Austin Russell: the university drop-out who made a billion dollars

Halfway through his first year as a physics student, Austin Russell won a $100,000 prize designed to encourage young entrepreneurs. A decade later, he is the world’s youngest billionaire. Jane Lewis reports

Austin Russell
(Image credit: © David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In 2011, the libertarian Silicon Valley financier Peter Thiel created a $100,000 scholarship to encourage promising young entrepreneurs to drop out of university and start their own ventures. Dozens of tech prodigies have passed through the programme to pursue their dreams – none quite so spectacularly as Austin Russell. The 26-year-old founder and CEO of Luminar Technologies is one of the few people to have amassed a fortune in the world of self-driving cars.

Following Luminar’s float last December, which valued his stake at $2.4bn, Russell can lay claim to being the youngest self-made billionaire in the world. More to the point, perhaps, the lanky six-foot-four entrepreneur – who “could pass, quite easily, for a young American pastor” – is one of the few people who has “got Elon Musk worried”, says The Times.

A tech prodigy to rival Musk

Luminar’s great breakthrough has been to produce a “relatively cheap” (in some cases less than £1,000 per unit) iteration of “lidar”: the laser-beam technology that enables driverless cars to “see” their surroundings, thereby allowing them to navigate and avoid obstacles. Considered by some to be the “keystone” to the autonomous driving revolution, Russell’s ultimate ambition is to see Luminar’s version “incorporated as standard into all vehicles”. If the $3trn-a- year industry backs him, Russell’s fortune could explode exponentially. But not everyone is sold on the technology –notably Musk, who is championing a different approach at Tesla involving digital video cameras, and has called lidar “a fool’s errand”.

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Russell and Musk might disagree on this point, but the two entrepreneurs have plenty in common – not least being endowed with a powerful urge to invent. Russell has always been a prodigy, says The Verge. Born in California in the spring of 1995, even his birth date is “auspicious”: 14 March (or, in its US numerical format, 3.14) marks “Pi Day” – the annual celebration of the mathematical constant pi, and also happens to be Albert Einstein’s birthday.

“At an age when most toddlers are still in diapers, Russell memorised the periodic table of elements,” says CNBC. By the age of 10 or 11, he was writing software. When his parents – neither of whom had a technical background – refused to buy him a mobile phone, he re-wired his Nintendo DS game console as a substitute: “It did actually work”. Russell filed his first patent, for an underground system that would recycle sprinkler water, at 13, says The Times. Soon after, “he became fascinated with laser technology and turned the family garage into a makeshift lab”. He won a place at Stanford to study physics, but dropped out midway through his freshman year, aged 17, after winning the $100,000 Thiel Fellowship for his lidar concept. He founded Luminar in 2012 – “not long”, notes Forbes, “after obtaining his driver’s licence”.

It isn’t easy being brilliant

The route to scaling up the company and floating on Nasdaq hasn’t been easy. “To quote Elon, being an entrepreneur is like chewing glass while staring into an abyss,” says Russell, who regularly works 100-hour weeks. It’s such a rollercoaster that you need “some type of higher driver or passion”. After embracing the world of driverless cars, one of his is eradicating road accidents. But although development is racing ahead – Luminar has already secured deals with Volvo, Audi, Toyota and others, and eventually hopes to build its own car – he’s the first to admit there’s a long way to go, says The Verge. “We’re still years, if not decades, away from fully self-driving cars.” Fortunately for Russell and his investors, in this game, “youth is definitely an advantage”.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.