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.
Yup—topical caffeine spray. Meaning you spray it not in your mouth but on your skin (ideally your neck, Yu says) as if it were perfume. Because you’re not supposed to drink it, and it contains only caffeine, water, and an amino acid derivative, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t consider it a drug or a dietary supplement, Yu says. He calls it “homeopathic energy” and says they’ve invested around $50,000 in it so far. Why try to raise only a measly $15,000? According to Yu, that’s the cost of the minimum amount that his FDA-certified manufacturer will make, and he figures he can hit the goal quickly.
The big idea is to make caffeine palatable to people who get the jitters from coffee and energy drinks. Four sprays, the recommended dose, has less caffeine than a cup of coffee, Yu says. Since it’s applied to the skin, it’s absorbed steadily, avoiding the rush and the crash of a strong cup of joe. Yu’s father, who has a Ph.D. in bioorganic chemistry and owns his own lab in China, helped develop it.
Sprayable isn’t the first business to market atomized caffeine, though Yu notes the others are meant to be sprayed into the mouth, requiring significantly more caffeine. To allay safety concerns, Yu, who uses his product regularly, says he’s tested it on hundreds of people without negative reactions. Drinking it is an explicit no-no, and Yu notes that because of caffeine’s bitterness, it would “probably be more pleasant to eat a cockroach.” Each bottle holds about 40 doses and will retail for $15. Delivery should start “near the end of October,” he says.
Yu acknowledges the spray isn’t going to save the world but thinks what he’s been doing is in keeping with the fellowship’s mission. Jonathan Cain, president of the Thiel Foundation, and Danielle Strachman, the fellowship’s program director, say they see the venture as an early step in Yu’s personal development as an entrepreneur.
In his application, Yu articulated a “big vision” of “hacking biological systems” and innovating in related fields, Strachman says. “Though on the surface, Sprayable Energy might not look like a huge game-changer, it’s his way of entering that market,” she says. “He didn’t just make this little sprayable thing in his basement and say, ‘Oh, look, I made something. I’m done now.’ This is an actual business. … We think it’s brilliant that he broke into an unregulated industry, where he could actually get a product out to market rather than doing something labeled as medical and never getting out there.”