(Updated Thursday with details about UW’s acquisition of Zealyst).
After selling her enterprise collaboration startup Zealyst to the University of Washington, Martina Welkhoff was thinking about her next move. The idea for a new kind of virtual reality company was just starting to form in her mind when she was presented with an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
It was December, two months after the UW deal closed and one month after the presidential election results took the nation by surprise. Welkhoff told her friend, Drue Kataoka, who happens to be a high-tech artist, about her idea to bring people together for virtual events. A week later, Kataoka told her she wanted to use the platform to create a piece of interactive political art.
“It drastically accelerated my timeline for putting this out in the world but it was such a cool opportunity, so timely with everything that’s happening in the political arena, with social advocacy, that I really couldn’t pass it up,” said Welkhoff.
On Thursday, ConveneVR (in partnership with Kataoka) will host its first event — a gathering of female leaders from across the country held entirely in virtual reality. The women will wear VR headsets, and video of what they see and discuss will be streamed live online.
Kataoka, who is known for her radical vision and use of cutting edge technology, is debuting a virtual reality “sculpture” during the event based on her existing work, “Now is the Time.” That piece, a print highlighting historic “firsts” for women, was popularized by the Hillary Clinton campaign. Kataoka featured the work at the Democratic National Convention.
Kataoka transformed the two-dimensional image into a 20-foot, 3D virtual reality sculpture. The new piece is called “Yes! Now is the Time.” Women attending the ConveneVR event will be able to walk around the piece and read historic firsts and future firsts for women. The piece is interactive. Anyone can add achievements from women in their lives on the “Yes! Now is the Time” website.
Even though her company is in its nascence, Welkhoff found the idea irresistible. Advancing women, particularly in industries where they’ve historically faced barriers, is one of the reasons she got into VR in the first place.
Welkhoff is president of Seattle Women in Technology and a vocal advocate for gender equity. She believes that VR has the potential to be more gender balanced than other industries because it’s a new frontier.
“I think there’s a really interesting and unique opportunity in AR and VR to create something really different,” she said. “We’re not starting with a blank canvas, by any means, but there aren’t the same kinds of legacy issues that come into play in a lot of other industry spaces. There’s a lot of energy in the world right now around building inclusive spaces, so I think there’s just a great window for building a different foundation and that could have a long-term, really exciting effect in what VR looks like in the next 10, 20 years.”
Welkhoff has been a fixture in the Seattle startup community for years. In addition to her outreach with organizations like Seattle Women in Tech and Up Global, she founded Zealyst in 2010 to help businesses strengthen relationships among their employees.
In November, she sold the product to the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking at the Foster School of Business. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. UW is using a modified version of Zealyst to help students collaborate with one another. It’s the first time the university has acquired intellectual property of this nature, according to Welkhoff. She is still serving in an advisory capacity for the UW’s Zealyst program but is now focused full-time on ConveneVR.
Right now, ConveneVR’s is acting as a facilitator and organizer of virtual events. The startup is partnering with PlutoVR and BigBoxVR to provide the technology to pull off the “Yes! Now is the Time” event. Eventually, ConveneVR will build an end-to-end product but Welkhoff thinks if she tried to do that today “the likelihood of failure would be high.”
Welkhoff’s long-term strategy for ConveneVR goes beyond virtual events and social advocacy. She thinks corporations could use the product to replace conference calls and supplement business travel.
It’s not an easy space to break into, as another Seattle VR startup learned. Earlier this month, venture-backed enterprise VR startup EnvelopVR abruptly shut down. The startup’s CEO told GeekWire the market just wasn’t ready for the kind of VR business products they were offering.
“I think that’s a huge risk right now and it’s a big part of being early and being a pioneer in the space,” said Welkhoff. “I think we’re going to see a lot of that over the next few years, quite honestly. Everyone’s placing bets right now on what the market’s going to look like. How it’s going to develop over time. There’s a huge margin for error there, particularly as the world seems to be increasingly volatile, so it is concerning but I don’t think it’s a reason to stop taking those risks and to stop innovating.”
The “Yes! Now is the Time” live stream will be available here on Thursday, Jan. 26, at 12:30 p.m. PST.