From CSI to Hospitals: Bioflight VR is Training Healthcare Workers with Virtual Reality

How this northeast Ohio company traded Hollywood for Akron with their medical tech

Becoming a doctor requires thousands of hours of training. The process is challenging and expensive, requiring lots of practice on real human bodies. But what if doctors and nurses could get quality training from wherever they are, without the need for a physical body in front of them? That’s the solution created by Akron’s Bioflight VR. The startup has a full suite of training using modern technology that provides quality learning without the hurdles.

“At Bioflight, we have a cloud-based platform for immersive medical content in XR — augmented reality, 2.5-dimensional apps on your phone or immersive virtual reality experiences,” said co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Rik Shorten. “We build all the content and tools. It’s like Netflix for simulation training and education content. We produce XR content, 360-degree video, game programming, a little bit of everything all mixed together depending on the curriculum, what we’re trying to teach and what the specific goals are.”

Bioflight was born in 2015 in Santa Monica, California, where Shorten and his team had been focused on Hollywood. The team’s visual expertise came from television, where they worked on shows like CSI and ER. They created “forensic simulations,” 3D animations that became the hallmark of the shows they worked on.

“We did all that flying through the body where you see what happens to a liver when something like a bullet travels through,” Shorten said. “So our background was physiological and biological modeling with simulations that were scientific and medical. Then we got our hands on an Oculus Rift DK1 and took our models from our TV and video work and started putting them in VR. That sort of began our journey into medical visualization in virtual reality.”

After realizing what else their technology could become, the team started pivoting toward the medical field. Rather than creating purely entertaining content, they realized they could use their compelling visuals and storytelling for a more purpose-driven goal with an educational spin. Now, their tech is used by universities, colleges, hospital systems and especially with pediatric providers, their specialty. Shorten said he and his team are energized by the impact their tech can have, helping to modernize the dated methods used for medical training.

“There’s a constant need for ongoing education; new concepts are always being introduced in the medical space and there’s no really good way of letting medical professionals access this type of training,” he said. “Traditionally, it’s been using hospital resources and doing real-world simulations, which cost money and time that the medical community doesn’t have, especially now. The biggest impact we can make is ensuring we have enough highly trained medical professionals that can improve patient outcomes. Problems like readmission, infections, accidents in the hospital are all a function of providers not having up-to-date training. We think our training can help.”

Since their formation, Bioflight has made huge strides in placing their tech where it’s most useful. Early on, they were part of the VR for Good program at Facebook and Oculus, which helped boost them into a partnership with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and eventually the Cal State nursing program, which is benefitting from a statewide change amid COVID-19 that allows training hours to come virtually. Since those early partnerships, Bioflight’s major collaborations have come largely in Ohio. The company moved to their current headquarters at Akron’s Bounce Hub, where a combination of good business and Shorten’s family roots made it the ideal eastern home for Bioflight.

“If you’re founding a startup, the runway in Ohio is so much longer with the cost of living and access to talent here,” he said. “So between that and starting a family, coming to Akron was an attractive opportunity. Since coming here, we’ve also been able to make some key partnerships like Akron Children’s Hospital, who we’re collaborating with. Having those connections is very important for us because while we know more than the average person, we need great doctors and nurses to guide what we’re building. We’ve worked with Case Western, Medicaid Ohio, University Hospitals, Rainbow Babies and a lot of other great Ohio organizations.”

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