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Last fall, Princeton University sophomore Eden Full began to consider taking a break from school to turn her side project—a solar panel that rotates without using electricity—into a business.
In April, Full got all the motivation she needed when she was told she had won a $100,000 grant. The catch: She has to leave school for at least two years. "It's time for me to go out and try things in the real world and make mistakes and learn from those mistakes," says 19-year-old Full.
Full is one of two dozen young entrepreneurs named today to the 20 Under 20 Fellowship, a philanthropic grant announced in September by Facebook investor and board member Peter Thiel. The Thiel Foundation intends to spur the creation of more innovative startups through a controversial means: getting more young people to explore alternatives to a college education.
The recipients—all younger than 20 years old at the end of 2010—each will receive $100,000 and mentoring under the condition that they stay out of school for two years to build their businesses. The foundation said it expanded the list to 24 because it was "impossible to pick only 20" from among the pool of more than 400 applicants.
"People who have already gone to college and are in their 20s typically have student debt, sometimes a mortgage; often they're not well-positioned to take on the two-year financial risk of trying to start a company," says Jim O'Neill, who heads the San Francisco-based nonprofit.
The grant winners are pursuing a range of businesses, from alternative energy to education and e-commerce. Calgary native Full will use her grant money to move to San Francisco in August and speed up the process of patenting and licensing her solar panel technology. Years of tinkering in science had led her to come up with a contraption for increasing solar panel energy collection by up to 40 percent, partly by removing the electricity commonly used to rotate panels toward the sun.
"I don't have a concrete plan of what's going to happen next, but there are a lot of people who are willing to support me and make sure I'm on the right track," says Full, who will work with three separate mentors provided by the Thiel Foundation to handle technical matters, business development, and financial issues.
Full says she plans to return to Princeton eventually to complete her degree in mechanical engineering. "When I come back, I will get a feel for why I am studying what I am studying," she says.
Educators and career counselors say that skipping or putting off a college degree can be detrimental when business ideas fail.
"For every high-profile story of a Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg"—two high-tech chief executive officers who dropped out of college—"there are many, many less-publicized examples of men and women who have become highly successful entrepreneurs because of what they learned in college from teachers and fellow students," says Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn. "Mr. Thiel's program seems not unlike luring college athletes out of degree completion with the promise of a career in the NFL or NBA."
Participants in the 20 Under 20 Fellowship can always go back to school if their business doesn't take off, says the Thiel Foundation's O'Neill.
"There's a difference between `stopping out' and `dropping out,'" he says. And the comparison to professional sports recruiting misses the fact that most athletes have relatively short runs in the pros before they wear out, O'Neill says. "If you're an entrepreneur and you're successful, it's probably something you can sustain throughout your career."
While high tuition fees can be a reason for young entrepreneurs to pass up school, that wasn't the case for Gary Kurek, a 19-year-old in Alberta, Canada, who was awarded a Thiel Foundation grant.
After graduating from high school last year, Kurek was offered a full engineering scholarship at the University of Calgary. Instead, he decided to take a year off and build his business, a maker of motorized walkers for the elderly called GET Mobility Solutions.
"Innovation is created by taking new paths, not following existing ones," Kurek says. "And creating a new path is exactly what this fellowship is allowing us to do."
Kurek plans to move to San Francisco in September and invest some of the $100,000 in testing and refining his walker product. Then he hopes to begin selling models to hospitals and assisted-care facilities.
Thiel may have found 24 exceptions to conventional wisdom, says Susan Brennan, managing director of University Career Services at Waltham (Mass.)-based Bentley University.
"The small group of entrepreneurial students Peter Thiel is targeting is not representative of the larger population," she says. "These exceptional students may take his grant money and indeed be successful. But the majority of young people need the skills, training, and experience that come with a college education and experiential learning."