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Duolingo has eclipsed entire U.S. public school system in language learning

Learning a new language is difficult — just ask the almost 9 million students in American K-12 public schools who are trying to learn a second language. It’s a challenge many people avoid, simply sticking to their native language and never learning another. That’s why it’s extraordinary that Pittsburgh-based Duolingo has surpassed 200 million worldwide users of its language learning app.

Last week, Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn was named to CNBC’s Disrupter 50 List. While on-air, he talked about how his 110-person company now has more people in the United States learning language from his app than the total number of students learning languages in all K-12 public schools combined.

The Pittsburgh-based firm, founded in 2011 by von Ahn and chief technology officer Severin Hacker is now valued at $700 million. Although they do get some of their revenue from advertising, the founders say they get the majority of it from users who upgrade from the free app to a premium version, and that revenues this year are expected to exceed $30 million.

The key to Duolingo’s growth? Making learning a language fun by “gamifying” it.

I can attest to the fun part. While von Ahn was on CNBC, I was in Mexico, having some interesting conversations in Spanish after just a few weeks of using Duolingo.

More proof of the company’s growing influence? Duolingo English Test is accepted by more than 90 universities as proof of English competency.

Peduto says slow down

Even as Mayor Bill Peduto reaches out to tech companies to draw them to Pittsburgh, he puts his foot down (and not always on the gas) to ensure the safety and well-being of local residents.

In this case, Mayor Peduto has issued a formal statement about how Uber’s cars and other self-driving vehicles should operate on the streets of Pittsburgh. “I made it clear to Uber officials after the Arizona crash,” he said, “that a full federal investigation had to be completed, with strong rules for keeping streets safe, before I would agree with the company to begin testing on Pittsburgh streets again.”

His conditions include making sure the vehicles never exceed 25 miles per hour on any street regardless of higher speed limits, and that their apps alert human drivers who might have commandeered the vehicle if the human exceeds speed limits.

Mayor Peduto is a bit hamstrung in his requests because the legal jurisdiction falls under the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, not the city. Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group has 600 employees in the Pittsburgh area and continues to grow here, mainly in engineering positions.

Briefly noted: Apps for health and employment hit the streets from Pittsburgh companies & Pittsburgh’s top seed investor profiled in national magazine

Noticed large numbers of privacy policy updates hitting your inbox? That’s because on May 25, the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) goes into effect in the European Union. Many U.S. companies are conforming worldwide because it’s easier than using two standards to protect your information. GDPR requires privacy and data security that is significantly more stringent than is required in the U.S. — and in theory, will help protect against data breaches and privacy issues.

Thinking ahead, Pittsburgh-based JazzHR announced that it will incorporate GDPR into its human resources systems to help customers using its service to not run afoul of the new law as it relates to employee recruiting data. According to CFO Brit Hutchins, this will aid compliance for 4,000 employers.

Meanwhile, Highmark upped the ante with digital healthcare, announcing a partnership with Sharecare to provide a mobile and web solution to managing health care.

Finally, Rich Lunak, CEO of Innovation Works, was profiled this week in Forbes Magazine for the work he has been doing to keep Pittsburgh at the forefront of tech investing, and specifically in artificial intelligence and robotics. According to the article, Innovation Works is one of the country’s top seed investors and “America’s most active investor in robotics.”

Upcoming business, career & networking events

Pittsburgh TechFest
Saturday, June 2, 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. at La Roche College

IEEE Entrepreneurial Network
Tuesday, June 5, 6 – 7:30 p.m. at Steel Cactus, Shadyside

CREATE Festival 2018
Wednesday and Thursday, June 6 and 7 at the August Wilson Center

Duquesne University SBDC’s 20th Annual Entrepreneur’s Growth & Networking Conference (I’ll be presenting the Breakfast Keynote)
Thursday, June 7, 8:30 a.m. – 4:15 p.m. at Duquesne University

The State of Black Pittsburgh 2018 (featuring National Urban League President, Marc H. Morial)
Thursday, June 7, 5 – 10 p.m. at WQED