This 15-Year-Old Built An App To Help His High School Debate Team. It Could Do Much More Than That

At an age when most high school sophomores are popping pimples and grinding gears on their parents' cars, Tanay Tandonput filed a patent for a news-reader algorithm and cranked out a Flipboard competitor.

Tanay Tandon apologized for not being able to meet in person for our interview. "I don’t have a ride," he explained.

Tandon is 15. He can be forgiven for not even having found time to get a learner’s permit this year. Between debate and tennis and hangouts with friends, not to mention class, most of Tandon’s spare time has been poured into his app, Clipped, which he released just before New Year’s.

Clipped uses an algorithm of Tandon’s devising (a patent is pending) to extract key information from news articles or other pieces of writing, distilling these tidbits into bullet points. It’s being billed by some as a Flipboard competitor, but it has grander aspirations than that. Really, it’s something of a research-assistant competitor, or Congressional-aide competitor, or judicial-clerk competitor—or at any rate, it could be. If the problem Tandon is working on were ever truly hacked (first reviews online appear somewhat mixed, and Tandon is the first to acknowledge the app isn’t perfect), computers could essentially do a lot of our reading, or at least our skimming, for us.

We caught up with Tandon to learn more about Clipped and the unique challenges of hacking a product at 15.

FAST COMPANY: How’d you get the idea for Clipped?

TANAY TANDON: I’m a Lincoln-Douglas debater, and it involves lots of prep, reading evidence files and cases. It’s a long process for me, and I wanted to find something to condense an article into something more concise and readable. I wrote the first version of the algorithm last year, and continued to improve it throughout the year. I decided it could be applied not just to debate but to news articles and other types of documents.

Some users have complained that Clipped doesn’t always work so well.

The news version of the algorithm is targeted to news articles about a page or two in length. It’s targeted for things that, rather than give opinions, have lots of facts and information. But in the case of opinion articles, I’m a working a bit on that.

When you developed the algorithm for your debate prep, how did you personally use it?

I use it to scan over articles, and after using Clipped, if I like an article, I have to go back and read the whole thing. For a typical debate I have about 100 different evidence files about 2-3 pages in length. There might be an article where the title might sound appealing, but after running Clipped, I can see the focus of the article is definitely not what I’m looking for. Last year for a debate on animal rights, I found a paper on animal rights—but it was targeted towards the philosophical side of why to respect animal rights. But for that specific debate, I was looking for evidence from the scientific side, research showing that animals can think as much as humans.

I've talked to a 19-year-old and a 20-year-old recently, but you're the youngest entrepreneur I've spoken to. You turn 16 this month. Do you have your learner’s permit yet?

Not yet. I haven’t started looking into that. I probably should. This summer I’ll put some time into that.

Shouldn’t you be focusing more on high school stuff, getting a date to prom and such? Is it hard to juggle Clipped with high school?

Cilpped is unique in a sense, since it goes hand-in-hand with what I’m trying to do with school. I don’t think people should rush into this kind of thing. I’m a strong believer in education, and I definitely will be going to college. I didn’t start with the sense of wanting to release a product. I started with, how can I take this process and make it better for my debate team? I do put a lot of focus on being a high school kid and hanging out with friends. I do tennis and a couple other sports.

How many hours were you putting into Clipped last year?

On a regular school day, I’d come back, do homework for 3-4 hours, then I might go meet up with friends for an hour or two, or I’d go and work on Clipped pretty much the rest of the night. In the last couple weeks leading up to launch, it was winter break, so I didn’t have to worry about school, and I put 6-7 hours a day in the last couple weeks.

Do you think there’s an age that’s too young to launch a product?

I don’t think any age is too young. So long as there are the right people around you and you can make sure none of it gets to your head, you can pretty much do it at any age. Building Clipped, I didn’t pay attention to what my age is. I kind of just built it.

This interview has been condensed and edited. For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here. Know someone who'd be a good Fast Talk subject? Mention it to David Zax.

[Debate Image: Khakimullin Aleksandr via Shutterstock]

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  • Peter

    no there is no specific age to invent, even a 5 year old boy can invent something you just don't underestimate him

  • Don Keir

    The problem is that summarizing web pages into an arbitrary three or four bullet points often just doesn't work. The longer the article, the higher the risk of losing key points. And for very short articles, do you need a summary at all? I created a web app called "Skimzee" to allow user-configurable summary sizes which I think allows a lot more freedom and creates better results. Try summarizing this article using Clipped and compare it to the results with Skimzee here:

    Oh, and by the way, sadly I'm not 15. If I was I'd probably have generated considerably more press coverage.

  • eenoog (one-eye)

    Clipped really does not work, tried it in various articles, neither does summly for that matter, however, checked out Don's tool and I was very pleasantly surprised.  Would love to see a bookmarklet option (Don?)

    This is just another crappy article on genius kids who invent revolutionary things, but really didn't. I've seen so many recently (remember the kids with the perpetual motion machine, I mean, the ones who extracted hydrogen with a battery which fed into a generator to charge the battery, the kid with the water purifier, the kid with the pancreatic cancer test, etc etc)

    Yes, they're all smart, but the fact that neither the kid, nor the journalist reporting on it, has heard of competitors or existing technology/research doesn't make it unique (or an invention, at least not in the sense of "something that can be patented).

    Supposedly this is patent pending. This means nothing except that it has been sent to the patent office. I'm pretty sure that the patent won't be granted, unless, perhaps, it's a completely new way to generate useless summaries.

  • Don Keir

    Thanks for checking out Skimzee. There's a bookmarklet and Chrome extension - select the Settings menu item under the cog icon at top right and you'll see them under the Summarize section.

  • Carlos Newsome

    Thanks for the heads up.  I also checked out Skimzee, and found it to be a very useful and time saving tool.

  • Jonathan

    Sounds very similar to what another schoolkid, Nick_D'Aloisio, did back in 2011 with Summly

  • Lauren Hug

    This app sounds like an excellent product for high school debaters ... with the potential to be much more. The tendency in high school debate these days is to amass a ton of "cards" while acquiring only a superficial understanding of the content. Perhaps by making the search process faster and easier, debaters will feel free to devote more time to comprehension and thinking. Regardless, Tandon's problem-solving and ingenuity demonstrates the kind of critical thinking high school speech and debate can help foster when those skills are emphasized.

  • Mark Askey

    I CLIPPED this article and got this.   Not really impressed but will try it more.

    This 15-Year-Old Built An App To Help His High School Debate Team. It Could Do Much More Than ThatTanay Tandon apologized for not being able to meet in person for our interview.“I don’t have a ride,” he explained.He can be forgiven for not even having found time to get a learner’s permit this year.

  • ANON

    He's 15... I think you could be slightly more tolerant considering what he's achieved.

  • d_n

    "but will try it more"

    Isn't that showing tolerance? There's no use beating around the bush – it's competitive out there.

  • Someone you wished you knew

    Yeeeah, not to take the wind out of this kid's sails or anything, but: -- Also, OSX actually has a little-known Summarize feature natively in Services. 

    But mainly, this article is annoyingly patronizing. Like, prom dates, learner's permit -- really? I get FastCo going for their typical sensationalist "genius high schooler invents patent-pending algorithm to reinvent the news!" angle, but seriously, this article would have read a lot better without the inane and irrelevant focus on the kid's age.