You’re holding the controller in your hands. Somehow, this odd-shaped piece of plastic translates into a gun on the screen that you can run around with in a wasteland, shooting enemies. You smash a button and the gun fires. In your mind, pushing the button equates to pulling the trigger, but what if you could actually pull the trigger? Sebastian Sarbora ’16 had this very inkling as he was finishing up his high school career but never had the resources to execute it. Now in his third year at RPI, Sarbora has made his idea a reality with the help of an impressive team.
As a computer science major, Sarbora began attending Hackathons where he befriended Jazmine Olinger ’15, a double major in computer science/math, and Robert Rouhani ’16, also a double major, in computer science and GSAS. The trio worked on numerous projects together and gained many skills that would be applicable in their future ventures. Their first official team hack was in October of 2013 at YHack (Yale University’s hackathon). Their experience convinced them to continue working together, and in January 2014, applied to Hack Tech, a California-based hackathon, where they competed and were finalists. At this time, they were producing code that is now used in their flagship product. Several months later, in April 2014, the three entered Hack RU at Rutgers University, where they made their first prototype.
The product is a gun controller for virtual reality shooter games that is meant to be functionally realistic, intuitive, precise, and immersive. At the present time, they are testing their technology with the Oculus Rift, but have ambitions to extend its usage to any head-mounted display. They are also creating a software development kit to allow for easy integration with multiple games and game engines. In the long run, the goal is to create a company with a line of similar products that can be used for training simulators in the military, fire departments, and other situations. The idea is to create a “controller ecosystem” that will work for any application.
With the technology well underway, the team knew that they needed to learn more about business creation if they were going to be successful. They adopted the name “Ilium VR” (“ilium” being Latin for “Troy”) and began bringing the business side up to meet the well-established technology side. In the 2015 RPI Business Model Competition, Sarbora, CEO; Olinger, COO; and Rouhani, CTO; took 3rd place, also receiving an intellectual property award. From there, they entered the New York Business Plan Competition at the regional level where they took first in their category; IT and software. On April 24, they will be competing on the state level against teams from all over New York. In addition to the business competitions, Ilium VR presented at StartUp Tech Valley on April 1 to numerous investors, potential business partners, and interested community members. Additionally, they are among 10 teams who won the spring edition of the Change the World Challenge.
At this stage, as is common with many start-ups, the team is applying to multiple accelerator programs (including StartFast, Y-Combinator and HAXLR8R) in an effort to find a platform for massive growth where they can hopefully bring the product to market in about one year’s time. Accelerators work to infuse a new company with a quick burst of funds and expertise, typically in return for equity in the company. This is meant to jumpstart a business and usually lasts a matter of months with the goal of getting the product to market. In addition, Ilium VR intends to start a Kickstarter campaign where they can not only raise money, but also gain valuable customer feedback.
The trio behind Ilium VR has found the RPI community to be extremely supportive in their mission. Noting that the team mostly consisted of engineers and scientists, Sarbora cited the Severino Center as a resource to learn about the business and marketing aspects of starting a company. This ranged from talking to investors, to preparing for presentations and competitions, to learning about the customer discovery process. In the broader community, Ilium VR found assistance from upperclassmen with prior knowledge and from the Rensselaer Center for Open Source Software who were able to help on the technical side.
To aspiring entrepreneurs, Sarbora offers three key pointers:
First, starting your own business is hard work. Be sure that you have a clear vision and stick to it. Second, learn how to take good advice. Many people will offer advice so you have to know how to filter and apply the good parts. Third, form a balanced team. It is difficult to operate a team where everyone specializes in the same thing. Diversity is key.
To learn more about the Severino Center, please visit http://scte.rpi.edu/.