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Udacity Founder Sebastian Thurn: We can double the world's GDP

"If we can bring education to everyone, if we can truly democratize education, then we can double the worlds GDP," said Sebastian Thrun of Udacity's mission. This mission is “what kept the team together - a very strong vision, a social vision."

With a track record as a Google VP and Fellow, and Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, Thrun brings a strong resume to his goal. Speaking on stage at the 2016 Startup Grind Conference, he dove into the evolution of education, learning, and work towards greater future-proofing and independence with George Zachary of Charles River Ventures.

The Inspiration Behind Udacity

When Thrun first heard of Salman Kahn's Kahn Academy, he was a professor of computer science at Stanford University, reaching about 200 Stanford students each semester. Things would never be the same for Thrun: realizing Salaman Kahn was reaching over 50 million students online, Thrun dove in - he could do the same, he thought.

Inspired by Kahn, Sebastian put his Artificial Intelligence class online, expecting 500 to 1,000 new students, as gauged by the number of advanced Artificial Intelligence degrees currently being pursued. The result: over 160,000 students jumped on board, and the class continues to grow month over month. From a single class, Thrun made a plan to bring his teaching - and that of others - to a global audience.

The biggest surprise of all, however, wasn't the number of students nor the speed with which they jumped into the material. Rather, despite Stanford's elite student body of 200 artificial intelligence degree candidates, not a single one was in the top 400 students in the world out of Thrun's 160,000-strong online course.

“It became clear how unbalanced the world was, how important education has become but also how access to education is still so bad," notes Thurn.

But despite the target of trying to change the economics of education, Thurn reminds an audience of 3000 that in the end, it’s about enabling people to do what they love: "what more beautiful thing to do than to educate people or give them a chance to play," he shared.

Building a Future-Proof Education

In the future, Sebastian stated that life-long education will become the standard regardless of your field of work. Furthermore, the playing field will be become increasingly leveled, as where you were born and where you work begin to matter less and less.

Sebastian theorized that in the future “people will switch jobs much more frequently. It used to be that you had a lifetime job but now the average tenure is 4 years in the United States. This gives us a chance to improve and learn much faster”.

Further building on the point, Sebastian noted that “in an accelerated world, there will be more and more chances for people to try something new.”

Thurn went so far as to joke that in the future, you’ll be able to become a medical doctor in 1 week. Sign us up.

Udacity's Challenge: Building a Business Model on Open-Source Learning

Despite a number of false start, Udacity continues to iterate on their business model in an effort to enable a greater number of students to find jobs.

To help motivate students, Udacity offers a 50% refund if you graduate from a nanodegree within 12 months. Furthermore, Udacity offers a 100% refund if you are unable to find a job after completing one of the Senior Web Developer, Android Developer, iOS Developer or Machine Learning courses.

During Sebastian Thrun's session, Udacity offered a 50% discount on the first month of any Nanodegree course with a Startup Grind discount code - try it out!

Ship is Safe in Harbor, But That's Not What Ships are For

While Sebastian’s and Udacity’s accomplishments are acknowledged around the world, Sebastian shared a moment of vulnerability with the Startup Grind audience. He reminiscing on the difficult transition of leaving secure positions on large, slow-moving ships - his position as a tenured professor, or his management role at Google - to take on the rough waters of entrepreneurship. Though the new business model of open-source education hasn't been entirely figured out, Thrun and his team have the smarts and experience to figure it out, even with the unavoidable ups and downs known to all founders.


Sebastian Thurn has set his sights on democratizing higher education. Co-founder and CEO of Udacity, Sebastian is also a Research Professor at Stanford University, a former Google Fellow, as well as the inventor of the autonomous car and project lead on Google Glass. Sebastian has been named the 5th Most Creative Person in Business (Fast Company), among the 50 Smartest People in Tech (Fortune), and highlighted in 50 Best Inventions of 2010 (Time).