Veena Somareddy is the founder and CEO of Neuro Rehab VR, a company based in Texas with a mission to provide hope, through XR therapy, for patients plagued by neurological conditions.
This interview, conducted by a leader of Unity’s Women Employee Resource Group (ERG), was part of an internal Women's History Month series in 2022 spotlighting women founders of Made With Unity projects or companies.
Please introduce yourself and share some background on your current role, your company and your mission?
My name is Veena and I am founder and CEO of Neuro Rehab VR. I have technical background. I did my bachelor's in computer science and master's in game design and development. That's where I learned how to develop in Unity, and to build virtual reality applications and games. Unity has played a big part in my career and my life to date, and helped me create this company.
I started our company in 2017; at that time I was also a Ph.D. student at UT Dallas. Then, in 2018, we started to build a team. Our staff is about 14 people now, and we develop virtual reality (VR) applications for physical and occupational therapy. We help patients who have had a stroke, brain injury, or spinal cord injury with physical therapy, so that they can work on their functional goals, which is mostly to be able to get back to everyday activities like grocery shopping and being able to cook.
The programs we develop help by gamifying therapy exercises so that patients are more engaged, more motivated, and can see their data analytics in real time. We sell to large health systems and work mostly with hospitals, but also private clinics, VAs, and a few senior care centers.
Can you tell us about your professional journey and the main motivators that led you to building Neuro Rehab VR?
While I was pursuing my bachelor's, I was really interested in making movies and animation shorts. That's why I chose to do game design development for my master’s. That's also when I came across Unity and started to learn how to use it to build my own apps and games. I did my Ph.D. in VR for medical simulation and training, also utilizing Unity.
While I was working on my Ph.D., I was really interested in using my skills in the health care field. I landed an internship at Intuitive Surgical, where they create robots for surgery and VR training exercises for the Da Vinci robotic system. During my Ph.D., I met my current co-founder and investor who owns a neurological recovery clinic. I started building MVPs for them and saw it made such a big difference when patients had the headset on. They're in different scenarios and virtual environments, but also working on functional tasks and exercises at the same time. That led me to create the company [in its current form] and work with hundreds of patients all across the U.S. with our XR therapy system, an FDA approved medical device.
Being a woman in tech, what challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
As a woman building a tech company, you face a lot of challenges and there's no silver bullet for how to overcome them. We are likely to face numerous challenges that require diligent attention and a strategic approach to overcome. Establishing credibility, showcasing technical expertise, and effectively communicating one's capabilities are all critical components to navigating these hurdles. Moreover, when it comes to securing investment, the process can be quite uncertain and contingent on the investor's perspective. Identifying individuals who recognize the value of one's work, rather than being swayed by gender biases, requires a concerted effort to engage with the right contacts.
As a female entrepreneur, I have found that seeking out mentors has proven to be a vital resource in my journey. It is often said that the mentor chooses the mentee, and I have been fortunate to have had this occur on multiple occasions. Encountering mentors at presentations, pitch competitions, or investor pitches has provided invaluable opportunities to establish relationships with individuals who can assist in specific areas of need. It is crucial to engage with mentors who possess expertise in diverse areas such as market strategy, technical skills, financial acumen, and mergers and acquisitions experience. Additionally, having a reliable attorney in one's corner is also an essential asset. The support and guidance of mentors and advisors can be invaluable in the face of detractors, instilling the motivation to strive for success on behalf of both oneself and other women striving to excel in the field.
Was there a particular woman that inspired your career journey? If so, who?
Throughout my career, I have sought out women who serve as role models and sources of inspiration. However, finding such individuals can prove challenging, particularly when searching for those who share similar backgrounds and experiences. The discovery of such exemplars provides a powerful sense of motivation and emboldens one's own potential for success.
One individual who immediately comes to mind is Indra Nooyi, who served as the CEO of PepsiCo. Ms. Nooyi's accomplishments are especially noteworthy given her status as a woman who immigrated to the United States several decades ago, during a time when the challenges facing women in the workforce were even more formidable than they are today. Through her visionary leadership, Ms. Nooyi shattered numerous barriers and glass ceilings, becoming the longest-serving CEO in Pepsi's history while also making a profound impact on the company's success. Her remarkable achievements are a source of great admiration for me.
Another notable figure whom I hold in high esteem is Sandy Lerner. Ms. Lerner is the co-founder of Cisco Systems, a company that revolutionized the field of computer networking, and also founded Urban Decay, a highly successful cosmetics company. Her entrepreneurial spirit and significant contributions to the technology and beauty industries are a testament to her tenacity and vision. Ms. Lerner's pioneering achievements serve as an inspiration to many, including myself.
How do you and your company amplify or support other women in tech?
I do regular talks on diversity and inclusion panels. I also talk to women about how to become a CEO, how to become an owner, how to pitch and market strategies. I talk to university students and am a guest speaker at a few universities here in Texas.
I enjoy talking to all students about my journey and the pathways they can take to learn and build their own companies when they graduate. I’ve also created the Dallas Women in VR and AR organization to mentor and help women with the technical skills required to create their own VR applications.
Do you have any advice that you would give someone who is considering a similar career to you?
A crucial initial step in building a successful company is to develop a minimum viable product (MVP) expeditiously, even before forming the company. Promptly taking action on the idea and testing it with a wide range of individuals to ensure a product market fit is of paramount importance. Many companies overlook this critical aspect and scale up prematurely, potentially leading to diminished prospects of success. Therefore, it is essential to prioritize testing and refining the product to ensure its viability before attempting to expand.
Engaging with mentors who possess relevant experience and diverse skill sets can also provide valuable guidance in the early stages of building a company. Seeking out individuals who have already navigated this process can help to identify and address potential obstacles, streamlining the path towards success.
Where do you see yourself and women in tech going in the next 10 years?
I am optimistic about the prospect of a substantial increase in the number of women-owned businesses and a significant uptick in the number of female entrepreneurs securing funding. Historically, the challenge has not been with women initiating businesses, but rather with accessing the capital to scale these businesses. I am hopeful that this issue will continue to improve, although there is still much progress to be made, despite some advancements in the past decade or two.
Should my own business endeavor yield an exit, I am committed to funding other women-owned companies, thereby contributing to this growth. I aspire to witness an exponential increase in the representation of minority- and women-owned startups, especially within the technical arena.