Loudoun science prodigy leaves college to launch tech company


Ryan Atallah, Ari Dyckovsky and Andrew Vigneault (left to right) in their Menlo Park office. (Arktos/Arktos)

Ari Dyckovsky has never exactly followed a traditional path. As a second-grader, he completed complex math work sheets for fun. By the time he was an 18-year-old student at the Loudoun Academy of Science, the prodigy was already experimenting in the field of quantum physics, securing his place as a top winner in the world’s largest high school science research contest.

When he decided to attend Stanford University in 2012, he imagined that a world of new experiences and possibilities awaited him there. And he found just that.

Which is, conversely, why he is dropping out of school.

In an open letter posted last week on his company’s blog, Dyckovsky announced his decision to trade academia for entre­pre­neur­ship — joining Ryan Atallah, 20, and Andrew Vigneault, 24, as they prepare to launch Arktos, the tech company they co-founded last year. In the coming weeks, Arktos will begin the first tests of its data visualization program, one that aims to offer an easy-to-use alternative to programs such as Microsoft Excel.

Dyckovsky says pursuing the project will offer more of an education than anything he could learn in a college classroom.

“I am interested in a journey that higher education does not provide,” Dyckovsky wrote. “I am not satisfied by competing for a high GPA; I am not satisfied by finding a secure 9-5 job; I am not satisfied by following a set of guidelines for success that society has prescribed.”

His co-founders offered similar statements. Atallah also decided to leave his college courses behind, writing in his letter that “at Stanford, I learned that education comes not just from the classroom, but also from experiences, conversations and mistakes.” Vigneault, Dyckovsky’s cousin, noted that he felt the opportunity was worth the risk of quitting his high-paying investment banking job in Manhattan.

The trio’s goal, they said in interviews, is to launch a successful company with a game-changing product, and in doing so to encourage conversation about the value of higher education, particularly in situations where real-world experience might be even more desirable.

The decision to leave school and focus on the business was not exactly popular among their family members and advisers.

“Our parents and mentors were, at first, very much not on board and were, of course, scared about the risks we were taking by making big changes in our life,” Dyckovsky said. “But most of the people who were concerned at first, it was because they didn’t truly understand our motive and thought we hadn’t thought it through completely. It was our job to convince them that we’re going about this in a rational way, and we’ve covered all our bases.”

Dyckovsky said the early skeptics have since come to support the project whole-heartedly.

“That’s one of the big motivators for publicizing our decision,” he said. “We think there are lots of young people in our position who are too scared to take the risk because of outside forces, parents and mentors, and we want to show them that there is a way to make everyone happy.”

Atallah, a Colorado native who started working in computer science as a teen, said he found great value in his college courses but felt ready to branch out.

“College is a kind of recipe, a formula to produce a solid educational foundation,” he said. “I would never under any circumstances say that going to Stanford is a bad idea. But the recipe is never the only way to do it, and there are always going to be other ways you can go about learning the things that you need and want to learn.”

What he wants to learn, he said, “is how to run a business, how to grow a business, how to talk to customers and clients.”

Vigneault, the lone founder who brings a college degree and a business background to the operation — “I’m the old man of the group,” the 24-year-old said — has used his experience in venture capital to help the team develop its business strategy.

“There’s Facebook, which put out a minimal, viable product and then has continued to make additions, corrections and improvements based on user feedback, and then there’s Apple, which develops a product until there’s nothing else they can possibly do and it’s basically perfect,” Vigneault said. “We intend to follow the Facebook model: Let’s just get something that works, get it to market, and then continue to improve it.”

He predicts that Arktos will vastly improve data visualization, allowing people and companies to quickly and thoroughly understand vital information. He also wants Arktos to be part of the cultural evolution of career development.

“It’s not completely acceptable today to drop out of school, though more people are starting companies prior to joining the workforce, while they’re still getting their education,” Vigneault said. “But I think in the very, very near future it’s going to be much closer to the norm than what we see today.”

Dyckovsky said he and his co-founders were encouraged by studying the success of other iconic entrepreneurs who followed unorthodox paths to success: Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Napster’s Shawn Fanning. Dyckovsky hopes Arktos will soon be added to a list of success stories that might encourage others to take similar risks.

“We just launched a Web site and a blog that are designed well, and we put a lot of thought into these letters,” he said. “That’s not something that people expect from kids dropping out of school.”

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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