Billionaire Peter Thiel is giving these 20 kids $100,000 to drop out of college and start companies


Peter Thiel

Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Peter Thiel thinks college is stifling.

Today the Thiel Foundation announced its next class of 20 fast-tracked college dropouts hoping to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates. These Thiel Fellows will each receive $100,000 and a wealth of mentorship provided they forgo or drop out of college during the program's two years.


Peter Thiel founded this program in 2011 on the assumption that college discourages students from trying new things and leaves them in horrendous debt. His program actually puts money in their pockets. The 80 current and former Thiel Fellows have raised over $142 million in venture capital and created at least $41 million in revenue.

"Nothing forces us to funnel students into a tournament that bankrupts the losers and turns the winners into conformists," Thiel wrote in The Washington Post. "But that's what will happen until we start questioning whether college is our only option."

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This year's fellows are focused on areas ranging from health food to genetic testing to fighting fraud.

Many of the fellows distinguished themselves by pioneering completely new concepts. 21-year-old Olenka Polak is the co-founder of myLINGO, a free mobile app that lets you watch Hollywood films in theaters in different languages. Her strategy uses audio recognition software to perfectly sync the sound.


Harry Gandhi

Thiel Foundation

Harry Gandhi is creating a smart contact lens to monitor our health.

Harry Gandhi, a 22-year-old from Ontario, is the CEO of a startup designing smart contact lens to monitor health statistics. Gandhi plans to start with diabetes management, but dreams of fundamentally changing our healthcare system to be more proactive, and start treating us before we even show symptoms.

But for every one of the 20 fellows, there were many more that didn't get a chance.

"Demand for this program has exploded," Executive Director Jack Abraham said. The foundation received a record 2,800 applications for only 20 spots, making it more competitive than the nation's top colleges.

In response to this demand, the foundation expects to expand the program to 30 fellows in the future, and will begin to accept applications on a rolling basis to move it even further away from the academic process.

"Young people shouldn't have to wait until the end of a school year to build something awesome," Abraham said. "Our fellows learn more from the Fellowship than any college can teach."


Former Thiel Fellows have seen mixed, but generally positive results. Eden W. Full, who left Princeton to join the program, is one of its superstars. Her startup, SunSaluter, makes devices that bring inexpensive solar power and clean water to 15 developing countries. But contrast her story with that of John Marbach, who left the program because he found it too isolating. This can be one disadvantage of not learning in a college environment.

Even when their ideas don't work out, however, Thiel Fellows are often able to pivot. After ditching his original e-commerce idea, Paul Gu created Upstart, an online lending platform which has snagged over $6 million in funding.

Here's everyone in this year's class:

  • Caroline Beckman, 20 - Health and Wellness Products
  • Cathy Tie, 18 - Genomic Sequencing
  • George Matus, 17 - Unmanned Aerial Systems
  • Harry Gandhi, 22 - Wearable Medical Technology
  • Jason Marmon, 17 - Real Estate Technology
  • Jeremy Cai, 19 - Software, Human Resources
  • Jihad Kawas, 17 - Sharing Economy
  • John Backus, 21 - Software
  • John Meyer, 19 - Media, Crowdsourced News
  • Kieran O'Reilly, 19 - Animated GIFs
  • Rory O'Reilly, 20 - Animated GIFs
  • Liam Horne, 19 - Software, Retail Real Estate
  • Max Lock, 18 - Supply Chain Logistics
  • Ocean Pleasant, 17 - Media, Social Good, Technology
  • Olenka Polak, 21 - App-Based Software, Linguistics
  • Patrick Coughran, 21 - Logistics Software
  • Simon Tian, 20 - Wearables, Consumer Electronics
  • Stacey Ferreira, 22 - Technology, Entrepreneurship
  • Zach Latta, 17 - Education, Nonprofit
  • Zoli Kahan, 19 - Mobile Games, Software

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