|Funded by||Peter Thiel through the Thiel Foundation|
|Frequency of selection||Annual|
|Number of recipients||20-25 per year|
The Thiel Fellowship (originally named 20 under 20) is a fellowship created by Peter Thiel through the Thiel Foundation. The fellowship is intended for students under the age of 20 and offers them a total of $100,000 over two years as well as guidance and other resources to drop out of school and pursue other work, which could involve scientific research, creating a startup, or working on a social movement. Selection for the fellowship is through a competitive annual process, with about 20-25 fellows selected annually.
Peter Thiel announced the fellowship at TechCrunch Disrupt in September 2010. The first round of fellows, based on applications made at the end of 2010, was announced in May 2011. The second round of fellows, based on applications made at the end of 2011, was announced in June 2012. The third class (announced in May 2013) includes 22 fellows working on projects from garment manufacturing and B2B web products to ARM powered servers and biomedicine. The class includes 7 fellows from outside of the US.  In December 2013, Lora Kolodny wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal reviewing the Thiel Fellowship, where she wrote: "64 Thiel Fellows have started 67 for-profit ventures, raised $55.4 million in angel and venture funding, published two books, created 30 apps and 135 full-time jobs, and brought clean water and solar power to 6,000 Kenyans who needed it." The 2014 Thiel Fellows were announced in June 2014.
A full list of recipients is available on the Thiel Fellowship website. Notable recipients include:
- Eden Full, founder of Roseicollis Technologies, and inventor of a solar panel tracking system called SunSaluter. After the completion of her two-year fellowship period, Full decided to return to Princeton University (where she had secured admission prior to becoming a Thiel Fellow) to pursue mechanical engineering.
- Laura Deming, who plans to work on commercializing anti-aging research. Deming started her undergraduate studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology at age 14. After becoming a Thiel Fellow, Deming co-founded Floreat Capital, which describes itself as "a specialty life science venture capital firm focused on early-stage pharmaceutical companies developing therapies for aging-associated pathology."
- James Proud, founder of GigLocator, a website aggregating live music shows, which was subsequently sold in June 2012 to Peter Shapiro.
- Sujay Tyle, COO of Developer Auction, former employee of Scopely, an educational gaming startup.
- Andrew Hsu, founder of Airy Labs, an educational gaming startup that raised over a million dollars but was later reported to have run into problems due to its management style.
- Paul Gu, co-founder of Upstart, a platform that allows people to raise money in exchange for a percentage of their future income.
- Dale J. Stephens, founder of UnCollege, a social movement that aims to change the notion that going to college is the only path to success.
- Thomas Sohmers, who unveiled a new super fast computer server that was highly energy-efficient at the Open Compute Summit organized by Facebook.
- Adam Munich, an experimental physicist currently working to mobilize radiography.
Documentary series following some recipients
The Thiel Fellowship launched a website called "20 Under 20 Documentary Series" that features an online documentary series of four Thiel Fellowship recipients. The students featured in the series are Laura Deming, Chris Rueth, Sujay Tyle, and Alex Kiselev.
Encouraging more breakthrough innovation
Peter Thiel has expressed the view that there has been much less cutting-edge innovation in recent years than there should be and this lack of technological progress is responsible for the slowdown in economic growth, which is at least partially responsible for recent bubbles and downturns. The Thiel Fellowship, by providing money to people to pursue radical innovation, is an attempt by Thiel to help address the problem.
Many recipients of the Thiel Fellowship are planning to work in some of the areas where Thiel thinks that radical breakthroughs would be most beneficial. For instance, Laura Deming, one of the Thiel Fellows, plans to work on the commercialization of anti-aging research, one of the causes to which Thiel has been a regular donor.
Questioning the education bubble
Thiel has expressed the view that one of the top candidates for the next bubble in the United States is higher education. He says: "Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus."
Thiel has argued that although education is definitely useful for some career paths and people do learn many valuable things in college, there are many career paths, such as entrepreneurship, for which higher education is not useful and it simply leads them to waste years when they may have been doing something more productive. He views the Thiel Fellowship as one of many alternate paths to success that would undermine the social pressure that people feel to go to college even if they are not deriving value from it. A similar view was expressed by Thiel Foundation members Jim O'Neill and Michael Gibson in a piece for Fast Company magazine.
Thiel's announcement of the Thiel Fellowship met with a diverse array of responses. Some, such as Jacob Weisberg, criticized Thiel's proposal for its utopianism and attack on the importance of education. Others, such as Vivek Wadhwa, expressed skepticism about whether the success or failure of the Thiel Fellowship would carry any broader lessons regarding the value of higher education or the wisdom of dropping out.
In May 2011, shortly after the announcement of the first batch of Thiel Fellows, the admissions office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology congratulated two MIT students for receiving the Thiel Fellowship. Both students would need to drop out of MIT to receive the fellowship, but would be able to return to MIT to resume their studies after completing the two-year term of the fellowship if they so desired.
A year after the announcement of the first batch of Thiel Fellows, opinions on the program ranged from the skeptical and critical to the laudatory and optimistic, as seen in the answers to a Quora question about the achievements of the first batch of Thiel Fellows.
In September 2013, Vivek Wadhwa wrote that the Thiel Fellowship had failed to produce any notable successes to date, and even its limited successes were instances where the Thiel Fellows were working in collaboration with more experienced individuals.
On October 10, 2013, former Harvard University President Larry Summers was reported as having said at the Nantucket Project conference: “I think the single most misdirected bit of philanthropy in this decade is Peter Thiel’s special program to bribe people to drop out of college.” His remarks were reported on by many media outlets ranging from TechCrunch to Valleywag. On October 13, TechCrunch published a response to Summers co-written by a Thiel Fellow and a mentor for the Thiel Fellowship program.
In December 2013, Lora Kolodny wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal reviewing the Thiel Fellowship, where she wrote: "64 Thiel Fellows have started 67 for-profit ventures, raised $55.4 million in angel and venture funding, published two books, created 30 apps and 135 full-time jobs, and brought clean water and solar power to 6,000 Kenyans who needed it."
In late December 2013, Thiel Fellow Delian Asparouhov published a lengthy article giving advice on how to select a project and present it to maximize one's chances with the Thiel Fellowship application.
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- Asparouhov, Delian (December 26, 2013). "Thiel Fellowship Application Advice". Retrieved April 14, 2014.