James H. Simons, the former math professor who founded the $12 billion quantitative shop Renaissance Technologies Corp., pocketed an estimated $1.5 billion last year. That was thanks to the 5% in fees and nearly 44% of profits that Renaissance docks its investors (vs. traditional hedge funds' typical "2 and 20"). Clients don't complain; Renaissance's leading fund has returned 35%, after fees, since 1989. And D.E. Shaw & Corp., the brainchild of ex-Columbia University computer science professor David E. Shaw, with $23 billion in capital, has netted investors 21% a year for 17 years, without a single losing 12-month stretch.
Landing a job at either of these shops can be insanely lucrative -- and even more insanely competitive. "Using a self-consciously obnoxious term, we're looking for superstars, the kinds of people who would be extraordinarily good at nearly anything," says Nicholas P. Gianakouros, head of global recruiting for New York-based D.E. Shaw.