Laura Deming was studying for finals in a crowded MIT reading room last April when her phone rang. That’s when she learned she may never again take another exam.
Deming, only 17, had just been chosen by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel for a high-profile experiment: Put $100,000 apiece in the hands of 24 entrepreneurial teenagers and give them free rein to pursue innovative ideas.
The condition? Deming had to leave her studies and classmates, and vow to stay out of college during the two-year fellowship.
Thiel, who is PayPal’s co-founder and holder of two Stanford University degrees, says higher education today is in a “crazy bubble” that, like a bad mortgage, saddles students with tuition debt often for little in return. A vocal libertarian, Thiel, 44, takes the view that a college degree can be harmful to innovators because of the conservative, career-driven mindset it imparts.
“Youth have just as much intelligence and talent as older people,” says James O’Neill, head of the Thiel Foundation and managing director at Thiel’s investment fund, Clarium Capital. “They also haven’t been beaten down into submission by operating within an institution for a long time.”
Thiel has attracted critics for his anti-higher-education message. After all, not every young person is like Deming, a home-schooled prodigy who learned calculus at 11 and sought experience in a cutting-edge genetics lab at 12. That’s where she first had a chance to explore the science of extending the human lifespan, an idea she’s now hoping to turn into a business.
For Deming and her cohort, chosen from more than 400 applicants, the publicity around Thiel’s endorsement has been followed by some quick successes. Eden Full, 19, won a $260,000 social entrepreneurship award for her efforts to improve solar energy in developing countries. Dale Stephens, 20, landed a Penguin deal for his book Hacking Your Education.
Still, the foundation embraces the startup ethic that failure is inevitable, even desirable. So does John Deming, Laura’s father, an investor who moved the family to Boston when his daughter enrolled at MIT at age 14: “What I say to Laura is ‘The biggest problem you have so far, kid, is you haven’t failed yet.’”
After packing up her things at Sigma Kappa sorority, Deming moved across the country to a tiny room in a shared house in Palo Alto. Most days, she gets up before sunrise and heads out on foot to catch a commuter train to San Francisco, where she is talking to investors about a venture capital firm she wants to create to back research on new therapies for age-related diseases.
Because of SEC rules, Deming says she can’t go into details about the firm. But she jokes that one question now is whether to wait until her 18th birthday so that she can legally sign up investors or ask her father to do it. “The cool thing about Silicon Valley is that, though people might be skeptical of youth, they don’t actually know that you’re not smart enough or capable enough to make it work,” she says.
With startup success stories tempting undergraduates to quit, universities have raced to add entrepreneurship to their curricula. Stanford has StartX, an accelerator for student-run startups. Similarly, last year UC Berkeley created FounderSchool, which prepares students to raise venture money. James G. Boyle, managing director of the Entrepreneurial Institute at Yale University (which lost four undergraduate students to Thiel fellowships) agrees that more colleges should help kids start companies, but he says that most students benefit from an environment where they can test ideas without betting their future.
Deming doesn’t know yet whether she’ll ever go back to finish her college degree. “The funny part is I think I’ll miss studying for exams,” says Deming. “It’s the sort of thing that was very fun—like a sudoku puzzle or a crossword puzzle can be fun. But I thought that I could learn a lot more about the biotech industry and business by diving right into it.”