Waterford company working for education transformation

EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalists David and Sandra Whelan of VR Education

VR Education founders David and Sandra Whelan recently listed the company on the Irish and London stock exchanges.

VR Education founders David and Sandra Whelan recently listed the company on the Irish and London stock exchanges.

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David and Sandra Whelan co-founded VR Education in 2014 in an effort to bring immersive technology to distance learning, thus transforming how students learn globally.

Formerly editor-in-chief of Virtual Reality Review, David has 14 years’ software development experience, with seven of those running his own web development studio.

Sandra, meanwhile, has worked as a senior editor and content creator for a virtual reality (VR) website and has significant experience working with large corporates.

Recipients of The Irish Times Business Person of the Month award for March, David and Sandra have also won a raft of international awards, one of which lauded their core product, Engage – a meeting platform that provides educators with the tools to share and publish their own immersive virtual classes.

Recently listed on both the Irish and London stock exchanges, VR Education Holdings has partnered education institutions including the University of Oxford and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Since its listing, the company has signalled its intention to grow quickly, employing 26 people with plans to expand that team throughout the year.

What light-bulb moment prompted you to start up in business?

I got my epiphany the first time I used a virtual reality headset in 2014. I began researching the uses of virtual reality of that time and noticed high-end institutes were using this as a low-cost method of teaching and training. That was when I saw the potential for virtual reality to enter the education and training market for worldwide consumer use.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

The best advice that I’ve received has been that everything takes longer than expected. I don’t think I’ve ever taken on bad advice, I normally go with my gut feeling so if I hear advice that I may not 100 per cent agree with, I generally won’t go with it. If you don’t trust your gut in decision-making, I doubt you’ll be in business long.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

We have a chief financial officer who deals with the overall numbers of the business. I believe that if you put more focus on your product and service, then the numbers will follow. Obviously, I keep an eye on the numbers to evaluate how the business has been doing and is doing. However, in such a fast-paced environment, no amount of calculations can truly predict how the business will perform in the future.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

I have big dreams for VR Education, as I did just over three years ago when I borrowed €1,000 from my sister to begin this business. If you asked me back then what I planned on achieving with €1,000, I doubt you’d have thought I could build a company with a market cap of somewhere between €35 million and €40 million and over 25 staff. Now that I have the means, my imagination is the only thing that can restrict me. Watch this space!

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

I remember we turned down investment when money was on the table and payroll was going to be tight for the following month. Things just didn’t feel right about the terms we were offered so we declined.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

Passion and pride are what I find most important. As you’ll be working 60, 70 and sometimes even 80 hours a week, you need passion for what you do. You need pride and if you accept anything less than perfect it will reflect in your end product. Finally, I’d say you need some luck along the way, I know I’ve certainly had some.

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