Harvard next on menu for knowledge-hungry dot.com high flyer
Armed with a fistful of Leaving Cert A grades, John Collison has touched down at Harvard University. For this dot.com entrepreneur, love of learning will always take precedence over money, writes LOUISE HOLDEN
HE’S A PILOT, a pianist, a debating star and a dot.com success. He got 10 As in his Leaving Cert before heading off to a physics Olympiad. He started attending courses in journalism and medicine when he was seven.
Hate him? Well you can try, but John Collison doesn’t make it easy. He’s more interested in learning than high living, and spent his first summer of freedom at a science convention on Mexico, teaching himself Spanish on the side.
“Learning is food to John,” says a close relative of the 19-year-old, who left Limerick for Harvard University last week. “He was never a swot, he just doesn’t see any boundaries between school and life – it’s all learning and it’s all good.”
John Collison, who did his Leaving Cert in Castletroy Community College in Limerick, recently made the news for two reasons.
His results (10 As in honours subjects, including maths and physics) put him among the CAO high rollers. However, John has been one to watch since he set up an internet company with his brother Patrick three years ago – which they went on to sell for €3 million when John was in Transition Year.
Auctomatic was conceived to help people who sell products using online marketplaces such as eBay. The brothers wrote a programme that manages stocks and sales for the growing number of businesses that now operate on the back of online auction sites.
When the technology was bought by Vancouver company communicate.com in 2008, the Collisons became household names.
Thanks to an appearance on The Late Late Show and constant media coverage, the brothers were shunted into the limelight in their teens, which has left John a little media-shy, according to his family.
“John does not want to be defined by Auctomatic,” says a source. “He would consider the whole venture a failure if he was stuck with that tag for the rest of his days.”
Collison doesn’t drive around in a Ferrari, and he’s no party animal. A friend who travelled Europe with him says he ran the trip with military precision, and is not the type to wake up on a beach in Naxos. He’s not likely to attach himself to the trust fund babies at Harvard either, according to friends.
“The weekend before term starts at Harvard, there’s a ‘dorm clean-up’ where students are invited to work on campus for the minimum wage,” says a source. “John was very anxious to be there for the clean-up because he felt he would meet people who were the best craic.”
One outward sign of his high-flying status is John’s commitment to earning a pilot’s licence – not the typical ambition of an Irish teenager. He’s had to ground that one for now because there’s no airstrip at Harvard. But a week into collegeand Collison is already hard to track down: he’s joined the rowing team and taken to the water. He’s considering physics and statistics with a minor in Chinese, although he doesn’t have to make a decision until next year.
John’s self-effacing attitude may be hard to understand for those of us who would love to be known for making our first million in Transition Year. However, speaking to those close to John, it becomes clear that his ambitions aren’t determined by money.
“John doesn’t want what he describes as a selfish career,” says a close friend. “He has wide interests, such as politics, writing and health, so it’s hard to tell where a career will take him. Ultimately, though, his passion is physics. He has an innate understanding of science.”
According to his family, John is very much a product of the Irish education system. He was not hot-housed at home, although he did attend the Centre for Talented Youth at Dublin City University every summer from the age of seven.
“There were loads of books around the house, and the boys were always hungry for knowledge,” says a relative. “They weren’t pushed in any direction, but their interests were always seized upon and encouraged. His parents are both scientists, and the two older brothers have taken the same course. The youngest has different interests, but he is encouraged in the same way. Science was not pushed.”
John’s parents are keen to acknowledge the role of school in John’s success. “The staff at Castletroy Community College challenged John without pressuring him,” says his mother Lily. “He could spend lunchtime debating a physics conundrum with a teacher – it’s that kind of school.”
He is a great advertisement for Transition Year, when he built his company and began new subjects that he then continued, outside school, until the Leaving Cert. “He asked the principal to fail him at the end of Transition Year because he wanted to do it again,” says a teacher.
A member of staff at Castletroy College describes a student who defies the traditional idea of a high achiever. “John’s very level-headed. At school, he loved his friends, hurling, debating; he didn’t spend his time with his head stuck in a book.You’d never know from talking to him that he’s learning to fly, blogging endlessly and building computer programmes.”
John’s older brother Patrick is equally accomplished. When he was 15, he wrote his own programming language, which won him first place in the Irish Young Scientist of the Year competition and runner-up European Young Scientist of the Year. Patrick was accepted to MIT at 17 but chose instead to dedicate himself to his career. The two brothers continue to work closely.
John’s decision to go Harvard rather than throw himself into the family business is as much about new horizons as qualifications, say those who know him. He spent the summer teaching himself Spanish, “just to keep pushing out the horizons”.
“I’d love to see his diary when he gets to Harvard,” says a former teacher. “Knowing John, he won’t leave many gaps and he’ll branch out in some very unexpected directions.”
John Collinson's sparkling CV
At 19, John Collinson is one of Ireland’s better-known internet entrepreneurs, having sold the online company he set up with his brother Patrick for €3 million when he was in Transition Year. His educational CV is a thing to behold, although his parents insist “he was never hot-housed, just hungry for knowledge”.
Attended Centre for Talented Youth at DCU, where he studied laboratory medicine, maths and journalism from age seven.
Entered Castletroy Community College in Limerick.
Transition Year. Founded and sold Auctomatic, an online company, for €3 million
Got 10 As in the Leaving Cert
Accepted to five US universities, including Harvard, Stanford and MIT. Chose Harvard, as one of only three Irish students to be accepted there this year.