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Virtual Reality Therapy Company Gains $5.1M in Early Funds

Scene from VR program

Scene from “Now I Can Do Heights” virtual reality program (Oxford VR)

20 September 2018. A company in the U.K. developing automated treatments for phobias using immersive virtual reality is raising £3.2 million ($US 5.1 million) in its first venture funding round. The new funding for Oxford VR, a spin-off enterprise from University of Oxford, but based in London, is led by Oxford Sciences Innovation, a science and technology commercialization company affiliated with the university.

Oxford VR, founded in 2016, is commercializing research by Daniel Freeman, a professor of clinical psychology at Oxford in the university’s medical sciences division. Freeman studies mental health disorders, particularly delusions and hallucinations, and is considered a pioneer in applying virtual reality as a therapeutic tool. He established a laboratory at Oxford for studying virtual reality as a way to develop personalized therapies for people with persecutory delusions and phobias. The company, which Freeman co-founded, licenses and develops the technology to evoke similar experiences as those encountered in real life, and provide a safe way of coping with those experiences.

The lead product from Oxford VR is an automated virtual reality program called “Now I Can Do Heights” that provides coaching for people with acrophobia, or a strong, unreasonable fear of heights, a common condition that the company says affects 1 in 5 people during their lifetimes. While virtual reality has previously been used in psychiatric therapy, up to now the technique required guidance from a therapist. Oxford VR’s approach, however, uses an automated coach with voice-recognition to provide personalized therapy. The technology, says the company, focuses on evaluating threat predictions while removing defensive behaviors, to provide memories of safety that counteract fear associations.

The company assessed its virtual reality program in a clinical trial, recruiting 100 adults in the U.K. with a fear of heights, and participants randomly assigned to received the Oxford VR therapy or the usual behavioral treatments. Participants using virtual reality with off-the-shelf equipment spent a total of about 2 hours in 5 therapy sessions. The primary outcome measure was the standard Heights Interpretation Questionnaire, or HIQ, a 16-item scale that quantifies a person’s fear of heights. The results, published in July in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry show participants receiving virtual reality treatments lowered their HIQ scores by 68 percent compared to minimal declines in the usual treatment group, with the differences continuing in a follow-up test 4 weeks later. No adverse effects were reported.

Barnaby Perks, CEO of the company said in a company statement with the release of the trial findings, “Professor Daniel Freeman’s research, combined with the advent of highly immersive consumer VR, means that Oxford VR can develop treatments that are faster and more effective than traditional treatments, significantly cheaper for health services to deploy and, crucially, engaging and entertaining for users.” While Oxford VR’s first product targets phobias, Perks added, the company plans to address a range of psychological problems, such as social anxiety and psychosis.

The new £3.2 million venture funding is led by Oxford Sciences Innovation that provided Oxford VR’s seed financing, joined by University of Oxford, and investors Force Over Mass, RT Capital, and GT Healthcare Capital Partners. In addition, Oxford VR was part of a consortium that won the £4 million first prize in the the UK National Institute of Health Research i4i Mental Health 2017 Challenge to develop virtual reality therapies for psychosis.

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