The Thiel Fellowship is a controversial grant/scholarship(?) from the Thiel Foundation that awards 20-year olds with $100,000 spread out over 2 years to pursue an innovative passion. Fittingly in line with Peter Thiel’s capitalist/libertarian leanings, the Thiel Fellowship skews towards startup founders, but basic science researchers and nonprofits have been awarded the Thiel Fellowship as well. Chances are you already know most of this.
I’m uniquely qualified to give advice and recount my experiences since I’ve been aware of the Fellowship since 2012, became a finalist in 2014 (we were featured in a Wired documentary, but don’t look it up), and became a recipient in 2019. For reference, I’ve been working on the same startup since 2014. We’re in the healthcare space (data science and bioinformatics is my background), you can learn more here.
2014 Application Process
Back in the early days (pre-2016), the application was insanely long, but captured really good data on the applicants. There was basically a 3 step process that involved a very long application, periodic updates, a semi-finalist form, then the finalist weekend. The finalist weekend process was interesting. 40 finalists are flown to San Francisco for face-to-face interviews, to meet one another and pitch the broader community of Thiel Fellowship mentors, and for various activities (at some point they did a treasure hunt).
2019 Application Process
Things changed a lot since then. The age range was extended to about 23 and the Fellowship took between 20 and 24 recipients each year (as opposed to a hard cut off at 20). Most fellows seemed to average around 21 years old. This is for the best in my opinion. The initial form was also shortened dramatically, asking for a summary of what you’re working on and pitch deck. If it’s a good fit, you’ll be scheduled to have a 10 minute phone interview. Next you’re flown to the Thiel Capital/Thiel Foundation office in West Hollywood for face-to-face interviews with Fellows and Foundation program staff. Some interviews may be done by teleconference (possibly entirely in 2020 due to COVID), though I recommend in-person.
There’s not really too much to say here than to be yourself. Naturally there will be people who like what you’re doing, some will be skeptical, some may try to rattle you to see if you really know what you’re talking about, others may just not react at all. If you’re a first-time founder, chances are you’re very passionate and that’ll be advantageous. Be confident but open-minded and it’s ok to not know or have not considered something. You don’t have to be a child prodigy or something, but you have to show that you can create material impact on the world and you’re not just going to jump from idea to idea.
Repeat applicants may not have an advantage but may be in a better position if they’ve learned more and grew their business materially. There are some people who were finalists multiple (3+) times. There are others who were multiple repeat finalists but never received the fellowship. One year more than half the finalists were cryptocurrency/blockchain-related startups. I’ve never seen a year where there wasn’t a life science company, but that doesn’t mean there’s a quota for life science companies. What I’m saying is: don’t overthink it.
Think about it like you’re pitching an investor. If they give you $100,000, what material progress will they be able to say about you in 2 years? Or are you a better fit next year? Speaking of which, if you’ve raised money (ideally from well-known investors), this should come easily to you. I also noticed that some of my young YC batch mates became Thiel Fellows.
The process has changed a lot. Like any good program/investor, they’re iterating on their criteria. I’m just providing my general thoughts on my past experiences. They’re not investing in your business for equity, but they expect you to be able to produce value and grow your project over 2 years.
Hope you found that helpful and I recommend also reading 1517 Fund’s Medium article1 Mike and Danielle were past directors of the Thiel Fellowship so they know what they’re talking about, Alex Koren’s Medium article2, and Delian’s blog post3. I really recommend the post by 1517 Fund since Mike and Danielle previously ran the Thiel Fellowship. Feel free to contact me. Don’t watch the CNBC 20 under 20 documentary or the Wired documentary.