Saturday, February 11, 2023

Keeping up with The Thiel Fellows

When you think of a Thiel Fellow, a few people may come to mind: Laura Deming and her quest to end aging, software prodigies like Vitalik Buterin of Ethereum and Dylan Field of Figma, or that Scale AI founder who is really cringy on Twitter. But besides those few standout alumni of the fellowship... what's happened to the rest of them? Let's take a look at what the fellows from the first cohort of 2011 and the middle cohort of 2017 are up to.


  • In 2011, Laura Deming was 17 and had a grand vision to end aging through investment in commercial ventures. Since then, she's raised over $26 million for her venture capital firm the Longevity Fund; advised hot longevity startups like Loyal and Fauna Bio; and become a popular figure in the broader aging research community. 
  • Alexander Kiselev took the Thiel Fellowship at 19 to work on making affordable scientific instruments. The company he spun out of the Thiel Fellowship, Open Industrial, seems to have lasted only two years. Snooping his Linkedin page, it seems like he's hopped tech job to job since, gradually more in the world of bits than atoms.
  • Another fellow in this cohort related to biotech– Darren Zhu– dropped out of Yale to design a diagnostic biosensor. Quickly in succession to his fellowship grant of $100,000, he raised another $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I get the impression this project didn't succeed though, since it now looks like he's trying to do something in the web3 DeSci space.
  • Daniel Friedman, Paul Gu, and Eric McKay also left Yale to join the Thiel Fellowship. Their goal was to develop an automated and technical process in the career space. Quickly after they received the Fellowship, however, it seems like they all split off to do their own thing; Daniel ran a bootcamp called Thinkful for a decade that was acquired by Chegg for $100M, Paul cofounded a now public AI lending platform company, and Eric works at Primer.
  • Dale Stephens joined the Thiel Fellowship at 19 to work on UnCollege, a program to spread the word about unschooling. In his words, "the company was a decade too early." Since then, he's done another education related venture and transitioned to coaching entrepreneurs.
  • Jeffery Lim dropped out of MIT to "create technologies that will help people self-organize to solve social problems." I couldn't find much information about this, but I gather it didn't work out since he went back to MIT to finish his CS degree and is now a software engineer.
  • Faheem Zaman wanted to develop mobile financial services for the developing world, particularly South Asia. He's since hopped from one finance related firm to another. Though it doesn't seem like he's founded anything since the Thiel Fellowship, he seems to have stayed consistent with his original goal in some capacity. Good for him.
  • Nick Cammarata and David Merfield took the Thiel Fellowship to work on an edtech company called Tablo that wanted to mainstream the "flipped classroom" model. It was quickly acquired for what I'm assuming to be a _lot_ of money since Nick became an angel investor after that. Nick founded a machine learning company called Orbit that seems not to exist anymore, and works at OpenAI now. He's also pretty popular on Twitter for his Meditation Bro takes. I can't find anything about what David's been up to since Tablo.
  • Andrew Hsu dropped out of his neuroscience Ph.D program at 19 (what the fuck) to work on Airy Labs, a startup that aimed to develop learning games for young children. It looks like they raised a bit of funding, but ultimately fizzled out. But that didn't stop Andrew from entrepreneurship– he runs an edtech company called Speak that seems to be doing alright.
  • John Marbach dropped out of Wake Forest to pursue an edtech company that sounds vaguely similar to another company from this cohort... from what I could tell it didn't work out. He went on to complete his degree at Wake Forest and found another startup that was backed by YC (though that one seems to have also failed). Since then, he's done growth related things at a few tech companies
  • Tom Currier dropped out of Stanford to pursue an energy startup called Black Swan Solar (later d.b.a QBotix). At the time of its founding, Patch gave a glowing profile of the idea– and it seemed to have raised a lot of money– but sadly it failed due to fierce competition in the space. Since then, he's ran a few companies; but none of them seem to have succeeded. 
  • Jim Danielson dropped out of Purdue to work on a more efficient design for motors for EVs. Since then, he's job hopped a few times doing hardware related things
  • Eden Full Goh dropped out of Princeton to work on SunSaluter, "a solar panel rotating system that tracks the sun to optimize energy collection by up to 40 percent for only $10." Impressively, she ran this project way before she got the Thiel Fellowship and way after! Now, she's the founder + CEO of a YC backed automation company called Mobot which seems to be doing pretty well.
  • Sujay Tyle dropped out of Harvard as a 17 year old junior to work on "hacking cellulose to create cheap biofuels." It seems like this project didn't go far since it's not even mentioned on his Linkedin, but he's been very successful otherwise. He's cofounded two prosperous companies– one of which was acquired– and now is doing venture capital things. Ironically, he went all out on his credentials– going back to Harvard for his J.D. and MBA.
  • James Proud got the Thiel Fellowship to develop, "a start-up that aims to help music lovers discover more live shows." After that fizzled out, he then went on to found Hello, a sleep tracking hardware company. For a while, they seemed to have survived– but it looks like they are not around anymore, even after raising a lot of money. Interestingly, Jim Danielson also worked at Hello for a bit. James likes to retweet Democrat things on Twitter now.
  • Christopher Rueth got the Thiel Fellowship to work on CommunityKit, "a not-for-profit organization which combines the latest most efficient technologies to strengthen communities by providing renewable power, water purification and networked education." Twelve years later, he's still working on it!
  • Ben Yu dropped out of Harvard to work on an e-commerce company. For a while worked at/founded a few healthcare startups, including this bizarre melatonin spray product. Now, he's doing something with NFTs. Godspeed, Ben. 
  • Sebastien Zany took the Thiel Fellowship to work on "realizing the potential of computers and the Internet to enable people to work with information fluidly and creatively," which sounds like a bunch of gobbleygook to me. From what I gather by his Twitter profile, he's into AI now.
  • Gary Kubek dropped out of the University of Calgary to work on "a lightweight, versatile wheelchair platform capable of navigating steps, uneven terrain, and entire staircases," which honestly sounds pretty fucking cool. For a while after that he worked in defense, and now he's doing something hush hush. 
  • David Luan dropped out of Yale to work on Dextro, which seems to have initially been a robotics company which quickly pivoted to computer vision. They were eventually acquired and David went to work at none other than OpenAI for a few years. Now, he's the founder and CEO of Adept AI, which is gaining traction (and controversy) in the AI community for trying to make AI that has open access to the internet.
  • John Burnham dropped out of Dartmouth to work on "developing space industry technologies to solve the problem of extraterrestrial resource extraction." This idea did not pan out and he eventually went back to Dartmouth to finish his degree. Since then, he's lead a few software companies and is the CEO of a YC backed cryptography company.


  • Ashish Pandhi dropped out of Hofstra University to work on a social media management company called Bettr. It flamed out in 2020 and now it looks like he's working on a similar idea called Zurp
  • Colton Jang was working on "a machine learning company" by the time he got the Thiel Fellowship. Not much information about him or his project– I think this is him if I had to guess.
  • Daria Evdokimova dropped out of Harvard in 2013 according to this, which means she received the Thiel Fellowship 4 years after dropping out if I'm doing basic arithmetic right? She's still running the company she started around the time of her receiving the fellowship– VoiceOps, an AI b2b SaaS company. Seems to be doing okay.
  • Dean Travers dropped out of Harvard to work on Luminopia, "a virtual reality healthcare startup initially focused on treating lazy eye." Now he's working on a company called Odin– which is neither The ODIN or this Odin or this Odin, nor this Odin.
  • Fred Turner got the Thiel Fellowship for his short lived biotech, TL Biolabs, a "company building a low-cost genotyping platform for farmers to understand an animal’s likely productivity and disease susceptibility at birth," which sounds like the plot of Gattaca but for chickens!? Now he's the CEO of Curative, a healthtech company I've somehow heard of but have no idea why.
  • Helson Taveras dropped out of Columbia to work on Riley, "a lead qualification platform for real estate professionals." After a year, it fizzled out. Now, he's running some banking company for Canadians. 
  • Iddo Gino joined the Thiel Fellowship to work on RapidAPI, a software company. It's still around, and it seems to be doing pretty well.
  • James Graham was working on Caffeine, a software startup, when he got the Thiel Fellowship. After it failed, he's been running... a landline phone service???  
  • Jesper Theil Thomsen founded Soundbooks, a company that claimed to have made "the world’s loudest battery-powered speaker." It's still around, to my surprise.
  • Jordan DeCicco dropped out of Philadelphia University to develop a food and beverage brand called Sunniva (now called Kitu). After he got the Thiel Fellowship, he went on Shark Tank where he didn't have any luck getting an investor. Despite this the company is doing quite well now. 
  • Jorge Izquierdo founded the Aragon Project, a crypto platform that makes it easier to launch DAOs. It's still around– but after working on it for a while, it seems like he's moved on.
  • Laura Vaughan left UWaterloo to work on Acorn Biolabs, "a biotechnology company that conveniently cryopreserves clients’ stem cells." After it fizzled out, she's hopped back and forth from software to biotech. Now, it looks like she's working as a software engineer.
  • Lani Lazari founded Simple Sugars, a skincare company, when she was 11. Twelve years later, she got the Thiel Fellowship for it. Since then, she got a Mark Cuban investment from Shark Tank and the company seems to be surviving. 
  • Mark Prokoudine founded Kickback, an e-sports betting company, 3 years before receiving the Thiel Fellowship. Kickback's Twitter is inactive, so if I had to guess, they're not around anymore. I couldn't find out what Mark is up to now.
  • Micah Green dropped out of Cornell to work on Maidbot, a "robotics company that created the first housekeeping robot for hotels." He's still working on it, but the company's Crunchbase confused me– how did he raise only $50k for it but it's a Series B company??
  • Nicholas Shekerdemian dropped out of Oxford to work on a machine learning b2b SaaS company called Headstart. It got backed by YC and is still around. Seems like he's more into VC now though. 
  • Peeyush Shirvastava dropped out of Ohio State to work on Genetesis, a medical device company. It's doing pretty well now– recently having successfully raised its Series C.
  • Phat Le dropped out of Embry Riddle to work on Sleeker, a SaaS company. He's now running Noots, a nootropics company for "Millennials and Gen-Z." Their website is pretty.
  • Prahasith Veluvolu dropped out of Purdue to work on Mimir, "which builds a classroom automation tool for computer science and programming courses." It's since been acquired by HackerRank, where he resides working on product now.
  • Robert Kirstiuk dropped out of Western University to work on Coastline, an online market for seafood sales. It seems he's since pivoted to food distribution more generally and given the company a new name, Freshline. They're still around, but it seems they've yet to raise beyond the seed stage.
  • Sam Bernstein dropped out of UVA to work on LoftSmart, an online marketplace for student rentals. They were around for a little while, but finally shuttered doors in 2020 due to COVID. Now, Sam is working on Table22, a restaurant subscription business. 
  • Shahed Khan was working on Loom, a b2b SaaS company, when he got the Thiel Fellowship. It's since scaled quite a bit since the Thiel Fellowship days, and is now a unicorn company
  • Sol Chen founded Clara, a health service that works on patient enrollment and progress in clinical trials. It was acquired a year ago.
  • Tara Bosch got the Thiel Fellowship after working on SmartSweets, a low sugar candy company. It's since been acquired for $400M.
  • Zaid Rahman was the founder of Volley, an AI company, when he got the Thiel Fellowship. From what I can tell, it didn't succeed; Zaid has gone on to do VC part time as well as founding a b2c company called Flexbase.

My thoughts on the Thiel Fellowship

It's undoubtable the Thiel Fellowship has changed– its transitioned from bits and atoms to mostly bits (and most of those companies that remain in the world of atoms are... dare I say boring?). The calibre of person that accepts the Thiel Fellowship has not, however; most these people are incredibly impressive in their own respective way. It does strike me as unfortunate that the Thiel Fellowship is more for already accomplished founders than it is for aspiring ones. The original goal of the Thiel Fellowship was to support young entrepreneurs who had innovative and disruptive ideas, and to provide them with the resources and mentorship needed to bring their visions to life. While this may still be the case to some extent, it seems that over time, the focus has shifted towards supporting individuals who have already achieved some level of success and are looking to further their careers. 

It is true that the Thiel Fellowship has evolved and changed over time, but it's also important to remember that this is a natural part of any program or organization. Adapting and evolving is necessary in order to remain relevant and effective in today's rapidly changing world. 

After all, this program is run by an investor, not a philanthropist.