From left to right: Tom Andriola, Vatsal Ananthula, Ananya Karra, Athena Yap, Kasra Tavakoli, and Anshul Narain

At the UCI ANTrepreneur Center, University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine) students can take advantage of a wide variety of resources and opportunities to help them explore the world of entrepreneurship and develop the skills to be successful in their professional pursuits. From the Micro-Internships program to Innovation Challenges to startup coaching, the ANTrepreneur Center is the central hub for student innovators looking to bring their ideas to life.

One such student is Vatsal Ananthula, Cognitive Science major at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley). Prior to transferring to UC Berkeley, Vatsal attended UC Irvine from 2021-2023 where he studied Biological Sciences and served as president of AI@UCI, the largest AI club at UC Irvine. As a UC Irvine student, Vatsal also conducted research on natural language processing for mental health through the UCI SURF program, worked as a Team Lead on the ZotBins’ computer vision research team, won top awards at various hackathons, and did data science for Vena Vitals, a Y Combinator-backed medical device startup. Currently, Vatsal is a student researcher working on clinical AI at Stanford University and the UCSF UC Berkeley Computational Precision Health Program.

Vatsal credits much of his success to the resources and opportunities he discovered at the ANTrepreneur Center. To help other UC Irvine students take advantage of these resources, Vatsal recently sat down with Ryan Foland, Director of the ANTrepreneur Center, to discuss his involvement with the Center, his future plans, and his best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Ryan: Ahoy Vatsal! Thank you for meeting with me; I know that you’re a busy man these days.

Vatsal: Thanks for having me, Ryan. I’m excited to be here and hopefully encourage other students to see how the ANTrepreneur Center can change their lives.

Ryan: Awesome, let’s start from the beginning. How did you get involved with the ANTrepreneur Center?

Vatsal:  Early in my undergrad career, I helped organize a panel with UC Irvine academic leadership, science journalists, and researchers on science communication. Based on feedback from the panelists, I wanted to identify ways to educate people on scientific research. I asked myself: How do you equip people without a scientific background to approach social and political issues as objectively as possible? I felt that finding a solution to this question could have a positive impact on our society, pushing us to have more discussions based on a scientific approach. By coincidence a member of the audience who had worked with the Center before recommended that if I wanted to take this idea to the next step I should get involved. 

Around this time, I remember seeing an email from the ANTrepreneur Center advertising help for any student with any idea. I decided to drop in and to share my thoughts. I was able to get a lot of good feedback and identify a direction to move forward. Although I did not end up fully pursuing this project, the advice I received was helpful for my future ventures, and the positive experience stuck with me. 

Ryan: What ANTrepreneur Center resources did you find most useful in supporting your entrepreneurial journey?

Vatsal: The mentorship I received from ANTrepreneur Center leadership and graduate student consultants was very valuable. It was really helpful to have one-on-one conversations where I was able to ask as many questions as I wanted and receive personalized guidance. The Center also holds a variety of entrepreneurial-focused events throughout the year. I have noticed that successful founders, entrepreneurs, and scientists are always learning, and I found being in an environment with like-minded people to share ideas with was crucial in nurturing my passion for entrepreneurship. One of my personal favorites was a talk by Y Combinator Group Partner Surbhi Sarna. It was inspiring to learn from someone so motivated to solve a personal problem to teach themselves what they needed to grow a successful company, exemplifying the determination that entrepreneurs need to succeed. This, among other events, continuously served as a source of inspiration.

If you want to get involved with a startup, I found the Center’s Innovation Challenges to be one of the best ways to gain experience. These events mimic what it’s like to work at a startup because you have to work together with a team, develop a product, and communicate your idea in a compelling way, all under a serious time crunch. Last year, the Center hosted the Mental Health Innovation Challenge which I participated in. That was the first time I had to speak in front of a larger audience, and I really appreciated the opportunity to both improve my public speaking skills and gain experience in entrepreneurship.

Ryan: Can you tell me more about your experience competing in the Mental Health Innovation Challenge?

Vatsal: Around two years ago, I was looking at advances in Large Language Models (LLMs), and it seemed like a great field to get into because it was innovating at an incredibly fast pace. However, within the healthcare field, it didn’t seem like LLMs were being deployed to actively advance the standard of care. I was considering building a product to fill this gap in the mental health space. After speaking to academic researchers and engineers in the industry, LLMs seemed to be a promising option. 

My team started with an initial concept working within one of the clubs on campus, but it was difficult to go very far with our product. When I heard about the Mental Health Innovation Challenge, it seemed like a great opportunity to kickstart what we were working on, gain feedback, and see how far we could go. With the help of the Center, we developed a compelling pitch, slides, and speech. I remember coming in multiple times asking for feedback with some of the team, and this was really important for our success. We ended up becoming finalists in the competition, which was very exciting because it was the first time I worked really hard to achieve something on a larger scale.

Ryan: You and your team did a really great job with your pitch! In addition to the Mental Health Innovation Challenge, you also participated in our Micro-Internship program. What was that experience like?

Vatsal: Around internship application season, I was worried because I had just realized that I wanted to work in the tech industry instead of going to medical school like I had planned since my freshman year. I didn’t really have a crystallized idea of the type of company I wanted to work for, but I knew I was generally interested in pursuing a career at the intersection of healthcare and technology. Once again, I saw an email from the ANTrepreneur Center encouraging students to sign up for the Micro-Internship program, and I decided to check it out.

I saw the internship post by Vena Vitals and it was really exciting to see a MedTech startup backed by Y Combinator, one of the leading incubators in the world. Although the post was initially advertised for graduate students, I loved the company’s mission and sent in an application. I wasn’t really worried about obtaining the job, I just wanted to share my passion for what they were building and how I thought I could contribute. When I got the job, I was able to work directly with the lead data scientist on a deep learning approach to improve a current method. 

From this experience, I learned that it is very important to be intrinsically motivated and passionate about what you are working on to drive you forward. I also found that, because I did not have specific research experience under the guidance of a dedicated advisor, I wanted to be able to develop research skills to bridge the gap between academia and industry. 

Ryan: Do you feel like these experiences helped you secure your research position at Stanford’s Computational Arrhythmia Research Laboratory?

Vatsal: Yes; there are very few undergraduates in the lab, so having prior experience in a lab setting was important. I think that, because the lab has an emphasis on translational research going from bench to bedside, my past experiences with startups were especially relevant. Additionally, through the Mental Health Challenge, I participated in the SURF research program which allowed me to pursue my interest in natural language processing (NLP) for healthcare over the summer. The experience I gained during that time is directly relevant to the projects I am contributing to now.

Ryan: It’s great to hear that the ANTrepreneur Center was able to play a role in landing such a prestigious research position! As you look forward, what plans do you have for the future?

Vatsal: Short-term, I would love to work for a high-growth startup in a role interfacing between research and industry. Long-term, I am exploring a few different possibilities. From speaking to experienced researchers in the field, I was surprised early on to learn that a number of recent AI breakthroughs are still very much black box technologies. Approaching AI development scientifically, with a focus on interpretability over performance would be an interesting direction to pursue. There is definitely work in this area being done, and UC Irvine has some really talented researchers working in this field. 

In the development of new machine learning paradigms, there is a strong incentive to chase new benchmarks as opposed to explaining or understanding why things work. Chasing benchmarks has been working for a while but I would like to see this philosophy of explaining why things work to have a similar impact. While empirical comparisons are useful, they can often skew the metric, and focusing on more fundamental insights with theoretical underpinnings might steer researchers away from seeking marginal improvements on superficial metrics. 

Consider the field of biology, where a detailed grasp of the specific physiological mechanisms involved in disease, has helped us develop more effective medicines, at a faster pace. Exploring model interpretability to uncover ideas for future breakthroughs by drawing inspiration from diverse perspectives is a compelling research direction I would be interested in pursuing long-term, spurred by a blog post from an OpenAI research scientist that initially sparked this line of thought.

I am also very passionate about entrepreneurship. I would love to build a software-driven healthcare company that saves lives and cultivates a culture of software innovation. It’s not money nor fame that drives me, but a desire to do good in the world. At this company, I want to work with individuals who have a combination of engineering ingenuity and altruism. I think altruism is a surprisingly underrated trait in engineers and product managers, but it’s incredibly important because empathizing with your users is key to understanding them. I believe an organization with these two north stars driving company culture could have a significant impact on the world. 

Ryan: This all sounds really incredible, and I’m excited to watch and see what’s next for you. As we come to the end of this interview, I wanted to thank you again for sitting down with me and sharing your incredible story and insights. To close this out, can you offer some advice to students who are curious about entrepreneurship, but not sure where to start?

Vatsal: Thank you for this opportunity! I do have a few pieces of advice to offer aspiring student entrepreneurs. First and foremost, it’s crucial to ask yourself what gives you purpose and meaning. Many successful founders have a core reason other than fame or money to pursue startups because, when times get really tough, you need something you believe in to drive you forward. You can extend this idea to your career and life in general. You might not have the answer immediately, but finding an answer to this question will give you a pillar of strength in times of struggle. It’s important to identify these core values and goals early on because they provide a perspective for your career choices and aspirations. Ask yourself this question now when you’re young and have time to think about the lasting impression you want to leave on the world.

I would also say it’s important to be curious. Explore different fields in different subjects even if you don’t think they are related to your goals. Oftentimes, a seemingly random interest or experience can play a huge role in changing how you think about something or offer a new perspective that can drive your innovation forward. On a similar note, keep asking “why?”. Children are incessantly curious about the world around them, and this trait is invaluable to have even in the later stages of your life. Break down systems into small parts and deeply understand how they work. Test your assumptions and try to surround yourself with people who are not afraid of giving you critical, unbiased feedback. The more you understand and can challenge your ideas, the better you will be at developing valuable and efficient solutions.

Take notes. As someone who doesn’t usually take notes in class as I would much rather immerse myself in the lecture to grasp the material, this is something I struggled with initially. But there is real value in remembering standout pieces of information or examples of a product or idea. If there is a product experience you found magical, take note of it and write a few points on why you found it magical. If there is an advertisement that resonates with you, write down why it is so impactful. Later on in your journey, you can refer back to your notes and reflect on these experiences, which will help you get a better sense of what you aspire to create. 

Finally, and most importantly, pursue your passions. Some of the most successful companies out there started off as side projects that were done just for fun. Identify the things that you are passionate about and are willing to invest time in, and pursue these interests. There is nothing more fulfilling than doing what you love while being able to provide for yourself and your loved ones.

For more information about the UCI ANTrepreneur Center, including programming, speaker series, Micro-Internships, funding, and more, visit our website. You can also learn more about our valuable collaborations with Blackstone LaunchPad, Tech Coast Angels, Tech Coast Venture Network, OC Startup Council, SoCal Celebrates Entrepreneurship, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and even Threads