Jake Rubin’s inspiration for launching a virtual reality company began inside his grandfather’s magnet lab at MIT nearly two decades ago. That’s where Rubin, now 25, had a chance to experience a “geeky kid’s dream” and learn from someone who would rather teach his grandson about Einstein’s general theory of relativity than play catch with a baseball.
“He was very, very serious about me learning science and technology,” Rubin recalled. “That was how I interacted with him. That’s where I got it.”
The early exposure to his grandfather’s passion for technological innovation has helped Rubin build the framework for AxonVR, a new Seattle-based virtual reality startup that aims to simulate “lifelike touch” and just raised a hefty $5.8 million seed round from investors like China-based NetEase, Dawn Patrol Ventures, and former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo.
Rubin grew up in Mercer Island, Wash., and attended the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences. He spent one year at Washington University in St. Louis on an entrepreneurial scholarship before leaving to scratch his first entrepreneurial itch — Rubin called his departure from school “ironic” — and launch a digital advertising tech startup called Krmit.
Rubin raised a small investment round and helped grow Krmit for one year before the company ultimately failed to sustain itself. But that experience helped Rubin learn the ins and outs of early-stage startup life and prepared him to start thinking seriously about a virtual reality idea that he had spent years sketching out across hundreds of notebook pages.
“Virtual reality is about immersing yourself in a virtual world that doesn’t physically exist,” Rubin explained to GeekWire last week. “With today’s technology, you can see that world and you can hear that world with pretty good fidelity. But the biggest and most obvious missing piece is touch.”
Rubin had a vision where haptic technology could be used to build textile that let people experience the feeling of touch in virtual reality. He thought that creating an actual product with these features was feasible not in 20 years like most others believed, but rather in five years.
So, in 2011, he formulated his conclusions as part of a white paper and showed it to Dr. Bob Crockett, a biomedical engineering professor at Cal Poly State University.
“Initially, I think he thought I was crazy,” Rubin said. “I was this random kid from Seattle calling him with this audacious vision of basically building a Holodeck.”
But Rubin’s research had Crockett, at the very least, interested. He began working with Rubin over the next several months to see if the idea — allowing users to move through virtual environments and feel the size, shape, weight, texture, and temperature of virtual objects — was even possible.
Soon enough, Rubin and Crockett launched AxonVR as co-founders in 2012. Fast forward to 2016, and the company has built something that caught the attention of top investors and venture capital firms, in addition to many excited potential customers.
I had a chance to demo AxonVR’s prototype in Seattle last week. While donning a HTC Vive headset with an accompanying controller, I stuck my hand inside a machine and felt a thin, haptic textile made up of microfluidic actuators that applied varying pressures and temperatures to my palm.
Using the controller, I could pick up virtual items like a ketchup bottle and move them across my virtual hand. It’s difficult to describe the feeling and experience in words, but it felt like my mind was playing tricks on me.
“It’s not a symbol of a feeling,” said AxonVR President Mark Kroese, “but the feeling in and of itself.”
Some of the “wow” moments came when a small deer rested on my hand and then stood up, as I felt its hooves tap around my palm. Then there was the creepy spider that made me wince as it tiptoed across my skin.
“We envision a world in which virtual experiences are indistinguishable from real life,” Rubin said in a statement earlier this month.
AxonVR’s technology is clearly innovative and super cool. But can it become a real business?
Joe Michaels, a former MSN senior director of business development at Microsoft who is now chief revenue officer at AxonVR, said that some of “world’s greatest companies” have shown interest in the technology because of how it can make better use of virtual reality, while helping them save time and money.
AxonVR is focusing on three potential use case categories: entertainment, design and manufacturing, and training. For example, Michaels explained that existing 3D visualization software already allows designers to envision what their products will eventually look like. But being able to “touch” something is a game-changer.
“They say we’re going to help them revolutionize the way they do product design,” Michaels said.
There are industries like military and healthcare that could use AxonVR’s technology, too. Kroese, another Microsoft veteran who was a general manager in the Office and entertainment divisions, said companies that want to help provide muscle memory training can use a VR solution rather than building out an entire physical scenario.
“This is a 10X improvement, not just some little incremental thing,” Kroese said. “That’s what is exciting about these enterprise applications.”
The vision is to create textile for the entire body. AxonVR is already developing “HaptX Skeleton,” which is a lightweight exoskeleton that applies physical forces to your body.
AxonVR also has a “HaptX SDK” that allows developers to build touch-enabled experiences into their own applications.
“This is a platform for premium, realistic haptic feedback,” Michaels said.
Rubin said the fresh cash will help AxonVR go from proof-of-concept to a commercial product it can sell to customers next year. He said pitching more than 100 investors was a nerve-wracking experience, but the technology’s potential made it easier.
“People get our vision and business potential almost immediately,” Rubin said. “The challenge was, is this doable? As we’ve developed our technology, we’ve been able to demonstrate that. It’s morphed from, ‘are you crazy’ to ‘is it possible’ to finally where we are now.”
Kroese, who joined AxonVR as its president last year, said there are some similarities between the startup and his days working at Microsoft when products like Office and Excel were being invented.
“When you are working on technologies that can change a billion people’s lives, that feels cool,” Kroese said. “I think this will be the second time in my career where we have technology that will change a billion people’s lives.”
Kroese lauded Rubin for being mature beyond his years as a leader.
“He’s a wonderkid beyond imagination,” Kroese said of the founder. “He also knows what he doesn’t know and surrounds himself with good people. He has a very, very rare combination of incredible deep entrepreneural tendencies with a super deep technical passion.”
Rubin, whose career path somewhat follows that of Box co-founder Aaron Levie, another Mercer Island native, admitted that he feels somewhat unprepared to be CEO of a venture-backed startup at just 25 years old. But he’s built a team of “amazing people” who have helped Rubin learn and grow as an executive. Rubin is also confident with how well he knows the company’s technology and vision.
“There may be a time when there is another CEO better suited to run AxonVR, and I try to not let my ego get in the way of doing what is best for the company,” he said. “But right now, it’s all about the product and I don’t think anyone is better qualified to do that than I am.”
Asked about tips for other young entrepreneurs, Rubin said that if you’re really passionate about an idea, “don’t let anyone stop you from doing that.”
“The only entrepreneurs who succeed are those that are truly fanatically passionate about what they do,” he said.
At the same time, though, Rubin cautioned that young leaders need to “balance passion with pragmatism.”
“You got to have the passion, but you can’t let that blind you to the realities of starting a business,” he explained. “If you only have that passion and you don’t occasionally splash cold water in your face and say, ‘am I fooling myself or is this legitimate?’ then you’ll run off chasing a dream and won’t succeed. It’s about finding a balance between those two extremes.”
AxonVR is headquartered in downtown Seattle, where it employs eight people, and also has an engineering offices in San Luis Obispo, Calif. The 30-person company, which has raised $7 million to date, is one of many new up-and-coming virtual reality startups in the Seattle area. Others include Envelop VR, Pluto VR, Pixvana, VRStudios, VREAL, Endeavor One, Nullspace VR, and several others. Those are in addition to larger companies like Microsoft, Valve, HTC, and Oculus that also are developing virtual and augmented reality technologies in the region.