Sometimes all the handbook training in the world can’t prepare you for the real-life event. This is especially true for first responders, who pass tests to prepare for catastrophic events but cannot be certain of how well they will handle the situation until it actually happens.
That is, unless virtual reality can put them into the situation without it taking place IRL. That’s the basis for Raleigh-based NextGen Interactions, which provides VR solutions for workplace training across an array of industries. NextGen Interactions is one of 80-plus startups that will be presenting tomorrow (April 7) at the Venture Connect conference in RTP.
NextGen Interactions’ CEO Jason Jerald figured out he loved technology at a young age. Late in his high school days in the 1990s, he discovered virtual reality and decided that was what he wanted to do with his life.
In 2012, he started the process of bringing his VR knowledge outside of research labs and into companies as an independent consultant. In 2018, he launched NextGen Interactions to deliver VR workplace-training modules.
Jerald describes NextGen’s mission as empowering people through the mind, body and technology. It’s the first time many companies can truly put their employees into the situations they will face in the real world without any negative—even life-threatening—consequences if something goes wrong.
“We’re simulating these different worlds, and then the application is training and preparing the workforce for the future,” Jerald said.
One of NextGen Interactions’ partners, the Raleigh Fire Department, is able to prepare their employees for dealing with hazardous materials with VR training to detect dangerous gasses in a way they never could before.
“They might be able to pass the test, but do they know it at a deeper level?” Jerald asks. “The reason they can’t have better training is because these dangerous incidents occur so rarely.”
Live-action training can only take the firefighters so far in terms of the reality of how bad the situation could actually be. VR is different, providing a practical landscape instead of just a theoretical one for the firefighters to test their skills.
Says Jerald, “Hopefully nothing bad happens, but when it does happen, how else can you be prepared?”
Virtual reality is the closest they can get to true preparation.
And the first responder training is just one example. NextGen Interactions’ platform can work with clients to build customized training solutions specific for each client’s needs. In the past, NextGen has worked with big names like Google, Intel and AT&T.
Road from consultant to startup CEO
The startup has grown significantly since the days in which Jerald was a lone entrepreneur with a dream of bringing VR into the workplace. Now at five fulltime employees, NextGen is looking to raise some seed money in the next few months. It’s been a long journey since Jerald was an independent consultant, in charge of absolutely everything.
“You learn a lot doing that, but it’s not an ideal way to scale up and grow a business,” Jerald said. “I have an amazing team now that is handling day-to-day operations, for example, so I’m able to start looking at the bigger-picture, long-return sort of goals instead of ‘Oh god, a fire happened. I need to put that out.’”
One roadblock NextGen Interactions hit along the way inevitably came due to the pandemic. In the early days of Covid, first responders, one of the industries NextGen serves, were carefully monitoring their exposure risks. This meant they were often not able to engage with new business opportunities like NextGen Interactions.
But NextGen made it through despite the challenges. Then, gradually, the pandemic opened up a new working world, one in which people are more likely to be getting (and training for) new jobs and working in virtual and hybrid environments.
“It’s about preparing the workforce for new skills, so you have this massive turnover, the Great Resignation, people changing jobs, all of that,” Jerald said. “They need to learn these new skills, and so there’s an enormous opportunity there.”
Jerald, who came to the Triangle from the West Coast, initially assumed the stereotype that Silicon Valley was the only place with big tech funding was true. But, as he looks to present at Venture Connect, he has opened his eyes to the full scope of the Triangle tech ecosystem.
“What I’ve realized lately is that there’s enormous resources here,” Jerald said. “That’s a reason why I’m really excited about Venture Connect and getting out and starting to network more with the local community.”