Ohio State alumni-led startup transforms pediatric healthcare with virtual reality

The Lantern
LittleSeed’s immersive VR experiences help transport young patients to a world of adventure during medical procedures. Courtesy of Jeff Penka

About two in three children experience an intense fear of needles — leading some to avoid essential medical procedures or vaccinations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .

Trypanophobia, as it’s commonly known, is a fear of needles, injections or other medical procedures, particularly among children, which can cause significant anxiety and distress for both pediatric patients and their caregivers. However, two Ohio State alumni are on a mission to turn a child’s tears into laughter at the hospital.

Jeremy Patterson and Jeff Penka, co-founders of LittleSeed , created a Columbus-based health care technology startup in 2017 to transform experiences for pediatric patients through the power of virtual reality.

Whether it’s exploring a lagoon or meeting penguins and pirates in an immersive environment, LittleSeed offers immersive, interactive experiences designed to transport pediatric patients undergoing medical procedures to a world of adventure, according to its website .

Patterson, a 2001 alumnus who also serves as LittleSeed’s chief creative technology officer, said through his previous work at Nationwide Children’s Hospital , he saw firsthand the potential of gaming technology to reduce pediatric pain and anxiety. He said at the heart of LittleSeed’s mission is a commitment to creating an experience that is “fun but with a purpose.”

Patterson said LittleSeed’s flagship product, Voxel Bay — a VR experience to help young patients cope with severe needle phobia — was born out of this vision.

Collaborating with Ohio State students in the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design , Patterson, who also works as a graphics researcher and instructor at Ohio State ACCAD , said he led a pilot study at Voxel Bay.

Highlighted at ACM SIGGRAPH 2016 — an annual event showcasing creations in computer graphics and interactive techniques — recognized as the Miracle Maker of the Year by the Children’s Miracle Network and selected as a finalist at South by Southwest Interactive 2017, Voxel Bay is offered at clinics through LittleSeed and has been experienced by patients and their families, according to its website .

Patterson is a published author and speaker on the topic of extended reality, including its design and use in pediatrics. He said while VR’s potential benefits in the medical space are promising, there are still significant barriers to the widespread adoption of commercially available VR platforms in pediatric health care.

This is where LittleSeed comes in, Patterson said.

LittleSeed was founded with the vision of bringing an innovation to market, helping inventors and institutions move things from projects to product, Penka, chief executive officer of LittleSeed, said.

Using his background in product and business management and entrepreneurship, Penka — who attended three programs in the Fisher College of Business in 2002, 2006 and 2010 — said he hopes to help bridge the gap between projects and products.

LittleSeed is addressing these barriers by working closely with health care professionals and institutions such as Nationwide Children’s and Cincinnati Children’s hospitals, Penka said.

Beyond their mission to transform pediatric health care, Patterson and Penka share a passion to empower the next generation of creatives in Columbus, Patterson said.

“Columbus has amazingly talented and creative people, but there really isn’t an industry around it,” Patterson said.

Abigail Ayers, a 2020 graduate with a master’s in digital animation interactive media, said she met and connected with Patterson at Ohio State and joined LittleSeed as an intern. Now, Ayers continues to play an integral part of the team as an interactive designer and developer, using her 3D animation, game environment art and design skills to help bring the company’s mission to life.

“[LittleSeed] offers a perfect environment for me to keep learning and growing as a designer while helping others in different spaces,” Ayers said. “That was what I was looking to do while I was at OSU.”

The three Ohio State alumni said the startup is unique, as it operates at the intersection of health care, technology and creative industries.

“You have to build something that resonates with different types of individuals — it may be physicians, clinicians, caregivers who need to be able to use it without disrupting their workflow and most importantly patients and families,” Penka said.

Penka said LittleSeed will launch a new product this year surrounding anesthesia.

“It’s been shown that if a patient goes under anesthesia with high anxiety, it’s not uncommon to see patients kicking, screaming and being held down by adults,” Patterson said. “Being able to help kids go into these situations very calmly has some substantial impact on the total quality of experience.”

Now, after five years of operations, Penka said LittleSeed is ready to expand and bring their work to a wider audience.

“In the first five years, we established who we were. Bringing innovative solutions that can improve the quality of care in pediatrics and even moving beyond to the world in a novel and scaled fashion — that’s our goal,” Penka said.

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