STATE COLLEGE - For Ria Bhatia and Elaine Demopolis, a breakup led to a budding friendship, a new business and an idea that could change the education industry for good.
“Is that sad?” asked Demopolis, smiling and trading glances with her co-founder.
The pair laugh about it now. But about two years ago during their sophomore years, they had yet to become the 21-year-old entrepreneurs with experience at Microsoft and Regeneron, a leading biopharmaceuticals company, between them. They had yet to win HackPSU, Penn State’s rapid prototyping competition, and $2,500 for their pitch at the university’s inaugural Venture and IP Conference. They had yet to present the possibilities of their months-old company in front of university President Eric Barron.
All that would come later. Back then, they were still getting their feet wet with the college experience.
“I would read in my dorm room and would watch movies,” Bhatia said of her freshman year. “I was content, but I was like, ‘There’s got to be something else.’ ”
“Something else” was Phi Sigma Rho, a sorority for like-minded women in the STEM fields. Yet connections remained hard to come by for the self-described introvert. Her pledge class was also on the reserved side. Even now, she sees the paradox: a social sorority of shy engineers.
Then came sophomore year and the breakup.
“Yeah, I was a mess,” Bhatia said.
But if there were tears then, Rain Reality, their virtual and augmented reality educational consulting startup, has since washed them — and any Bechdel test — away. Now the company has a team of seven, and has been in contact with museums and different sectors of the university, including the Student Engagement Center, additive manufacturing or 3-D-printing and World Campus, the school’s expansive online education program.
“We realized this could be something,” Bhatia said.
During that time the two became closer, they said, and before they knew it, they were friends. They’d brainstorm ideas, drawing upon each other’s backgrounds in developing the company.
Bhatia, a computer science major, saw how virtual and augmented reality could revolutionize multiple industries while interning with Microsoft during the summers. Demopolis, who studies biomedical engineering, saw how the technology could be used in training the next generation of health professionals, visualizing the body’s maze of molecules in an immersive format.
Virtual reality is booming. Experts expect the VR market to grow to $15.9 billion by 2019, with Citi estimating the market for hardware, software, networks and content to reach $200 billion by 2020 and one that could top $1 trillion by 2035. In the education space, Google has already found a niche in some classrooms with its Google Expeditions program, providing a digital docent for field trips. Virtual reality technology is also being deployed in museums around the world.
At Penn State, the technology could be particularly useful for remote learners, who constituted 13.5 percent of the university’s total enrollment in the fall.
“With online education, for instance, students don’t have a true chem lab experience,” Demopolis said. “So with VR, we can allow them to engage in this experience even if they can’t be in the classroom.”
Such is the upshot of Rain Reality, which the pair founded in August. The company builds custom applications for educational institutions, and is currently working with Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, its first client. Using the Microsoft HoloLens, a futuristic band of Daft Punk-inspired eyewear, they’re creating Rain Reality’s first learning module. When finished, it will help students envision the environment wherever they are — even from inside a classroom.
“Before you go into a job, you don’t really know what you’re getting into,” Bhatia said. “So especially at a college level, you want to be able to train and not just from a textbook.”
Demopolis said the team is also working on a module for nurses and the World Campus program.
“I love thinking innovatively about solving real-world problems,” Demopolis said. “We are in a space that truly inspires me and literally takes me to other worlds.”
For Bhatia, meanwhile, her days as an introverted bookworm are behind her. Almost.
While she and Demopolis are the bosses now, stentorian isn’t their style. Both speak softly when not giving pitches; imagination and observation are still their strengths.
But the buck stops with them. For the two friends, it’s another reality they’re creating together.
No VR goggles needed.
“We were all like scared engineering people who were just kind of scared to talk,” Bhatia said. “It takes me a little while to get out of my shell and into my comfort zone. But it’s an interesting dynamic, right?”