Severin Hacker

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Severin Hacker
Born1984 (age 38–39)[1]
Alma materETH Zurich (BS)
Carnegie Mellon University (PhD)
Known forDuolingo
Scientific career
InstitutionsCarnegie Mellon University, ETH Zurich
Doctoral advisorLuis von Ahn

Severin Hacker (born July 6, 1984) is a Swiss computer scientist who is the co-founder and CTO of Duolingo, the world's most popular language-learning platform.[2][3][4][5]


Hacker was born and raised in Zug and studied at ETH Zurich. In a 2020 interview, Hacker specified that gaming played a large role in his interest in computer science: "What originally drew me to computers was video games and the desire to build your own games and understand how those games are built. I was somewhat obsessed."[6]

He moved to Pittsburgh to study at Carnegie Mellon University where he co-founded Duolingo with Luis von Ahn in 2009.[7]

He received his BS in Computer Science from ETH Zurich in 2006 and his PhD in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University in 2014.

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 they 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.[8] During Hacker's doctoral studies, Duolingo became a by-product of this idea, or "happy mistake."[9] 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.[8]


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. In 2015, Hacker and von Ahn started selling translations, such as to the Spanish tech news group of CNN.[10]

Retention Philosophy[edit]

There are two parts to Hacker's "Retention Philosophy": learning should be fun and motivation should remain high.[10] 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.[10]

Awards and honors[edit]

  • In 2014, Hacker received the Crunchie Award for Best Startup.[11]
  • In 2014, Hacker was included in the MIT Technology Review's "Top Innovators under 35."[10]
  • In 2016, Hacker and Luis von Ahn received the Tech 50 award.[12]
  • In 2019, Hacker received One Young World's Entrepreneur of the Year Award.[13]

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 that helps companies manage and monetize their intellectual property.
  • Gridwise, an app that provides information for driver demand throughout a city.
  • Abililife, a company developing technologies to assist Parkinson's patients.[14]


  1. ^ Hudson, Subrina (28 February 2020). "Meet The 36-Year-Old Co-Founder Behind Duolingo's $1.5 Billion Valuation". CSQ. Retrieved 1 January 2023.
  2. ^ Siegler, MG (April 12, 2011). "Meet Duolingo, Google's Next Acquisition Target; Learn A Language, Help The Web". TechCrunch.
  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. ^ "Duolingo: The Most Popular Language Learning App". Online Course Report. 30 May 2018.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  6. ^ Hudson, Subrina (2020-02-28). "Meet The 36-Year-Old Co-Founder Behind Duolingo's $1.5 Billion Valuation". CSQ | Magazine, Events, Community. Retrieved 2020-03-25.
  7. ^ "Not enough people, passion, capital?". June 12, 2015.
  8. ^ a b Schneider, Chloe (October 23, 2015). "Meet the entrepreneur who is helping the world learn a new language". Mashable.
  9. ^ Shandrow, Kim (October 7, 2015). "How Duolingo Mastered the Fickle Language of Startup Success". Entrepreneur.
  10. ^ a b c d Clapasson, Valérie (March 11, 2015). "Effortless language learning -- ETH alumnus Severin Hacker talks about Duolingo in an interview". ETH Zurich.
  11. ^ Spice, Byron (February 20, 2014). "Crunchie Award". Carnegie Mellon University.
  12. ^ Waltz, Amanda (November 4, 2016). "Pittsburgh Technology Council announces 2016 Tech 50 award winners". Pittsburgh Next.
  13. ^ "One Young World Announces 2019 Winners of Entrepreneur of the Year Award". One Young World. 2019-06-19. Retrieved 2019-11-26.
  14. ^ "Severin Hacker".

External links[edit]