Catalin Voss: Using Machine Learning in Silicon Valley for Social Good – Ep. 49

Catalin Voss is a man on a mission in Silicon Valley.

Catalin is one of those rare individuals on the absolute bleeding edge of tech who puts social entrepreneurship first.

He’s been named Forbes 30 under 30, his startup Ello uses machine learning to teach children how to read, he’s used AI to look into criminal justice reform in the US, and he’s built an augmented reality platform to help give people with autism emotional cues.

He taught himself how to code as a teenager, and he created a podcast that quickly topped the charts in Germany and reached hundreds of thousands of listeners before he was 15.

He studied at Stanford and under the mentorship of Steve Capps of Apple Computers. An avid coder, he studied machine learning, AI, and tech in Silicon Valley, creating multiple start-ups for social good.

His latest project teaches children to read, potentially solving illiteracy for people around the world. His company was backed by Y Combinator, one of the most prestigious start-up incubators/accelerators in the world.

In this episode, Catalin and I talk about mentorship in silicon valley, getting your ideas off the ground, and how you can make a difference in our modern world.

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1:46 – “I more or less decided for myself that if I’m in this very privileged position to to have the resources I have and to be able to pretty much build anything I want to build, I will try to build stuff that helps people.”

5:21 – “I had tracked down Steve Capps originally because I wanted to work at Apple and and their legal department said no freaking way. And and I thought, maybe, you know, since he started a new company that was a more viable path. And it turned out that my dad’s friend’s daughter had gone to the same school as Steve’s daughter. And somehow my resume landed on his desk and he gave me my first shot.”

7:59 – “I feel like there’s a lot of stuff you can teach yourself online at this point. But there are certain things that for me are just too hard to be honest, and theoretical computer science and math was part of that.”

9:25 – “I ended up becoming a venture partner for a large European publishing company called Axel Springer that set up their publishing business and wanted to start an investment arm in the Bay Area. And the deal was sort of I’d help them invest into startups and in return they’d pay for school or something like that.”

17:27 – “…he said, I don’t know anything about autism, but I know Carl Feinstein, head of child psychiatry. So I actually talked to him. And then Carl said, I know some stuff about autism, but nothing about machine learning. But you should talk to this new guy, Dennis Wall, who’s been coming over from Harvard. And we sort of formed this group around the three of them.”

22:19 – “I think it’s more like you choose the right context for the problem than the other way around, hopefully. But you know, to be honest, I’m also very guided by other people in that sense, by my co-founders, by the people I find to identify these sorts of interesting problems and then bring them to me. And I’m sort of, you know, ‘have technology will travel’.”

27:36 – “There’s a short list of people… in my life that if they’re free and want to do something together, I’m pretty down for that.”

32:59 – “Speech recognition for kids turns out to be an immense technical challenge. It’s just kids speak so differently from adults. And so we spent something like nine months just really working on that.”

35:09 – “I like to play with the cards that I’m dealt and and try to make relatively immediate impact. And so when we’re building Ello, money is a very clear signal that—it’s a means to an end—but it’s a very clear signal. There’s something really honest about building a consumer business and finding product-market fit that I respect.”

49:01 – “[Mentors] tend to be just surprisingly willing to help, especially if they see a little part of themselves in you.”

51:15 – “For your first company, do something… where you have a competitive advantage. Do something that you can do better than anyone else.”

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