The Thiel Fellowship – Launching Your Project

with Danielle Strachman

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Having vision and creativity will drive success more than raw brains will.

Danielle Strachman

Thiel Fellowship Program Director, Cofounder of Innovations Academy

Lessons Learned

We believe in conscious decision-making.

We look at the applicant and their past execution abilities – not the single idea they provide.

We want forward thinking applicants, with the abiity to organize something.


Lesson: The Thiel Fellowship with Danielle Strachman

Step #6 Vision: Having vision and creativity will drive success more than raw brains will

Examples of some of the big vision that we see from fellows are people like Laura Deming, for example. She applied to the fellowship and was really interested in working in longevity research and how to get that moving forward. What was interesting was we originally thought that she'd mostly be working the research end of things, but when she got the fellowship, this was even more curious to us, she came and she said, "This is a really big opportunity to have these two years to really do something radical and do what I want." She was 16 years old at the time. She said, "I really like to start a VC fund that backs longevity research because I see that the research isn't actually the hardest part, it's getting the funding to make the research possible." We, the fellowship council, were beside ourselves because here we are, the people who are like "Yeah, think big. Take risks," things like that and we were like, "Whoa. We thought you'd be in a lab doing some neat work, and that was a big vision for us, and, here you are, 16 years old saying I want to start my own VC fund."

We were nervous about it but we supported her and we said, "Yes, okay. You're right. This is what a fellowship is for." And she went out there and she raised the VC fund and she's actually invested in companies that are doing longevity research. She's only maybe 19 at this point. She's from our first class of fellows, from the 2011 group. But she really made us pause and think about what's possible and what's doable. Just for anybody it's extraordinary that she started that when she was 16. So, she really made us pause and think about what does it mean to have a really big mission. What does it mean to do something that initially people might think, "Oh, there's no way you can do this." So that's one example.

Another is a fellow Eden Full who started her project, The SunSaluter. She had some prototypes for what she wanted to do when she first came into the fellowship. What it does basically, her mission is very, well, I think a lot of good missions come back to helping a large group of people. Her mission really inspired us because she had heard about people in developing nations who were getting trampled at night and things like that, sometimes by oxen and other animals and whatnot because they didn't have light. They didn't have a way to plug in their phones for long periods in the day so that if you're going and walking from one place to another, that you can see. She said that this seems like an atrocity that doesn't really need to be.

One thing that she figured out was that with solar panels being stationary, you could only collect so much light during the day, because obviously the sun is rotating. But she thought what if you could make solar panels rotate. So, she made a device that helps the solar panel to rotate with the sun, so that it collects 40% more energy during the day and has a charging station so people could plug in. So, she has set up numerous of these in different places all over the world and she's affected about 6,000 people at this point.

She's also really interested in sustainability and making something that doesn't need a lot of repairs and if does that it can be used with the local materials that are right there so that the people that she's serving can fix their own parts and keep making something work, and if not, something where she's going to send someone a new one every year or something like that. So, things like that have been really, really inspiring to us as well.

We have Thomas Somers who is a 2013 fellow. He's a real inspiration because he actually came into the fellowship as a junior in high school. He had just finished up his junior year and was trying to figure out what his plans would be going forward and school wasn't really working out for him. He's very humble, but he's also very intelligent, so I'm just going to say it flat out that he was quite advanced and school wasn't serving him. We offered him a fellowship and he wanted to work on processing chips and basically everybody knows Intel is the leader in this regard right now, and he's trying to take on a really big giant and say, "I've got something that I think can process X amount of times faster and do a much better job, and he's been making some really great headway with that. He has a co-founder and he's been applying for grants and funding and it's really inspiring to see what he's been able to do.

In fact, when he came into the fellowship, I had a talk with him and his mom and said, "You know, we're not ready to tackle high school yet and tell people they don't need a high school degree, so we'll support you with whatever you want to do. If it's staying in your high school and working on this, that's fine. If it's doing some sort of independent study curriculum, or home schooling curriculum, that's fine. If you want to get your GED you can do that, but really whatever you guys want to do." And they sat down and they talked. He was actually supposed to be the first person in his family to go to a four year university.

Both his parents are extraordinary people and extremely bright and they supported him and said, "Even though we had thought you would be the first one in our family to go, this fellowship looks great. We want you to be working full-time on your project. Let's go get your GED and just be done." So, that was just amazing. I love not only his vision for how he can work in tech, and make some things that are really extraordinary, but I love his family's vision of being able to support him in doing something different even when initially probably for those 17 years of his life, they had all expected that he was going to go off to school and cheerlead for that.

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