Innovation Blog

Rewarding Entrepreneurs Who Leave School:  Why “Stopping Out” Beats “Dropping Out”

By Shlomo Maital



 Goethe:  ..but doing is best of all

 College student:  Do you have a business idea that can change the world?  Want to get to work and tackle it?  But, wait, you have a pressing exam in Medieval Shoelaces 101 and then another in Philosophy of
Navel-Staring in Ming Dynasty China?   Oh well…you’ll have your degree in another two years of desperate boredom.

   But wait!  There is a solution.  Facebook investor Peter Thiel has a foundation that gives grants of $100,000 to innovators – provided they leave school!   Well, not exactly ‘leave school’ – that’s not a great idea.  But ‘stop out’,
leave temporarily, for two years, to build a business idea, rather than ‘drop out’, forever.    The story about Thiel
appears in Douglas  MacMillan’s ‘top story’ in Bloomberg Business Week, May 25 issue. 

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. 

Naturally, educators hate the idea.  Says Brian Rosenberg, President of Macalester College in Minnesota,  “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.”     Ever heard of Lebron James, Mr. Rosenberg? 

   Among the grant recipients: 

  • Eden Full,   “who will use her grant money to move to SanFrancisco 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.”
  • 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 engineeringscholarship 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.   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.”

 I like to think of Thiel’s program not as ‘stopping out’ but enrolling in Innovation University, a school where you learn hands-on, by doing innovation, where the lessons are sometimes tough and bitter, the rewards huge, and the learning?  Well, which is a richer learning environment, a classroom, or the real world?  Which is better, thinking, memorizing, or doing?  As Goethe said:  Thinking is  better than knowing – but doing is best of all.