Alumni Profile: Arthur Tu

B.S., computer science, Carnegie Mellon University, 2007; M.S., logic, computation and methodology, Carnegie Mellon University, 2009.

In the early 20th century, Thomas Edison famously said that inventing a successful product was “one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” One hundred years later, the same formula still works, says Arthur Tu.

“In the startup world, everyone thinks that if you have a brilliant idea, people will throw money at you and want to join you,” Tu says. “But there are many smart people around the world. Maybe 50 of those people have the same idea, and 25 of them are already working on it.” Because of that, he says, success comes down to learning the foundations of your business, continual improvement of your processes, and then pivoting and executing correctly, again and again.

In 2010, a year after completing his master’s degree and working as a research associate at CMU, Tu founded LearnBop with then-Tepper MBA student Bharani Rajakumar (TPR’11). LearnBop is an intelligent, cloud-based tutoring platform that teaches math skills to students in kindergarten through 12th grade in much the same fashion as an expert human teacher would.

Following LearnBop’s acquisition by a public education company in 2014, Tu joined the founding team at Elemental Path, a startup designing “smart” educational toys that can hold intelligent conversations with young children. The company won the grand prize in the IBM Watson Mobile Developers Challenge and is launching a crowd-funding campaign in early 2015 to bring a product to market by fall the same year.

Elemental Path’s technology allows the company to deliver education through a toy that can be picked up at any retail store, Tu says. The prototype is a toy dinosaur that can answer simple questions from small children—such as, “Why is the sky blue?”—and which can also teach children how to count and add numbers. “The major difference between this toy and its competitors is that almost nothing from the toy is a canned response—almost everything comes from the cloud,” Tu says. “It learns from the child as it has more and more data.”

Born in Nevada, Tu’s family moved to Taiwan when he was very young, and his extended family still lives there. His interest in using technology to teach skills to other people started early; Tu learned HTML, PHP, Java and CSS so that he could build a website to teach others how to code.

While pursuing his degree in computer science, he became very interested in philosophy and decided to get a double major in philosophy as well as a master’s degree in logic and computation, during which he investigated how humans make causal judgment based on quantitative cues. CMU LearnLab’s Ken Koedinger (DC’88,’90), Vincent Aleven and Ryan Baker (CS’05) helped shape his research interests, Tu says, along with ECE’s Bill Courtright (E’97), executive director of CMU’s Parallel Data Laboratory, Steve Ritter (DC’90,’92) of Carnegie Learning, and David Danks and Peter Spirtes of the philosophy department. And, he says, SCS’s Project Olympus provided key support to LearnBop in its early days.

“Carnegie Mellon exceeded my expectations—it ended up changing my life in many different ways,” Tu says. It made him more outgoing, he says, and also inspired him to look at problems from many different perspectives. “Engineers can’t just work in silos anymore,” he says. “You can’t design and build a product unless you know something about how people are going to use it—it has to have a very real application and purpose.”

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