CMU Spinoff Duolingo Translates Success Via Language Learning

Duolingo , a Carnegie Mellon spinoff, is the first Pittsburgh-based tech startup to be valued at more than $1 billion. The company, which makes the process of acquiring one or more new languages accessible and fun, has been gaining popularity since it was spun out of CMU in 2011.

It was co-founded by CMU alumnus and faculty member, Luis von Ahn, who now serves as CEO, and one his doctoral students, Severin Hacker, who received his Ph.D. from CMU in 2014 and now serves as the company’s chief technology officer.

In 2009, von Ahn and Hacker started working on a project that was the foundation for Duolingo under CMU’s Project Olympus , which provides advice, incubator space and investor connections to help faculty and students explore the commercial potential of their ideas.

Project Olympus is now part of the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship , which along with the Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation (CTTEC), helps to facilitate and accelerate the movement of research and technology out of the university and into the global marketplace.

More than 300 startups have been launched from CMU during the last decade, many receiving significant support from CMU’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Other CMU spinoffs include Petuum , NeuBase Therapeutics and Wombat Security Technologies Inc.

CMU is ahead of the curve when it comes to how research dollars translate to business opportunities. One CMU startup is created per $24 million in research funding compared with a national average of one startup per $68 million in research funding.

From Navajo to Klingon

Duolingo, through its free mobile app or the web, provides language education that focuses not only on making lessons playful, but also delivered in bite sizes, through quizzes, images and phrases. The app sends friendly reminders to users to keep them engaged and to hit stated goals. It also provides online communities with other users who have similar interests.

With more than 300 million users, Duolingo provides courses in 38 languages including Chinese, Korean, Hindi and Arabic, endangered ones such as Navajo and Hawaiian, and even a few fictional ones (Klingon and High Valyrian).

Today, Duolingo is a household name. NBC’s "Saturday Night Live" ran a spoof advertisement of the company, and the company used the opportunity to capitalize on it to recruit volunteer contributors to expand language courses.

If you’re fluent in both child and adult, apply to contribute to our newest course! 😉 https://t.co/VzPw1RSYxZ https://t.co/BO5HqnMCTL

- Duolingo (@duolingo) November 4, 2019

Fostering A Big Idea

Duolingo’s roots are entwined with Carnegie Mellon. After von Ahn earned his Ph.D. in computer science at CMU in 2005, he joined the Computer Science Department faculty. His work is in an area called human computation, which combines the intelligence of humans and computers to solve large-scale problems that neither can solve alone.

An example of his work in this area is reCAPTCHAs , which also became a CMU spinoff and was acquired by Google in 2009. With reCAPTCHAs, a person visiting a website must solve two puzzles with a sequence of characters - one set is used to distinguish human visitors from automated intruders and the other helps to digitize text. In order to do the latter, reCAPTCHAs introduce users to characters from printed texts that computers were incapable of deciphering. After multiple users identify the characters as the same thing, the input is used to digitize that text.

Similar to reCAPTCHAS, Duolingo began as a way to combine the intelligence of humans and computers to accomplish a goal. Duolingo set out as a way to translate the internet into different languages. As the company grew and shifted its business model, it pivoted to focus more on its educational mission to provide free, fun and accessible language education.

The company hit its stride in 2013 when Apple named Duolingo the iPhone App of the Year and Google selected it as the Best of the Best for Android. Investors at that point included the likes of Union Square Ventures, New Enterprise Associates and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, as well as entrepreneur, author and podcaster Tim Ferriss and actor Ashton Kutcher.

Congrats to Duolingo for being app of the year!!! http://t.co/Pu3vSKSN5t

- ashton kutcher (@aplusk) December 17, 2013

Duolingo’s revenue, which topped $100 million for 2019 in August, comes from ads shown after brief lessons, as well as a paid ad-free subscription service. The company also offers a low-cost test it developed in 2014 to certify English skills of college and job applicants. Today, more than 500 institutions use the test results as part of their admissions process.

A CMU graduate with a master’s degree in computer vision , Jenna Lake, is a machine learning engineer at Duolingo who works to limit cheating on the test. She creates algorithms that flag abnormalities in video captured when users take the test.

Jenna is one of more than 200 employees at Duolingo. Currently, about 20 percent of Duolingo’s employees are CMU alumni.

Another alumnus at Duolingo is Andrew Walizer, who is a talent acquisition coordinator.

"I wanted to work at a place where the work makes a positive impact in the world," Walizer said. "Collaboration and teamwork have been key for Duolingo. The best ideas in the world won’t work if you can’t work with other people to make them a reality."

With the new valuation, the company is planning to hire another 100 employees across its offices in Pittsburgh, Seattle, New York and Beijing.


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