Founder and CEO of Duolingo: Luis von Ahn
Venture Name: Duolingo (Duolingo.com)
Duolingo is a free language learning platform that employs a gamified skill tree and adaptive feedback tools to motivate potential “students” to learn a new language. 1 The software teaches languages to anyone with a smartphone or Internet connection. 2 Users gain experience points as they learn the language. Users can set a daily target for learning, based on 10 minute increments of time. If you choose to learn for 30 minutes, then meeting this goal will earn you extra rewards. The game-based software reminds users by email of their daily status and the points-based system is fun and works to motivate students to meet or exceed their daily goals. Lessons involve reading, writing (entry through your keyboard or mobile device), listening and speaking, with the software capable of very accurate voice recognition to practice your speaking skill. As the goal is to learn a language, the software rates your success with various grammar and vocabulary, but that rating decreases if you do not refresh or re-study that unit. This encourages review of past material on a weekly basis to keep your score up. Courses can teach as many as 2,000 words. 3 The efficacy of Duolingo’s data-driven approach to language learning was evaluated by professors at City University of New York and the University of South Carolina and they found that “34 hours on Duolingo was equivalent to the value of a first-year college semester, which takes in the order of 130+ hours.” 1
The real genius of Duolingo, however, lies BEHIND the game-based learning software. At higher levels of language training, which can only be achieve by passing the in-app quizzes in all 4 language skills, the users are now encouraged to translate sentences into the language they are learning. Duolingo compiles an aggregate of all of its users translations to produce accurate translations. By learning a language, users are assisting the company to provide translation services for major corporate clients, such as CNN and Buzzfeed. 2
The company profile on AngelList Education states that Duolingo is now the world’s most popular way to learn languages online with 59 different language courses across 23 languages and over 120 million users. 1 As of 2015, the company has been valued at USD $470 million, with more than $83 million raised from investors such as Google Capital. 1, 4
Founder’s Bio: Luis von Ahn
In 2009, in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University, Luis von Ahn and his computer science PhD student, Severin Hacker were trying to find a way to translate English material on the web into other languages. Von Ahn, a native of Guatemala, and Swiss-born Hacker soon discovered that this was a nearly impossible task. Software was clearly not up to the task of dealing with the intricacies of human language, and paying a human to translate the entirety of the web into multiple languages was financially impossible. The solution: make a game-based free app that teaches people a new language and use THEIR time and energy to turn them into translators capable of acting as a universal translator. 2
Von Ahn’s early research was in cryptography, but he earned international recognition and awards for his work on CAPTCHAs, which are “computer-generated tests that humans are routinely able to pass but that computers have not yet mastered.” 5 He went on to found one of the most ubiquitous Internet tools, the company reCAPTCHA, which was sold to Google in 2009. 6 (see Figure 1)
reCAPTCHA anti-bot validator 9
His Wikipedia page details his many amazing accomplishments: 6
- He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006
- a Microsoft New Faculty Fellowship in 2007
- the David and Lucile Packard Foundation Fellowship in 2009
- a Sloan Fellowship in 2009
- Discover named him one of the 50 Best Brains in Science
- Popular Science named him to the Brilliant 10 list
- Silicon.com listed him as one of the 50 Most Influential People in Technology
- And MIT named him to MIT Technology Review‘s TR35: Young Innovators Under 35 list.
Venture Team: Duolingo.com
The co-founder is one of von Ahn’s students from Carnigie Mellon University, who earned his PhD for work on Duolingo Launched in 2011, the company has grown and attracted investors from venture fund management companies movie stars, like Aston Kutcher, and even Google Capital. The company has already raised more than USD $80 million in investment and is valued at more than $470 million. With the backing of Google, and partnerships with major corporations, like CNN, the future for Duolingo seems set.
As a language and science teacher, I was skeptical that a free app could help people to learn a language, so I decided to try it out. I set a daily goal of 30 minutes to study French, and I soon found myself surpassing my goal most days because of the challenge of keeping my “strength” rating up on previous lessons. The gamification tools were cleverly implemented and worked well to motivate learning. I found the lessons a bit repetitive, and this was a common theme in the comments section. I did feel that this tool would help people with some skill in a language to practice their skills, challenge new skills and maintain their 4 skills in a language. I am not convinced, however, that it can completely replace other forms of language learning. Overall, it is a very slick and professional service that is a tremendous advantage to anyone wanting to advance their skills in a language.
- Von Ahn, L.; Blum, M.; Langford, J. (2004). “Telling humans and computers apart automatically”.Communications of the ACM. 47 (2): 56–60. doi:1145/966389.966390