A funny thing happened to Vip Sitaraman on the way to med school: His ideas started overtaking his plans, and now he's an entrepreneur. (Photo courtesy of Vip Sitaraman)
A funny thing happened to Vip Sitaraman on the way to med school: His ideas started overtaking his plans, and now he's an entrepreneur. (Photo courtesy of Vip Sitaraman)

UA Graduate, 18, Already on the Fast Track

Vip Sitaraman shelved his plans for medical school when his entrepreneurial side couldn't be contained any longer, and his most recent endeavor has made him the youngest person in the U.S. to raise venture capital funding.
May 11, 2016
Extra Info: 

UA Class of 2016

What: 
UA's 152nd Commencement
When: 
7:30 p.m. Friday (gates open at 5:30)
Where: 
Arizona Stadium
DrawScience began as a blog, born out of Vip Sitaraman's interest in making science more understandable.
DrawScience began as a blog, born out of Vip Sitaraman's interest in making science more understandable.
A typical DrawScience infographic
A typical DrawScience infographic

You'd better catch Vip Sitaraman while you can. He is going places, he's in the express lane and he doesn't intend to pull off the road any time soon.

Sitaraman arrived at the University of Arizona in August 2014, enrolling as a pre-med student majoring in molecular and cellular biology. That hardly set him apart from others in the Honors College. But everything since then has taken him far from the career map he once charted for himself.

Although he is graduating this week with the UA’s Class of 2016 at the age of 18 (he'll be 19 in September), that's not the most impressive thing about Sitaraman.

He is leaving as an accomplished entrepreneur. Over the past two years, he has:

  • Founded three companies, the most recent of which — DrawScience — has raised a round of seed funding from Texas-based Seed Sumo, making him the youngest person in the U.S. to ever raise venture capital funding.
  • Contributed regularly to The Huffington Post and Business Insider, writing about STEM, startups and science communication.
  • Been interviewed by Forbes and flown to conferences around the world, meeting the likes of Nobel Laureates and biotech CEOs.

None of the above, he insists, was in the original plan.

"The high school Vip would be scared to see the college Vip," he says, cracking a smile.

The high school Vip, from Chandler, Arizona, was no dummy. He was already devouring research papers. He was published by the World Forum on Biology. He was winning regional and international science competitions, filling posters with Adobe Photoshop diagrams and drawings that foretold his future.

Born to a software engineer father and an artist mother, he had an interest in illustrating science in an easy-to-understand, accessible way. That led to DrawScience, which he launched as a blog with no formal website or graphic design experience.

"I started this for fun, because I hate how people read about science," Sitaraman says. "Everything I've learned is on the fly."

Over the past two years, DrawScience — once intended as merely "a line on a medical-school application," he says — caught fire. With clean, crisp infographics designed to translate and simplify science, Sitaraman's work has been featured by Newsweek, the Daily Mail, Vice and other media outlets.

There's a ready market for this, and Sitaraman ticks off the statistics: About 1.5 million science articles are published every year. There are 3 million scientists and 240,000 publishers. The publishers double in number every decade, and the scientists grow by 1 million over the same span.

"I want to change how people read about science," says Sitaraman, who professes "an acute hatred" of dense jargon. "I can draw and make something simpler. We've communicated with text for a long time. Graphics are faster when attention spans are dropping."

One of his first such efforts: explaining the viral life cycle of the human T-cell lymphotropic virus Type 1 to his 7-year-old sister, via drawings.

Chris Nordensson, a communication specialist in the Honors College, says Sitaraman has been an innovator and entrepreneur first and a student second.

"It's as if he spends his free time doing schoolwork," Nordensson says.

Don't let the tousled hair, baseball cap and ever-present longboard deceive you. If there is a word to describe Sitaraman, it might be fearless.

"He doesn't know what an obstacle is," Nordensson says. "He gets an idea in his head and moves forward. If someone says it can't be done, he does it anyway.

"He isn't waiting for a moment down the line to make his mark. He wakes up every day, works hard and solves problems. … It has been a pleasure to get to know him before the rest of the world does, because — make no mistake about it — it will know him soon enough."

Sitaraman says his other ventures, KorkBoard (a mobile app geared toward promoting student events) and LiveLoveLab (a resource for STEM students), taught him important lessons along the way.

"I've fallen flat, over and over," he says. "I skipped a couple of grades in school, yeah, but it took me three years to get into a research lab. My parents taught me to not be afraid of failure. In the end, even when you fail, you end up learning so much."

He remembers a quotation, attributed to the statesman Adlai Stevenson, that his father drilled into him.

"'On the plains of hesitation lie the blackened bones of those who on the threshold of success paused to rest, and in resting died,'" Sitaraman says. "The metaphor is that when a team in the NFL is up 50-0, it's still going for 57-0.

"I can't rest. On the second day of a vacation, I've got to get back to work."

Here he comes, world. Vip Sitaraman is in a hurry to make a difference, and what a ride it's going to be.