Alumnus uses virtual reality to improve therapies for teens coping with mental health issues

David Waltenbaugh, center, at the inaugural VCU Alumni Pitch Competition
VCU alumnus David Waltenbaugh, center, knew he wanted to work in mental health advocacy, but the virtual reality aspect of his business plan was unexpected. "It hit me like a ton of bricks — I’d been wanting to do something creative that helps people, and now here’s this amazing new technology. I knew I wanted to give it a shot.” (Joshua Maclin)

Five years ago, David Waltenbaugh thought virtual reality was nothing more than the next video game craze. Now, as the founder of Richmond-based startup Root VR, he’s at the helm of a new endeavor to use VR technology to improve therapies for adolescents coping with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. 

After graduating from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business, Waltenbaugh spent more than a decade working in the investment industry. But for most of that time, he knew it wasn’t his ultimate career path.

“I have a creative side that I didn’t feel was gratified with the work I was doing in investments,” said Waltenbaugh, who has a bachelor’s and a master’s from the business school. “It might be cliché to say, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that what I really want is to make an impact and make the world a better place.” 

Root VR aims to make therapeutic tools more accessible and to help children and teens use virtual environments to manage their mental health. The company builds immersive VR experiences that help users develop skills in understanding, processing and coping with mental health challenges. Waltenbaugh’s own experience with generalized anxiety disorder and major depression guided him toward mental health advocacy, but the VR aspect of his business plan was unexpected.

“I used to be a total skeptic of VR,” he said. “I stumbled onto some articles about how VR was being used in a lot of new, nonentertainment applications. I was blown away by the research. The applications were so varied — combat veterans coping with PTSD and trying to return to normalcy, survivors of sexual assault and people overcoming phobias. It hit me like a ton of bricks — I’d been wanting to do something creative that helps people, and now here’s this amazing new technology. I knew I wanted to give it a shot.”

In November, Root VR was selected as the winner of the inaugural VCU Alumni Pitch Competition, earning a $2,500 prize and other valuable benefits, including workspace membership at 1717 Innovation Center on East Cary Street and technical consultation services, to help Waltenbaugh take his company to the next level.  

The competition, held Nov. 9 at the 1717 Innovation Center, attracted a crowd of more than 80 who watched five finalists compete for more than $15,000 in cash and business resources. 

The pitch competition was “a long time coming,” said Latisha Taylor, associate director of outreach and engagement – alumni career programs with the VCU Office of Alumni Relations. She worked for more than a year to plan and execute the event.

“The entrepreneurial spirit is strong at VCU, but there aren’t many opportunities for alumni to highlight their business ideas postgraduation. This was the perfect platform,” Taylor said.

Forty applicants from across the U.S. submitted pitch decks to a selection committee that whittled the group to five. The finalists had five minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges from the local business community.


2019 Alumni Pitch Competition winners


School of Business alumnus David Waltenbaugh took first place at the inaugural VCU Alumni Pitch Competition for his mental health services company, Root VR, which uses virtual reality to support adolescent mental health. 

The six-person team of Alexandria Ritchie, Patrick Jones, Jennifer Mak and Raihan Khandker, College of Engineering alumni; Hilton Bennett, who has a bachelor’s from the College of Engineering and master’s from the School of Business; and Katelyn Shin, an alumna from the College of Humanities and Sciences, placed second for DuraSafe, a handheld device that enables clinicians to accurately and safely locate the epidural space in the spine for surgery preparation. They also won the Fan Favorite Award, where the audience used live-voting technology to select their favorite competitor. 

Other finalists were: third place — Lisa Mustard, a graduate of the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences and founder of “The Therapy Show with Lisa Mustard;” fourth place — School of Social Work alumna Alicia Tetteh of Attune; and fifth place — Yinka Ojutalayo, Pharm.D., a graduate of the School of Pharmacy and founder of Healthy Quit Inc.

View photos from the event and watch the full competition online.

For Waltenbaugh, the competition also gave him an opportunity to reflect on the lasting importance of his VCU experience. 

“It's hard for me to overstate how important my experience at VCU was in me becoming the person that I am today,” he said. “Being a part of the pitch competition really brought the story full circle for me.”

Even though the pressure of putting together a tight, five-minute pitch was intimidating, Waltenbaugh said he knew the competition would give him the chance to practice the sales pitch he will soon start making to potential investors. 

“The timing of the pitch competition ended up perfectly aligning with where I felt like the company was,” he said. “The company is about a year old now, and I spent most of this first year doing basic research and development, and then did some beta testing. I got some really good feedback and realized it was about time to start preparing to take it public.”

The next step, Waltenbaugh said, is to recruit a group of school counselors and private practice clinicians to pilot the technology. With help from his pitch competition winnings, he plans to purchase the headsets he will provide for them to use. 

“The headsets aren’t something that just anybody has,” he said. “It requires money to develop, test and eventually implement this platform, so this prize is going to be really helpful in that.”

Waltenbaugh’s ultimate goal, he said, is to create something that gives people struggling with their mental health the tools they need to “get through the day.”

“I want to build a platform that helps people feel OK,” he said. “Mental health issues affect so many people. Everyone knows someone who has struggled with their mental health. Even though my own relationship with mental health has felt like a burden at times, I know now that I have an opportunity to use my experience and turn that burden into something that could help other people.” 

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