A 21-year old Swedish AI prodigy wants to revolutionize the $6 trillion education industry – here’s why 'Zuck' and Tim Cook are impressed

Sana LabsJoel Hellermark, 21, ignored university in order to change education for good.

  • Sana Labs is an edtech startup founded by 21-year old Joel Hellermark.
  • It provides AI platform that individualizes a student’s learning in subjects ranging from language to maths.
  • Applying AI to education has so far proved difficult, and Sana Labs hopes its scalable platform will change that.
  • Even Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook have shown interest towards the Swedish startup, which uses AlphaGo-like technology to boost student performance.

Stockholm is home to many world-conquering startups.

But even by the standards of the tech mecca, Sana Labs sticks out in ambition. The startup last fall launched a platform for personalized learning, and so far, its biggest challenge has been to scale up fast enough to meet soaring demand.

Founded by a 21-year old Swedish AI expert, Joel Hellermark, Sana Labs wants to insert the latest advances in AI into education. “We want any education company in the world to be able to implement adaptivity in just a few days,” says the founder and CEO.

Once it’s plugged in to an existing digital education tool, Sana Labs helps students learn faster and become more interested by the content based on their individual learning behavior.

Hellermark thinks its ability to scale across different domains could be a game-changer for the $6 trillion global education industry. “When all learning becomes adaptive, students will be learning twice as fast, and you will be able to take all students to entirely new heights of knowledge.”

Education’s AlphaGo moment

When first founding Sana Labs in 2016, Hellermark spotted a huge untapped opportunity to commercialize cutting-edge AI in digital education. The existing offering was based on rather primitive, rules-based AI.

“Traditional education platforms have so far been based on pre-determined rules that a computer acts on, much like when IBM’s Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov by mimicking the moves of the world’s best chess players,” says Hellermark, whose early interest in AI was sparked by Stanford professor Andrew Ng’s machine learning courses on Coursera.

AlphaGo’s win in 2016 against the world champion of Go – a game infinitely more complex than chess – underscored to Hellermark the potential of deep neural networks, a strand of machine learning that Sana Labs relies on. “AlphaGo showed how, using machine learning, it continuously learned what leads to success by analyzing historical data.”

Sana Labs (screenshot)Sana Labs’ AI learns from everything the student does in real time, and determines his or her optimal learning pattern.

The more data that’s gathered on a student, the better Sana Labs is able to predict and boost performance. “The really revolutionary part,” Hellermark says, “is how it analyzes and spots patterns that no human could know existed.”

A testament to Sana Labs’ deep learning approach was its recent win in Duolingo’s Global AI competition: Sana Labs beat traditional AI platforms in predicting future mistakes that learners of English, Spanish, and French would make based on the mistakes they had made in the past.

Identifying these sorts of learning gaps is what then enables Sana Labs to tailor the right sort of content for each student –bye bye, standardized 20th century education.

“We are expecting improvements in orders of magnitude,” Hellermark says. “Based on studies, students should be able to work through the exact same content in half the time, or be 25 to 30 percent more engaged.”

Tim Cook and ‘Zuck’ were impressed with Sana Labs

Having developed the algorithms that would underpin Sana Labs technology, Hellermark looked for input from the best scientists in the field including experts at NASA and Cornell University. Some are now advisors to the company.

For commercial leads, the 21-year old went straight to the source and shot away his email pitch to Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook.

Both replied.

”One of Apple’s core values is education, so Tim Cook was curious about potentially working together, as was Mark Zuckerberg,” says Hellermark, just back from meeting with Apple and Facebook in California, as a result of those emails.

What should interest tech titans is that only some 2 percent of all learning today is digital. The room for growth is massive, and Google Classroom’s rapid expansion bodes well for Sana Labs, which aims to open its first overseas office in the US.

Sana Labs works with two types of customers: publishing houses and digital education platforms. After having focused on language education early on, the company’s AI platform is now all but content agnostic, able to work with courses ranging from math to programming to medical prep tests.

Neil Jacobstein, Chair of AI & Robotics at Singularity University, thinks that AI tutors or platforms are going to change education for good. But he doesn’t buy that there could be just one single engine – a Netflix if you will – for personalized education, which is what Sana Labs wants to become.

It gets too complicated, according to the AI visionary.

“Building an AI tutor that tutors everything is like trying to boil the ocean. For now, it makes more sense to focus on specialized areas, and to do it really well, and later make a meta-AI that can collect these course tutors,” Jacobstein tells BI Nordic. “If [Sana Labs] can do it, wonderful.” (Sana Labs is not an AI tutor but an intelligent AI layer applicable through a universal API, the company says.)

If Hellermark gets to decide, Sana Labs will do to education what his countryman Daniel Ek did to music with Spotify.

Bolstered by seed funding from business angels including Spotify’s former CMO, Atomico investor Sophia Bendz, the startup has been poaching some of Stockholm’s brightest tech minds on its team – including engineers who built Spotify’s playlist recommendations engine.

Not a bad start then, for Joel Hellermark: “By the end of the year we’re hoping to have implemented Sana Labs in products with hundreds of millions of users,” he says.

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