A few years ago, when Peter Thiel started giving teenagers $100,000 grants to skip college for two years to pursue world-changing projects, plenty of howling ensued. The libertarian billionaire, who earned degrees from Stanford University, countered that his fellowship program isn’t for everyone: It’s meant for elite tinkerers trying to better themselves and society through entrepreneurship. “The world’s hardest problems aren’t going to solve themselves,” Thiel noted in a press release last year. “If you have a great idea, the right time to work on it isn’t four years off—it’s now.”
So far, more than 60 would-be visionaries have received fellowships, and the application period for the fourth crop opens in October. Among the alums is Ben Yu, who took a leave after one semester as an undergrad at Harvard University to become a Thiel fellow in 2011. The 21-year-old and his partner, 33-year-old former venture capitalist Deven Soni, recently kicked off a crowdfunding campaign to raise $15,000 for Sprayable Energy, which plans to sell topical caffeine spray.