This Year’s Thiel Fellows Include A Fashion Designer, A Poet, And A Harvard Dropout

The 22 teens were awarded $100,000 each to quit school and start a business.

Peter Thiel. Photo by Fortune Live Media.

Two years ago, PayPal founder and libertarian futurist Peter Thiel declared higher education “a bubble” and decided to give 20 bright young things $100,000 each to quit college and start a company instead.


Harvard hasn’t exactly shut its doors since then. But over half of all private colleges in the country did just report flat or declining enrollment, despite record tuition discounting. (Maybe there is something to this bubble talk.) And how have the “20 Under 20” fellows from 2011 and 2012 fared? They have founded over 30 companies and raised a reported $34 million thus far, from venture investment, sales and revenue, sponsorships, and awards.

Today, the Thiel Foundation announced the third class of fellows. “Though the education bubble is still as much of a problem today as it was two years ago, far more people are now questioning the wisdom of exchanging decades of debt in return for a vague credential with poor job prospects,” Peter Thiel told Co.Exist. “The time is clearly ripe for innovators to develop new ways to help far more young people obtain the knowledge and skills they need to build productive, successful lives.”

As in past years, the 2013 fellows are weighted severely towards guys–only four women among them. They are a bit more international than they have been previously, with participants from Canada, Britain, India, China, and Singapore. One of them founded India’s answer to Airbnb, another has been doing research at MIT since he was 13, and Maddy Maxey is the Thiel Fellows’ first fashion designer. In addition, two of the fellows are working on education-related projects, which seems to be a personal favorite of Thiel’s. “If you focus on solving your own problems, you know your company will always have at least one customer,” Jonathan Cain, president of the Thiel Foundation, told Fast Company. “Since young people are the ones currently suffering through school, they are well-equipped to identify what’s broken in education.”

In addition to the fellows program, the Under-20 world comprises a mentorship program, semi-independent meetups, and an invite-only Summit, which maybe is to the Summit Series what Model UN is to the UN. And 2011 Thiel Fellow Dale Stephens has launched his own “Uncollege” Gap Year program, further growing the network of young people who dream of dropping out, writing up a business plan, and getting funded–or crowdfunding themselves.

Here’s the complete list of 2013 fellows, from the Thiel Foundation announcement:


Andrew Brackin (18, London, United Kingdom) cofounded a marketplace for designers that grew to 100,000 signups. Brackin runs Tomorrow’s Web, an event for young technologists with hundreds of attendees and major sponsors. He will be working on Bunchy, a funding platform that allows organizations to raise money from their audience on their social platforms and websites.

Austin Russell (18, Newport Beach, CA) has a passion for developing innovative optoelectronic technologies for industry. His projects range from high-efficiency far-field wireless power transmission to low-cost early cancer detection systems. As a fellow, Russell will be focusing on 3-D depth mapping and projection of interactive holograms through a compact laser-based module.

Christopher Walker (20, Chevy Chase, MD) is a video game designer, programmer, and artist. After leaving college to start a software company, he created a game designed to improve spatial cognition. As a Thiel Fellow, Walker will focus on developing interactive software to teach technical skills like programming, music, and mathematics.

Daniel Zulla (19, Regensburg, Germany) is a software engineer who is about to introduce a secure computing architecture used for servers and desktop computers alike.

Darren Lim (19, Singapore) came to love scientific innovation while studying in China, and remains a consumer at heart who is obsessed with cutting-edge gadgets. He is currently working on a startup that focuses on how we interact with technology.


Delian Asparaouhov (19, Salt Lake City, UT) wants to help improve health care. As a Thiel fellow, he will work on leveraging technology to help manage disease and improve patient outcomes.

Diwank Singh Tomer (19, Palo Alto, CA) dropped out of his college in India to work on an online platform for learning to code. Aside from his love of poetry, he is an exceptional hacker and engineer who was awarded the Mozilla WebFWD fellowship for his efforts to improve learning online. He has since moved to the Bay Area to further his efforts and is currently working on a collaborative learning platform.

Gary Le (19, East Brunswick, NH) envisions a safer, cleaner, and more trustable Internet. He is working on a real-time online identity verification system for various applications in e-commerce, online communities, and collaborative consumption businesses.

James Schuler (19, Armonk, NY) started his first company when he was 12 and hasn’t stopped since. In high school he founded a health care company called Eligible and attended Y Combinator as one of its youngest entrepreneurs. Recently, Schuler left Eligible in order to focus on a bigger market: politics. As a Thiel Fellow, James will be focusing on implementing crowdfunding in order to revolutionize the campaign finance market.

Kevin Wang (18, Vernon Hills, IL) began developing games and applications when he was 9. Since then, he has moved into entrepreneurship, applying his highly technical background to solve bigger problems. As a Thiel Fellow, he aims to simplify the world of law and open source software to end the wasteful litigation epidemic.


Laura Ball (19, Wauwatosa, WI) is researching value in neural systems. She would like to determine how information becomes important, and how important information maintains dominance over other information in order to define our conscious mind-states and behavioral responses.

Maddy Maxey (18, San Diego, CA) began interning in the fashion industry when she was 16 for companies like Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Ricco, Peter Som, and Nylon Magazine. After founding a popular fashion blog while in France and then winning a scholarship from the CFDA & Teen Vogue for her work, she started a clothing company of her own. As a Thiel Fellow, Maxey will focus on optimizing the clothing patterns and the enterprise software that make our current garment industry inefficient. Her goal is to make domestic production profitable through better integrating software, not just hardware technologies, into our manufacturing system.

Mark Daniel (19, Nashville, TN) cofounded social goal achievement site GoalHawk in 2011. Since then, he has been building StatusHawk, a workplace accountability tool that changes the way that companies handle status reports. As a Thiel Fellow, Daniel will focus on taking the early stage company and building it into a profitable and sustainable business.

Nelson Zhang (19, Toronto, ON, Canada) has always loved making things. He has been tinkering with electronics since he was 10, and designed, manufactured, and sold several hardware products during high school and college. He is currently working on a desktop fabricator for electronics, aimed at lowering iteration time and costs for hardware companies. He hopes to make the design and production of physical things accessible to everyone.

Nick Liow (18, Vancouver, BC, Canada) believes everything is a remix and information wants to be free. Now, he’s challenging copyright by building ways for creators to get paid for giving their work to the public domain.


Riley Drake (18, Baltimore, MD) has been conducting scientific research since she was 15 years old. She has studied immunology at Johns Hopkins University and infectious disease at Massachusetts General Hospital. During her fellowship she intends to focus on applying physical principles to virology: utilizing biophysics to create broad-spectrum viral therapies.

Riley Ennis (19, McLean, VA) founded Immudicon, an early-stage biotechnology company that has developed a novel cancer vaccine platform and telemedicine sweat-monitoring device in order to improve how we treat and diagnose diseases. The company was spun out of his research in high school at Georgetown University and the Sheikh Zayed Institute at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. His ultimate goal is to exercise empathy within health care to revolutionize and personalize the future of treating patients.

Ritesh Agarwal (19, New Delhi, India) is one of the youngest entrepreneurs from India to raise angel investments. He runs OYO Inns, a chain of affordable, tech-enabled inns, and Oravel, a rising popular alternative to hotels in India. As a Thiel Fellow, Agarwal will leverage technology to bring affordable and standardized accommodations to emerging economies across the world, starting in India.

Thomas Sohmers (17, Hudson, MA) is a technology geek and hardware hacker who has been working at a MIT research lab since he was 13, developing everything from augmented reality eyewear to laser communication systems. Currently, Sohmers is working on developing a new computing platform that utilizes very low powered processors in a cluster to revolutionize the server, cloud, and research computing industries.

William LeGate (18, Marietta, GA) is an entrepreneur and computer scientist. He taught himself programming at age 14 from online Stanford lectures and has since created more than a dozen mobile apps which have been downloaded more than 5 million times and are now used by 1 in 16 U.S. teens. During his fellowship he plans to change the way that we discover apps for things around us.


Xinyi Chen (19, Beijing, China) is passionate about entrepreneurship and technology. She participated in the Tigerlabs accelerator last summer and developed prototypes for her project Helios, which attempts to make telepresence devices accessible to average families.

Zach Hamed (20, Holbrook, NY) originally from New York City, was a junior at Harvard studying computer science before joining the Thiel Fellowship. The son of a teacher and a computer programmer, Hamed is a first-generation American who hopes to apply his interest in user interface and experience design to K-12 education. As a Thiel Fellow, Hamed will focus on developing a suite of beautifully designed tools for K-12 teachers, saving them time, providing them supplemental income, and helping them do what they do best–teach.

About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation