Laura Deming is not your ordinary teen. At the tender age of 12, she began working in a biogerontology lab. At 14, she headed off to MIT for college. Today, at 17 years old, when most of her peers are only beginning to look at colleges, she's leaving MIT to join the inaugural class of Thiel Fellows
-- a group of 20 teens hand-picked by The Thiel Foundation to pursue innovative scientific and technical projects, learn entrepreneurship, and begin building the technology companies of tomorrow.
The brains behind the Thiel Fellows is Peter Thiel, president of Clarium Capital, a managing partner in The Founders Fund, a co-founder and former CEO of PayPal, and early stage investor in Facebook. Back in September 2010, Peter fired a shot heard in ivory towers worldwide when he questioned the higher education model that was putting students deep in debt before they ever entered the workplace. Instead of dropping out, Peter's idea was to encourage students to "stop out" of school by offering $100,000, 2-year fellowships in which 20 students would be free to work on their entrepreneurial ideas and benefit from some of the best mentors Silicon Valley has to offer.
After reviewing over 400 applications, Laura and 19 other teenage applicants made the cut last month and are now on their way to Silicon Valley to participate in Peter Thiel's grand experiment. A few of the other Thiel Fellows include:
- Dale Stephens, the leader of UnCollege, a social movement that applies the methods of unschooling -- the self-directed brand of homeschooling with which he was raised -- to the realm of higher education. Now he is building a platform called RadMatter to revolutionize how we develop and demonstrate talent in the 21st century.
- Eden Full is the 19-year-old Canadian founder of Roseicollis Technologies, a solar energy start-up that deploys her patent-pending inventions in established and emerging markets. Currently electrifying two villages of 1000 citizens in Kenya, Eden's SunSaluter is a solar panel rotating system that tracks the sun to optimize energy collection by up to 40 percent for only $10. She began developing her social enterprise when she was 15.
- Gary Kurek has been developing mobility aids for physically disabled citizens for the last four years and is the 19 year-old founder of GET Mobility Solutions. Seeing his grandmother weakened by cancer led Gary to invent a walker-wheelchair hybrid that can provide power to assist its user according to how strong she feels at any moment. Gary is currently working on expanding the versatility of his mobility aids, making them lighter, foldable, and capable of navigating any home environment including staircases.
If you have a moment, I encourage you to read about all of the projects being pursued by the Thiel Fellows. They run the gamut from medicine to economics and technology to the humanities, and they overwhelm you with their spirit of optimism and ingenuity.
Whether Peter Thiel's grand experiment will get others to reconsider the wisdom of taking on college debt rather than pursuing their entrepreneurial ideas remains to be seen. I do know, however, that if Laura Deming gets her way, we'll all be here to see it. She plans to focus her Thiel Fellowship efforts on accelerating the commercialization of anti-aging research in hopes of extending the human lifespan.
If she succeeds, who knows -- what it means to be a teenager may take on a whole new meaning.