Tesla's Elon Musk is getting some tough competition. And that too from a 26-year old who is being touted as the next big name in the world of technology. Austin Russell, a college dropout, floated his own company Luminar Technologies as a teenager, and today has become the youngest self-made billionaire, joining an elite list that includes tech titans like Bill Gates, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg.
Russell founded a business to help self-driving cars avoid collisions and today is one of the most successful entrepreneurs with his company going public last December. Russell owned 105 million shares as of December 2, giving him nearly one third of the outstanding stock. The hefty holding gave him a net worth of $2.4 billion following the first day of trading.
Fully automated self-driving vehicles are still a futuristic thing but Russell's startup Luminar may soon make it a reality. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has forced many companies to pump the brakes, automotive sensor firm Luminar has financially accelerated at full speed thanks to Russell's big ambitions.
The company went public last December and since then there has been no looking back and it's all because Russell always had big dreams. He dropped out of college in 2012 after receiving a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship, a program funded by billionaire Peter Thiel to nurture entrepreneurs.
Unlike his contemporaries, Russell founded his company at just 17, between high school and a brief stint in Stanford's applied physics department. That was in 2012. "When you start with nothing and build something of real value, that's when it gets interesting,'' Russell, who stands 6'4" tall and quaffs several Cokes a day, told the Wall Street Journal.
Luminar today competes with laser lidar makers such as Velodyne and Aeva, which make high-tech sensors to help self-driving vehicles "see" their surroundings. But where did he get interest in optics. "In my case I just had a specific interest around optics and photonics and other types of systems that can end up making a huge difference in these kinds of new products and saw the application opportunity for autonomous vehicles," Russell told The Verge in a recent interview.
Making a Difference
Russell's rise has been unlike his rivals and contemporaries. Timing was everything for the young CEO. He entered the autonomous vehicle market at an early point before it began its upward growth trajectory and in less than a decade he now commands a net worth of $3.2 billion.
"So [I] really just went all in on that. And it's one of those things that if you knock it out of the park, it really is a trillion-dollar industry opportunity with — not to mention the humanitarian aspect of 1.3 million lives lost on the road every year, to be able to have an opportunity to impact that and make a difference," he told the outlet.
Russell, who appeared on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2018, is perfecting Lidar, the sensors that help self-driving cars "see" their surroundings by bouncing a laser beam off objects in their path. A fundamental technology for self-driving vehicles that has won customers such as Volvo Cars, Daimler and Intel's Mobileye.
That said, Russell already had several notable accomplishments much before he became a billionaire. According to the profile by Forbes, he memorized the periodic table of elements at 2 years. When he was in sixth grade, he reconnected his Nintendo DS game console to a mobile phone after his parents forbade him to have one. At 13, he filed his first patent: a groundwater recycling system that collects water from sprinklers and saves it to reduce wastewater.
One of Russell's biggest strengths is his laser-like focus. He avoids social media. He is neither on Twitter nor Instagram and that gives him the mental freedom to continue developing and fine-tuning Luminar's technology. Although he has already amassed a fortune, he hasn't deviated from his goal that of fulfilling the life-saving potential of Lidar in both fully automated and driver-assist-enabled vehicles.