A photo of two women and a man holding a large check for ten thousand dollars.
Ivelina Metcheva, Ph.D., assistant vice president for innovation at VCU TechTransfer and Ventures; Lauren Siff, M.D., representing the winning team SurgicalED VR; and Brent Fagg, assistant director for innovation at VCU TechTransfer and Ventures, at the VCU Startup Accelerator’s first Pitch Day competition. (VCU TechTransfer and Ventures)

Virtual-reality surgical trainer earns top spot in first Pitch Day event for VCU faculty entrepreneurs

Urogynecology team led by Lauren Siff is among the inaugural cohort of the Startup Accelerator, which propels campus innovation toward commercial markets.

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A urogynecologist with Virginia Commonwealth University and the Central Virginia Veterans Administration Health Care System has won the university’s Startup Pitch competition for her work on a virtual-reality surgeon training system.

Lauren Siff, M.D., and the team behind SurgicalED VR were awarded $10,000 and in-kind services to develop their technology, test it with academic medical centers and bring the trainer to market. Siff was one of five VCU faculty entrepreneurs to present their technologies before a panel of six judges and about 50 people from VCU and partner organizations on May 13.

“We are designed for surgeons by surgeons, and we use real patient data and true haptic feel to train your hands to operate and allow you to make surgical decisions, not just follow prescribed steps,” said Siff, chief of gynecologic surgery and urogynecology at the Central Virginia VA and adjunct associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Department of Surgery at the VCU School of Medicine. “We are excited to receive this validation in our idea and effort, and confident that we’ve got what it takes — the team, the tech and the understanding of the market.

“We are ready to take SurgicalED VR to the next level and are thrilled others are just as interested in revolutionizing the way we train surgeons — and ultimately improve patient safety and outcomes.”

SurgicalED VR combines virtual reality and haptics hardware with software to help train surgeons to perform “blind” procedures, or those surgeries performed by feel. It uses a VR headset and haptic device to provide force feedback through a surgical instrument. The system lets new and experienced surgeons work in a safe, effective and cost-efficient repetitive training environment without using cadavers or practicing on patients. It also provides documentation and scoring, for proficiency.

The team’s lead product, SlingVR, trains surgeons to perform a common procedure to treat women with urinary incontinence. This “sling procedure,” like many others, is performed blindly: Surgeons estimate angles based on external anatomic landmarks and take note of subtle, tactile changes in tissue response as the sling is placed under the urethra with a tool called a trocar. The VR system uses haptic feedback in the surgeon’s hand to precisely simulate the feel of bone muscle pushing against the hand, making the experience as real as possible for trainees.

The SurgicalED VR team is raising funds and will put its prize money toward building out the business, aiming to get the trainer into academic medical centers for trials. Several health systems have committed to testing the platform for real-world use.

Pitch Day was the culmination of a 10-week VCU Startup Accelerator program that coached and supported a cohort of five faculty entrepreneurs, their postgraduate researchers and multidisciplinary teams. The groups received one-on-one coaching and mentoring from a group of five VCU entrepreneurs-in-residence.

The Accelerator is led by the VCU TechTransfer and Ventures team, which is responsible for protecting university-generated intellectual property and facilitating its commercialization. Last year, TechTransfer and Ventures filed 165 patent applications, received 26 patents, executed 29 licenses and brought in $3 million in licensing revenue. It also granted 12 licenses to startups.

“This Accelerator isn’t just about launching something new — it’s about amplifying and structuring the support for the amazing work our researchers have been diligently pursuing for years,” said Brent Fagg, TechTransfer and Ventures’ assistant director of innovation. “These researchers have dedicated countless hours to developing the innovative technologies that form the bedrock of their startup ventures. Our teams exemplify VCU’s commitment to fostering translational research — research that doesn’t just stay in the lab but translates into tangible benefits for human health and well-being.”

A photo of a screen showing a bone
SurgicalED VR combines virtual reality and haptics hardware with software to help train surgeons to perform “blind” procedures, or those surgeries performed by feel. (SurgicalED VR)

The Accelerator program gave faculty entrepreneurs exposure to a new set of questions they have to answer if they plan to get their technology to market, said Gerard Eldering, VCU TechTransfer and Ventures’ lead entrepreneur-in-residence. Researchers clarified their value proposition, learned how to best fund and develop their IP, and even settled on names for their previously unnamed companies.

The entrepreneurs also coached faculty on how to pitch to varied audiences, like customers or investors. “What you’re good at in the classroom is a bit different from investors,” Eldering said.

Fagg said the Accelerator and Pitch Day is another step in “elevating the sophistication and maturity of VCU’s startup program. I expect other VCU researchers will see the experience gained by their peers and may get more involved with the Accelerator and Pitch Day programs.”

TechTransfer and Ventures expects to start a new cohort of entrepreneurs in the Accelerator later this year. Funding to the winning companies was provided by TechTransfer and Ventures and its partners at Activation Capital, which hosted Pitch Day at its conference facilities. Activation Capital is an independent authority of the state of Virginia that is promoting scientific research, commercialization and ecosystem development in the Richmond region.

In addition to Siff, the SurgicalED VR team includes L. Franklin Bost, professor emeritus in biomedical engineering innovation and development at the VCU Institute for Engineering and Medicine; James Thomas, Ph.D., director of the Launching Excellence in Virtual Reality Center and professor in the Department of Physical Therapy; Moshe Feldman, Ph.D., director of evaluation for undergraduate medical education and human factors and associate professor at the School of Medicine; and Jerome Dixon, data analyst and VCU Ph.D. candidate.

In second place at the Pitch Day event was MagnaShield, a VCU College of Engineering team led by assistant professor Radhika Barua, Ph.D. The company was awarded $5,000 and in-kind services.

What it is: Intentional electromagnetic interference, or IEMI, is a method used by cybercriminals to send powerful electromagnetic pulses that disrupt or destroy devices essential to the modern world and critical infrastructure such as hospitals, power grids or transportation networks. The team is developing lightweight materials that can absorb signals over a wide range of frequencies (like the ones used for 5G devices) without being too bulky or expensive. Less than a millimeter thick, the corrosion-resistant polymer composite material for broadband electromagnetic wave absorption not only protects devices and networks, but it also has superior thermal properties to keep devices from overheating.

Researchers: Barua, Krishbold Bhandari and translational research fellow Rodney Davis, all in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at the College of Engineering.

The inaugural Startup Accelerator and Pitch Day cohort also included these three VCU teams:

PatternWave Solutions

What it is: Uses a machine-learning process to build better predictive models for types of continuous datasets. The IP has particular use in health care as software for spectroscopic and epigenetics data analysis.

Researchers: Ph.D. candidate Matthew Glace, associate professor Thomas Roper, Ph.D., and Roudabeh Moazeni, Ph.D., all with the College of Engineering; Edwin van den Oord, Ph.D., professor of pharmaceutics at the School of Pharmacy and director of the Center for Biomarker Research and Precision Medicine.


What it is: A drug discovery platform focused on membrane proteins as drug targets. The technology provides a method for fast membrane protein characterization in a native lipid environment, outperforming existing solutions by providing accurate 3D structural information of membrane proteins. (NCMN stands for native cell membrane nanoparticle).

Researchers: Youzhong Guo, Ph.D., associate professor, and Weihua Qiu, Ph.D., research assistant professor, both in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry at the School of Pharmacy.


What it is: At-home glucose meters have been available for decades, but what about at-home calcium meters? The team is developing a technology to test blood electrolytes in resource-limited settings such as at patients’ homes.

Researchers: Xuewei Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at the College of Humanities and Sciences.