The higher education sector is struggling, but it's not dead yet. For the past few years,The Thiel Foundation—created by Paypal founder and outspoken libertarian Peter Thiel—has been trying to prove that it might be a good idea to dismantle it altogether. The Thiel Fellows program, now in its fourth year, offers a select group of entrepreneurial kids something that's hard to resist: $100,000 and mentorship to start a company. The only catch is that they have to ditch college.
This time around, the 550 applicants were stronger than ever, according to Mike Gibson, vice president of grants at the Thiel Foundation. "[The program] is becoming a norm, something people recognize," he says.
There were some overarching trends among applicants, including an interest in bitcoin, machine learning, and hardware. In years past, gender balance has been a problem—last year there were four women in a class of 22 fellows. This year, there are five women out of 20 fellows. Gibson says the foundation is actively trying to reach out to women through hackathons, events, and partnerships.
A study released earlier this year notes that the earnings gap between high school and college graduates is continuing to grow. But the Thiel Fellows represent a special breed—they're extremely smart, motivated, and would likely succeed in life regardless of their higher education choices.
Past fellows have so far created over 182 jobs and generated more than $87 million in economic activity (venture funding, revenue, grant money, etc.), the foundation says. Five participants went back to school in the first class of fellows; none have since then.
Among the most successful past fellows are Dan Friedman, the cofounder of a company called Thinkful that helps mid-career professionals who want to transition into more technical careers; venture capitalist Laura Deming, who is on a quest to fund anti-aging endeavors; and Paul Gu, the co-founder of a financial company called Upstart.
"A lot of these kids are richer than I am now," says Gibson.
All of the Thiel Fellows are impressive. This year's class includes someone working on an open-source transparency toolkit to help investigative journalists uncover corruption and abuse; a fellow on a quest to change the hospital-patient relationship through technology; someone with the incredibly modest goal of curing cancer; and a researcher who wants to speed up the development cycle for satellites. None of these people are over the age of 20.
Below, the full list of fellows, from The Thiel Foundation announcement:
Shantanu Bala (19, Phoenix, AZ) is developing a system for using a real-time video and audio feed to convey visual facial expressions and auditory cues using a series of vibrations across a user's skin. His research aims to expand the potential scope of information that can be extracted and conveyed using digital sensors and haptic actuators.
Vitalik Buterin (20, Toronto, Canada) (not pictured) has been captivated by bitcoin and the crypto-currency space for some time. He is now working full-time on developing Ethereum, a peer-to-peer network that any application can use and access and a mobile and desktop client to allow people to build advanced decentralized applications and use them in a platform that is as convenient as a web browser.
Benjamin Englard (18, Miami, FL) is a computer scientist interested in natural language processing, computer vision, distributed computing, and the synthesis of computer science with other fields. He is working to combine ideas from computer science and psychology with the goal of personalizing technology.
Adithya Ganesh (17, Plano, TX) is a computer science student on leave from Stanford. He co-invented IntentSense, an intelligent bionic glove for partial hand amputees. He is interested in using machine learning and predictive analytics to personalize bionics and health care in general.
Grace Gee (19, Port Lavaca, TX) co-founded her start-up CortexML with a fellow Harvard classmate to make data analysis more intuitive and simple. She was pursuing a joint bachelor's and master's in computer science at Harvard before becoming a Thiel Fellow.
Ishaan Gulrajani (19, Philadelphia, PA) wants to change the way people make software. After leaving MIT, he founded a startup that won an Apple Design Award and received support from Y Combinator.
Lucy Guo (19, Pleasanton, CA) is a designer and software engineer who has been creating profitable websites since sixth grade. After building educational software for developing countries, she decided that she wanted to make studying fun for everybody. During her fellowship, Lucy will be working on gamifying education by creating a platform that will allow students to study their schoolwork through multiplayer games.
Thomas Hunt (17, Saratoga, CA) wants to cure cancer. He spent three years at the SENS Research Foundation studying Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres (ALT), a mechanism that is suggested to be indirectly responsible for all cancers. He is using automated high-throughput drug screening to find drugs that can reduce ALT activity.
Rebecca Jolitz (19, Los Gatos, CA) hopes to revolutionize the satellite development cycle. She is a researcher-entrepreneur with a family background in aerospace and holds degrees in physics and mathematics from UC Berkeley.
Alex Koren (19, Bergen County, NJ) is working on the new wave of crowdsourced supercomputing and mobile monetization. He's the co-founder of the start-up Hyv, which has built a platform for globally distributed computing. He envisions a world where users can not only use their devices for entertainment and communication, but also for social progress.
Conrad Kramer (17, Philadelphia, PA) taught himself to program at age 13, and hasn’t stopped since. He is currently working with 2014 Thiel Fellow Ari Weinstein to develop new types of productivity software for mobile devices, including DeskConnect, which allows users to seamlessly push websites, documents, pictures, and everything else to any device at any time.
Eliana Lorch (17, San Francisco, CA) struggles to carry out a conversation for more than five minutes before sidetracking into neural nets or math, either to explain to you what she’s been learning or to press you for your insights. She is passionate about exploring the outstanding results that deep learning has recently led to in computer vision and voice recognition.
Fouad Matin (18, McLean, VA) wants to drastically accelerate how we learn. He is building software to make learning technical skills more accessible and efficient.
M. C. McGrath (20, Boston, MA) is a former Boston University student working on Transparency Toolkit, which is open-source software that helps investigative journalists rapidly analyze documents without coding to uncover corruption, civil liberties violations, and human rights abuses.
Adam Munich (20, Buffalo, NY) is an inventor combining his interests in engineering and natural sciences to develop new technologies to mobilize radiography.
Catherine Ray (17, Alexandria, VA) has a passion for exploring the beauty of mathematics and applying its power to unsolved problems in various fields. She is currently focused on improving 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, CA) wants to build tools that lower the barriers to entry for starting new companies. Previously, he built Selfstarter, an open-source DIY crowdfunding site that startups have used to raise $10,000,000.
Martin Stoyanov (17, Novi Pazar, Bulgaria) is developing software aimed to fundamentally change the way people consume email on the go by enhancing the UI of email inboxes to maximize time and efficiency.
Kaushik Tiwari (19, New Delhi, India) is working to improve health care. As a Thiel Fellow, Kaushik hopes to create a technology interface that changes the hospital-patient relationship and solves the problems of transparency and efficiency.
Ari Weinstein (19, Philadelphia, PA) is a software jail-breaker with a passion for making great software. He is working with fellow 2014 Thiel Fellow Conrad Kramer on new types of productivity software, including DeskConnect, which allows users to seamlessly push websites, documents, pictures, and everything else to any device at any time.
Photos by Erin Ashford.