Nuclear Fusion, 3D Printing, Biomedical Imaging: What Thiel’s New 20 Under 20 Fellows Are Attacking

The dropouts, the misfits and wunkerkinds. The young and the fearless. They come every year to Silicon Valley. And mostly, they have come on their own.

It wasn’t until last year there that was a dedicated program for them. The famously contrarian and libertarian investor Peter Thiel created a fellowship for twenty people under the age of 20. The mission was to find uncommonly brilliant young people and get them to forgo the traditional path of college. The first class went on to start companies, raise several million dollars in venture capital or work on complex technical problems in biology.

Now Thiel’s foundation is on its second year. What the foundation looks for actually hasn’t changed all that much, the foundation’s co-founder Jim O’Neill tells us. The application form still has Thiel’s very famous interview question, which probes for a person’s capacity to think independently. He asks, “Tell us something about the world that you think is true that most people think is not true.”

There is also another variant of this question later on, which asks: “What is one thing that exists today that you would like to make absurd in 20 years?”

“We’re looking for intellectual independence and a determination to make something new and to make it work,” O’Neill says.

Some of fellows are exactly what you would expect — if anything predictable could ever come out of this program. There is the youngest person to have ever created nuclear fusion, Taylor Wilson. (An excellent story about him from Popular Science is right here.)

There is also a pair that’s working on biomedical imaging with the vision that it could one day be precise enough to spot as few as 10 cancer cells.

“Doctors often use mainly qualitative information in diagnosing disease,” Anand Gupta said in a presentation at the San Francisco Palace of the Fine Arts earlier this year. “Biomedical imaging has the density, structure and information to provide more rational tools to find disease.”

Yet another fellow, Harvard student Connor Zwick, has an iPhone app that makes enough to bring him a livable income. It’s a Flashcards app, which seems simple at the surface level. But he thinks about it as a learning network that responds and adapts to how people progress with intaking new material.

Another fellow Chris Olah got hooked on 3D printing when he was a teenager spending time at Toronto’s Hack Lab. He had already dropped out of college.

“The time obligations of university made it difficult to work on projects that I wanted to pursue,” he said in an interview. “There are only so many hours in a day.”

Some of the projects can easily be turned into consumer web startups, while others are more research-oriented. Some problems the fellows are attacking can be solved by brute technical force, while others are far more political like health care. Ilya Vakhutinsky, for example, is trying to automate home care after working on data visualization at a plasma physics laboratory.

Even though Thiel believes that we may be in a “higher education bubble,” there aren’t any plans to scale the fellowship beyond 20 people a year. O’Neill says it should inspire others to take the same leap in thinking critically about whether they need a university degree or not.

Here are the fellows:

Clay Allsopp (20, Raleigh, NC) thinks people should be able to forget about technology and simply focus on being creative. His start-up, Apptory, helps individuals and businesses create and distribute content for touch-screen devices, using an intuitive, easy-to-understand interface.

Dylan Field (20, Penngrove, CA) envisions a world where people define themselves by what they create rather than what they consume. Currently stopped out of Brown University, Field is working with his former classmate Evan Wallace on making better creative tools.

Kettner Griswold (19, Bethesda, MD) and Paul Sebexen (19, Staten Island, NY) are stopping out of school to work on a benchtop genome synthesis device, which will allow individual laboratories and medical practices to synthesize large genetic constructs in-house for an unprecedented low recurring cost. This product would massively disrupt the fields of biotechnology and health care, fueling innovation and stimulating interest and research sector-wide.

Anand Gupta (20, Palo Alto, CA) and Tony Ho (19, San Jose, CA) are using their expertise in biology and computer science to transform the way doctors diagnose patients. Their service will enable doctors and researchers to receive quantitative analysis of biomedical images, allowing for faster, more accurate diagnoses of complex diseases – and more lives saved.

Spencer Hewett (20, Bryan Mawr, PA) has an insatiable passion for inventing that extends far beyond the confines of one particular industry. As a Thiel fellow, he will focus on No-Q, a fusion of radio-frequency identification (RFID) and mobile payment technology that will eliminate both checkout lines and shoplifting.

Yoonseo Kang (18, Mississauga, ON, Canada) recognizes that society’s potential for innovation and abundance can only be achieved if knowledge and the factors of production are accessible for everyone. With that in mind, Yoonseo sees open-source hardware as the key for enabling communities around the world to vastly increase their productive potential and together engage in strategic economic collaboration. To that end, he is working with Open Source Ecology to develop the Global Village Construction Set, the 50 industrial machines that it takes to build a civilization with modern comforts.

Jimmy Koppel (20, St. Louis, MO) has a passion for software engineering – and a plan to make it much more efficient. Modifying software today often involves hundreds of thousands of small, similar adjustments that require a great deal of time and money. James will fix that problem by developing new tools to automate the process.

Ryan Lelek (19, Schererville, IN) developed a passion for entrepreneurship at the age of 15, when he established his first “instant streaming” start-up. Now he’s dedicated to disrupting the computer industry, using new advances in hardware, software, and network technology. As a Thiel Fellow, he’ll continue to change the world by creating simple technology tools that empower people.

Ritik Malhotra (19, San Jose, CA) Ritik began programming at age 8; started a popular web forum at the age of 12 that grew to over 32,000 members; and ran a web hosting and software consultancy business at the age of 13, garnering over a 600x return on his initial investment. Now he wants to provide a streamlined way of discovering, sharing, and distributing content over Facebook, Twitter, and other social media services. As a Thiel Fellow, he’ll first work to build a service that allows users to share interesting media, scraped from all around the web, focusing primarily on user growth in order to build a thriving community.

Chris Olah (19, Toronto, ON, Canada) wants to use 3D printing to reduce the scope of scarcity. His goal: empower anyone with a 3D printer to make educational aids, basic scientific equipment, and tools that improve their quality of life. He is currently working on a project called ImplicitCAD, which is a math-based attempt to reinvent computer-aided design and make it more affordable.

Semon Rezchikov (18, Hillsborough, NJ) is eager to explore how synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and social network dynamics intersect. As a Thiel Fellow, he wants to develop more flexible bioautomation technologies to improve the design cycle speed, and then use those technologies to create a library of truly reliable parts – making synthetic biology more like engineering and less like science.

Omar Rizwan (18, East Hanover, NJ) wants to change the world through the control and analysis of information. Specifically, he plans to speed up progress in the field of artificial intelligence by working on the analysis of big data sets. He will aggregate large sets of data from many different Internet sources and use them to tease out trends and draw conclusions.

Tara Seshan (19, New Fairfield, CT) is dedicated to improving public health worldwide, using technology, simple solutions, and community-based change. To that end, she is developing a tool that influences analysis of data, monitoring and evaluation, and public health decision making. As a Thiel Fellow, Tara will explore developing tools that enhance public health programs that can be implemented in low-resource settings.

Noor Siddiqui (17, Clifton, VA) is inspired to galvanize people for the good of others. As a Thiel Fellow, she will work to give students across the globe access to upward mobility – and industries access to an untapped work force – with the goal of mobilizing one billion people in the next decade.

Charlie Stigler (19, Pacific Palisades, CA) has years of experience as an entrepreneur and engineer, having written the popular open-source study application, SelfControl, and founded two Web start-ups. Now he’s working on Zaption, an application that improves the usual workflow for educators and collaborators by allowing video to be integrated into interactive Web experiences and studies. He believes this technology can help solve fundamental problems, starting with that of the U.S. education system.

Ilya Vakhutinsky (20, Fair Lawn, NJ) wants to revolutionize the way the technology and health care communities work together. He is working to create a more open and transparent health care system, drastically lowering the cost of care and empowering patients to make better decisions.

Taylor Wilson (18, Texarkana, AR) became the youngest person in history to create nuclear fusion. Since then, he has produced the lowest-cost and lowest-dose active interrogation system for the detection of enriched uranium ever developed. As a Thiel Fellow, Taylor will focus on both counter-terrorism and the production of medical isotopes for use in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Connor Zwick (18, Waukesha, WI) is passionate about education – which is why he has set out to revolutionize our country’s antiquated system using technology. As a Thiel Fellow, he will focus on Flashcards+, a mobile educational platform with a base of over 1.5 million downloads that allows anyone to learn anything using crowd sourced generated content from a database of more than 400 million flashcards.

And here’s a video on the program:

20 Under 20 from The Thiel Fellowship on Vimeo.