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2018 CT Hall of Fame: Skype Founders

The Consumer Technology Hall of Fame honors visionaries who have made a significant impact on the consumer technology industry. These leaders and entrepreneurs have laid the foundation for the technologies, products, services and apps that are improving lives around the world.

The five founders of Skype will be inducted along with 13 other industry leaders at an awards dinner on Wednesday evening, November 7, at Capitale in New York City. i3 magazine highlights this prestigious class. Please join us for the awards dinner as we celebrate this extraordinary group of honorees. Register now!

Skype Founders Janus Friis, Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu, Jaan Tallinn, Niklas Zennström 

Calling folks around the world can be an expensive proposition, both via standard phone lines and especially via cellular. But in August 2003, using software on a personal computer connected to the internet, a Swede, a Dane and three Estonian coders combined to launch Skype, the first mainstream voice over internet protocol (VoIP) calling service, whose software has been downloaded more than a billion times and has more than 300 million active users daily.

Niklas Zennström, born February 16, 1966, in the Stockholm, Sweden, suburb of Järfälla, earned degrees in business administration from Uppsala University and engineering physics from the Royal Institute of Technology, then spent a year at University of Michigan in the U.S. In 1991, he got a job in Amsterdam at the European telecom operator Tele2, and helped build the company's dial-up internet service.

Jaan Tallinn, Ahti Heinla and Niklas Zennström join Sten Tamkivi and Dan Hynes at a Lift99 event

In 1996, Zennström met Janus Friis at Tele2. Born June 26, 1976, in Copenhagen, Friis lacked a formal education; he dropped out of high school to work at the Danish ISP CyberCity before getting a job to lead Tele2's customer support. Zennström and Friis worked together to launch get2net, another Danish ISP. But the pair left Tele2 and, in January 2000, Friis moved into Zennström's tiny Amsterdam apartment to develop the peer-to-peer music sharing application Kazaa, along with three engineers from Tallinn, Estonia: Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu and Jaan Tallinn. The three school friends had co-founded games studio Bluemoon Interactive in 1989, and created the first Estonian commercial computer game, Kosmonaut.

Born May 2, 1972, in Tallinn, Heinla's parents were both computer programs, and taught him to program when he was 10. After co-founding Bluemoon, he attended the University of Tartu, and, 1999, worked as a programmer on the Swedish web portal, which brought him to the attention of Zennström and Friis. In 2002, Heinla was named chief technical architect of Skype, overseeing the creation of much of its underlying technology.

Kasesalu, born April 10, 1972, worked with Tallinn as a programmer for a local hardware manufacturer of 8-bit PCs for use in public schools in 1986, then earned a degree in automation and system technology from Tallinn Technical University. With Heinla and Tallinn at Bluemoon, as well as Zennström and Friis, he helped develop Kazaa along with several other peer-to-peer services before becoming a core library developer for Skype.

Tallinn, born February 14, 1972, was programming Z80-based Yamaha MSX computers when he met Heinla and Kasesalu in 1988. He earned a BSc in theoretical physics from the University of Tartu in 1996.

By 2003, Kazaa had become the world's most downloaded Internet software. At its height, Kazaa constituted 50 percent of all internet traffic, but also attracted lawsuits from record labels. The pair sold Kazaa and co-founded Joost, an interactive TV service, and another peer-to-peer software development company.

Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu and Jaan Tallinn

While working between Amsterdam and Estonia on various projects, the five programmers racked up extensive international phone bills. Looking to lower these expenses, they all asked "why can't we talk over the internet?" The five decided to leverage their peer-to-peer technologies and create a voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) communication system.

Originally dubbed Skyper – a compressed version of "sky peer-to-peer" – the "r" was dropped so the group could procure a .com domain. After a year or so, tired of testing the system with other engineers, Zennström tried calling an old school friend in Singapore. It took 45 minutes of catching up on old times that Zennström realized that Skype worked.

But the question was: would consumers sit in front of PCs to make phone calls over the internet? It turned out that free – or close to it – international calling overcame potential user objections; people "got" Skype immediately. On the day it launched on August 29, 2003, Skype was downloaded 10,000 times. Within a month, it attracted a million users, 4.1 million in its first business quarter, 19.8 million in its first year. Skype call quality was so good, a user reported that his mother could hear him smoking. Skype soon was acquiring five new users every second, virtually 500,000 new users per day. After a 17-month development period, Skype added video chatting in December 2005. "Skype" soon became a by-word for internet voice and video calling worldwide.

With a nearby college supplying freshly-minted computer science gradates, ambitious new developer hires poured in, and Skype soon outgrew its Tallinn HQ. The company also started to attract deep-pocketed suitors. In October 2005, Skype was bought by eBay for $3.1 billion. In 2009, Zennström and Friis led a consortium of private investors to re-acquire a controlling interest in Skype, which then went through a period of corporate restructuring and technical rebuilding to make the system usable on the new generation of smartphones. Over the years, Skype improved service by adopting cloud technology as well as dedicated “supernodes” hosted in data centers, and developed a network of beta testers to ensure smooth usage. In 2011, a more robust Skype was sold to Microsoft for $8.5 billion.

Zennström, an avid yacht racer, founded and became CEO of tech investor Atomico in 2006, and, in October 2015, was tapped to head the new European Tech Alliance (EUTA), promoting Europe as tech hub. In 2007, Zennström and his wife Catherine founded Zennström Philanthropies to support human rights, fight climate change and encourage environmental entrepreneurship. Along with Friis in 2006, Zennström was named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People and received a Wharton Infosys Business Transformation Award, and was voted Entrepreneur of the Year in the European Business Leaders Awards (EBLA). In 2009, the Swedish KTH Royal Institute of Technology awarded him its KTH Great Prize, he received a a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oxford Internet Institute in 2011, and in 2013 was awarded a Swedish King's Medal as well as a gold medal by the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences.

In 2006, along with shared Time Magazine and Wharton honors with Zennström, Friis won the "It Prize" from the Danish IT industry. With Heinla, Friis co-founded Starship Technologies in 2014 to develop small WALL-E-like self-driving unmanned urban delivery robots.

Ahti Heinla with one of Starship's drones self-driving

Heinla serves as Starship Technologies' co-CEO and CTO. He also helped organized Let's Do It 2008, during which 50,000 volunteers – four percent of the country's population – cleaning up the Estonian countryside in one day, which inspired the global World Cleanup Day held each September. In 2003, Heinla, Kasesalu and Tallinn co-founded Ambient Sound Investments.

Tallinn also co-founded the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and Future of Life Institute and the medical consulting firm MetaMed, both in 2012, is on the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and has served on the Estonian President's Academic Advisory Board. He is also an active angel investor and a former investor in and director of the AI company DeepMind

CTA Staff