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A Tampa startup aims to train doctors with virtual reality

Software from Immertec can bring physicians into an operating room thousands of miles away.

Erik Maltais may be the CEO of a startup, but he hates the notion that startups are automatically “disruptive.”

Despite the job title, Maltais doesn’t fit the mold of a tech entrepreneur. He dropped out of school as a teenager and served in Iraq in the Marine Corps. But his unconventional path led him here, to Tampa, to launch Immertec, a virtual reality company aimed at training more doctors on surgical procedures.

“I hate ‘disrupt,’" he says. "I see what we’re doing as ‘enabling.’”

The company is moving its headquarters into the Beck building, adjacent to the trendy Armature Works complex along Tampa’s Riverfront just north of downtown. It’s also closing in on a round of investor funding, piloting its technology with Johnson & Johnson, and is financially backed by people like Steve Case, the founder of AOL.

The company creates software for physicians and medical device companies, and connects them through virtual reality. Instead of traveling to spend days inside an operating room observing a new surgical technique or learning how to use a new device, the software allows surgeons to watch others perform live while wearing virtual reality headsets from anywhere in the world. In some ways, it’s better than the real thing, Maltais said.

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Because of the sterile environment of an operating room, the view of what’s happening on a patient may be limited for physicians who are observing and not actually participating. With the headsets, a camera is placed at eye level in front of the performing surgeon, giving others a clear, 360-degree view of what’s going on during the procedure.

“We can simulate surgery to the point of confidence, to give doctors that same feel,” Maltais, 36, said. “We thought it was unacceptable that people are dying because it takes so long to train physicians, from billing hiccups to getting new devices approved by the FDA."

From left, Immertec associates Dalton Kadar, 26, assistant director of development, and product manager Kunal Bansal 25, work to program a super computer in their temporary office at the Armature Works in Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | TIMES | Times ]

But Maltais, who has no background in health care, didn’t wake up one day with a plan to develop a virtual training tool for doctors.

When he was 14, he dreamed up his first business idea after realizing there were no ice cream trucks operating in his New Hampshire neighborhood. Since he was too young to drive or rent a vehicle, he enlisted the help of his 18-year-old neighbor. They leased trucks from a company in Massachusetts. Eventually they were making $5,000 a day hawking ice cream cones, Maltais said.

That first taste of making money is what lead him to drop out of school, despite his mom’s protests.

“My mom was single, raising four kids. She had three jobs to support us,” he said.

Maltais backpacked through Europe until he ran out of money, and didn’t finish high school until he was 20.

“I went back full-time in the day, all through summer and at night to get my diploma,” he said. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done is finish high school.”

He enlisted in the Marines, and spent a year deployed in Iraq. After five years in the military, he ended up in Florida.

Maltais studied accounting and economics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He settled in the Tampa Bay area after Googling areas that rebounded the fastest from the last economic recession. He bought property here, and soon was itching to find his next business opportunity.

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He bought a 1965 double-decker bus in California with the goal of driving it back to Tampa, renovating it, and launching a party bus business. But he ran out money.

Next, he flew to China to meet with manufacturers, and launched an e-commerce company that sold barbecue accessories. He got the idea from looking at product reviews people left on websites like Amazon.

Immertec CEO Erik Maltais says he doesn't like the idea that startups like his disrupt the marketplace. “I hate ‘disrupt,’" he says. "I see what we’re doing as ‘enabling.’” [ OCTAVIO JONES | TIMES | Times ]

“I’m not the barbecue customer. But people would write reviews that said, ‘I love this spatula, but I wish it was longer.’ So then I’d go to the manufacturers and make one that was longer,” he said.

It wasn’t long before he started collecting a seven-figure salary.

It was the barbecue business that led him to meet Jon Clagg. The two co-founded Immertec in 2016, thanks to Clagg’s background in software and telecommunications. They discovered an opportunity to use the technology to bring physicians together.

Maltais admits that running a startup isn’t easy in Tampa. He and Clagg traveled to Silicon Valley to look for investors and were surprised by the interest they received. Those investors wanted them to move the business to California, but something about Tampa made Maltais want to stay.

“We knew we were going to have to make a return on any money we accepted. And the cost to do business is much higher in a place like San Francisco," he said. “The offers we got gave us about nine months of runway. Instead we raised about $500,000 in Tampa, which got us two years to get going.”

What makes Immertec stand out is how fast the software is. Physicians are live-streaming surgeries, and the lag or delay is less than 200 milliseconds, Maltais said. Johnson & Johnson, a global developer of medical devices, is piloting the program as a training tool for doctors who use their devices.

Shannon Bailey was working for the Navy in Orlando when she first heard of Immertec. A trained human factors scientist, she has always been fascinated with immersive training and simulation. She read an article about Immertec and reached out to Maltais directly. Now she works in human factors science for the company.

“I make sure the technology isn’t confusing to use,” Bailey said. “We also want to do research from a more scientific perspective, like applying for grants and publishing our results in peer-reviewed journals. We really want to move our product forward, but also the field of virtual reality.”

Right now, the company is targeting medical device training, but sees the opportunity to expand in a variety of ways, from the military to education.

From left in the back row are Immertec associates Kunal Bansal, Jeff Roy, Kiara Palmer, Brendan Ciccone, Sierra Harlan, Tori Cunningham and John DiCicco. In front are Austen Legler, left, and Immertec CEO Erik Maltais. [ OCTAVIO JONES | TIMES | Times ]

Jeff Roy spent 15 years working in medical device sales, and knew the medical community well in Tampa Bay.

“I knew that coordinating these trips to train how to use new medical devices was taking surgeons out of their private practices, out of the operating room and away from their families," he said. “And I saw an immediate fix to that in Immertec.”

Roy was hired earlier this year as the director of business development and has been helping the company make inroads with the industry.

“In the first presentation, the immediate reaction (from doctors) was unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Roy said. “They light up pretty quickly.”