Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel introduced the 2014 class of Thiel Fellows this week in San Francisco, and one of them is Benjamin Englard, an 18-year-old from Miami.
Launched in 2010, The Thiel Fellowship is a controversial but thought-provoking program that awards $100,000 two-year grants to 20 young people who agree to drop out of school and advance their innovative ideas. For the 2014 fellowship, the Thiel Foundation received applications from nearly every state and 44 countries. Over the past three years, Thiel Fellows have started dozens of companies, created more than 182 jobs, and generated more than $87 million in economic activity, the foundation says.
Englard graduated from Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High in 2013 and completed his first year of college studying computer science at the University of Michigan, which has an impressive program, he said.
When applying for the Thiel, a process that started in October, Englard was working on developing algorithms that will predict personality traits based on social media, allowing the data to be used in recommendation engines and in advertising systems, he said Thursday night from San Francisco. Now he is also pursuing two “bigger and more challenging” projects — one involving education technology and innovative ways of using teachers and materials in virtual classrooms, and the second involving artificial intelligence to automate the creation of pictures, videos and animations.
Over two years, each fellow receives $100,000 from the Thiel Foundation as well as mentorship from the foundation’s network of tech entrepreneurs, investors, scientists and futurists. Projects pursued by the 2014 class of fellows span the fields of aerospace, computer science, education, game development, biotechnology, health I.T., neuroprosthetics and civic technology. “As student debt soars and the wages of college graduates sag, the need for more thoughtful and personalized approaches to finding success is greater than ever,” said Thiel, creator of the Thiel Fellowship, PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist.
Fellows aren’t required but are encouraged to move to Silicon Valley for the program. Englard said he was provided an apartment in San Francisco and moved there Sunday.
“I’m extremely excited to be able to pursue my ideas without being constrained by classes,” said Englard. He would not go so far as to say he wouldn’t be returning to college after the two-year Thiel program, but for now his focus is 100 percent on his projects.
The 20 fellows, all age 20 or under, are mainly from the U.S., including five from California, but also hail from Canada, India and Bulgaria. The final selection process, held in Silicon Valley, included a two-minute presentation to hundreds, one-on-one interviews and even a Lego bridge-building challenge.
Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter.