For most people, school accelerates us towards our goals. For some prodigal, break-out brilliant thinkers, school is a speedbump.
At least that’s the philosophy behind the Thiel Foundation’s 20 Under 20 Fellowship program, which announced its latest class of participants today. Peter Thiel, who established and funds the foundation, became something of a startup legend for co-founding PayPal and Palantir Technologies. He was also the first outside investor in Facebook and has since co-founded and manages the elite Silicon Valley venture capital firm Founders Fund.
The 20 teens chosen as Thiel Fellows are each awarded $100,000 over two years to launch their business ideas, but must drop out of college. While they are expected to be largely self-guided in their pursuits, they are given top-tier mentorship and guidance from former Fellows and other entrepreneurs and investors. They are also encouraged, but not required, to move to the San Francisco area.
The thinking behind the program is that entrepreneurs and innovators don’t all need the structure and time that a traditional four-year university requires. With student debt topping $1 trillion, Thiel says there’s a need for “more thoughtful and personalized approaches to finding success.” He hopes that Fellows “inspire people of all ages as they demonstrate that intellectual curiosity, grit, and determination are more important than credentials for improving civilization.”
Fellows have done more than inspire their fellow millennials to think beyond the books; they have also contributed to the economy. In the three years since the program was established, Thiel Fellows have generated over $87 million in economic activity and created 182 jobs, according to Jonathan Cain, president of the Thiel Foundation.
The Fellowship has become competitive throughout the years, drawing applicants from all 50 states and 44 countries. Once the applicant pool is narrowed to 40 people, the finalists are invited to be part of an innovative and, at times, oddball selection process. For example, finalists this year were divided into teams and asked to build a bridge out of Legos. Check out the video of the bridge-building session embedded below.
Here’s a brief rundown of the class of 2014 Thiel Fellows.
Shantanu Bala (19, Phoenix, Ariz.): Using real-time video and audio information to communicate facial expressions digitally.
Vitalik Buterin (20, Toronto, Canada): Working on Ethereum, a technology that will allow people to build advanced decentralized technology that will connect computers peer-to-peer as seamlessly as a web browser.
Benjamin Englard (18, Miami, Fla.): Combining computer science with psychology to make technology ever more personalized.
Adithya Ganesh (17, Plano, Texas): Has already co-founded IntentSense, a bionic glove that helps hand amputees regain mobility and is now working with predictive data analysis to make health-care more personalized.
Grace Gee (19, Port Lavaca, Texas): Has already co-founded a company, CortexML, and is working to make data analysis more simple.
Ishaan Gulrajani (19, Philadelphia, Pa.): Has founded a startup that won an Apple Design Award and is working to make it more simple for people to create software.
Lucy Guo (19, Pleasanton, Calif.): Has been making websites that are profitable since she was in 6th grade and will be working to make learning fun with a multiplayer game that allows students to do their work while playing a game.
Thomas Hunt (17, Saratoga, Calif.): Is working to cure cancer by developing drug screening technology.
Rebecca Jolitz (19, Los Gatos, Calif.): She already holds degrees in both physics and mathematics from UC Berkeley and wants to change the development cycle of satellites.
Alex Koren (19, Bergen County, N.J.): He has already co-founded a company called Hyv and will be working to develop the next generation of crowd-sourced supercomputing to promote social good.
Conrad Kramer (17, Philadelphia, Pa.) A self-taught computer programmer, he is working with another Thiel Fellow to create a software that would make it seamless to move websites, documents and photos from your desk to your mobile device and back again.
Eliana Lorch (17, San Francisco, Calif): Is obsessed with neural nets, math, and recent developments in computer vision and voice recognition.
Fouad Matin (18, McLean, Virg.): Building software to make it faster for use to learn.
M. C. McGrath (20, Boston, Mass.): Developing an open-source software called Transparency Toolkit which allows investigative journalists to research documents very quickly without uncovering anything illegal, like corruption, civil liberties violations or human rights abuses.
Adam Munich (20, Buffalo, N.Y.): Hopes to mobilize X-rays.
Catherine Ray (17, Alexandria, Virg.): Finds mathematics beautiful and is using it to improve closed-loop detector adaptation in neuroprosthetics, computationally and mathematically modeling quasicrystaline patterns, and automating the behavioral classifications of lab-animal vocalizations.
Jarred Sumner (18, Lafayette, Calif.): Has already built Selfstarter, a crowdfunding platform that has helped entrepreneurs raise as much as $10 million and will be working to make it easier for anyone to start a business.
Martin Stoyanov (17, Novi Pazar, Bulgaria): Writing software to make it more efficient to read and manage email on the go.
Kaushik Tiwari (19 New Delhi, India): Wants to generate a technology that makes the hospital-patient relationship more efficient and transparent.
Ari Weinstein (19, Philadelphia, Pa.): Working with another Thiel Fellow, Conrad Kramer, to make software that would make it seamless to move websites, documents and photos from your desk to your mobile device and back again.