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“By 2025, VR/XR collaboration will be the new standard in working life”: Interview with Varjo’s CEO, Timo Toikkanen

How do you see the future of virtual reality? The fields of VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality) and XR (extended reality) have high predicted potential for growth, and are evermore expanding their touch from our professional, to our personal environments.

Varjo, founded in 2016 in Helsinki, is leading the charge with some of the most advanced virtual and mixed reality devices for professionals. Their technologies merge virtual, mixed and traditional reality, having been one of the first to achieve human-eye resolution. To find out more, we spoke with CEO Timo Toikkanen, diving into topics like the future of VR, his internationalisation tips and Varjo’s recent funding round.

Thank you for joining us Timo! First up, could you give us a short rundown of what makes Varjo unique?

Varjo was set up with a vision to create the next generation of computing. The first problem we encountered and wanted to solve is one of the most difficult challenges in the VR/XR industry – how to achieve human-eye resolution in virtual reality. We solved this problem in a year and at a fraction of the billions of dollars other companies have invested to solve the same problem. Next, we brought to market true, photorealistic mixed reality, where virtual and real content merge together seamlessly with the help of video pass-through.

In less than four years, these technologies have become the leading VR/XR solutions for enterprises. We’ve brought four devices to the market, all featuring our proprietary 20/20 Eye Tracker, and they are now used by leading companies worldwide, including Boeing, Audi, Volvo Cars, Lockheed Martin, FlightSafety International, Siemens, KIA, and many more. Our products and technologies are unique in their class – nobody else has achieved such a seamless blending of virtual and real as well as visual fidelity before. Also our pace of growth has also been exceptional to say the least, and we are not slowing down any time soon.

We also read you’re involved in astronaut training. Could you tell a bit more about that, and what you think the future is for AR/VR in this sector?

We are incredibly humbled to work together with the Boeing Starliner programme to augment astronaut training, adding a new dimension to their commercial spaceflight preparations. The unmatched human eye-resolution and high visual fidelity of Varjo’s devices allow Boeing to replicate each phase of a commercial crew mission to the International Space Station – including pre-launch to docking and undocking to landing – entirely in virtual reality for the first time. We are proud to be delivering the technology that is pushing industrial training applications to their furthest reaches – now even to space.

In the future, Varjo’s human-eye resolution VR/XR, combined with the power of the 20/20 Eye Tracker, have the potential to transform the way any pilot is trained. And with much of the world still in lockdown, it’s beneficial that with Varjo’s human-eye resolution VR/XR, pilots can train remotely without the need to access multiple physical simulators in different locations. The ability to quickly and easily ship Varjo headsets to large numbers of people virtually anywhere in the world means multiple trainees can learn to operate aircraft, work heavy machinery, treat patients and more – at their own pace, wherever and whenever they want.

We also believe that mixed reality training and simulation will become more and more popular – as then you can combine the flexibility of the virtual world with the familiarity and tactile feedback of real-world controllers, knobs and dials.

How have you been weathering the current coronavirus pandemic storm?

We are a global company, so the pandemic has impacted us as well as our customers especially in the automotive and aerospace industries. Like every other tech company, we have had to adapt our operations to these exceptional circumstances. Our VR/XR technology is ‘see it to believe it’ – the superiority of our technology compared to our competitors comes across best when experiencing it firsthand. Before Covid-19, global events, trade shows and fairs were crucial for our sales and growing our visibility. As all global events have been cancelled, we have quickly developed new ways and channels for sales promotion. In addition, we partnered with the leading solution MeetinVR to enable effective remote collaboration for our enterprise customers.

Just this August you closed a funding round of €45.9 million to expand internationally. Could you tell us about the timing of your funding strategy?

This round of funding comes on the heels of a year marked by company success and product innovation. In less than four years, we have leapfrogged the industry by delivering both leading hardware and software to the market. 2020 is the year enterprise VR/XR has proven its ROI, and the need for effective immersive training solutions is accelerating at a breathtaking pace.

At the same time, the circumstances for raising funding were exceptional this spring. As you can imagine, restrictions in travel didn’t make it easier to meet VCs, but we are very happy to have successfully closed the round. With the help of this financing round, we continue to scale and push towards delivering an ecosystem capable of bringing enterprise XR adoption mainstream.

You recently expanded your operations and reseller network to +40 countries. What advice do you have for startups stepping into internationalisation?

Choose your local business partners carefully and support them as well as you can – they are the experts of their respective markets, and only together can you create win-win scenarios and build new business.

Be mindful of your expansion pace and take it one step at a time. Focus is everything. It is a common pitfall to expand uncontrollably and then realize that you don’t have enough resources to serve customers well across your target markets. That’s why we at Varjo are focusing on Western Europe, North America and selected markets in the Asia-Pacific region.

You were founded in Helsinki. What is it like to startup and scaleup in this ecosystem, for any founders who are reading?

We are extremely proud to be a European technology company headquartered in Helsinki. During our 4-year journey, we have received tremendous local support from both Business Finland and the European Union through EIC funding. The support of our vibrant ecosystem has been a game-changer for Varjo – we would not have been able to deliver world-leading technologies to the market so swiftly and scale up so fast and effectively as we have without the support from Business Finland and EU. We are happy to continue developing world-leading XR products in Europe.

How do you see the AR/VR sector developing in general in the next 5-10 years?

We believe that within the next five years, VR/AR training and simulations will have expanded from the highest end use cases to widespread use in the workplace, such as training police officers, firefighters, and surgeons. By 2025, pilots will largely train in immersive environments and the first commercial space mission crews will have also trained with the help of VR/XR before takeoff.

By 2025, VR/XR collaboration is the new standard in working life, and devices are largely in use at offices worldwide. In many professions, entire workflows have moved to an immersive 3D environment – for example in automotive design and engineering. VR has also become a common educational tool in classrooms.

We believe that by 2025, virtual collaboration does not mean unreliable Zoom calls anymore, but instead meeting and working together with colleagues across photorealistic immersive environments. Immersive interaction is as natural and intuitive as when seeing people face to face, so you don’t have to fly to the other side of the planet for business meetings.

And of course all this is enabled by VR/AR/XR devices having become lighter, more comfortable, and untethered.

With a team of 130+ employees, you surely know about maintaining company culture during fast-growth periods. Any tips for founders?

Like many other fast-growing companies, we understand that building and maintaining a company culture is a continuous practice and an effort that is never ending.

We at Varjo have been lucky to have attracted an incredible group of professionals from many different backgrounds to our team. We all share the same ambition level of wanting to build the world’s best products, but at the same time want to stay humble, maintain low hierarchy, and focus on solving problems. So a key tip is to make sure your new hires are a good fit to the company culture.

During our journey, we’ve also recognized the need for effective practices for onboarding new team members – so we recommend setting up your people/HR function and related processes sooner rather than later. Also remember to pause and celebrate milestones as often as you can. Time flies when you’re having fun.

What’s next for Varjo, in 2020 and 2021? Any exciting projects?

You can expect new announcements on how our world-leading customers are using Varjo products, as well as continuous product innovation. Follow our social media channels to stay tuned on our company updates.

Charlotte Tucker
Charlotte Tucker
Charlotte is the previous Editor at EU-Startups.com. She spends her time scouting the next big story, managing our contributor team, and getting excited about social impact ventures. She has previously worked as a Communications Consultant for number of European Commission funded startup projects.

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