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One of the first investors to bet big on Facebook was Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. Well, that investment paid off, but Mr. Thiel this week saw one of his other big investments head in the opposite direction. Well after other Republican rivals to Mitt Romney bowed out, Ron Paul finally followed suit and announced he would no longer contest the remaining presidential primaries. Peter Thiel was among those who helped bankroll the superPAC supporting Ron Paul. NPR's Richard Gonzales has this profiled as part of our Million-Dollar Donor series.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Who is Peter Thiel? He's a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, entrepreneur and co-founder of PayPal. Thiel hit the jackpot again when he gave Mark Zuckerberg the money to launch Facebook. Here's how Hollywood told us it all went down in this scene from the movie "The Social Network."
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WALLACE LANGHAM: (as David Hodges) We took a look at everything and congratulations. We're gonna start you off with a $500,000 investment.
GONZALES: Thiel's half-million dollar Facebook investment is now worth more than a billion dollars. Thiel's success and his smarts have made him a virtual rock star in Silicon Valley.
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GONZALES: At Stanford University recently, the lecture hall is full long before Peter Thiel saunters in - light blue business suit, open collar, a Diet Coke in his hand, his eyes shifting nervously as he scans the crowd of mostly adoring undergrads. He's here to argue a contrarian view, that technological progress is decelerating.
PETER THIEL: Whether we look at transportation, energy, commodity production, food production, agro-tech, nanotechnology - that with the exception of computers, we've had tremendous slowdown.
GONZALES: Thiel acknowledges that computers are getting faster, cheaper and better. But he says that's the virtual world of bits and bytes. In the real world of stuff, Thiel insists, there's been a slowdown.
THIEL: I believe we are in a world where innovation in stuff was outlawed. It was basically outlawed in the last 40 years - part of it was environmentalism, part of it was risk aversion. And all the engineering disciplines that had to do with stuff have basically been outlawed one by one.
GONZALES: In other words, he says government regulation stifles innovation and, without innovation, there is no economic growth. In technology circles, Thiel's libertarian views are well known. As a law student in the 1980s, Thiel co-founded the conservative Stanford Review, and he co-authored a book critical of political correctness and multiculturalism on that campus.
In more recent years, he's argued that higher education is failing America, and that some of the brightest students are probably better off not going to college at all. That's why he created the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowships. Its a program that gives promising young entrepreneurs $100,000 to skip college for two years and create their own business, as he explained on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in 2011.
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THIEL: Well, I think anything that requires real global breakthroughs requires a degree of intensity and sustained effort that cannot be done part-time, and so it's something you have to do around the clock and that doesn't compute with our existing educational system. So, had the people who started Facebook decided to stay at Harvard, they would not have been able to build the company and by the time they graduated in 2006, that window probably would have come and gone.
GONZALES: As a conservative, Thiel has donated money to a variety of Republican lawmakers. He's also a Christian and gay, and he's a major donor to GOProud, a gay conservative group based in Washington, D.C.
THIEL: Thiel's contribution of more than $2.5 million to the Endorse Liberty superPAC, which supports Ron Paul, makes him the fund's largest donor, in spite of the fact that the two men have never met or communicated in any way. Thiel declined to comment for this report, but his spokesman, Jim O'Neill, says Thiel believes Paul is the best candidate to beat President Obama.
JIM O'NEILL: There's a great opportunity to reach out to people who are concerned about civil liberties on the left, people who are concerned about deficits in the middle, people who are concerned about taxation on the right, people who are opposed to bailouts and bubbles. And so I think Paul would do really well against Obama.
GONZALES: If that sounds like a long shot, keep this in mind: That's exactly what Peter Thiel invests in. He's given money to a variety of long-term projects, from anti-aging research to seasteading - an effort to build communities on platforms in international waters. And he has said his support for Paul is the best bet for now to encourage a libertarian movement.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.
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