Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with high-tech leader. This week, meet AYUSH KUMAR, a University of Illinois senior studying computer engineering who's COO at Vitrix Health, a senior fellow at Illinois Ventures and student director at EntreCORPS Consulting.
What made you decide to become an entrepreneur while still an undergraduate?
Since I came on campus, I've had an itch to build something of my own. I remember in my Engineering 100 class one day we were talking about what our dreams job would be and my answer was unique because I wanted to see myself running my own company in the future. However, what made me want to become an entrepreneur as an undergraduate was because I realized that this was the perfect time. What I mean by that is that as an undergraduate, you can fail often and no one will hold it against you. By no means is Vitrix Health my first company on campus. I still remember freshman year ,working with fellow interns from State Farm to build a grocery ordering service on campus, and realizing a week before launch that we couldn't start the company because we had no way to transport the groceries. So at the end of day, I realized that being a student would be the best time to fail and I would be able to take risks with little consequences.
What does Vitrix do?
Vitrix offers oral-cancer screening technology that is affordable for places around the world with limited resources, starting in Argentina.
How did you and co-founder Aashay Patel perfect this concept?
We started this about a year when our mutual mentor Dr. Paul Magelli introduced Aashay and me. He found out that we were working on similar things. When we first met we really looked at how we could impact oral cancer in developing countries. After that we spoke to a lot of thought leaders who really taught us about bottom up design and making sure that the product we make fits the needs of our users. Since then my co-founder has gone to the poorest parts of India and field-tested prototypes that would soon lead to us making our first product. We also showed prototypes to thought leaders in the space so that we could get their feedback, which shaped what the final product and business would look like. These thought leaders were venture capitalists, CEOs and other medical technology providers who have been in the space for years. They have a better understanding of the market and we were really happy of all the feedback we have gotten so far and its amazing to see how the product has grown so far.
Who else is on the team?
CEO Aashay Patel and lead engineers Niki Mandhan and Mark O'Connor.
You've also been a cybersecurity consulting intern at PricewaterhouseCoopers. How do these interests coincide?
I think the biggest thing is that I've used my time at PwC to really learn about how big businesses work. I think working there gave me an intimate look on how businesses think. In my time there this summer, I worked with a lot of C-suite employees who really told me how I should be framing questions and how B2B sales work, which is something that is not touched upon a lot on campus. Another thing it helped me with was allowing be to work with many companies in the span of a summer which let me see a lot of different business problems and how to work through them. Since the summer I have taken everything I learned into Vitrix.
You're a senior fellow at Illinois Ventures. You must be helping a lot of students with your experience, especially with venture capital. What do you enjoy most about that?
I think the thing I enjoy the most is the ability to work with a student entrepreneurs and having a direct impact on their companies. I think one thing I really enjoy about working at Illinois Ventures is that even when we do not pursue an investment, we still work with students to make sure they succeed. Because of that we work closely with all startups in the University ecosystem which allows to see a lot of companies and make a lasting impact on all.
With all these projects, how much sleep do you get?
Not a lot. Every time I call home, my mom always mentions how much stress I'm taking and why I should stop taking so much stress. However, I have been working on my work life balance more as I get older.
What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?
Be humble and network. I think that being receptive about change and working with feedback is crucial to success. I think there is balance between being confident and being humble that every good entrepreneur needs to be but I think a lot of entrepreneurs become overconfident because of all the praise they hear about their companies but at Vitrix Health we love to hear contrarians so we get opposing viewpoints. We think that is great practice and make sure to have a few people who will test us and act as a devil's advocate.
Did you ever make any mistakes that you learned from in your early years?
I think I spent a lot of my time thinking that cold emails will not work. I also did not realize how much network mattered in the future. I now try to make sure that I go up to Chicago at least once a month just to meet with new people and maintain relationships with people I already know. A lot of young entrepreneurs think that their credentials or their product will carry them but I think that a strong network will ensure success in the future.
TECH TIDBITS ... from AYUSH KUMAR
Twitter handle, or Facebook or LinkedIn if you prefer: @TheLegitAyush
Favorite app: Memrise, I'm using it to learn Russian.
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? I recommend "Four Hour Work Week"; I am currently reading "The Prince."
Do you have any wearable electronics? I have a Pebble smartwatch.
Do you have an entrepreneur hero? I follow Peter Thiel religiously.