generally it will take much longer than anticipated to bring your idea to the market. The process, however, is enormously rewarding and well worth the effort. There is no greater satisfaction than seeing your own idea become a reality. Above all, don’t give up!
Mark Harooni, MD
• CEO, Virtual Field
• Retina Specialist, Brooklyn Eye Center, New York