Peter Thiel’s inaugural class of “20 Under 20” fellows was announced Wednesday morning, and a brief skim through the accomplishments of the teenage fellows will make you wonder why the hell you wasted your childhood playing with toys. Why weren’t YOU out there building a biogerontology lab when you were 12 and matriculating at MIT when you were 14? Because that’s what 17-year-old Laura Deming was doing!
The program was first announced in September 2010, and the premise is somewhat strange: applicants must be between the ages of 14 and 20, and if they’re in school, they must “stop out” and fully commit to the two-year program. What do they get in return for putting their educations on hold? Each fellow receives $100,000 from the Thiel Foundation, plus mentorship from the Foundation’s network of tech entrepreneurs.
So in essence, the program seems to be paying kids to drop out of college (or forego it altogether), but it actually makes a lot of sense when you consider the fact that it’s really training the entrepreneurs of tomorrow to think differently about money. Today’s students can bank on graduating from college with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt, which puts many directly into a “repayment” frame of mind—stay on top of the debt and get out of it so you can live free again—which leaves little room for taking risks and being adventurous, which is what entrepreneurship is all about.
Over 400 people under the age of 20 applied for the fellowship, and only 24 made it into the inaugural class.
“We had planned to award twenty fellowships, but the number of outstanding candidates far exceeded our expectations,” said James O’Niell, head of the Thiel Foundation, in a statement. “It was challenging to select only twenty-four, and impossible to pick only twenty.”
The fellows’ project areas include biotech, career development, economics and finance, education, energy, information technology, mobility, robotics, and space. And the proposed projects are quite ambitious. Sujay Tyle, one of the youngest students at Harvard, wants to hack cellulose to make cheap biofuels; Gary Kurek develops mobility aids for physically-disabled people; Alexander Kiselev wants to create more affordable scientific instruments; and Laura Deming wants to extend the human lifespan by commercializing anti-aging research. Pretty tall orders.
Applications for the next round of fellows will be available in October.