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Thiel Foundation Names New Class of College Dropout-Entrepreneurs

Xconomy San Francisco — 

[Updated 6/17/15, 1:15 pm. See below.] When PayPal founder and tech investor Peter Thiel first beckoned young people to drop out of college and become entrepreneurs, the alternative he offered was pretty controversial, Thiel Foundation CEO Alana Ackerson says.

In 2011, 430 college-age people applied to join the first group of 20 awarded the Thiel-led foundation’s Thiel Fellowship, which comes with $100,000 and a support network of mentors to help the ex-students turn their creative projects into startup companies. [An earlier version of this story reported that 100 people applied in 2011. The foundation revised its figure to 430 after checking its records.]

This year, 2,800 applicants were willing to bypass the well-trodden college path and dive into the entrepreneur’s uncertain world. The 20 fellows just chosen from that pool include George Matus, a 17-year-old drone designer from Utah; Canadian Cathy Tie, 18, the CEO of a genetic testing startup; Zach Latta, 17, of El Segundo, CA, the executive Director of hackEDU, a nonprofit that supports students who form coding clubs at their high schools; and John Backus, 21, co-founder and CEO of Mountain View, CA-based BlockScore, which helps businesses guard against illegal transactions. (Some of the finalists are pictured above)

“Each year, the applicant pool has gotten a lot stronger,” Ackerson says.

The age cut-off for applicants used to be 20, but fellowship program leaders were impressed by the surge of slightly older candidates who applied anyway. It admitted five people between 21 and 22 to the 2015 class, and raised the age limit to 22 for future applicants. But one requirement remains—they have to stop short of getting a college degree before they become fellows.

“College can be good for learning about what’s been done before, but it can also discourage young people from doing something new—especially when it leaves them in debt,” said Thiel in a statement as the names of the 2015 fellows were announced today. “Each of the fellows charts a unique course, but together they have proven that young people can succeed by thinking for themselves instead of competing on old career tracks.”

The 80 people who have already participated in the two-year fellowship program are starting to establish a business track record. Those Thiel Fellows have raised more than $142 million in venture capital, earned $41 million in revenue, and created 375 jobs, the foundation says.

If there’s one common trait among successful candidates for the fellowship, Ackerson says, it’s that they’ve already invented their own jobs by launching a project that engages their skills and their authentic values. That often causes friction when they attend college, she says.

“They’re not excelling [in college] because they’re so excited about their project,” Ackerson says. “Yet they can’t really focus fully on that, so they’re divided.”

Thiel’s philosophy is, why let school get in the way of learning?

Thiel Fellows are not required to move to the Bay Aarea, but they often spend time in Silicon Valley attending workshops, retreats, and the twice-yearly Thiel Foundation Summit, a meeting where people aged 16-23 can meet other young entrepreneurs and where fellows can consult with mentors. One of the 2015 summits begins Saturday in San Francisco.

The fellowship program also connects its chosen entrepreneurs with mentors in the regions where they live. Fellows spend their $100,000 according to a plan they draw up with program leaders. They can use it cover their project’s costs, but they can also draw on the money to pay for their living expenses, Ackerson says.

More young people will now get the chance to participate. The Thiel Foundation has expanded the class size for the fellowship from 20 to 30 young people a year, and applicants can apply any time. The program is now accepting applications on a rolling basis, rather than tying fellowship schedules to the academic calendar.

“Some ideas can’t wait,” Ackerson says.

Photo by Erin Ashford