3 Years On, Questions Remain on Thiel Fellowship and Entrepreneurship

Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal, is well-known as a bomb-thrower in the education debate. And one of his most high-profile projects – the Thiel Fellowship – fits the bill. The fellowship, founded in 2010, pays promising young college students $100,000 to drop out of college and concentrate instead on launching the next big tech company.

The Thiel Fellowship was greeted warmly in Silicon Valley as an out-of-the-box idea. But one of Thiel’s biggest critics, entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa, panned the program, saying that Thiel underestimated the usefulness of college to developing entrepreneurs. Now, two years later, Wadhwa went back and looked at how the first Thiel fellows were getting on 3 years down the road and wrote down his impressions for PBS.

But three years later, I’m not amazed at any Thiel startups. The few successes lauded seem to be a mirage — or just plain silly. After all, is a “caffeine spray,” which Thiel Fellow Ben Yu developed with venture capitalist Deven Soni, a world-changing innovation that will “take civilization to the next level”? I don’t think so.

The best-known Thiel Fellow is Dale Stephens. What’s his greatest achievement? He got a book deal to talk about what he achieved by dropping out of school: getting a book deal. Stephens may have gained fame and fortune by persuading other children not to go to school, but that does not improve the world.

There are some promising companies that exist thanks to the fellowship including Eden Full, which is working on a device that would rotate solar panels throughout the day to follow the sun. But there are some embarrassments, too. One of the most highly-touted project was Airy Labs, which boasted a budget of millions and a staff of 20. But it turns out that it wasn’t Andrew Hsu, the fellow in question, who ran the company, but instead his much more experienced parents and siblings – all of them with college degrees and business know-how.

Paul Gu is credited with co-founding a website, Upstart.com, to help people crowd-fund their education or business in return for a percentage of their future earnings or revenue. (Ironically, this values a person more highly for better education and pedigree.)

And Laura Deming was lauded for working on the development of a cure for ageing. But Eden Full is back at Princeton pursuing a mechanical engineering degree (she said via email that others are still working on her product). It turns out that Paul Gu didn’t come up with the idea for Upstart but joined as a co-founder some ex-Google executives who had. And Laura Deming abandoned her research at MIT to become a venture capitalist instead.

According to Wadhwa, the best illustration of the value of a college degree are the hiring practices of successful companies founded by college drop-outs like Microsoft, Facebook and Apple. At least for now, they all want their employees to have graduated from college — which could be the best proof of all of the value they place on higher education.