From College Dropout To Billionaire: Meet Austin Russell, World’s Youngest Self-Made Billionaire

American entrepreneur Austin Russell is the founder and CEO of Luminar Technologies. Luminar Technologies specializes in machine perception technologies which are primarily used to build autonomous cars. The company made him the youngest self made billionaire in the world at the age of 25 when his company went public in a SPAC merger in December 2020. He is considered to be an optics prodigy who developed Luminar when he was only 17 and studied physics at the Stanford University. He decided to drop out of college when he received $100,000 Thiel Fellowship in 2012 which was a program funded by billionaire Peter Thiel to help nurture young talented entrepreneurs. His decision to pursue his passion has paid off tremendously and today, in just a blink of an eye, he has made himself a billionaire with a net worth of $1.6 billion.

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A Child Prodigy

Austin Russell kept his life private and the public has very little knowledge about his life growing up. Aside from the fact that Austin Kingsley Russell was born on March 13, 1995, there is no more information about his parents and siblings. He is considered to be a prodigy at a very young age when he was able to memorize the periodic table of elements when he was only two years old. When he turned thirteen years old, Russell decided to apply for his first ever patent for a product which is a recycling system that reuses the ground water from sprinklers. Russell has spent the latter part of his teen years studying at the Irvine Beckman laser Institute in University of California but later enrolled at the Stanford University.

Despite studying at one of the most prestigious colleges in the world, he claims that he learned most of his knowledge by watching YouTube videos and reading Wikipedia pages. As luck would have it, Russell was awarded prize money of $100,000 from the Thiel Fellowship of Peter Thiel which lead him to ultimately drop out of college since he believes that his time will be well spent outside university. He used to money to finally start his own company which led to the founding of Luminar Technologies.

Building Luminar Technologies

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Austin Russell was only 17 years old when he founded Luminar Technologies on 2012 in California. Shortly after he founded the company, Jason Eichenholz joined him in the company as his co-founder and chief technology officer. They spent the next five years of the company on stealth mode. When Russell founded Luminar, his goal was to develop and make lidar technology with an improved resolution and range. He was able to do this by fabricating lot components in-house rather than relying on the devices on the market. He was able to increase the time provided by automotive lidar for the vehicle to be safely reactive to seven seconds at a highway speed.

Upon seeing his progress, Russell decided to reevaluate their standard in the operating wavelength for the lidar systems. Usually, lidar operates at 905 nanometers, however Luminar’s lidar operates at 1,550 nanometers in the infrared range. This has made their signal out of range for the visible light which made it safe for the human eyes at the higher power levels.

Growing Luminar

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After five years of being in the stealth mode, Luminar decided to emerge from it and in April 2017 they have received $36 million in the series A funding. With the said funding, they were able to produce 10,000 automotive lidar from their factory set up in Orlando. After a few months, Luminar announced they have formed a partnership with the research and development division of Toyota which focuses on autonomous vehicles, robotics and AI called Toyota Research Institute. Toyota decided to utilize Luminar devices in their platform 2.1 test vehicles which are a fleet of a self driving sedan. Throughout the years, Luminar has partnered with numerous companies.

By 2018, they have been on their seventh-generation Application-specific integrated circuit design or ASIC which had been a fully integrated technology stack. They started branching out and the added a location in Colorado Springs by April 2018. Along the way, a lot of talents have joined the company including Former Uber executive Brent Schwarz who joined the company to be their head of business development by September 2018 and the former investment banker Tom Fennimore as the company’s new chief financial officer in May 2020. At the same time in May 2020, Volvo then announced that they will have launched a self-driving highway feature called Highway Pilot which was powered by the third-generation Luminar’s Iris lidar.

Earning Billions Through Public Offerings

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Eight years after the company foundation, Luminar has announced that they will be going public through the special-purpose acquisition company deal on August 2020. Their shares will be listed on the NASDAQ and they have merged with the Gores Metropoulos. The estimated market cap of Luminar is $3.4 billion, on top of the $400 million cash infusion from the Gores Metropoulos and the additional funding of $170 million from Peter Thiel, Alec Gores, Volvo Cars Tech Fund, etc. When Luminar went public on December 3, 2020, Russell has retained his shares of 83% in the company and he took on the role of the chairman of the company. Today their technology has been used by numerous companies including the SAIC Motor and they have opened their market to international companies as they have opened an office in Shanghai.

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Sources: Forbes, Luminar Tech, SCMP


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