19-year-old Olenka Polak plans to drop out of Harvard next semester. The winner of 2013's Harvard College Innovation Challenge has her sights on Hollywood and bringing her movie-translation app, myLINGO, to cinema fans. Like any smart student, Polak needed some reassurance, and that came in the form of a seed investment totaling $750,000 from undisclosed investors. In the larger scheme of things, this isn't an extraordinarily large amount of investment money—but it was enough to make Polak want to try her luck out West.
"The idea came about because we grew up in a Polish-speaking household," Polak told Fast Company. Polak's cofounder is her brother Adam, who graduated from Johns Hopkins last year. "Our parents speak English, I guess, less than well, and they were never able to attend the movies with us because they couldn't understand the language spoken on screen."
About a year ago, the brother-and-sister team began working on an app that allowed people to listen to synchronized alternative language tracks—dubs in foreign languages—while watching movies in the theaters. Most studios automatically dub their movies in French, Italian, German, and Spanish, and can support up to 25 languages for a given title, she says. Though English speakers can use the app while watching foreign movies, the company is focused primarily on serving Hispanic populations in America. However, the availability of tracks can vary movie to movie based on their international release schedules. "The nature of Hollywood, schedules are more of an art and not a science," Polak says.
MyLINGO has intrigued Hollywood's big six—20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, Columbia, Universal, and Walt Disney Studios—and it is in the process of signing on a founding studio that will release titles and provide audio tracks for the app as well as marketing support. The company also announced Thursday the addition of several big names in entertainment as advisors: CEO of United Talent Agency Jeremy Zimmer; Dennis Miller, president of operations of TV Guide Networks; and Barclay Knapp, former CEO of British cable company NTL, who will serve as chairman of the board.
While Polak's grateful for the opportunities and connections she's had as a student entrepreneur—which on top of the $10,000 innovation challenge prize also included a residency at Harvard's innovation lab, mentorship from the on-campus Women's Founders Forum, and a technical advisor from the school's electrical engineering department—she ultimately decided it made the most sense to put her studies on hiatus with Los Angeles beckoning. She's taking a leave of absence in the spring, but isn't sure when—if ever—she'll return.
"My parents immigrated to America, specifically for their kids' education," Polak said. "They wanted us to work really hard at school, attend top-tier universities, graduate from top-tier universities, and really have our diplomas in our back pocket."
But she says her parents understand what it's like to leave something behind to pursue new opportunities. "They did in a sense drop out of Poland to move and find more opportunity," she said.