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Meet The Last “Class” Of Thiel Fellows, The Genius Kids Who Skip College And Build Startups

The fellowship is maturing, and now more students will be given $100,000 to drop out of college anytime they please.

Every year since 2011, the libertarian billionaire and Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel has awarded $100,000 each to 20 talented teenagers who skip college and work on businesses instead. The fellowship promotes Thiel’s belief that the higher education system is broken and a waste of time and money for most students.

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In its fifth year, the fellowship is maturing. The Thiel Foundation is implementing two major changes: It will fund up to 30 students a year who are 22 or younger (rather than 20), and it will now accept rolling applications, “decoupling” the program from the regular academic school year so there’s no longer specific cohorts. Jack Abraham, executive director for the foundation, says the goal is to encourage even seniors in college to dropout if they have a good idea. “Startup ideas are fleeting,” says Abraham, noting that if Mark Zuckerberg hadn’t left Harvard and waited to launch Facebook, he might not be where he is today.

Compared to the fellowship’s early days, there’s much less need to convince the growing throngs of entrepreneurial teenagers that it’s a big leap to forgo a degree (especially with the piles of VC cash available). The fellowship received a record 2,800 applications. “There’s a fever for entrepreneurship across the country,” he says. “That’s inspiring more and more people to look into this as a real path.”

Abraham says the applications are also getting more sophisticated from earlier years. All of the winners have already gone ahead and founded their own companies–examples include genetics testing firm Ranomics, apartment rental app HomeSwipe, media technology startup Fresco News, and even a logistics software platform Foxtrot Systems. The 80 current and former Thiel Fellows have already gone on to raise $142 million in venture capital and generate $41 million in revenue, the foundation says.

The fellowship has been criticized for lack of gender diversity before, and that’s not improved much, though it is bringing in more international diversity, including the first fellow from Mexico. This year’s class includes five women, about the same as last year and the year before. It’s also important to note that many experts disagree with Thiel’s mission to encourage students to not go to college–even Bill Gates, one of the most famous dropouts of all. They say that while the decision works out for a rare few, for most, college is the surest path to career success.

You can read more about this year’s class below. Try not to feel too old while you do.

Caroline Beckman (20, Sacramento, CA):
Caroline is co-founder of Nomva, a health food company that makes 100% organic fruit and vegetable snacks powered by immune-boosting and digestion-supporting probiotics. Nomva expects to launch in California retail stores and online nationwide this summer. Caroline is also a founding member and VP of Special Projects at Suja Juice, the nation’s leading organic and cold-pressed juice brand.

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Cathy Tie (18, Toronto, Ontario, Canada):
Cathy is co-founder and CEO of Ranomics, a biotech startup that is improving the accuracy of genetic testing by determining the consequences of all variants in hereditary disease genes before they are seen in patients. Ranomics says it aims to revolutionize preventative medicine by determining with unparalleled precision whether a person is prone to a hereditary condition as a result of their individual genetic variations.

George Matus (17, Salt Lake City, UT):
George is CEO of iDrone, where he designs, builds, and pilots advanced UAV technology. He has been a drone test pilot since age 12, won a global drone competition at age 16, and now at 17, manufactures incredibly capable UAVs for consumer and commercial markets.

Harry Gandhi (22, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada):
Harry is co-founder and CEO of Medella Health, a startup that is creating a smart contact lens platform for continuous and non-invasive monitoring of health vitals, starting with diabetes management. With this technology, Harry aims to make a reactive healthcare system proactive, so that diseases can be prevented in advance instead of treated only after symptoms appear.

Jason Marmon (17, Armonk, NY) Real Estate Technology:
Jason is co-founder and CEO of HomeSwipe, an apartment rental app that makes renting an apartment easy by providing reliable listings and the best mobile search experience on the market.

Jeremy Cai (19, Chicago, IL):
Jeremy is founder and CEO of OnboardIQ, where he is reinventing the way companies build a modern workforce by developing software to streamline and automate interactions with service providers.

Jihad Kawas (17, Beirut, Lebanon):
Jihad is founder and CEO of Saily, a local marketplace that helps neighbors buy, sell, and swap secondhand products quickly and seamlessly from their mobile phones. Saily’s mission is to help build neighborhoods that don’t let anything go to waste.

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John Backus (21, Great Falls, VA):
John is co-founder and CEO of BlockScore, where he builds software that helps businesses to verify their customers’ identities, fighting fraud and smoothly complying with regulations.

John Meyer (19, New York, NY):
John dropped out of New York University to start Fresco News, a startup that builds 21st century newsroom tools. Fresco helps news organizations mobilize the smartphone users who are capturing footage wherever news is breaking.


Kieran O’Reilly (19, Elmont, NY) and Rory O’Reilly (20, Elmont, NY):
Rory and his brother Kieran dropped out of Harvard a year ago to make online communication easier and more fun. Their company GIFYT (formerly Gifyoutube) helps people to express themselves in pictures.

Liam Horne (19, Cambridge, Ontario, Canada):
Liam is CTO of PiinPoint, where he builds software that uses demographic, real estate, and traffic data to help retailers decide where to open new locations.

Max Lock (18, Bryn Mawr, PA):
Max is founder and President of Fleet, an easy-to-use freight shipping platform that provides reliable shipments, fair pricing, and an unparalleled customer experience for shippers of any size–particularly the small- to medium-sized companies traditionally underserved by the global freight industry.

Ocean Pleasant (17, New York, NY):
Ocean founded REAL Magazine, a national youth culture publication dedicated to engaging millennials on questions of social change. She is currently developing REAL me, a software application to connect young people with volunteer opportunities based on their unique interests.

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Olenka Polak (21, Greenwich, CT):
Olenka is co-founder of myLINGO, a free mobile app that lets you watch Hollywood movies in the theater in another language, using your smartphone and headphones. Advanced audio recognition technology ensures a perfectly synchronized studio-quality dub, eliminating the inconvenience of subtitles.

Patrick Coughran (21, Monterrey, Mexico):
Patrick is co-founder and CTO of Foxtrot Systems, a logistics software platform that helps distributors execute better last-mile deliveries. Foxtrot uses traffic and weather information, in-house route-optimization algorithms, and machine learning to boost customers’ fleets’ efficiency and delivery success.

Simon Tian (20, Montreal, Quebec, Canada):
Simon is the founder and CEO of Neptune, which makes mobile hardware that fits on your wrist and helps you to work seamlessly in any environment.


Stacey Ferreira (22, Scottsdale, AZ):
Stacey is the co-Author of 2 Billion Under 20: How Millennials Are Breaking Down Age Barriers & Changing the World and CEO of AdMoar, an online marketplace that matches brands with YouTube influencers to facilitate product placement deals. She sold her first company, MySocialCloud, to Reputation.com in 2013.

Zach Latta (17, El Segundo, CA):
Zach is executive director of hackEDU, a national nonprofit that brings coding clubs to high schools nationwide. Students who love music can join band; students who love sports can join an athletic team; but students who want to code have to go home and do it alone. Zach’s goal is to spread the hacker ethos (and programming skills) to every student in the nation.

Zoli Kahan (19, Austin, TX) :
Zoli is CTO of Clay.io, a startup that publishes popular games to mobile web platforms. With Clay.io, developers can easily publish their games to more than 5 million users, and users can access hundreds of games instantly on any platform or device.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire

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