Elon Musk 2.0? Meet Austin Russell, the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, Luminar founder and evangelist for the lidar self-driving car tech that Tesla’s CEO called ‘freaking stupid’

Lidar beef? From left, billionaires Elon Musk and Austin Russell

  • Elon Musk calls lidar ‘expensive and unnecessary’ but 26-year-old Russell, on Forbes’ ‘40 Under 40’ list, believes otherwise – and has deals with Volvo, Toyota and Intel to prove it
  • He left Stanford after getting a US$100,000 fellowship from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and now owns an US$83 million LA mansion next door to Tom Hanks and one in Florida

Move over, outspoken multi-billionaire Elon Musk, there’s a new tech mogul in town. Meet Austin Russell, the 26-year-old Californian native who recently became a billionaire – current net worth, US$1.7 billion to be exact – after his company Luminar Technologies went public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) deal in December 2020.



The world’s youngest self-made billionaire, recently featured on Forbes’ prestigious “40 Under 40” list for 2021, is reaping the benefits and living large. Here are a few things to know about the tech wizard.

1. He’s a university dropout (!)

At the age of 17, Russell was studying physics at Stanford University when he developed the idea of an automotive sensor technology which later became Luminar Technologies’ key breakthrough. He didn’t stay long though, dropping out in 2012 after receiving a US$100,000 fellowship from billionaire tech investor and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

Talking about why he dropped out, Russell told Forbes: “When you have this fundamental drive to be able to build, to be able to create, it’s very challenging to do that in an academic environment.” Russell himself was born into a well-to-do family in Newport Beach, with his father Michael Russell working in commercial estates and his mother, Shannon Cleye, a former model and actress on The Young and The Restless, real estate portal Dirt reports.

2. He invented a self-driving car technology

Russell’s Luminar is a start-up that develops automotive lidar (light detection and ranging) hardware and software technology that “uses lasers to detect and measure distance and ultimately create a 3D map of the real-world environment that can be used in self-driving”, as per CNBC.

Luminar’s lidar sensors are now being used by major automotive customers such as Volvo, Toyota and Intel’s Mobileye. Recently, Luminar was selected for use in Nvidia’s Drive Hyperion Autonomous Vehicle Reference Platform which aims to produce final software in 2024.

3. He really is self-made



Although he founded Luminar in 2012, it took him a few years to reach billionaire status. Russell told CNBC that he set up the company to be a “a long-term sustainable business and power the future of autonomy for all of these carmakers”, adding that his recent success felt “totally surreal”. Following Luminar’s listing on the Nasdaq exchange last December, Russell became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire at the tender age of 25 – a title once claimedthen stripped-from, Kylie Jenner.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Luminar’s shares increased nearly 28 per cent on its debut and gave the company a market value of about US$7.8 billion.

4. He (naturally) owns multimillion-dollar mansions

As a high-flying CEO, Russell has already learned how to spend his newly acquired wealth. According to Dirt, the young billionaire recently bought a US$83 million mansion in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, that spans over 20,000 square feet, boasting six bedrooms and a whopping 18 bathrooms. Not only that, the LA mansion also features retinal scanner access to the bedroom, a 20-seat outdoor cinema and a car gallery … plus it has Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson as neighbours.



Meanwhile, the same publication also reported that Russell also bought another estate: a 13,000-square-foot mansion in Winter Park, Florida, located 17km from Luminar’s Orlando headquarters. The Florida mansion includes 10 bedrooms and 10.5 bathrooms, along with an 18-car garage, two kitchens and drought-tolerant AstroTurf lawns in the front and backyards.

5. But uh-oh, Elon Musk doubts the lidar tech

In 2019, Tesla CEO Elon Musk called lidar technology “freaking stupid … expensive and unnecessary”, according to CNBC. However, Russell was of another opinion. He told the publication that, “I think 50 commercial partners and a majority of the major carmakers we are working with would disagree. Cameras and other systems are great for assisted driving, but with autonomy, that’s where a really high-performance lidar is needed.”

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