How Luis Von Ahn Turned Countless Hours Of Mindless Activity Into Something Valuable-Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship - Carnegie Mellon University

Thursday, March 13, 2014

How Luis Von Ahn Turned Countless Hours Of Mindless Activity Into Something Valuable

When he was 12 years old, Luis von Ahn came up with a plan to make gyms free.

People exercising on machines can generate electricity, he figured, and that energy is valuable. So why not eliminate gym fees, hook all the machines to a power grid, and sell the wattage produced to a major electric company? Everyone could go free of charge, the world would have a new source of power, and people would be healthier to boot.

"It turns out it's not a very good idea," von Ahn, now 34, chuckles. "People aren't very good at generating electricity. It's much better to charge a membership fee."

While that idea didn't pan out, the computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University has been dreaming up innovative business models ever since. And he's done it well. Over the past eight years, von Ahn has created and sold two projects to Google. His new venture, free language-learning app Duolingo, is a perpetual favorite in the Android and iOS app stores and has already accrued more than 12 million users. In 2006, he was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, or so-called "genius" grant.

If there is true genius to be found in von Ahn's work, it lies in the theory that underscores all of his projects: the idea that by using technology and a little bit of fun, you can harness tiny bits of time and energy from people all around the world and make them collectively useful. In what might be the cleverest application of crowdfunding principles yet, von Ahn is turning our mindless Internet activities into something productive. 

Von Ahn's entrepreneurial ventures began in earnest in 2004 with an idea he had for a new kind of online game. The program would randomly pair each player with another user on the Web, and show them a series of images. Both players were instructed simply to "type whatever the other guy is typing." The more overlap you produced, the better your score was. So, for example, if a picture of a dog appeared, both users would probably type "dog" along with other words like "animal," "pet," "puppy," or "cute...Read more»

By: Alison Griswold