Severin Hacker

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Severin Hacker
Born 1984 (age 33–34)[citation needed]
Zug, Switzerland
Residence United States
Known for Duolingo
Scientific career
Institutions Carnegie Mellon University, ETH Zurich
Doctoral advisor Luis von Ahn

Severin Hacker (born 1984) is a Swiss computer scientist who is the co-founder and CTO of Duolingo, a popular language-learning platform.[1][2][3][4]


Hacker was born and raised in Zug and studied at ETH Zurich. He moved to Pittsburgh to study at Carnegie Mellon University where he co-founded Duolingo with Luis von Ahn in 2009.[5]

The Founding of Duolingo[edit]

Initially, Hacker and his former graduate advisor, Luis von Ahn, wanted to develop an application that could translate internet sites, so that that it would be accessible for non-English speakers. They felt that automated translation software wasn't as effective as using the skills and knowledge of bilingual speakers.[6] During Hacker's doctoral studies, Duolingo became a by-product of this idea, or "happy mistake."[7] Hacker's goal for Duolingo was to make it "100% free" so the most disadvantaged person with an internet connection would still have access to it.[6]


Hacker and his team of PhD students used machine learning to personalize Duolingo to each user. Specifically, they wanted to predict what language concepts the user was on the verge of forgetting. In 2012, a study by American universities showed that spending 34 hours of learning on Duolingo was equivalent to a full-semester of a college language course. Hacker and von Ahn still intend to use Duolingo to get closer to their original idea. They have recently started selling translations, such as to the Spanish tech news group of CNN.[8]

Retention Philosophy[edit]

There are two parts to Hacker's "Retention Philosophy": language learners need to make good progress as quickly as possible and be committed to that progress. Through Duolingo, Hacker wants users to have the option to increase their 'stay-tuned quota' which involves adjusting the learning time and difficulty of the course. Another idea derived from Hacker's philosophy was to apply gamification to Duolingo. This was to apply game elements and principles instead of classroom learning tools to the course.[8]

Awards and Honors[edit]

  • In 2014, Hacker received the Crunchie Award for Best Startup.[9]
  • In 2014, Hacker was included in the MIT Technology Review's "Top Innovators under 35."[8]
  • In 2016, Hacker and Luis von Ahn received the Tech 50 award.[10]

External business ventures and investments[edit]

  • IAM Robotics, a robotics company focused on autonomous fulfillment.
  • ViaHero, a trip planning service creating personalized itineraries.
  • Brainbase, a platform for managing intellectual properties.
  • Gridwise, an app that provides information for driver demand throughout a city.
  • Abililife, a company developing technologies to assist Parkinson's patients.[11]


  1. ^ Siegler, MG (April 12, 2011). "Meet Duolingo, Google's Next Acquisition Target; Learn A Language, Help The Web". TechCrunch. 
  2. ^ "CrunchBase profile of Duolingo". CrunchBase. 
  3. ^ Geron, Tomio (September 17, 2012). "Duolingo Gets $15 Million To Translate The World's Text Through Online Learning". Forbes. 
  4. ^ Doyle, Patrick. "A novel approach to learning languages is making the Web more accessible". MIT Technology Review. 
  5. ^ "Not enough people, passion, capital?". June 12, 2015. 
  6. ^ a b Schneider, Chloe (October 23, 2015). "Meet the entrepreneur who is helping the world learn a new language". Mashable. 
  7. ^ Shandrow, Kim (October 7, 2015). "How Duolingo Mastered the Fickle Language of Startup Success". Entrepreneur. 
  8. ^ a b c Clapasson, Valérie (March 11, 2015). "Effortless language learning -- ETH alumnus Severin Hacker talks about Duolingo in an interview". ETH Zurich. 
  9. ^ Spice, Byron (February 20, 2014). "Crunchie Award". Carnegie Mellon University. 
  10. ^ Waltz, Amanda (November 4, 2016). "Pittsburgh Technology Council announces 2016 Tech 50 award winners". Pittsburgh Next. 
  11. ^ "Severin Hacker". 

External links[edit]