Honoring Innovation: The Thiel Fellowship 20 Under 20

Billionaire philanthropist Peter Thiel has a tempting offer for enterprising young minds. His foundation will give cash grants of $100,000 to the top 20 technological innovators 20 years old or younger that apply to his program. That comes with a fairly significant downside, though; Thiel's advocating that those who receive his grants drop out of school to focus on their work.

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The Grant Explained

At 20 years old, most students are somewhere in their sophomore or junior year of college. They're about halfway to graduation and maybe they've just gotten the hang of balancing their social lives with all the pressures piled on in the classroom. If they're exceptionally innovative, though, Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel wants them to know they don't have to worry about that last part any longer. Indeed, he'll pay students with solid ideas for technological advancement to leave school behind and work on those projects.

The basic argument here makes sense. William Andregg, CEO and co-founder of Halcyon Molecular, explains: 'Education seeks to impart past knowledge.... You have to create new knowledge, and there is no way to teach that.' The Thiel Foundation stresses that if a young student has a revolutionary idea, he or she shouldn't wait until graduation to share it with the world. He or she also shouldn't feel burdened by their university responsibilities or crushed under the weight of debt.

Hence Thiel gives his selected youth $100,000 cash grants, plus two years' worth of mentoring and employment opportunities from his Foundation's extensive network, which includes Facebook, Paypal and the Singularity Institute. Thiel's aware of the major changes his grant will bring to the lives of its applicants, but believes that producing a significant technological innovation will impress potential employers more than just good grades or strong extracurriculars. 'The Thiel Fellows will change the world and call it a senior thesis.'

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Respect for Education

The Thiel Foundation isn't seeking to discredit traditional college education here. 'University is a tremendously valuable experience,' states Elon Musk, fellow co-founder of Paypal. Rather, they want to emphasize the immediacy required in sharing breakthrough innovations with the world. If anything, the Thiel Foundation seems incredibly pro-education - they just think that there may be a time to stop.

There's truth to the idea that higher education may not be right for everyone. When you balance the unprecedented chance the Thiel Foundation is offering its charges against the risks, leaving school behind doesn't seem so awful. Former students can always resume their academic pursuits later in life, but what Thiel's offering is another kind of education, one that few have a chance at.

The Thiel Foundation opened its doors to applicants at the end of 2010, and the 20 chosen fellows began their work this year. Many around the world are sure to watch the work of the 20 young individuals who've been given this opportunity. Young minds, $100,000, copious free time and the support of an impressive pedigree of inventors: has Thiel found the recipe for the world's next great innovation? We'll see soon enough.

Thiel believes technology can jump-start the world's economy. Other educators are not so sure.

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