Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel introduced the 2014 class of Thiel Fellows this week, and one of them is Benjamin Englard, an 18-year-old from Miami.
If you’re unfamiliar, the Thiel Fellowship is a controversial but thought-provoking program that awards 20 young people $100,000 two-year grants who agree to drop out of school and advance their "potentially world changing" ideas. For the 2014 Fellowship, the Thiel Foundation received applications from nearly every state in the U.S. and from 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, said Peter Thiel, creator of the Thiel Fellowship.
Benjamin Englard graduated from Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High in Miami-Dade County in 2013 and completed his first year of college studying computer science at the University of Michigan, which has an impressive program, he said. He is interested in natural language processing, computer vision, distributed computing and the synthesis of computer science with other fields and is working to combine ideas from computer science and psychology with the goal of personalizing technology.
The other 19 fellows - all age 20 or under - are mainly from the U.S., including five from California, but also hail from Canada, India and Bulgaria.
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 from San Francisco. Now he is also pursuing two “bigger and more challenging” projects – one involved 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 in this fourth class 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 numerous science and technology fields, including 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 Peter Thiel, creator of the Thiel Fellowship, PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist.
Although fellows aren’t required to move out to Silicon Valley, they are encouraged to in order to be close to the mentors and get the most out of the program. Englard said he was provided an apartment in San Francisco as part of the fellowship and moved there on Sunday. “I’m extremely excited to be able to pursue my ideas without being constrained by classes,” said England, who would not go so far as to say he wouldn’t be returning to college after the two years but for now his focus is 100 percent on his projects.
The Fellowship application process is known for its challenging and unconventional nature -- the final round included two-minute lightning pitches, one-on-one mentor matches and even a Lego bridge-building challenge, and the journey of this year’s 40 top finalists was documented by a WIRED mini-series “Teen Technorati.”