2013 Thiel Fellows

“Every tech story is different. Every moment in history happens only once. All successful companies are successful in their own unique way. It’s your task to figure out what that future history will be.” – Peter Thiel

The Thiel Foundation just announced the 2013 class of entrepreneurs: 20 fellows,  ages 17 to 20 from all over the world will enter the program.

(No, unfortunately none from Kentucky. The closest fellow to us geographically is from Nashville.)

I’m still somewhat new to the startup/tech beat, but I had no idea that such a thing existed.

It certainly didn’t exist when I was a kid with big ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Earlier we published an update about Kentucky FoundersLab, a summer accelerator program for student-led entrepreneurial teams. The program is sponsored by the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation and it’s open to students of all ages– high school, college, even graduate level.

And that seems like a pretty radical idea. Not only can you spend your summer building your business, but the program is going to give your team up to $11,000 to do so. You get mentorship and take classes in Lean Startup methodology all in exchange for a small bit of equity in your company.

I don’t think that was ever an option when I was a student. I don’t remember ever hearing stories like that during the “What happened during my summer vacation?” back-to-school ritual.

What if it was a two-year program instead of a three-month program?

What if you couldn’t be over twenty years old to apply?

What if they didn’t take any equity, didn’t require you to move and forbade you to have another job?

What if the program paid you– you, as a lone entrepreneur, not a team– $100,000 to do this?

That’s really radical.

And that’s what the Thiel Foundation is doing– paying young people with big ideas to drop out of school and start a business. Peter Thiel, famous for being the first investor in Facebook and a co-founder of PayPal, created this program in San Francisco in 2011.

Thiel has long been a critic of traditional education and higher education specifically. College can be enormously expensive, he says, and it’s not for everyone. And it’s not necessarily the best prep for an entrepreneur. The description of the fellowship on the website reads:

The Thiel Fellowship is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. The Fellowship brings together some of the world’s most creative and motivated young people, and helps them bring their most ambitious ideas and projects to life. Thiel Fellows are given a no-strings-attached grant of $100,000 to skip college and focus on their work, their research, and their self-education. They are mentored by our network of visionary thinkers, investors, scientists, and entrepreneurs, who provide guidance and business connections that can’t be replicated in any classroom. Rather than just studying, you’re doing.

The program’s entrepreneurs have created 30 companies and raised $34 million the course of two years. At least one fellow has had a six-figure exit. But even Thiel admits the program has worked better for some fellows than it has for others. He has, in fact, only gone on to financially back one fellow’s company.

What other programs from bright, young entrepreurs are out there? Turns out the Thiel Foundation already did my research for me. From the FAQ “Where else should I apply?”

  • Breakout Labs: Through Breakout Labs, we’re reshaping the way early-stage science is funded, so that early-stage companies can advance their most radical ideas.
  • Enstitute: Enstitute is a non-profit, appreticeship-based, educational experience that turns startups and small businesses into classrooms.
  • Mass Challenge: We connect entrepreneurs with the resources they need to launch and succeed immediately.
  • Singularity University: Our mission is to assemble, educate and inspire a new generation of leaders who strive to understand and utilize exponentially advancing technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.
  • Unreasonable Institute: Giving high-impact entrepreneurs wings.
  • YCombinator: Y Combinator does seed funding for startups.
  • Echoing Green: The Echoing Green Fellowship program has provided more than $2 million in seed funding to a diverse group of the world’s most promising social entrepreneurs.
  • TechStars: TechStars provides seed funding from over 75 top venture capital firms and angel investors who are vested in the success of your startup, as well as intense mentorship from hundreds of the best entrepreneurs in the world.
  • Venture For America: Modeled after Teach for America, Venture for America will provide a path for entrepreneurship to college grads who want to learn how to build companies and create jobs.

If I were still a teacher, I’d put this list in the hands of every quirky teen with wild ambitions I came across. And in case you’re one of those teachers or the parent of a different-thinking teen, the applications for the Thiel class of 2014 is due on midnight on December 31. And don’t forget, FoundersLab’s deadline is May 17.