A Tech Startup that Uses Your Eyes as a Window into Your Mind

by Diana Drake

As more than 4,000 registered teams of high school students prepare their midterm reports and begin placing trades on the stock market simulator in our 2023-2024 Wharton Global High School Investment Competition, many have their eyes on the prize – being named global champions during our competition Grand Finale in April 2024.  

Last year’s first-place winning team, DMV’s Finest, worked hard to craft a unique investment strategy and conduct deep analysis on their way to the top. Little did most of us know that one DMV team member was also striving to balance his time between investing greatness and entrepreneurial excellence. That student, Sai Mattapalli, is our guest on this month’s episode of Future of the Business World.  

Sai and his classmate Rohan Kalahasty, both seniors at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., are the founders of Vytal, a technology startup that uses artificial intelligence to detect neurodegenerative disease. Simply put, it’s an app on your phone or computer that tracks your eye movements to help assess brain health. As reported in a September 2023 Forbes magazine article, their business is valued at $12.5 million and is currently in the beta-testing phase, during which real users test the product to detect any bugs or issues before it is released.

Wharton Global Youth caught up with Sai to find out more about his Vytal journey. Be sure to click on the arrow above to listen to our conversation!

An edited version of our conversation appears below.

Sai Mattapalli.

Wharton Global Youth Program: Hello and welcome to Future of the Business World, the podcast featuring innovative youth with big ideas and even bigger ambitions. I’m Diana Drake with the Wharton Global Youth Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. At Global Youth, we have the honor of working with high school students who are aspiring to be contributors to and leaders in all areas of the business world.

We just launched our latest investment competition with more than 4,000 registered student teams from 79 countries, all busy strategizing and analyzing in hopes of reaching the top 50 teams in a few months. Today’s guest, Sai Mattapalli, knows what that feels like. His team, DMVs Finest from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, U.S., attained Top 10 status in our investment competition two years in a row. And last year, they won the ultimate prize as Global Champions.

Sai, congratulations on that victory, and welcome to Future of the Business World.

Sai Mattapalli: Thank you for having me.

Wharton Global Youth: While it’s true you love investing, today we’re here to talk about your love of technology and artificial intelligence (AI). It’s not every day I can say this about a 17-year-old. But I happened to be reading Forbes magazine last month and learned about the $12.5 million AI business that you started this past summer with your friend and classmate, Rohan.

Your startup Vytal uses AI to help doctors detect cognitive decline in older adults. Your tagline is: Evaluate Your Brain Health with Your Eyes. Please tell us how it works?

Sai: Of course. The fundamental aspect of Vytal is [that] you’re essentially using your eyes as a window into your mind. And the way we are doing this is with eye tracking. For decades, there has been research linking eye movement changes to brain health. However, currently, if a user wants to use their eye tracking or eye movements as a proxy for their brain health, they have to purchase these eye-tracking headsets that can cost upwards of thousands of dollars. So, what we’ve done at Vytal is build a way for people to run through gaze-tracking tests and receive output on their brain health with just their laptop, which has been our main unique value proposition.

Wharton Global Youth: Interesting. And it is about early detection, right? Why is that important for neurological disease?

Sai: Neurological disease is largely a progressive one — as each month goes by, the symptoms can get worse. It also gets a lot harder to come out of or even to treat. I think that’s why early detection is a large factor when it comes to treating these neurodegenerative diseases. So that’s why screening tools like Vytal can play a large role in this, because based on identifying signs of cognitive decline early on, doctors are able to make faster treatments. This can be extremely valuable. There’s recently a case study, I think from the Mayo Clinic, where they’ve shown that early diagnosis can increase the amount of time that a person is able to survive with a neurodegenerative disease by almost three times. So, it can be extremely beneficial.

Wharton Global Youth: How did you and Rohan join forces as teenagers and begin developing this technology? Had you explored the field of neuroscience before? And were you guys interested in entrepreneurship?

Sai: Rohan and I first met in our ninth-grade computer science class, where we both were tasked to work together to build Connect Four using Python. Through this project, we learned that No. 1, we worked really well together. And No. 2, we had the same passion and creativity for computer science. Even with a product as simple as Connect Four, we kept trying to find innovative ways to approach the problem. And even after this experience, we coincidentally took similar paths. We both pursued neuroscience research at universities like Harvard and Georgetown. And we both were able to publish our own research in the fields of machine learning.

We came together in the middle of 10th grade, after all these experiences had concluded, and we realized that a lot of the research we had done had gone to waste. Of course, we were able to improve our own learning experience and produce research that could help the world. But the key thing there is could help the world. Because at the end of the day, a lot of these papers that we were able to publish and the research that we were able to conduct all stopped at the publication stage, never to be used in the real world. That’s when we decided after doing some more research that the only way we can get our product and our research to be used in the real world was through the lens of entrepreneurship. That’s what took us into getting to startups and founding Vytal.

Wharton Global Youth: I want to talk a little bit about how far you’ve come. You’ve raised seed capital from investors, and your startup now is valued at $12.5 million, which I said. I also read that you specifically pitched investors in India taking advantage of growth in international startup funding. There’s a lot to unpack here business-wise. What did you learn about creating a powerful pitch? And can you talk about the process of raising seed capital to help your venture grow?

Sai: I’d say at the start, when we decided to approach venture capital and investors, the first issue that we ran into was [that] a lot of startups tend to pitch prior to building their products, which of course makes sense because a lot of products need capital to first be built. But the beauty of what we’re doing at Vytal is that we were able to build our beta application before we even raised a single dollar. A lot of the money that we needed came at the post-production, the stage where we had to conduct clinical trials, patenting, getting lawyers, etc. I think that’s what really drove our pitch forward is having a finished product. Because even as high schoolers, there’s a lot of skepticism around our ability to create the product that we’re pitching. So having the product be done when we were in that conference room with our investors helped tremendously.

In terms of pitching overseas, around the time we were raising funds this summer, there was a drought in the start-up funding space in the U.S., specifically with health care. After a large boom, when ChatGPT and all these generative AI startups were coming out, a lot of venture capital [firms] exhausted their funds. So they weren’t really keen on investing in other long-term tech startups. That’s when we realized we had to pivot to an international approach. In countries like India, for example, startup culture is at its peak. Indians are just catching onto what it means to build a startup, and more people are willing to leave their comfortable corporate jobs for a startup. Using our connections that we have overseas with our grandparents, we were able to get spots to pitch at India Startup Fest [in Bengaluru, India]. Pitching India Startup Fest was huge for us, because there were a lot of UK investors present as well at the Startup Fest. Presenting at the Startup Fest, we were able to raise about $750,000 of our total $1.3 million that we raised for our seed round. Once you get your initial investors, in any startup, it’s more of a smoother road going on from there, because a lot of trust is added to your startup. Following that, we took the tried-and-true approach of just cold emailing as many VCs as we could and reaching out to investors.

The way we approach that from a pitch perspective is we show them value in their own lives. We made sure our pitches weren’t just talking about the elderly population as a whole. We made sure to direct our pitches toward them. Almost everyone can relate to worrying about the health of their parents, their grandparents, the older people in their family. By directing this pitch toward how we could add value to their lives, we think was very beneficial to raising the money that we did raise.

Wharton Global Youth: You seem very savvy about business and know a lot already. How are you so familiar with the nuances of the business world?

Sai: A big thing for me has been Y Combinator Startup School, which is a completely free seven-week program where Y Combinator, which is one of the most reputable startup accelerators, hosts a program where any founder can pretty much join this program, attend Zoom sessions, [and] talk with other entrepreneurs in the space. This is definitely a very good initial experience for both Rohan and I, which we did the summer before we really took Vytal off the ground.

After that, it’s primarily been talking to as many entrepreneurs as we can. We’ve talked to almost 200 different entrepreneurs in the tech space throughout the last four or five months. That’s where we’ve been able to learn a lot of things that we did about raising money, investing, growing a product, because no book or no online course can really replicate what talking to other entrepreneurs in the space can. That being said, there are some technicalities that can be learned and should be learned online, which is what Y Combinator Startup School, for example, did and I think even a lot of the programs at Wharton Global Youth. They are able to provide more of the technical knowledge behind what it means to be an entrepreneur. And then the more personal element that you can only learn through experience, you’re able to get from other entrepreneurs.

“We realize that it’s not just about the money that comes with entrepreneurship…it’s about getting research out there in the world that truly has an impact on people’s lives.” –Sai Mattapalli, Vytal Co-founder

Wharton Global Youth: It sounds like you got a true crash course in entrepreneurship. You’ve said that doctors are the biggest skeptics of AI on the planet. Why is this? And how are you convincing the doubters of the value of your technology?

Sai: Skepticism around AI in the health-care field largely comes from the value that doctors place on their work. Understandably so, people who have gone through decades of education to do what they’re able to do and really understand the gravity behind the lives that are at stake with their work. It’s definitely understandable from even a layman’s perspective about why doctors may be so skeptical of this technology that might replace their job. I think it’s not necessarily about reducing their skepticism. It’s more so working in alignment with it. Early on with Vytal, we were prioritizing full diagnostics. We were a little bit in over our heads. Our plan was that when you loaded the app to when you left the app, you would be able to know for certain whether or not you had a neurodegenerative disease. That was our initial plan when we were just mocking up the app.

But then we realized after talking to some of our advisors in the health-care space, and other doctors in general, that this was very ambitious, not just from a technical perspective, but also from an adoption perspective. Even from a consumer perspective, a lot of people are not comfortable with downloading an app off the App Store and trusting it with their medical information or trusting it to give an accurate medical diagnosis. So, we pivoted our technology to be more analogous to something like a blood-pressure machine, where all it’s doing is outputting metrics that can then be linked to your cardiac health, but the doctor’s input is still extremely valuable there. So even with Vytal, we’re hoping that there’s going to be a B-to-B element, where doctors are still heavily involved in what we’re proposing and recommending to patients that end up using our application.

Wharton Global Youth: You and Rohan are legit tech entrepreneurs at this point. And you’re still in high school. How are you balancing the demands of beta testing, capital raising and all of it that you’ve been talking about with being a student? Are you enjoying your senior year?

Sai: To be honest, we definitely had to take a lot of shortcuts in high school to balance the work that we do at Vytal. Early on in 10th grade, we both had an interesting conversation where we realized: how much are we willing to sacrifice for Vytal? Are we willing to sacrifice our grades? Sacrifice sleep? How far are we willing to go in order to make Vytal a success? And we found that we both pretty much had the same motivation behind Vytal. We both were willing to sacrifice that one piece of calculus homework to take an investor call or sacrifice those two hours of sleep to finish up beta testing with one user. So after first setting these boundaries between the two of us where we were both on the same page about how much work we were willing to put in, it got easier with time.

In 10th grade it was really hard for us, because we had to skip school a lot to balance the work that we were doing at Vytal, and especially with investor pressure. A lot of these investors come in with the idea that you’re going to work on your startup full-time. So having to navigate the demands that they’ve set for us on a week-to-week basis, while also obviously trying to make sure that we’re still maintaining excellence academically, and making sure that we’re still taking care of our learning was hard in 10th grade. But as we moved into 11th grade, we built a better structure for how we manage our time. And especially now in senior year, we’ve been able to find time to still go to homecoming games, still go to football games every week, set up plans to hang out with our friends from high school. Just to make sure all those connections are still strong as we go into college. It’s a time situation. So to anyone listening who may be worried about going into entrepreneurship as a student in high school, I would say you have to trust the process and hope that over time you sort of grow accustomed to it.

Wharton Global Youth: What motivates you to get this technology to market? Is it money? Or is it something else?

Sai: I’d say any entrepreneur obviously has incentive to make money. That’s what it means to be an entrepreneur. But I think one of my favorite quotes that we heard from another health-tech entrepreneur was that, if you’re in the entrepreneurship space for money, health care is probably the worst space you can be in. If you’re trying to make money in health care, it takes almost three-to-five years just to get your product to the market. And then after that, it can take almost a decade to get people to trust your technology and adopt it at a large enough scale.

That has really resonated with Rohan and I, because we realize that it’s not just about the money that comes with entrepreneurship. Like I said at the start, it’s about getting research out there in the world that truly has an impact on people’s lives. Recently, we’ve been able to partner with ALS India, where we’re able to have 600 people with ALS use Vytal’s technology, with even people as young as 23 years old being a part of the program. [We hope to see] within the next few years how well Vytal is able to track and monitor their progression of ALS. [It’s informative] just having conversations with even two or three of them and having them tell us how grateful they are for technology like ours that’s able to comfort them and even defog the mysteries that can be surrounding years of degenerative disease. Even if you know you have Alzheimer’s, it’s hard to tell how worse it is getting each month, or each year. When should you start worrying more? That’s what we’ve been able to provide — a tangible way for them to assess how their brain health is changing. That has been the most rewarding part of being an entrepreneur for myself and Rohan. That’s what really motivates us to put this into the market. We want as many people as possible in the world to have their hands on our technology.

Wharton Global Youth: How has your experience with the Wharton Global High School Investment Competition informed your journey?

Sai: From a financial perspective, it is slightly different in the way we approached the Wharton investment competition and the way we obviously approach startup funding. I think the biggest way that the Wharton Investment Competition experience has helped has been through communication and pitching. Getting that experience standing in front of a table of four-to-five judges and having to present a solution is very similar to how start-up pitching works. Most VCs (Venture Capital Firms) have about four-to-five members of their investment team attend the pitch. And it’s structured in a very similar way to the Wharton Investment Competition, where you’re called up with the slide show, you’re given a timeframe to pitch and then you go through a rigorous Q&A following the pitch. That experience and even having to think on your feet in the Q&A round specifically, has really helped me with pitching Vytal.

Wharton Global Youth: I want to know your thoughts about the future of AI? Should we be afraid of losing control? We hear a lot of this talk.

Sai: Especially with ChatGPT’s release and a lot of AI advancements having been made in such a short amount of time, in the past few months there’s been a lot of skepticism surrounding it. One thing I would say is that it’s important for people to realize that any time throughout history [when] there has been a new technology that has come about, there have been a lot of skeptics. That’s the nature of technology adoption. [While] it might be hard for me to give a definitive answer on whether or not I think AI might be destructive in the future, I would say it’s important for people, especially people who are skeptical of AI, to take a step back and realize that even when computers were first built, or even when the first electric car was built — with Tesla’s autopilot, for example — there were a lot of people who were concerned that this could be the downfall of humanity. I would say it’s important for people to take a step back, look at it with a more objective lens, before getting influenced by the media and the Twitter posts that they read.

Wharton Global Youth: What is next for Vytal and what’s next for you?

Sai: In terms of Vytal, we currently have our beta application out right now, which we’ve been sending out on a user-to-user basis. On our website, we do have a place for people to sign up for our waitlist, and we pretty much get back to them within a month or two at maximum. Right now, it’s been full beta testing to make sure that we’re accounting for as wide a variety of tests as possible. A big thing in health care that we’ve noticed, at least a disparity in testing, has been factoring in race and gender. So that’s something we’ve been working really hard on with Vytal is making sure that we have an equitable distribution of who we’re testing our application with. There are definitely a lot of changes that we’ve already noticed with eye movements from even a male to a female, or even different races. So, we think that’s something that we’re really going to try and make sure we have a solid understanding of throughout our beta-testing process.

In terms of myself personally, and I’d say this probably relates to Rohan as well, we both are still planning to apply to college this year. A lot of our investors have asked us why we still think it’s necessary to pursue an education in tech or entrepreneurship or neuroscience after seeing the success we’ve already been able to reach with Vytal. A really important part for us has been the community that we’re surrounded by. Going to Thomas Jefferson High School, which is one of the top high schools in the country, has been really inspiring for us because we’re always sitting with our classmates and people around us that are just as motivated and just as driven toward their future. Even from a college perspective, the benefit of going to a top institution like the University of Pennsylvania, for example, would be being surrounded by people who will inspire you to continue working and continue moving, even when you feel like nothing is going right for you.

Wharton Global Youth: All right, well, let’s wrap up with our lightning round. Try to answer these questions as quickly as you can.

What would you be caught binge-watching at midnight?

Sai: The TV show Suits.

Wharton Global Youth: The next thing you hope to learn that you don’t already know?

Sai: How to juggle.

Wharton Global Youth: Something about you that would surprise us?

Sai: Contrary to what Twitter may believe, Rohan and I do find time to shower twice a day, even as tech entrepreneurs.

Wharton Global Youth: A podcast, book, movie or meme that recently inspired you?

Sai: Lex Friedman’s recent podcast with Mark Zuckerberg, which took place completely in the metaverse, was really interesting for us to see, because it’s been the first direct view of the metaverse that we’ve seen.

Wharton Global Youth: The businessperson you would most like to take to lunch and why?

Sai: Nick D’Aloisio. He was a 17-year-old who sold his startup to Yahoo! for $30 million back in 2013.

Wharton Global Youth: Excellent. Sai, I wish you luck with Vytal. Thank you for joining us on Future of the Business World.

Conversation Starters

What is Vytal and how is it adding value and something different to the market?

Sai and Rohan have decided to pursue higher education after high school, even though their startup could prove successful. Would you make the same choice? Or would you go directly into entrepreneurship and forgo college? Why or why not?

In what ways have the Vytal co-founders taken a collaborative approach to developing their technology? How are they working with existing resources, rather than disrupting and displacing them?

Hero Image Credit: Andriyko Podilnyk

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