Year Founded: 2019
Technology: Virtual reality experiences that, with just a headset, transport users to a limitless array of locations and settings – and put the user right in the center of the action. These experiences are intended to educate the general public and, in the future, bring Make-A-Wish adventures to sick children.
Players: Armando Flores, Nicholas Ray & Kay Ornelas
Headcount: 3 co-founders
As a child, Armando Flores watched as his little sister battled cancer. The Make-A-Wish Foundation had plans to lift her spirits with a family trip to Disney World but the trip had to be cancelled when her health took a negative turn.
Years later, as a linguistics student at San Diego State University, Flores began working with virtual reality (VR). Soon enough, his hobby sparked an idea: maybe VR headsets could bring Make-A-Wish experiences – like a virtual trip to Disney World or a trek through a rainforest – to children who are too ill to travel to them.
Flores was able to connect with two fellow Aztecs: Nicholas Ray, an alumnus whose interdisciplinary studies were equivalent to a neuroscience major, and Kay Ornelas, a current finance student.
In 2019, the trio banded together to build Lift Your Eyes, a VR experience that promises to educate a vast array of users, and hopes to bring Make-A-Wish experiences to children from the comfort and safety of their own beds.
We chatted with co-founders Armando Flores and Nick Ray – two-thirds of the Lift Your Eyes team – about their experience being Aztec entrepreneurs and the strong foundation they’ve been able to build for their business with help from San Diego State University and the local startup community.
Meet the Co-Founders: Flores initially came up with the idea for Lift Your Eyes in December 2018. He immediately applied to join the Zahn Innovation Platform (ZIP) Launchpad, an on-campus incubator, and was accepted in January 2019. Flores was invited to pitch his business idea and began to meet like-minded students in the program, including his co-founder, Ornelas, whom he clicked with on the first day of the program. Before he knew it, Lift Your Eyes was no longer an idea; it was a business.
When Flores first shared his business idea with Ornelas, she was immediately drawn to it, expressing that working with children and making a positive impact on the world was exactly what she was hoping to do. The two paired up and mingled with fellow aspiring entrepreneurs in the program in hopes to form a team. “We were trying to find people who felt what we felt about our idea and join our team, potentially,” Flores said.
Shortly after partnering with Ornelas, Flores participated in a VR art show downtown, where he first met Ray. “Nick, a friend of a friend, came by to check it out and that’s the first time we spoke,” Flores said. Six months after Lift Your Eyes was founded, the startup was accepted into a local innovation program for startups at the San Diego International Airport.
Although Flores was excited for the opportunity, he couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed. “I’d never worked with a public entity (San Diego International Airport) before, at that capacity. I knew that Nick had a lot of experience with VR, so I wanted to talk to him about that.”
The two met up to chat about how they could bring the concept of Lift Your Eyes to an airport setting, and it wasn’t long before Flores realized how much knowledge and passion Ray brought to the table. After that conversation, Ray was officially part of the team. “He’s such a great guy, and it just came naturally when we started working together,” Flores said.
The feeling was mutual for Ray, who admired Flores’s candidness and trustworthy presence. Thinking back to their first encounter at the VR art show, Ray recalls asking Flores why he organized the art show and learned that he just wanted people to see the artwork, not necessarily expecting anything in return. “The altruism behind his motivation really sparked something in me and I knew I had to be around this more,” Ray said. Their interaction left a mark on Ray, so when he was given the opportunity to join Lift Your Eyes a few months later, he knew it was the right move for him.
Ray’s background included stints working for tech companies and building companies of his own, including a private education company he built with a friend, as well as a technology consulting business he started on his own. Although he had seemingly everything he needed to have a successful career, there was still something he longed for. “I’d always been missing the social component – the reason, the why,” he said.
Entrepreneurial Mindset: Before starting Lift Your Eyes, the idea of being an entrepreneur was never something that appealed to Ray. “I did not want to work for myself. I wanted a great job, working for a company with a fantastic social mission that would pay me enough to live a reasonable lifestyle. But I could not find that job, so I pretty much had to make it for myself,” he said. “I kept finding opportunities for money, but there was a huge lack of social cause there. So I continually tried making it work in a traditional work environment, and only reluctantly did I admit to myself that I’d have to become an entrepreneur and create my own opportunities.”
As for Flores, the idea of working for himself never seemed feasible until he applied to the ZIP Launchpad. “I’ve always been great at ideation and finding out how to build things, to build a business was a whole nother avenue that I’d never explored. It’s exciting to be able to build this and dream it up and to see it come alive,” he said.
Learning Outside of the Classroom: When Flores first joined the ZIP Launchpad, he had no idea how to build a business. Flores learned everything from basics like creating a pitch deck and giving an elevator pitch, to more complicated tasks, like financing a business and intellectual property. “The lab has been such a nice place to go to whenever we were looking for a way to navigate something we’d never faced before,” Flores said “SDSU has been very instrumental in our success.”
On top of providing the Lift Your Eyes team with invaluable knowledge and guidance, the ZIP Launchpad also generously granted the startup with $5,000 of funding.
Ready for Takeoff: At its six-month mark, the young startup was accepted into the San Diego International Airport Innovation Lab, whose previous participants include Baggage Nanny and AtYourGate. The four-month program recruits cohorts of startups to help the airport enhance passenger experiences, improve operational efficiency, decrease costs, and/or increase revenue.
As part of this, the Lift Your Eyes team had the opportunity to provide VR experiences to live customers inside the airport environment, which gave them a frontrow seat to customers’ first impressions of their product. The experiences transported users to various outdoor settings that they were able to explore from the comfort of their gates.
“Once you get very far into a technology, you start to surround yourself only with people who are also really far into a technology. So you start to assume that there are no problems and everyone’s going to love it,” Ray said. “Going into the airport and having that experience was just absolutely phenomenal.”
The SAN Innovation Lab program simultaneously hosted multiple startups in the cohort, so the Lift Your Eyes team was able to interact with fellow tech-minded entrepreneurs whose products and services targeted various demographics.
“We got to compare and contrast our business model with theirs, their value propositions with ours. Watching them pivot their businesses based on the results, too, was very inspirational for us,” Ray said. For instance, Lift Your Eyes was initially meant to have a stationary unit, but seeing another startup use a more mobile unit in their unique product inspired the Lift Your Eyes team to mobilize their experience.
While the program taught the team about their business, it also helped them learn about something arguably just as important. “What it did also teach us about is our personal motivations, and how we generate internal energy for the mission that we’re on, and how to keep that going,” Ray said.
When they joined the SAN Innovation Lab, Flores and Ray intended to provide learning opportunities for people in virtual, natural environments and places they’d never been so that they could explore and learn something new. What they found overtime was that they were only really providing shallow entertainment value to users.
“People would love what we were doing but at the end of the day, they would walk away with something entertaining for 30 minutes, and we didn’t really impact their lives more deeply,” Ray said. “Knowing what these tools could do for people, we felt we were almost doing a disservice to our community by doing so little.”
Once they’re able to support local talent by sourcing content from nearby creators, the founders say they will revisit the idea of operating in airports.
Quest for Content: Although there is plenty of local interest in the startup’s VR experiences, there aren’t many local VR content creators. “It was tricky for us because we wanted to have something that was community-based here, but we didn’t have the resources,” Flores said.
Then, an opportunity arose with Tanya Hertz at Miramar College’s new REC Innovation Lab, which provides accessible resources to entrepreneurs so they can use technology and innovative approaches to turn ideas into impactful startups. Hertz is an entrepreneur-turned-educator, who has taught aspiring entrepreneurs at local colleges, including SDSU. She’s also supported and helped mentor numerous local startups, like Aztec-founded CourseKey, since their infancy.
The Lift Your Eyes team was presented with the opportunity to help build this new lab by introducing students to VR through workshops and a space to tinker around with VR and augmented reality (AR) tools. Flores saw it as an opportunity to create a local community and a talent pipeline for VR content development.
These efforts are in line with the founders’ decision to focus on creating an ecosystem around VR content before going to market with their headset in order to create a mutually beneficial relationship with the San Diego community.
“There’s a void here in our ecosystem. So rather than trying to go straight to the consumer, offering this experience that’s been created outside of our local environment, maybe we can take a step back, build up our creator infrastructure here, and then everything we offer out – whether it’s at airports or children’s hospitals – can be local, as well as educational and beneficial,” Ray said.
San Diego Scene: The founders have immersed themselves into the San Diego startup scene without hesitation, connecting with organizations like WeThaPlug, and attending the annual, largely-attended San Diego Startup Week event, with the help of the ZIP Launchpad.
“WeThaPlug was able to help us meet the community and go to different events. We’ve also been able to meet with founders through the ZIP Launchpad, and I was able to go to workshops with some of the most impactful people in San Diego,” Flores said. “The local startup community is fantastic. It’s still in traction, and as we grow, I think the startup community will grow along with us.”
Looking Ahead: Now that the Lift Your Eyes founders have figured out their strategy – to focus on building a community and local content before going to market – they have a big vision for the future of the startup.
Focusing on the educational aspect of VR, Ray and Flores are getting involved with the aforementioned REC Innovation Lab at Miramar College, and are seeking involvement in nearby High Tech High. The team wants to support and educate students of all ages. “The people that we’re working with are such good people and it feels like we’re on the right path,” Flores said.
Through the startup’s platform at SDSU and the SAN Innovation Lab, Lift Your Eyes has attracted offers of financial support from non-profit and for-profit organizations alike. The founders are currently weighing the pros and cons of working with the former versus the latter, but are approaching ideas with open minds.
“We’re always looking for more connections and opportunities. For individuals who are interested, we’d definitely love to have conversations with them about how they might be able to support, and maybe we can even support their mission too,” Ray said.
Taco ‘bout a Recommendation: Although he struggled picking a single favorite taco spot, Ray’s most frequented one is Barrio Star in Bankers Hill. “That was the first time in my life I’d ever had a salmon taco. It was unbelievably crispy and juicy,” he said, noting he also enjoys the margaritas.
As for Flores, he enjoys Kiko’s Seafood Lunch Truck on Friars Road. “They have the best fish tacos in the city, and I stand by that,” he laughed. Bold statement, Flores. Bold statement.
Hoppy Place: In the past, Flores wasn’t much of a beer guy, but a job at Karl Strauss’s La Jolla brewery helped him grow his appreciation for the beverage. He enjoys pretty much any beer from the classic brewery.
Lift Your Eyes will soon have its own social media accounts. Until then, keep up with what they’ve got brewing on the REC Innovation Lab’s Instagram, where the startup is developing its Virtual Reality Innovation Lab.
Editor’s Note: AzTech is an original Fresh Brewed Tech series on San Diego State University Aztecs (current and alumni) who are blazing a trail in technology and entrepreneurship. Don’t miss these compelling stories of passion, hard work, and problem solving by the next generation of entrepreneurs.