Luminar CEO Austin Russell's Parents Saw His Brilliance Early

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Mar. 31 2021, Published 1:42 p.m. ET

It’s a luminous time for Luminar. The laser lidar startup announced on March 18 that it will supply sensors and software for SAIC Motor Corporation’s electric R brand line of vehicles. The news comes less than a year after Luminar announced a similar deal with Volvo Cars.

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“This is really our first foray into China—and it won’t be the last,” Luminar CEO Austin Russell told Forbes. “From a commercial standpoint, this is definitely the most significant event we’ve had in a year since Volvo.”

Not bad for a company run by a guy in his 20s! But then again, Russell has always had a head start on his peers, as his parents can attest.

Austin Russell had a research lab in his parents’ garage as a kid.

A 2018 CNBC profile detailed Russell’s backstory—revealing, for example, that the Luminar CEO memorized the periodic table of elements when he was around two years old. “I was just obsessed with learning certain things … just independently learning and understanding a lot of new types of scientific fields, among other things,” Russell told the outlet.

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By the time he was 11, Russell had a research lab in his parents’ garage in Southern California—and he had hacked a Nintendo DS to turn it into the cell phone his parents refused to buy him.

“Eventually [I] ended up evolving into building computing systems, supercomputers, other things on hardware, and then ultimately evolving into lasers, optics, and photonics—those kind of things,” Russell added.

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Russell ditched his Stanford education for the Thiel Fellowship.

After starting to work with lidar—a technology involving “light detection in ranging”—during his teen years, Russell founded Luminar when he was still in high school.

He went on to study applied physics at Stanford University, but he dropped out at age 18 after earning the Thiel Fellowship. The fellowship pays students $100,000 to leave college and work on their startups for two years.

“Dropping out is definitely right for some people and can work really well if you’re very clear on what you want to do and how you want to go about doing it. And clear about just life goals in general,” Russell told CNBC.

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Russell has a $2.5 billion net worth.

According to Forbes, Russell’s real-time net worth as of  March 30 was $2.5 billion. In December 2020, the magazine named him the world’s youngest self-made billionaire after Luminar merged with SPAC Gores Metropoulos to get listed on Nasdaq.

“It’s been insanely intense, grueling … everything through every day that we’ve had to go through, scaling this up. And of course, it’s incredibly rewarding to have an opportunity to be able to get out there now and get into the public markets and scale through this IPO SPAC,” Russell told the magazine at the time. “I’m still relatively young, but … a lot of blood, sweat, and tears have gone into it. And I was fortunate enough to be able to retain a good enough stake.”

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