I had the pleasure of interviewing David Ellzey, the CEO of the Silicon Valley healthcare-tech startup, Torque3 (pronounced torque-cubed). David is a designer turned serial entrepreneur who previously co-helmed the interactive development studio Xpletive. For 12 years he designed and led a team that delivered ground breaking, location-based, deeply immersive interactive experiences for installations all over the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My new company was working on a deeply immersive fitness platform that had integrated physio-rehabilitation features. The goal was to engage customer’s play behavior and therefore, create a habit-forming activity much in the way it is done with video games. Along the way, we found that the most common reason people stop exercising is due to injury, so we had to create a platform that could accommodate for any injury, including a missing limb. This led us to a very unique robotics solution.
During a prototype assessment, our neuro/behavioral science advisor enthusiastically commented that we had built the most impressive neurorehabilitation system he had ever seen. He sent me a ton of supporting information from his 30+ years of research on the positive effects of using virtual reality to increase neuroplasticity, or in other words, the brain’s ability to remap its neuropathways. I reviewed the information of course, but it wasn’t until I was invited to a BBQ last summer that it really hit home for me.
This was my pivotal moment. The study of the latest in neurorehabilitation research was still fresh when I met an acquaintance’s father at that BBQ. He had suffered a stroke about 2 years previously, and my expectation was that he would tell me about his experience using some of the latest in neurorehabilitation systems. It saddened me to hear that his neurorehabilitation therapy had quickly devolved into a routine of him using a stationary bike with a therapist standing by. I knew there was a wealth of clinical studies validating much better methods. Then I got angry. I realized that he wasn’t an outlier in the system, but a typical case. Under our current system, only 10% of stroke survivors reach near-full recovery. We can do better!
The single most important factor for an improved recovery outcome is the patient’s neuroplasticity. Yet there are no systems currently available that enhance plasticity despite a clear, proven path on how to accomplish this. Is an affordable solution that significantly improves stroke recovery outcomes even possible? Absolutely! We have already “accidently” developed one, and now my anger has turned into a passion to get as many of our platforms into use as possible. We have a solution to facilitate a much better and faster recovery for stroke survivors, now it’s time to make it happen.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
How about getting married to your co-founder and starting a new company on the same day despite having no money, no credit, and no existing clients? My second startup was an animation and visual effects studio that I co-founded with my fiancé. The plan was to get the studio up and running some 3 months prior to the wedding, but as is usual for a startup. everything takes 3x longer than anticipated. The day prior to my wedding, the new studio was finally ready for operation. At our wedding reception, a friend I had worked with before and who had gone on to become a producer for Disney asked us when we would be back from our honeymoon. “3 days” I said. “Perfect! I have a job for you when you get back”. We came back from our honeymoon and immediately started working crazy 12–20 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days a year (including Christmas!) to build up the new company.
Starting and building a business from ground zero on our wedding day was either going to land us in divorce court or bring us closer together. I feel very thankful we are still happily married, but I certainly wouldn’t advise other couples to follow the same route.
Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
The most important factor that affects a patient’s recovery outcome is called “neuroplasticity”, a term used to describe how the brain re-maps neuropathways in the brain. This allows it to transfer impaired functions from the damaged sections to healthy regions. There have been years of clinical studies that support using VR headsets to significantly improve outcomes. The conclusion is that the more immersive the experience, the more effective the treatment.
Developing intense, deeply immersive experiences is something I’ve been doing for quite some time, but what we are doing with the advanced robotics in our platform is something special. After a stroke, it’s common for survivors to experience weakness or paralysis on one side of the body. To answer the overwhelming challenges presented by hemiplegia and hemiparesis, the TRUETM (Torque Reactive User Experience) system provides a balanced, smooth user experience regardless of each limb’s applied effort. Sensors and software algorithms anticipate the patient’s intended action and instantly compensate to balance the power across each limb. The system provides a smooth experience as if the patient was not impaired.
This means a patient will be able to “go for a ride” on our platform and feel as if their body is responding exactly as they expected. There is no frustration of having one side of their body paralyzed during their session. Instead, they will feel whole again.
Normally our nervous system operates in a “closed feedback loop” when it comes to muscle control during movement. This sensorimotor function relies heavily on sensory feedback to control movements, but in stroke survivors that function is impaired. It is our hypothesis that simulating the closed feedback loop between the brain and neuromuscular activity will also increase neuroplasticity.
How do you think this might change the world?
Stroke is the leading cause of disability in the United States. There are almost 700,000 new stroke survivors each year who will begin the long struggle of recovery. Some estimates put the total number of survivors in the US at over 6.5 million. Globally, the problem is staggering — over 50 million stroke survivors need neurorehabilitation worldwide.
Deploying our platform will significantly improve the recovery outcomes of these stroke survivors, allowing a much higher percentage of them to go on to lead fulfilling, independent lifestyles. This is not only an enormous improvement for the survivors, but also relieves the immense burden on caregivers and reduces pressure on limited healthcare budgets.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
As humanity gets better and better at creating these simulated realities, there is the obvious issue of how do we keep people from spending too much time using it recreationally? The allure of universes that are crafted to artificially fulfill all our primal desires will be irresistible — but at what cost? I mean, it presents a unique dichotomy for me as I’d personally love to experience that level of immersion — while being equally horrified at what it could do to the fabric of society.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
For one of our major features, it was an uncomfortable moment. This was when we were holding our first full day of testing on the initial version of the prototype. It was back when we were still focused on developing a fitness system. We had 20 people signed up to come in for test sessions and the very first guy was an above-the-knee amputee. We were completely unprepared for his condition, but he was excited to try the prototype, so we felt we should at least see what would happen.
Considering how fragile the prototype was, it was a miracle it didn’t break under the strain. The poor guy had to struggle with just using one leg. Every push he made would cause the pedals to lurch forward. Despite his frustration, he just wouldn’t give up. It was painful for us to watch. From our perspective, the fact that he couldn’t pedal in a smooth motion and therefore, complete the course was not his failure, it was ours.
The lunch conversation with the engineers that day turned into a brainstorming session. This is when we first theorized a solution for users who can only apply force asymmetrically and was the genesis of the robotics system we now call the Torque Reactive User Experience, or “TRUE” for short.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
We have a lot of work ahead of us, but I see this as 3 critical steps; Awareness, Validation and Affordability.
The first step is awareness. We need to cultivate a better understanding in the stroke community of what neuroplasticity is, why enhancing neuroplasticity is so important, and how it can be greatly enhanced through intense virtual simulations. This means reaching out to not only practitioners, but the survivors and their caregivers as well.
The next is validation. There is a wealth of research that has repeatably shown that the use of virtual reality has a significant improvement on the outcomes of stroke survivors. Our platform is the optimal implementation of those studies, based on their conclusions. However, we still need independent studies to confirm that our design is achieving the results the research predicts
Finally, the only way we can make sure that the millions of survivors out there can take advantage of the Torque3 platform is to make it affordable. In our current business model, we bear the entire upfront cost of the equipment and installation. This makes it easy for healthcare facilities to adopt the platform en masse, but puts a tremendous strain on the Torque3’s ability to scale quickly. This is not a problem unique to our company and has the same difficult solution many startups have faced; raise significant investment capital, economize manufacturing, and keep operational costs under control during rapid growth.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
The change from a fitness company to a neurorehabilitation company is very recent and has caused us to do a full rebrand, including new website and messaging strategy . We’ve just started to reach out to practitioners, survivors and caregivers. Luckily for us, the demand for an affordable neurorehabilitation solution for stroke survivors is exceptionally high, which makes our job easier. Our target market is actively seeking a solution like ours to once again lead an independent lifestyle.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m incredibly grateful to my wife, Kelly. Not just for being unbelievably supportive, but she has essentially been my silent, uncredited “co-founder” from the first day we started. It takes 2 types of people to build a successful startup: One is the ‘Innovator’, the ‘Steve Jobs’. This is the company’s leader, the person that gets all the attention and makes the headlines. This is the person who conceives of and holds the Grand Vision of the company. The Innovator who consistently conceives of the ideas that will propel the company forward.
But just as critical to the success of any company is the ‘Implementor’. This is the person behind the scenes that sees to it all the details of running and operating a business are handled. This is the person that creates the space for the Innovator to create — the ‘Tim Cook’ behind Steve Jobs. Kelly has always made sure the details of running the business were handled, giving me the space to come up with newer and better creative solutions.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think in the way you mean it, I haven’t achieved that level of success yet. But there are over 50 million people globally who are stroke survivors who need a better rehabilitation solution to reclaim their independence. Meeting that need is a worthy goal I hope to make happen.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be the Torchbearer — There is a tendency for founders to want to share the load of leadership, but it’s critical that a single person take on the lonely, insanely stressful role of “THE” leader. You need to be that person who keeps the company true to its vision at every step. Usually there is just one founder who had the original concept; that person needs to take on the CEO/President mantle as part of the price of success. Being the “Guy in Charge” in the beginning can be miserable, but the company needs someone who can hold up the vision like a torch in the darkness, illuminating the uncertain path ahead and providing a beacon for those who follow you.
- Share Your Ideas Freely, Early and Often — I always hear people being afraid that someone will steal their idea. We are talking about concepts here, not proven products or services. Generally speaking, anyone who has the inclination and resources to start developing a new project already has their own ideas to pursue. They aren’t interested in stealing yours. to create products or services that will succeed in the marketplace, you need to get feedback early and often. You aren’t going to get that if you don’t talk about and show what you are doing.
- Embrace the Limitations of Your “Box” — I hate it when people say, “think outside of the box”. What they really mean is that they have not defined their real limitations. Every design/project is limited by a host of factors. The most common are budget, schedule, and you know — physics. The beauty of working within limitations is that you can reverse-engineer solutions from what you know you can’t do.
- Great Execution is More Important than a Great Idea — It’s common for people to overvalue their “killer idea” and believe that just the idea alone has some sort of intrinsic real-world value. This is almost never the case. Even if they develop the idea, it doesn’t mean that everything else will fall into place. The hard reality is that the company that does a great job bringing a mediocre idea to market will likely be successful while the inverse is not true.
- Avoid Startup Life if Your Goal is Wealth — With so many startup founders getting the spotlight these days, there is the misconception that starting your own company is a good way to become rich. Considering the odds of failure, the brutal hours and unrelenting stress that comes with a startup, it seems like a bad deal unless you are motivated by something more. For most people it’s a passion to create something that can only be fulfilled by pursuing it themselves.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Two-thirds of the population in the US are overweight or obese and that number continues to climb every year. Let that sink in…obesity is rapidly reaching epidemic proportions. The costs, both emotionally and fiscally, are staggering: our healthcare system is severely strained, our military readiness has been reduced, our GDP is greatly diminished due to loss of productivity. Obesity-related conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer are some of the leading causes of preventable death.
Note the word, “preventable” in that last sentence. Obesity, and all the costs associated with it, are preventable. Although Americans currently spend $30B a year to reduce their waistlines, it’s clearly not working. Why not? Because educating and/or shaming people to eat healthy foods and exercise regularly doesn’t address our primal survival behaviors to eat more and move less.
I believe the answer to change behaviors and create healthy habits is to enlist one of our other primal survival behaviors: Play. I want to start a movement where people — all people, whether they are disabled or not, are achieving healthy levels of fitness and thus, put a dent in our obesity problem.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Embrace the Suck” — anonymous Army or Marine grunt
Think of life as a roller coaster, except the only part that makes you happy is when you are going up. This means that during the flat sections you aren’t happy no matter how high you actually are. It’s only when the coaster climbs do you easily find joy. When the roller coaster is going down, it always represents the most stressful parts of your life. To simplify, when there is no change in your life you are unsatisfied. When things are looking up, you are happy and when things take a down-turn you get stressed.
You see, humans have an amazing ability to always desire more out of life while normalizing any unchanging state of their life. This creates an interesting paradox where we only experience “happiness” when we believe our lives got better. But this state quickly becomes the ‘new normal’ and we then need things to get even better to be happy again. This up-cycle can’t continue forever, so eventually the person either leads what could be objectively considered a comfortable life where they are not happy, or they experience a down-cycle that is decidedly uncomfortable for them.
You need to learn to love being uncomfortable in all aspects of your life. This means physically, mentally, and emotionally. This is where you need to appreciate that without the inevitable lows you experience in life, there can be no highs. It’s common in the military to hear the term; “embrace the suck” and this phrase certainly applies to my approach of life.
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Torque3 helps stroke survivors significantly improve their recovery outcomes by combining deeply immersive simulations and advanced robotics. Our clinically proven methodology is capable of effecting meaningful progress toward an independent lifestyle.
Unfortunately, that’s about as much as I can say as there are some serious legal restrictions regarding advertising when it comes to attracting investors. We can’t have a direct “pitch” published, although I’d certainly love to hear from anyone interested in joining us as an investor. Anyone contacting me at: http://torque3.com/#contact can get an information package.
That said, we are planning an equity crowdfunding campaign soon. This will almost certainly be on the Republic (https://republic.co/) platform where any of your readers can invest in Torque3 so keep an eye out!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
YouTube is our primary social media channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3jCTJdEfxYw_RLgztaG0dg
We also maintain a GoFundMe account (https://www.gofundme.com/torque3) where people can directly support our effort to get this solution into use for stroke survivors as fast as possible.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.