Virion Games

Thomas Brenner 

CEO and Founder of Virion Games and Innovator/Entrepreneur of Laurier 

When Tom and I met, his Virion Games was only a small idea. I’ve been lucky enough to watch that idea grow into the business he leads today. As an inspiration to my entrepreneurial life, it’s only fitting that Tom and I kick off the first StartUp Line interview together. Thank you for your participation, Tom!

Virion Games is creating educational video games that immerse students in a world of learning. Through video games, they are able to engage students on a familiar platform that requires focus and interaction.

Take me to when the concept or Virion Games was founded.

It was a long and meandering trail to founding Virion Games. I often would come up with story lines that were relevant to my classes for the sake of studying: or just procrastinating sometimes.
In the third year of my BSc Biology undergrad, I wrote a script about the immune cells and how they battle pathogens while studying for an immunology midterm. I got very into the script and fell in love with it right away. I started looking into ways to sell scripts or connect with game producers but pivoted when I decided to first try making it myself.

I started very slowly with learning programming in the evenings and designing characters when I would become frustrated. Although most of my time was spent going back to fix my many mistakes, I eventually finished the game and it actually worked. It was quite long for a first try, and maybe not the best game, but that’s to be expected. However, after letting many people play it and seeing their reactions and the way the information actually stuck from playing as the immune system, I knew something was there. I started researching things around education, game production, starting a business, etc. immediately following this and started flushing out the idea.

Very shortly following this I joined a local incubator through my University (Laurier LaunchPad) which connected me to priceless resources. I immediately had professionals from all over the tech space critiquing and guiding me through the lean startup process. Constant interviews, research, and reflection led me to find my own value proposition that worked. And eventually, I became better at producing games as well!

What was the deciding factor of starting your own company?

I didn’t decide to start an educational gaming company flat out and then start researching how to go about that. It was something that began organically and then the more I pushed at it, the more it just made sense.

Once I had more confidence in my ability to program games, I stumbled across Laurier LaunchPad and saw that the application deadline was upcoming quickly so I took the plunge and decided to give it a real go. The training I received there changed my life.

What was life like for a student/company founder?

Saying that it was very busy is an understatement. If I had morning classes or labs, I would wake up and go to class, then work on things relevant to my business on the side. If I had evening classes or labs, I would wake up and work right through until I had to go. On top of this, I would usually stay up to finish my last idea of the night as well. I tried to squeeze every minute out of the day because I was always so excited to get to the next step. I maintained straight A’s through the last half of my undergrad, so it isn’t like I was cutting away from my schooling, I was just optimizing every second that wasn’t booked and accounted for.

When was it that you realized your business model is going to work?

Keeping constant pressure on myself helped force out misconceptions and bad ideas. I have adjusted every time that I needed to and I am sure that I will have to do so again in the future in one way or another. The trick is to talk directly with your market and understand how they make purchases and the best method for you to deliver your product. If you understand their pain and their routine, then you can deliver the appropriate solution.

What is the one thing you wish you knew when you first started?

I had very limited exposure to business as most of my schooling was focused on science. I used to think that you had to be a “business person” to start a company, but the truth is that anybody can start a business if they are willing to try. You can’t just go in with no answers and expect to be a billionaire out of nowhere, though. You have to educate yourself constantly and become informed at each stage of the game. Follow your heart and develop you passions and you will accrue the skills required for success along the way. Anyone can be successful by their own standards if they are willing to do research and have fun with it. It isn’t one large step from nothing to a massive company; it is thousands of small/realistic steps. It is also very important to make decisions based on what will move your project forward; not necessarily just what you want to do. You will have to face your fears and build your confidence, but that is both the most difficult and liberating part of the experience.

Where did you start your business? Are you planning on staying in the Kitchener-Waterloo area?

I started on my laptop with YouTube tutorial videos on game creation. I would write, draw, read, research and practice for hours a day in between my schooling. I will always have a place in KW, but there is no reason not to expand beyond the region as well.

How did you come up with the name “Virion Games”?

A virion is an infective viral particle. This name pays homage to the fact that education is infectious once initiated and I want my games to infect players with a curiosity to further educate themselves in science.

For the people who are at the earliest stages of their startup, what is your advice?

Do research that is practical for the stage you are at right now. Many people suffer from analysis paralysis and don’t ever properly start because they can only find reasons to succeed; look at immediate solutions rather than focusing only on potential problem. Your hard work and research lend directly to the practical value of your company. After you do as much leg work as you possibly can without assistance, find a mentor that is well ahead of you. A mentor isn’t someone that walks you through something step-by-step, they are someone who guides you at tough junctures or connects you to the right people at the right time. Don’t expect other people to do the heavy lifting for you. Don’t have an ego, because if you have an idea and the facts point to it being ineffective or flat out wrong, you have to make a change immediately without being frustrated or stubborn. If you don’t know where to start, start online, and then try to get involved in the community; this is an excellent way to find shortcuts, opportunities, and mentors.

What are your top three book recommendations?

It’s just about impossible for me to narrow it down to just three, but if I absolutely have to, I guess I would say:

Do you have any closing words for my readers?

Starting a company isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon so be patient and do something you like. Do something that is inspiring to you and that has a perceivable value to a great number of others. I wouldn’t recommend dropping out or quitting your job to start a company unless you already have deep domain expertise with regards to the venture. I would recommend that you start exploring an opportunity in your spare time, and transition from whatever supports you to your company when it can support you instead. Even if you are making some money from your company, you have to be very strategic. I think that it is a misconception that successful entrepreneurs take massive risks. To be very successful, forget about luck and make big plays when that is required. Lastly, instead of complaining when you see something stupid or inefficient – smile because you just found another possible venture in creating a solution. That’s all a company is; a solution to a problem.

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Connor Graham

Hi, I'm Connor Graham. I help others achieve financial freedom and self-improvement through my tips, ideas and insight. Combining my knowledge of real estate, finance and marketing, I describe creative ways to manage your finances and invest in yourself.

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