Waterford couple turn virtual reality into real-world success
Taking Immersive VR Education public has been exciting for David and Sandra Whelan
David and Sandra Whelan, Immersive VR Education chief executive and chief operating officer respectively. David Whelan, CEO and Sandra Whelan, COO, Immersive VR Education. Picture by Shane O’Neill, SON Photographic
“I saw you going by there,” David Whelan says, sticking his head out the door of an inconspicuous office building as I search for our meeting place.
“This is temporary, this place,” he explains later, adding that the business has expanded rapidly since incorporating in October 2014.
“I’m out there saying we’ll have to squash desks together or have people in the toilets with their laptops,” Sandra, the chief operating officer, quips.
Expansion has sneaked up on the Waterford couple, who brought their company public earlier this year. Their vision is to bring their platform, allowing virtual training and education, to a global audience.
With that in mind, they’ve released educational virtual reality content experiences and, more recently, David was nominated at the Venice Film Festival for his work on one of those experiences – Berlin Blitz.
Keen to show off his wares, he ushers me into his office on my arrival to see two of the company’s productions. Their first – Apollo 11 – has recorded €1.4 million in sales since going live and their newest experience – Titanic – is expected to have a similar impact when it goes on Sony’s PlayStation platform later this year.
But Whelan is keen to stress this company isn’t just about content. Its core focus is to develop an education system in virtual reality. The rationale is that online education is dated and tedious and that VR can better engage students.
“In VR, the idea was why not have a virtual school where you can meet people from all around the world in your own house and you can pick your own educators,” he explains.
“You can’t pitch a company that just does content, but having a platform that’s scalable where other people can build content and create value for that platform, that’s a very scalable business. And that’s what we were pitching to investors and that’s why we listed.”
The listing on both the Dublin and London stock exchanges in March brought significant attention to the company. Now, almost six months on, it has achieved a market value of nearly €30 million.
Since going public, “nothing has really changed”, Sandra says. Although they’re formally beholden to shareholders, the way they run the company is similar to the way they ran it before the initial public offering (IPO).
“When you’re a private company, you want to tell everyone everything what you’re doing,” she says, “but when you’re a public company, you have to learn to hold your tongue a little bit more.”
That seems like a particularly difficult task for David, who typically brims with excitement when talking about the projects they can publicly disclose. “I get super excited about a project but can’t talk about it,” he notes.
In any event, the pair don’t dwell on the fact that they’re not answerable solely to each other. Prior to the IPO they had shareholders anyway. “We’re a bit spoiled in that we didn’t know any different,” David says.
Spoiled or not, the process of going public sounds like a trying one. In advance of March, Sandra had been preparing for the IPO for about nine months, after which David took over for the final hurdle.
“There was wicked pressure on him,” she says.
“That two weeks [before the IPO], if I didn’t raise that money, we would have had to close the doors because it would have bankrupted us,” adds David.
When he arrived in London, David’s broker had arranged 40 meetings with investors. He was advised that he’d likely get one in 10 actually investing. Of their 40 meetings, however, 22 wanted to invest.
The couple were initially looking to raise €5 million. By the end of the process, the IPO was oversubscribed with offers amounting to £9.4 million (€10.5 million). They ended up taking €6 million while holding a 40.04 per cent stake between themselves.
Some of the larger shareholders in the group include venture capital fund Suir Valley – with 7.22 per cent – led by businessman Barry Downes, who sold FeedHenry, the mobile software developer that he founded, to US multinational Red Hat for more than €60 million in 2014. Downes himself holds a 5.5 per cent stake in the Whelans’ VR business.
Investors aside, there’s still an air of a punchy start-up in the Waterford office building where the company employs more than 30 people. For the Whelans, the last 10 years have been something of a rollercoaster.
“We do remember what it’s like to be dirt poor,” David says, speaking about the days before the Immersive VR Education business came on the scene. When the housing boom of the naughties was about to fold, David was just in the process of setting up a business to build websites. Having trained himself how to do web development, he set up with some success initially.
But, as the recession hit, “that all fell apart”. “We were living on about €300 a week for about four years,” says David. At a time when the unemployment rate in Waterford was among the highest in the State, Sandra became the main breadwinner.
After a demanding few years involving maxed-out credit cards, punishingly high domestic bills and, on one occasion, having to withdraw €3.70 from the bank to pay for fuel for the car, David decided to sell the web design business. Having tried his first VR experience, he set up a website reviewing virtual reality experiences, ultimately deciding he could build his own.
That’s when he pitched the Apollo 11 idea to a developer and was quoted about €7,000 to build a basic demonstration version. To kick-start the project, he approached his sister and got a €1,000 loan to buy the models that would allow the developer build the demo. “Without her, none of this would have happened,” he says of his sister’s help.
The developer, based in the US, obliged, and with that David arranged a meeting with the local enterprise office and got a €5,000 innovation voucher from Enterprise Ireland to get the demo made. After that, he set up a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter and raised a further €36,000 in 30 days to develop the rest of the Apollo 11 experience.
He subsequently joined the Enterprise Ireland-backed entrepreneur programme New Frontiers, with a wage of €15,000 over six months while Sandra stayed in her job. When Apollo 11 was released, on April Fools’ Day in 2016, “it became a global best seller”.
That was merely the beginning, however. Knowing that sales from Apollo 11 wouldn’t continue forever, the pair set about fundraising again, which led them to the decision to bring the business public. The IPO was more of an occasion of relief than anything else, according to Sandra. “If [the IPO] hadn’t happened, we’d be in debt to the tune of over half a million quid and we’d have had to let people go,” she said.
Now, on paper, their wealth is about €12 million. Has life changed?
“We always wanted to go on a cruise, so we went on a cruise in July. We went to Orlando and brought all the kids. We were just looking at our kids going: ‘You don’t know how lucky you are,’” says Sandra.
Their three children, aged 10, 13 and 16, have had quite a different upbringing to their own, the pair suggest. Both hailing from Waterford, they still had a happy childhood nonetheless.
David’s father worked in the Waterford Glass factory before a series of strikes in the mid-1980s. “I remember the strikes and how poor we were back then . . . We lived on butter vouchers,” he says. Sandra recalls a similar time when the nuns from “the convent” came to her house to give them hampers at Christmas.
“We had no carpet in our house but, at the time, you didn’t realise it because you were a child. It’s only when you look back and go: ‘I’ve some respect for our parents,’” she adds.
Having completed her Leaving Certificate, she started in college “to get a job to earn a load of money”. Then she found herself in a part-time job at which she was “earning a load of money”, so she called time on university and worked for AOL.
David had ambitions of playing rugby for Ireland but, measuring 5’10”, he gave up that dream relatively early on.
But the couple are not ones to give up on most things. Setting up in Waterford is one such example. “I like proving people wrong,” says David. “I remember starting this and being told: ‘Who’s going to work in Waterford?’” While Dublin or London would have been easier and perhaps more natural locations for the business, the Whelans are keen to develop the company in Waterford.
“Waterford will be the most active place in Ireland for growth in the next three to five years,” says David.
But it has its constraints, he admits. “It’s harder to get developers to move from Dublin down to Waterford. Most of our people come from America and the UK. It’s easier to get those people over here, whereas people in Dublin think Waterford is a small town.”
“People in Dublin are used to ferocious money because the rents are savage. If they’re coming down here, they might look at the wages we offer and say ‘That’s very low’ but it’s not because your salary is commensurate to where you’re living,” Sandra adds.
The salaries they offer aren’t all that different to Dublin-based companies, David insists. But the black cloud over Waterford is the lack of an airport. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have an airport,” he says.
Next week, the company will present its first set of results to the market with the release of interims. While this is their first test as a public company, the founders note that it’s not profitable just yet.
“We would be profitable if we only did content,” David says. “We’re not profitable but we are making money,” he adds.
Their ambition to be a company that people remember is driving them to develop something more than content. The full release version of their Engage project is expected to go out later this year. With that, the company can start pushing the paid content model if all goes to plan.
That’s not to say the experience pieces that made the company in the first place will no longer be part of its growth. They recently completed the Berlin Blitz project with the BBC and launched the Titanic VR experience.
A new version of Apollo 11 is also in the pipeline to coincide with the release of the First Man film chronicling the story of Nasa’s mission to land a man on the moon.
As if business wasn’t busy, on a personal level the Whelans are also in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year programme. Their personal and professional success, however, hasn’t appeared to change them. Sandra recalls the night after the company went public when she was “sitting on a kerb with a homeless man eating a kebab” while petting his dog.
There are no airs and graces about them and as a couple running a business, they appear to complement each other. “We do get on really well and I can’t see anybody else that could sit in this chair and do the role,” says Sandra, noting her husband can be “very stubborn”.
That stubbornness coupled with ambition seems, however, to have served the company well thus far. One gets the distinct impression that this is only the beginning of the story.
Names: David (37) and Sandra Whelan (36)
Age: He’s 37 and she is 36
Positions: David is chief executive of Immersive VR Education while Sandra is the chief operating officer.
Family: The couple have three children.
Something you might expect: Sandra loves to travel and David is a “massive video game fan”.
Something that might surprise: David used to be a drummer in a band called Brooder. “I had a long ponytail and took to the stage once with nothing on apart from my pants and blue body paint.” Sandra says her music taste is “on par with my teenage daughters”, and that her musical brain hasn’t aged with the rest of her.