Fast Company

Peter Thiel Gives Whiz Kids $100K To Quit College, Start Businesses

It sounds like a reality show pitch: The legendary Facebook investor, PayPal founder, and thorn in the side of college deans everywhere announces what happens when 24 people, picked to live among mentors and innovation experts, stop going to school and start getting real--in business.

One climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Another started college in third grade. Another opened a business at age 9. And yet another scored 5580 on the SATs (on a total of 5 tests, but still).

Now they're all getting two years of mentoring from a network of tech and entrepreneurial experts and $100,000 to start a business. The benefactor? PayPal founder, early Facebook investor, and Stanford's least favorite alumnus, Peter Thiel. Least favorite because Thiel has been making waves by arguing that college is an overhyped, overpriced bubble, and that the world needs better ways to recognize young talent. It's all been great fodder for debate, but little more.

Until today. Thiel just put a bit of his money where his active mouth is.

He's requiring his "20 under 20" entrepreneurs (24 including some teams) to stop out of college while they pursue their dreams. Fittingly, a fourth of the proposals are in the fields of education or career development, while the others encompass a range of trendy fields.

"David (Jiageng) Luan plans to do for consumer robotics what the IBM PC did for computing," Thiel says in a statement. "Eden [Full’s] SunSaluter is a solar panel tracking system that optimizes energy collection by up to 40% for only $10." John Burnham, bless his soul, wants to "solve the problem" of space mining.

Will any of the wunderkinder turn their ideas into thriving businesses or world-changing technologies? Perhaps. Will they gain a huge amount from the experience? No doubt. Will they change our perception of the importance of a college degree for success? I'll be watching in the weeks and months ahead to find out.

Here's the full rundown of the Fellows from the Thiel Foundation:

BIOTECH

Laura Deming wants to extend the human lifespan for a few more centuries—at the very least. She started working in a biogerontology lab when she was 12, matriculated at MIT when she was 14, and now at 17 plans on disrupting the current research paradigm by changing the incentives embedded in today’s traditional funding structures. Too often, researchers design quick incremental projects to please grant-making bodies instead of taking on risky, long time horizon problems. With her fund IP Immortal, Laura plans on commercializing anti-aging research, bringing therapies out of the lab and into the market sooner.

Alexander Kiselev is a 19-year-old immigrant from Moscow who is worried that scientific advances in the biosciences aren’t developing fast enough. To spark a new age of discovery, he wants to make experimentation cheaper by creating affordable scientific instruments. With help from the open source hardware community, his first project will be an inexpensive high performance liquid chromatography system, a tool that helps biochemists analyze the components of a sample.

Darren Zhu has conducted research in a wide range of cutting-edge areas, from molecular spintronics fabrication to therapeutic drug design. He is most excited about synthetic biology, a burgeoning field that engineers solutions to biological problems by using standardized genomic components. After he stops out of Yale, his first project will be to build a diagnostic biosensor, the initial step toward his goal of making synthetic biology easier to engineer.

CAREER DEVELOPMENT

Daniel Friedman, Paul Gu, and Eric McKay are passionate about equipping people with the information to make better decisions. In some markets, high noise-to-signal ratios make it hard for the best to distinguish themselves from the lemons. With a wealth of talent in mathematics, programming, and social entrepreneurship, this trio plans to create a more efficient recruiting process driven by a peer-based evaluation system.

Dale Stephens was homeschooled and then unschooled. Now he wants to build a platform called RadMatter to revolutionize how we develop and demonstrate talent in the twenty-first century. At 19, he is a non-conformist in most aspects of his life.

ECONOMICS & FINANCE

Jeffrey Lim wants to increase the amount of voluntary exchange and cooperation in the world by revamping some of our core economic and social institutions. He believes it’s time the means of exchange caught up with the Information Age. Once he stops out of MIT, Jeffrey plans on using his fellowship to create technologies that will help people self-organize to solve social problems. He’s particularly interested in helping people protect the wealth they create from the harmful effects of inflation.

Faheem Zaman has shot the moon on nearly every SAT test he’s ever taken: 5580 points across 5 tests. He wants to decentralize banking in the developing world with a mobile payment system. Because savings are difficult in poor countries—including in some regions of South Asia where many have to hoard and protect cash—Faheem believes mobile financial services will help bring prosperity to these areas. Before he introduces his technology to the developing world, Faheem’s initial plan is to gain a foothold in the U.S. market for mobile financial services.

EDUCATION

Nick Cammarata and David Merfield are working on OPEN, a project that aims to flip the industrial-scale classroom experience. Instead of wasting time lecturing (content OPEN’s online videos are better at providing), teachers using the platform will get to use class time for more one-to-one tutoring with students on the hard problems. With a decade of programming experience, Nick has worked for Microsoft, Stanford, and Mozilla and is an active contributor to several open-source projects. David has designed web interfaces used by millions of people around the world. He has lived and been educated in England, Singapore, France, and the USA.

Andrew Hsu started doing research in a pathology lab when he was 10. By the time he was 12, he had matriculated at the University of Washington. Soon after, he graduated with honors degrees in neurobiology, biochemistry, and chemistry. He was a 19-year-old 4th-year neuroscience Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University when he left early this year to pursue his start-up, Airy Labs.

John Marbach has years of experience working as an Internet marketer in customer development—he founded a vacation rental portal as a high school freshman—and he blogs frequently about emerging technologies. Now, with his start-up Ingenic, he wants to leverage web-based videos and mobile apps to bring the classroom into the twenty-first century.

ENERGY

Tom Currier developed a deep obsession for entrepreneurship, cost reductions, and renewable energy after starting his first business when nine years old. To achieve grid parity, Currier believes that the solar industry needs a fundamental balance of systems breakthrough. He co- founded Black Swan Solar two years ago to commercialize an invention that enables dual-axis photovoltaic module tracking.

Jim Danielson is working on building a more powerful and efficient motor for electric vehicles. He has already electrified a Porsche 924S, including power electronics of his own design. He is currently co-launching Makt Systems LLC, a start-up to commercialize his research and design. Before becoming a Fellow, Jim co-founded the Electric Vehicle Club at Purdue and was president of Purdue Innovations, the university’s entrepreneurship club.

Eden Full is the 19-year-old Canadian founder of Roseicollis Technologies, a solar energy start- up that deploys her patent-pending inventions in established and emerging markets. Currently electrifying two villages of 1000 citizens in Kenya, Eden’s SunSaluter is a solar panel tracking system that optimizes energy collection by up to 40 percent for only $10. She began developing her social enterprise when she was 15.

Sujay Tyle is one of the youngest students at Harvard and is passionate about hacking cellulose to create cheap biofuels. He first worked in a lab when he was 11, interned at Dupont as a teenager, and won the grand prize at the 2009 International Sustainable World Energy Olympiad in Houston. With his older brother, Sheel, he also runs ReSight, Inc., a 501(c)(3) non- profit dedicated to helping the vision-impaired around the world.

INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

James Proud taught himself programming at the age of 9. In his teens, he built products for companies such as Coca-Cola and Universal Music, while juggling his studies during the day. Upon graduating from the British equivalent of high school, James decided not to enroll in university and instead founded GigLocater.com, a start-up that aims to help music lovers discover more live shows.

Christopher Rueth thinks access to the entire Internet is a basic human right. When he was in high school, administrators put in place draconian Internet restrictions and also started logging all student emails. Upset by the school’s intrusion, Chris created a website that allowed students in his district to bypass this snooping. Now Chris wants to help emancipate information around the world.

Ben Yu had just returned from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro when he interviewed with the Thiel Foundation. He was about to climb another mountain in China when he learned he had won. His next challenge is to build an e-commerce start-up that will revolutionize price comparison on the web. Before climbing Kilimanjaro and taking on the current leaders in comparison shopping, Ben was a freshman at Harvard.

Sebastien Zany is pursuing a program to unify computation in a cohesive and elegant framework based around Haskell, with the goal of finally realizing the potential of computers and the Internet to enable people to work with information fluidly and creatively, especially on mobile devices.

MOBILITY

Gary Kurek has been developing mobility aids for physically-disabled citizens for the last four years. Seeing his grandmother weakened by cancer led Gary to invent a walker-wheelchair hybrid that can provide power to assist its user according to how strong she feels at any moment. This flexibility allows users to restore their strength, instead of growing dependent on a substitute. Gary is currently working on expanding the versatility of his mobility aids, making them lighter, foldable, and capable of navigating any home environment including staircases. Gary hails from Alberta, Canada, and is the 19-year-old founder of GET Mobility Solutions.

ROBOTICS

David (Jiageng) Luan plans to do for consumer robotics what the IBM PC did for computing. He came to America when he was 6 years old, began taking college courses at Worcester State in Massachusetts in 3rd grade, and received a certificate in computer science by the time he was 12. As student at Andover and Yale, he has been involved in robotics research for five years and now wants to create home robots that can handle an extensible array of low- to mid-level cognitive tasks in addition to physical jobs.

SPACE

John Burnham believes that the search for new resources has driven exploration, expansion, and innovation—from the discovery of the Americas to the California Gold Rush. Likewise, he believes the key to colonizing space is to make it possible to extract valuable minerals from asteroids, comets, and other planetary bodies. John plans on using his fellowship to develop space industry technologies to solve the problem of extraterrestrial resource extraction.

[Ed. note: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong amount of the Thiel grants. Recipients get $100,000, total, over two years.] 

[Homepage image: Flickr user emilyonasunday; top image: Flickr user Suzie Katz]

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30 Comments

  • vtiger

    I don't think one has to drop out to start a company... at least my college curriculum allowed for plenty of  extracurricular activities... I've heard the his competition = http://mathIQgames.com is being bootstrapped... also a bit of sacrifice...

  • Internet Media Labs

    Congratulations to the grant winners and especially John Marbach who was an intern for us the last two summer. this is a great program that fosters ideas. Something that the education system doesn't do enough of.. would love to see the Universities adding more entrepreneurial programs to create a hybrid of the two POV's.

  • Faith Dow

    This list is interesting. I hope that with the money, they are given an education in transparency, honesty and accountability as well. All are also equally -- if not more important than brilliant minds and skill sets. O course if the sole goal is in producing a profit then anything goes, but I hoping for integrity. See my experience with David Merfield calls all of this into question. http://actsoffaithblog.com/?p=...

  • FeRD

    I was all set to be unimpressed with a score of 5580 across 5 SAT tests, which works out to an average of 1116. (Out of 1600, under the scoring system in place when I took them.)

    Then I looked into the changes they've made in the intervening 2 decades.

    The SAT itself is now scored out of 2400. There are also separate "Subject Tests" on specific topics, much like the NY State Regents exams. Those are scored, like a single section of the SAT, out of 800.

    Which means the maximum possible score for the main SAT, plus four Subject Tests, is 5600.

    ...Wow.

  • Jake Ringwald

    It's actually not that impressive. SAT scores, once you are past a certain benchmark, are not very good correlates for intelligence. For example, I got 4780 on four tests and though I'm smart, I'm hardly a genius.

  • FeRD

    I attended a high school where the question wasn't whether anyone in the class scored a 1600, but how many and who. (The sort of place where an 1116 would be a shameful score.) I certainly would never claim high SAT scores have any correlation with intelligence, or acumen, or future success, any more than I'd correlate bowling a 300 game with any of those.

    Doesn't mean it's not an achievement, as are your scores. An achievement that I hadn't appreciated until I looked into it, was my point.

    Besides, in the context of this story, Thiel's point — one of them — would be that a college degree is no better correlate. While that's true, other commenters have pointed out that "entrepreneur boot camp" is unlikely to foster the same social and psychological growth that the undergraduate experience does. With my sheltered upbringing, I found that *all* of the most important lessons I learned in college were about myself and other people, and weren't taught in the classroom.

  • Paul Paliath

    There's nothing wrong with this. And there's nothing wrong with college either. Both target two entirely different people, with entirely different mindsets and goals.

  • Chuck Blakeman

    Thiel is dead on that education is over rated.  I believe it is completely unnecessary for achieving social, personal, or business success - see my blog post from a few months ago that high traffic - http://bit.ly/kOUkiG.  It is the most over rated, over hyped ticket society wants us to punch, and is in fact deleterious to the majority because it was designed to churn out employees (extensions of machines), not independent thinkers and entrepreneurs. 

    However, as many have said, Thiel proves little by giving $100k handouts to those most likely to succeed.  He doesn't need to.  The mass of evidence that success is not tied to education is already overwhelming.  (The studies that say college grads make more money do not take into account lost earning years, debt vs. investing that same amount of money after high school, etc. - those that do show a negligible monetary gain, and plenty of others show no social gains.)

    As more potential successful people figure out college isn't the only road to success, they will do what I advocate.  Find a business owner or any other leader that you want to become and volunteer to pay them what it would have cost you to go to college.  Any MBA that wants me to train them for two years will end up with a lot better education in business, life, the process of learning, and social contacts than they will get at any MBA program.

  • SC_Tommy

    Seems like the whole social development aspects of college are being bypassed with this approach.  Success in life is defined by more than a paycheck.  College is a great time to make friends, learn how to truly take care of yourself, and network with future business associates.  Too bad this type of program couldn't be modified to offer college scholarships to some really smart kids who need the financial support.  The network of tech and entrepreneurial experts could still be in play through summer internships and a formal co-op program.

  • Misty

    "These stop-outs already have distinguished records, so it'll be no surprise when they do well whether they finish school or not.  If Thiel wants to make a rigorous point instead of generating buzz around his idea, he should set up a control group, by finding 32 "winners" and randomly selecting 16 of those to stop-out out.  Better yet, if he really wants to prove college is overrated for everyone, they should pick 1000 random students from US schools (not just top ones), then mentor 500 of them.  A few years (decades) later, compare the groups." This is what they need to do, we already know the child geniuses are going to make what about the rest of us who are going just to find a way to have our own business. 

  • LemonJuice

    So all of these kids who already recieved full funding are getting even more money? What about the middle class kid who can't afford to quit school and can't afford to stay? So sick of this crap. Not everyone who goes to college is trying to change the world they are just trying to get a job and survive so to call it unnecessary is slapping in the face those who need those basic BAs just to get employed. Just because you are smart does not mean you can operate a business. Have they been prepped about the fact that all start up businesses make no money and have a risk of folding in the first five years. Are they prepared to file taxes for an independent business or handle staff or write grant proposals. No. These mentorships should be for education purposes only not to launch independent businesses. They should replace college education not skip over it entirely. I don't recall seeing any of the Humanities represented. As other posts have said let's get a little more diverse/random in the demographic, ages, fields, etc. and put a real test to this idea. He is prizing the same things universities do and being no better in favoritisim. When did a SAT score directly get anyone a job, how can a fourteen year old homeschooler handle political schmoozing and socializing. These kids will be placed with 'advisors' who will handle the money and get totally screwed out of their own businesses and none will have a business card like Zucks. ugh. not impressed. Half of these kids will be crawling back to university.

  • Sonia Robinson

    I love it! There is still time for these students to return to the classroom and obtain a college degree. Why pass up a fantastic opportunity to learn from successful business men and women? I work in the education industry and I value a strong education. My husband is a true freshman at the age of 29 and in fact my boss did exactly what these people are doing. He dropped out of college to pursue a dream to start a learning services organization of all things! There is a lot to be learned from risk, failure, success and experience.

  • Rita Ashley

    There is no doubt a group of very smart people under the tutelage of very successful, smart people will excel in the business world to a more statistically significant level than the general population. What's your point? 

    Education is not just about getting a job/profession or inventing something. It is about learning to learn, social skills, and all manner of other societal requirements. It is also about growing beyond your boundaries... think history, art, languages and myriad other topics/classes to which one is exposed in college. 

    I cannot be convinced kids creating new stuff is an adequate replacement for cultivating a community of adults with a real education and world view. Eliminating college for these kids is more like creating a production line of entrepreneurs than enriching society with educated professionals. 

  • Paul Paliath

    College is an assembly line for working professionals: People who simply go to college, graduate, work at a secure job for most of their lives and die. This works for many in society -- and there's nothing wrong with this -- but there are others who think different. People who would rather start their own ventures, take risks, turn profits, perhaps even ambitiously set out to change the world?

    Do you not agree that society is equally 'enriched' by these entrepreneurs as it is with educated professionals? And I'm pretty sure that these guys know how to "learn" as they're self-starters with  curiosity and risk appetite. There's ways to learn about the world around us beyond being spoonfed heaps of information in a classroom environment. I also didn't know that college was the only place to gain social skills. 

    I'm pretty sure that kids "creating new stuff" instead of joining your petri dish of cookie-cutter professionals played a big role in the creation of the very means of communication you're using to voice your opinions right now.

    And you mentioned that college provides people with a "real education"; how can you quantify this? 

  • Andy Rice

    Exactly...

    If you think of college as simply a bridge to fulfilling your entrepreneurial fantasies, then it is probably overrated. But to generalize this to everyone is irresponsible and stupid. What most kids don't realize when they're applying for college (and what most everyone realizes after they get out), is that where you go to school, for how long, what you major in, etc... really doesn't matter. The value of those years comes in what you do when you get there.

    I think it is mightily convenient of Thiel to choose people who have already proven his point that you don't need college to be successful. Ironically for him, this is the lowest possible risk strategy because these kids will undoubtedly succeed in some way (based on their past successes).

    And who's to say you can't stay in college AND build a company? The bottom line: do what you want to do. The truly successful do what they want their own way, without listening to the noise brought about by people like Thiel.

  • bill kaminski

    The concept is cool - but how do you apply this philsophy when you're trying to educate hundreds of thousands of kids in a large school system? The reality of trying to implement great small ideas, into big school systems is frustrating... but, its reality....billk

  • Stacy McCoy

    College is expensive and you don't necessarily get the same ROI that you used to - so in that respect everyone needs to do their own cost-benefit.  However, using these prodigies as an example of why kids should not go to college does not make sense.  Yes, if a student is able to start at an ivy league school as a young teen or pre-teen they probably aren't going to have much difficulty finding a job to begin with.  A lot of the kids in these examples have already started companies - probably because they are so smart that college just isn't challenging enough.  In that case, sure they should use their genius to do something bigger.  But that is the exception and not the rule.  These examples cannot translate to the greater public.  If his model focused on your average student then he might have something.  But I don't think this program does much to further his overall case against college.

  • Helene Kremer

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    Like other people have commented, these people have already
    distinguished themselves in their own rights.  What would be a challenge
    is for Thiel to find the talent at the lesser-known colleges (non-Ivy league).
      Talent exists at other schools besides the best-known institutions.

  • Mark Hernandez

    While I agree that college is not for everyone, and knowledge acquisition is different from traditional learning, we are not automatically born with all the information we need to navigate the business world. The uber entrepreneurial minded innovators and creative help to add synergy to any learning environment.