This Test Prep Service has a Cult Following Among Med Students. Soon it Will Have an Animation Studio
Tami Abdollah is dot.LA's senior technology reporter. She was previously a national security and cybersecurity reporter for The Associated Press in Washington, D.C. She's been a reporter for the AP in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times and for L.A.'s NPR affiliate KPCC. Abdollah spent nearly a year in Iraq as a U.S. government contractor. A native Angeleno, she's traveled the world on $5 a day, taught trad climbing safety classes and is an avid mountaineer. Follow her on Twitter.
The unnamed king wears a crown and large pink robe as he grasps a tissue to his nose.
No, this isn't some Netflix show on the quarantine lives of the rich and famous; it's actually a method SketchyMedical uses to help students recall complicated concepts.
Such images by Los Angeles-based online education startup SketchyMedical have helped catapult the company to cult status among the med school set, who dress up in their drawings for Halloween. One fan even got a tattoo of SketchyMedical's pencil representing penicillin.
On Thursday, SketchyMedical announced its first outside investment stake, a $30 million shot in the arm from former Hollywood executive Peter Chernin's investment firm TCG to help establish an in-house animation studio that will bring to life those famous sketches and expand its team of 30 employees.
The funds will also help SketchyMedical bring its symbolic characters and scenes to other health professions, as well as create new ones for students preparing for the MCAT in the short term and new subjects like law over the next few years.
"We are reintroducing this method in modern education that's really been lost, and the students have noticed, and it works and they're using it," said CEO and cofounder Saud Siddiqui. "We're really looking forward to expanding our reach, making this accessible no matter what they're studying."
SketchyMedical's success is part of the recent trend toward the consumerization of education — a trend that has been rapidly accelerated by the pandemic.
Students pay thousands annually for medical entrance and licensing exams, flocking to big name test prep companies and paying thousands more to prepare. As the internet has provided myriad more ways to connect and learn, it's become a buyer's market for students looking to differentiate themselves from their peers and ace those exams.
The company was founded by medical students for medical students in 2013 after its four co-founders used similar techniques with great efficacy while preparing for their board exams.
SketchyMedical has been profitable since its early days through its subscription model, which offers tiered pricing — from roughly $230 to $550 for up to two years of programming — that includes video lessons, review cards and quizzes. The company currently has more than 30,000 active subscriptions.
Sketchy Medical relies on the "memory palace technique," from an era when oral tradition meant memorizing long stories passed on from one generation to the next. Med students are given a simple visual way into the material through characters, storylines and humor.
For example, in one sketch a naked Mona Lisa sits in a red-colored bathtub by the fire, petting a dalmatian and holding grapes.
She represents the bacteria known as pseudomonas aeruginosa, which thrives in aquatic environments and is classified as a gram-negative bacilli. It produces a fruity grape-like odor when plated and has swarming motility
In another four-minute coronavirus lesson, the crown represents the "coronaviridae" family of RNA viruses, the robe represents the fact that it is enveloped, while the tissue represents how they cause the common cold. The image shows up in pictures whenever a coronavirus becomes relevant.
Siddiqui said the company found students had a 30% improvement in recall using its method. Anecdotally, he said even the non-medical artists at the company are getting 100% on the preclinical quizzes from working on the images.
Cofounder Andrew Berg, speaking in front of a Zoom backdrop featuring the company's pencil (penicillin) drawing, said professors across the country have also integrated the company's sketches into lecture slides.
And Siddiqui said the company has seen more institutions using SketchyMedical during the COVID-19 pandemic as they've tried to find creative ways to supplement their traditional lectures.
"We argue that everybody is a visual learner, that our brain has evolved to be really good at visual spatial recall," Siddiqui said. "It's necessary for survival to know where that fruit grew or where that dangerous predator was, or our cave. This is the same for animals. This bird can remember the location of 30,000 seeds across the landscape."
TCG vice president Michaela Venuti said the consumer-focused investment fund has been diving deep into the education space for the last year and a half and seen students take ownership of their education, picking and choosing among a wealth of new products tailored to their interests, area of specialty or aspirations.
"Consumers can make decisions about what supplemental tools they want to use and build their own education," Venuti said. "A lot of that has been accelerated during the pandemic, and Sketchy fits well in this broader scheme of consumers choosing."
Venuti said TCG interviewed graduate and med school students as part of its work in the education space and 100% of the students they talked to mentioned Sketchy as a crucial tool to get through med school. That known brand name should help the company as it expands into other types of content and categories of education.
While it's hard to quantify exactly how large the market is for supplemental spending on education, TCG looked at another early leader in the direct-to-consumer space: Santa Clara, Calif.-based Chegg Inc. is a publicly traded company that began in the textbook rental space and now offers tutoring among other student services.
Venuti said she could certainly see SketchyMedical going the way that 2005-founded Chegg has, ultimately offering a suite of student services. Chegg reported 3.9 million subscribers in 2019 and a current $8.7 billion market cap, but the company believes the total potential market opportunity for their services is 102 million students in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. The company has seen a 39% compound annual growth rate over the last five years, and its total revenue of $153 million is up 63% year over year for the second quarter of 2020.
TCG believes Chegg's outlook on market opportunity is similar to what SketchyMedical could expect, Venuti said. However, she added that SketchyMedical's "secret sauce" is the content the company has built, its method for teaching students and its passionate and engaged user base.
An internal analysis by TCG estimated a total addressable market of 93,000 medical students and adjacent medical specialties like dentistry and pharmacology, who are already using SketchyMedical's content for studying overlapping topics. TCG also discovered an "ever-increasing amount of global edtech unicorns — such as VIPKid, Coursera, Duoling, ByJu's, Quizlet and more — with consumer-facing supplemental tools valued in the billions.
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Minutes into filling out my absentee ballot last week, I was momentarily distracted by my dog Seamus. A moment later, I realized in horror that I was filling in the wrong bubble — accidentally voting "no" on a ballot measure that I meant to vote "yes" on.
It was only a few ink marks, but it was noticeable enough. Trying to fix my mistake, I darkly and fully filled in the correct circle and then, as if testifying to an error on a check, put my initials next to the one I wanted.
Then I worried. As a reporter who has previously covered election security for years, I went on a mini-quest trying to understand how a small mistake can have larger repercussions.
As Los Angeles County's 5.6 million registered voters all receive ballots at home for the first time, I knew my experience could not be unique. But I wondered, would my vote count? Or would my entire ballot now be discarded?
My distractingly sweet dog, Seamus.
Photo by Tami Abdollah
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