He graduated from West High, dropped out of MIT and now his work is soaring in space

Now a partner in an $11 billion startup fund, West High alum Delian Asparouhov’s first test flight is expected to land in Utah on Wednesday.

(Varda Industries) West High graduate Delian Asparouhov, seated, and business partner Will Bruey are co-founders of Varda Space Industries, a startup that aims to produce pharmaceutical chemicals in space.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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If brains and ambition are all it takes, then Delian Asparouhov has already conquered the world.

Less than 12 years ago, Asparouhov was a student at Salt Lake City’s West High School with a head for numbers and a heart for space travel. Today, he is co-founder of his own company with a $100 million investment and a vision to make chemicals for pharmaceuticals in zero gravity.

That company, Varda Space Industries, is looking to complete its first mission Wednesday, landing its capsule in Utah’s West Desert a couple of hours from the West High robotics lab.

It will be a homecoming of sorts for the Asparouhov, whose rise to the rarified world of technology finance has been anything but conventional.

[Read more about the capsule’s landing in Utah and what it could mean to pharmaceutical innovation.]

In between has been a short stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an arrest for hacking into MIT’s email system, a $100,000 fellowship from a national competition, and a partnership at Founders Fund, a premier San Francisco venture capital fund with $11 billion in tech investments.

And he just turned 30.

For Asparouhov, his ascent came from encouragement, and high expectations, from his parents. “I started coding in fifth or sixth grade. I started doing more complex projects between ninth and 10th grade.”

Good math genes

Asparouhov was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, to two brilliant mathematicians. His mother, Elena Asparouhova, was 21 and still in school at the University of Sofia. (In Bulgaria, women’s last names often include an “a” at the end.) His father, Tihomir Asparouhov, a math prodigy who in 1990 won the gold medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad, was in graduate school in England.

Elena Asparouhova, who is now faculty chair of the University of Utah’s Stena Center for Financial Technology and heads the U.’s Laboratory for Experimental Economics and Finance, said that in many ways her mother, Delian’s grandmother, was his primary caretaker in Sofia as she was finishing school. “She spent more time with him than I did at one time.”

Both parents were admitted to doctoral programs at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“They arrived in the U.S. in their early 20s,” Delian Asparouhov said, “with about $300 and me in a stroller.”

‘Diversity was important’

Day care in Pasadena was a scramble. The first stop was an all-Black church in Altadena, where Delian was the sole white student. That was followed by a period at a Spanish-speaking day care, where Delian had to pick up a third language on top of Bulgarian and English.

After living in Bulgaria, Asparouhova said, “diversity was important.”

When Delian was in fourth grade, they moved to Utah after Asparouhova received a faculty appointment at the U. The parents first put Delian in Rowland Hall, but he later moved to public school because his parents still desired more diversity.

And they pushed him into math contests. From an early age, he competed in MATHCOUNTS competitions in Utah and elsewhere.

He started in West High’s International Baccalaureate program in seventh grade and spent the next six years there, the longest he would attend any school. It was there that he met Dan McGuire, who was then a physics teacher at West and adviser to the school’s robotics club.

(Dan McGuire) In this 2009 photo of the West High School robotics club, Delian Asparouhov is in the back row second from the right.

“Over the course of the year, Mr. McGuire whupped me into shape and taught me physics,” Asparouhov wrote years later. “Mr. McGuire was never afraid to call me out if I was ever getting too full of myself. I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much in a single year while being in continuous fear.”

“Dan was incredible,” said Asparouhova, calling him “the one role model” for her son.

A quiet kid blossoms

For his part, McGuire remembers a shy kid who blossomed into a leader of the robotics club, where he was head of software.

He said Asparouhov was particularly effective at communicating. Having him do the engineering wasn’t the best use of him. Everyone who worked with him agreed with that. “He did the presentations, and he was really good at it.”

He was also a natural leader, said McGuire, who has kept in touch with Asparouhov. “Everyone who worked with him agreed with that. I’m not sure he would have agreed at the time, but he understands it now.”

In 2011, Asparouhov was one of two Utah students to win the Siemens Award for Advanced Placement, given to students who get perfect scores on all of their Advanced Placement exams.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Delian Asparouhov at West High School in 2011.

His next stop after graduation was MIT, where his tenure was short but eventful.

“I was drunk one night at my fraternity,” said Asparouhov, relaying the story of how, in 2013, he told his frat brothers that he could hack into MIT’s email system. He did exactly that and sent an institutionwide message saying classes would be canceled.

That was at 2 a.m. By 3 a.m., the police had shown up and arrested him.

His mother jumped on a plane to Boston to plead with university officials to let him stay. They agreed to that, but Asparouhov already had one foot out the door.

An MIT dropout

That’s because he was a finalist for a Thiel Fellowship. Created by and named for PayPal co-founder and tech investor Peter Thiel, the fellowship was originally called the “20 under 20″ fellowship. It provides $100,000 in investment funds for young entrepreneurs to bypass college and move into the startup world.

Barely a week after his arrest, he was awarded the fellowship.

“I was mortified,” his mother said. “My child can’t be dropping out.”

She sat down and wrote what she called “the letter to the immigrant child,” telling him his parents owe everything to higher education.

“He replied by saying, ‘Mother, you have two choices. Support me or move out of the way,’” Asparouhova said.

She came to terms with it. “He’s blessed with not being the first generation. We had nothing to fall back on.”

With the Thiel funding, the young Asparouhov launched a company called Nightingale, which had a software program aimed at helping diagnose autism. He later sold that company.

But he never left Thiel’s orbit. Thiel started Founders Fund, which manages more than $11 billion in investments in tech companies, and Asparouhov is one of a dozen partners at the fund.

He also is pursuing his dreams of space. His current venture, Varda Space Industries, is a startup that intends to produce pharmaceutical chemicals in zero gravity, meaning an orbiting lab.

“I’ve been thinking about this idea for about a decade,” said Asparouhov, who is president of Varda, which he founded with business partner Will Bruey.

Still looking skyward

The company’s first test flight launched last year, and the capsule is due to land Wednesday at the Utah Test and Training Range west of the Great Salt Lake. The capsule will be airlifted to Wendover’s airport after it is recovered.

“It has been great working with the leadership and staff at the Utah Test and Training Range and Dugway Proving Ground throughout this operation,” said Asparouhov.

The maiden flight was mainly about proving the capabilities of the company’s factory in a capsule, but Asparouhov said the firm is negotiating with major pharmaceutical companies for long-term contracts.

And he still wants to make it into space, although for now he is getting his flight fix from the Cessna he flies around the country.

Asparouhov said he had three dreams he wanted to realize by age 30: He wanted to be a partner in a $1 billion-plus investment fund (done), a founder of a $1 billion company (started, but not worth $1 billion ... yet), and becoming a father.

In December, he and his wife, Nadia, welcomed their firstborn, a son, Branislav Asparouhov.