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Thiel Fellowship

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Thiel Fellowship
Funded byPeter Thiel through the Thiel Foundation
LeadershipAlex Handy
Frequency of selectionAnnual
Number of recipients20–25 per year

The Thiel Fellowship (originally named 20 under 20) is a fellowship created by billionaire Peter Thiel through the Thiel Foundation. The fellowship is intended for students aged 22 or younger 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.[1] The first round of fellows, based on applications made at the end of 2010, was announced in May 2011.[2][3] The second round of fellows, based on applications made at the end of 2011, was announced in June 2012.[4][5] That year, the fellowship launched a website called "20 Under 20 Documentary Series" that features an online documentary series of four Thiel Fellowship recipients.[6][7]

The third class (announced in May 2013) included 22 fellows working on projects from garment manufacturing and B2B web products to ARM powered servers and biomedicine. The class included 7 fellows from outside of the US.[8]

In December 2013, a Wall Street Journal article summarized the Thiel Fellowship up until that point: "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."[9]

In October 2023, the Washington Post reported that: "Eleven of the 271 recipients of the Thiel Fellowship have founded unicorns so far, an impressive accomplishment that doesn’t even take into account the inspiring innovations of other fellows and the many exciting projects yet to mature." The program thus outperforms the Rhodes Scholarship, as well as incubators for student ventures at universities, none of which have achieved comparable entrepreneurial success.[10]


Initial reception[edit]

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.[11] 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.[12]

In May 2011, shortly after the announcement of the first batch of Thiel Fellows, the admissions office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 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.[13]

Later reception[edit]

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.

In 2012, Eric Markowitz offered a mixed review of the Thiel Fellowship in Inc. magazine.[14]

In 2013 the program attracted criticism for its limited results. In April, an article by Richard Nieva for PandoDaily took a close look at how the first batch of Thiel Fellows had fared, finding that some had succeeded and others planned to return to school in the fall once their two years were up.[15] In September, academic 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.[16] Also in October, former Harvard University President Larry Summers 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."[17][18][19] A Thiel Fellow and a mentor for the Thiel Fellowship subsequently published an op-ed response in TechCrunch, restating the Thiel Fellowship's thesis and arguing that a four-year liberal arts education was becoming less relevant.[20]


Notable recipients[edit]

Notable recipients include the following people (year they were awarded the fellowship is indicated in parentheses):[21]


  1. ^ Siegler, MG (September 27, 2010). "Peter Thiel Has New Initiative To Pay Kids To "Stop Out Of School"". TechCrunch. Retrieved June 23, 2012.
  2. ^ Wauters, Robin (May 25, 2011). "Young Entrepreneurs Rule: Meet Peter Thiel's First 20 under 20 Fellows". TechCrunch.
  3. ^ Wieder, Ben (May 25, 2011). "Thiel Fellowship Pays 24 Talented Students $100,000 Not to Attend College". Chronicle of Higher Education.
  4. ^ "Peter Thiel Announces 2012 Class of 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellows". Thiel Fellowship website. June 13, 2012. Archived from the original on November 13, 2012.
  5. ^ Cutler, Kim-Mai (June 14, 2012). "Nuclear Fusion, 3D Printing, Biomedical Imaging: What Thiel's New 20 Under 20 Fellows Are Attacking". TechCrunch.
  6. ^ "About the Series: 20 under 20". The Thiel Foundation. 2012. Archived from the original on October 18, 2013. Retrieved April 20, 2013.
  7. ^ "20 Under 20 Documentary Highlights Entrepreneurial Potential of Education Dropouts". eduinreview.com. Education in Review. August 23, 2012. Retrieved June 8, 2018.
  8. ^ "This Year's Thiel Fellows Include A Fashion Designer, A Poet, And A Harvard Dropout". May 13, 2013.
  9. ^ Kolodny, Lora (December 18, 2013). "Why a Nonprofit Backs Dropping Out of School: PayPal Founder's Foundation Encourages Learning by Doing". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved January 28, 2014.
  10. ^ Brown, Aaron; Dewey, Richard (October 19, 2023). "Thiel's Unicorn Success Is Awkward for Colleges". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 26, 2024.
  11. ^ Weisberg, Jacob (October 18, 2010). "What's Wrong with Silicon Valley Libertarianism". Newsweek. Retrieved October 19, 2010.
  12. ^ Wadhwa, Vivek (April 12, 2011). "Friends Don't Let Friends Take Education Advice From Peter Thiel". TechCrunch.
  13. ^ McGann, Mike (May 26, 2011). "Incentive to Drop Out". MIT Admissions Blog. Retrieved June 23, 2012.
  14. ^ Markowitz, Eric (October 16, 2012). "Examining the Thiel Fellowship: Is It Worthwhile?". Inc Magazine. Retrieved November 27, 2012.
  15. ^ Nieva, Richard (April 24, 2013). "Examining the Thiel Fellowship: Where are they now?". PandoDaily. Archived from the original on June 23, 2015. Retrieved June 23, 2015.
  16. ^ Wadhwa, Vivek (September 11, 2013). "Billionaire's Failed Education Experiment Proves There's No Shortcut To Success". Forbes. Retrieved September 15, 2013.
  17. ^ Ferenstein, Gregory (October 10, 2013). "Thiel Fellows Program Is 'Most Misdirected Piece Of Philanthropy', Says Larry Summers". Retrieved April 14, 2014.
  18. ^ Tiku, Nitasha (October 11, 2013). "Summers: Thiel Fellows Is 'Most Misdirected Piece Of Philanthropy'". Archived from the original on April 15, 2014. Retrieved April 14, 2014.
  19. ^ Weinstock, Samuel Y. (October 14, 2013). "Summers: Thiel Fellowship 'The Single Most Misdirected Bit of Philanthropy in This Decade'". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved April 14, 2014.
  20. ^ Silver, Darrell; Friedman, Dan (October 13, 2013). "Of Course Harvard's Larry Summers Hates The Thiel Fellowship". TechCrunch. Retrieved April 14, 2014.
  21. ^ Thiel Fellowship website: Meet the Fellows
  22. ^ "Dale Stephens: 'Unschoolers create their education'". Washington Post. August 12, 2012.
  23. ^ "Austin Russell", TechCrunch, June 27, 2013, retrieved May 20, 2021
  24. ^ "The Boy Who Played With Fusion". Popular Science. Retrieved August 7, 2017.
  25. ^ "Austin Russell". Forbes. Retrieved January 5, 2021.
  26. ^ Snyder, Benjamin (June 23, 2017). "Meet Vitalik Buterin, the 23-year-old founder of bitcoin rival ethereum". CNBC. Archived from the original on January 29, 2018. Retrieved March 8, 2018.
  27. ^ "Many of tech's power-players are alumni of Peter Thiel's controversial fellowship, which pays entrepreneurs to drop out of college. See how they made their millions".
  28. ^ "Cervin Team – Cervin Ventures". www.cervinventures.com. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  29. ^ CNBC.com, Susan Caminiti, special to (April 22, 2017). "Thiel, Benioff backing 22-year-old's dream to clean up world's oceans". CNBC. Retrieved July 14, 2017.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  30. ^ fortune.com, Aron Solomon, special to (September 20, 2022). "Meet the college dropout who invested in Figma–and 22 other Thiel Fellows". Retrieved October 3, 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)

External links[edit]