Young duo launches a tech startup in Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — A lot of first jobs after college aren’t exactly glamorous. Barista. Retail sales. Or the two most depressing words to a 22-year-old’s ear — unpaid internship.

“Creator of software startup with the potential to corner a gigantic, untapped market of consumers” is not a job listing likely to be found on Craigslist (if it is, don’t click on it; it’s probably spam).

But that’s what two recent Middlebury College graduates, Shane Scranton and Nate Beatty, are. Their company, IrisVR, has existed for a whopping four months and has already attracted investors and won an entrepreneurship contest.

The story begins innocently enough. Scranton graduated from Middlebury last year, where he majored in architecture and environmental studies. (Beatty did not finish until this February.) During his time in college, Scranton interned with SAS Architects in Burlington and McLeod Kredell Architects in Middlebury.

After completing his degree, Scranton started his own consulting business, building 3-D architectural models for clients, as well as doing website design, which Beatty assisted with. It was then that he came across a Kickstarter campaign for Occulus Rift, a newly developed virtual reality headset designed to enhance the experience of video games.

Intrigued, Scranton purchased an Occulus headset and immediately saw its potential outside of gaming and entertainment — he could plug his 3-D architectural mockups into the headset, allowing users to experience being inside the buildings.

“I realized it could be a great tool for architectural design — to allow you to look around a space that hasn’t been built yet,” Scranton said. “That’s how the business got started.”

The headset, which resembles a pair of ski goggles, is fitted with two eyepieces into which an image is patched from an architectural drawing on a computer. Aptly named “acelerometers” track the motion of your head, so that if you look down, the image shifts accordingly, creating the feeling that you are inside the design.

A joystick allows you to “walk” through the building, viewing the design at any possible angle.

“We are literally taking architectural 3-D models and automating the process that sends them into a virtual reality environment,” Scranton said. “Instead of having an architect do a lot of work on a 3-D model, they can just view them directly in a virtual reality headset.”

Scranton began integrating his designs for use with the headset. He took a glitchy but functional version to friends and local firms.

“I showed it to my architect friends in Burlington and in Vermont, and they were generally like, ‘Yes, this is great, when can we have it?’” Scranton said. “Then I approached some advisers and investor types, and they were excited about the project as well.”

Through this process Scranton and Beatty realized that not only were they the first to develop this idea, but that there was a potentially enormous demand for it. This January, the project shifted into a full-fledged company, IrisVR.

“We were the first into the field, and we realized we should take it very seriously,” Scranton said.

Scranton offered Beatty, who he had met while leading Beatty’s college orientation in 2009, a partnership at the company. Scranton said they work well together because their skill sets are so different.

“He does the coding and I handle more of the investor relations, the front-end design work and such,” Scranton said. “We’re a good fit because we don’t cross at all.”

In recent months, the pair has met with large firms in New York, Boston and San Francisco, finding their niche and laying the groundwork for their growth in Vermont.

“We’ve met with a lot of visionaries in the field that we’re excited about,” Scranton said. “It’s sort of ballooned out into something bigger.”

Scranton said IrisVR plans to market the software to architects, as well as directly to consumers.

“If we could access the consumer first and have them go to architects and request this, then the design world would be forced to transition over, based on client demand,” Scranton said.

This year has been kind to Scranton and Beatty, who this month won LaunchVT, a business pitch competition sponsored by the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce. IrisVR beat out seven other Vermont startups to claim $25,000 in cash and $45,000 in in-kind services from local businesses.

Since they’ve already secured enough funding to hire two full-time employees, Scranton said IrisVR will use the money to hire interns this summer.

“We want to bring on as many interns as we can,” Scranton said. “They allow us to do three-month-long interviews and get some work out of it as well.”

The LaunchVT prize will also be used to pay for hardware and infrastructure, which Scranton said are expensive.

MIDDLEBURY ROOTS

Scranton said Middlebury College’s focus on liberal arts allowed him to take classes in a variety of subject areas, which helped him figure out what he wanted to do after earning his degree.

“When I realized I was getting into the 3-D world, it allowed me to hone in on my skills with independent study work,” he said. “I found a bunch of advisers that really supported that.”

Scranton was one of the lead members of the college’s 2011 Solar Decathlon team. It was in doing this project that he decided he wanted to pursue architectural design and 3-D animation.

“Until the Solar Decathlon, I was planning on going into biology, which clearly wasn’t my calling,” Scranton said. “Taking the Solar Decathlon course sent me into that world.”

Despite its focus on engineering, architecture and design, Scranton said the Solar Decathlon fit right into Middlebury’s liberal arts offerings.

“I think Solar Decathlon was the most liberal arts thing I did, because we combined so many skill sets into one project,” he said. “That is very synchronous with what I’m doing now.”

IrisVR is currently headquartered in the old courthouse at the top of Court Street in Middlebury, a building owned by the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. The center, which was founded in 2005, helps small technology companies grow.

“They pretty much incubate startups here,” Scranton said. “They’ve advised us and helped us out with the space. That’s been huge.”

Scranton said that whether to keep the company in Middlebury as it grows is a constant conversation he has with Beatty. Since IrisVR will be primarily producing software, Scranton said it doesn’t matter where the work gets done.

“If we have a 10-person team, we can be based in Antarctica,” he said. “The biggest challenge is getting potential hires to move up to Burlington.”

Still, Scranton said IrisVR will go wherever the realities of business force it.

“As we interface with investors, some want us to move, some don’t,” Scranton said. “We’re pretty flexible at this point, but so far Vermont has worked. It would be hard to leave.”

AMBITIOUS GOALS

Not resting for a moment to enjoy the $70,000 LaunchVT prize the company won just last week, Scranton laid out his goals for the IrisVR in the near future.

“For the end of May, our biggest goal is to have a couple paying pilot customers that are architects and designers,” he said. “Mid-summer to early fall, we will have a beta release, where the firms who have signed up can actually test the software and give us feedback.”

With a total of six people — the two founders, two full-time employees and two interns — Scranton said the company will be firing on all cylinders through the summer. The ultimate goal is a commercial launch of the completed software next year.

“We’re trying to roll out the first version of our software by 2015,” he said. “We’re aware that this automation process is incredibly complex, and will take another six to eight months.”

SHANE SCRANTON, 23, is co-founder of IrisVR, a new business in Middlebury’s Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. The company is developing virtual reality software that will enable architectural clients to better experience conceptual designs.

Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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