Peter Thiel’s 20 under 20 program

Written by  //  June 12, 2011  //  Science & Technology  //  Comments Off on Peter Thiel’s 20 under 20 program

Peter Thiel was a co-founder of the online payment system Paypal and the earliest big investor in the online social network Facebook, and is now a billionaire, largely thanks to his Facebook investment. In recent years, Thiel has been pushing some controversial ideas regarding innovation and philanthropy, both as an individual and through his foundation, the Thiel Foundation. Late in 2010, he arranged for an evening of speeches and fundraising by eight of the nonprofits he has supported, all of which work on technologies and ideas that could lead to major breakthroughs. The event was titled Breakthrough Philanthropy. A video of Thiel’s closing remarks is available on YouTube.

One of Thiel’s controversial initiatives is his 20 under 20 program. The broad outline of the program is as follows: any person under the age of 20 can apply, and those who have great ideas in science, technology, or entrepreneurship are selected and are given $100,000 over two years as well as special mentoring and access to resources to pursue their ideas. These people are required to “stop” out of college for the duration of two years, though they can go back to college once the time period is over.

Thiel first announced this in a TechCrunch interview. Here’s what Thiel said at the end of the interview:

Well, we’ve been, you know we’ve been brainstorming a lot on, on what we’re gonna, you know, what we can do to try to break the sort of relative stasis we’ve been in as a society and you know as a BC Fund we’ve been investing in these breakthrough technology companies. One of the things that we think is very important is to encourage potentially young entrepreneurs to actually get involved in a science technology and in creating all this great value for the next generation. So one of the initiatives that we’re gonna be starting over the next few weeks is a program for offering grants of up to $100,000 to up to 20 people under age 20 for starting something new. […] One of the big problems with the education system in both, it’s undergrad and grad school levels which a lot worse when I went to school 20 years ago is that it just cost so much more and so you end up with people burden with incredible amounts of debts and well, they maybe able to track towards certain safe jobs is actually a lot harder for people to take the risks you need and we think you’re gonna have to take a lot of risks to build the next generation of companies. So the, we’re basically are gonna be taking applications through the end of this year for 2011. The basic thing is you can apply individually or in a team of up to four people. It is a two year program up to $100,000 and we will, we will encourage people to do something from California to get involve in the, a breakthrough technology, anywhere in the world. […] Twenty under 20.

This led to some negative responses, such as this one from Jacob Weisberg at Newsweek, which Bryan Caplan at EconLog described as “Accurate summary plus impotent fuming” aka “priceless publicity” for Thiel’s cause.

Recently, the Thiel Foundation announced that it had decided the list of Thiel Foundation fellows for 2011. 24 fellows have been selected, instead of the originally planned 20. It seems likely that this program will be continued for future years, with the next round of applications due at the end of this year, but there has been no official announcement of a next round so far.

The announcement received coverage in many media outlets, including the Chronicle of Higher Education. There was also some critical discussion in the Washington Post, Fortune, as well as on Bijan Sabet’s blog.

In a subsequent blog post some time from now, I’ll take a look at the 20 under 20 program, the current list of Thiel Fellows, and what I think of the promise of this program and what it reflects about the merits and demerits of staying in college versus “stopping” out if you want to pursue great ideas in science and technology.

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