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In a previous era, Howard Hughes embodied the eccentric billionaire. Today, that title might go to Peter Thiel but for different reasons. Thiel helped create PayPal, was Facebook's first major investor, and has some unusual interests; for one, private space exploration. He has also invested in anti-aging research and spent millions supporting Ron Paul's presidential bids.
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But Thiel is perhaps best known for his insistence that higher education in America is overvalued. Roughly two years ago, he came up with the idea of offering 20 exceptional college-age students fellowships worth $100,000. All they had to was drop out of college and pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions.
NPR's Steve Henn has been following the Thiel fellows. And this week, he caught up with one in Oakland.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: I first spoke to Eden Full more than 18 months ago. At the time, she was finishing up her sophomore year at Princeton. She was on the crew team as a coxswain. She had spent the previous summer in Kenya, building an innovative low-cost contraption to make solar panels more efficient. Full was glowingly successful - the kind of college student who ends up profiled in alumni magazines. But, of course, we were talking because Full had decided to drop out.
EDEN FULL: There's this huge media hype around dropping out of college and what is the value of college. But I think college means different things to different people. And, you know, the reason college is quote-unquote, "overvalued" is because people don't know how to use it effectively.
HENN: Back then, that was Full's biggest concern. She wasn't sure that she wanted to leave college forever. But she also wasn't sure she was getting the most out her time there. And she had this itch. That contraption she built in Kenya, to make solar panels more efficient, she called it the SunSaluter and she was convinced it could have a big impact.
FULL: You know, the SunSaluter is kind of like what you'd think of like a sunflower, even. It follows the sun from east to west every day, and that will give you up to 40 percent more electricity for your solar panel.
HENN: Full thought this idea could help bring affordable sustainable electricity to the one and a half billion people in the world who don't have it. And she had more than an idea, she had a product. But Full couldn't imagine building a business while she was a full-time student. So when she heard about the Thiel fellowship, she applied.
And when Eden Full and the other Thiel fellows landed in Bay Area in the fall of 2011, it was a pretty intense group.
FULL: Like, everyone thinks that you only need to run on two hours of sleep. And if you're not running on two hours of sleep, you're being lazy or something.
HENN: That didn't really work for Full. She realized that in order to do good work it was important to have some balance, to try and be happy. So she moved to a sunny spot in Oakland.
FULL: Basically we've built the SunSaluter out of an old firehouse, we call it the Firehome. It's - actually it's home to a lot of different startups. And yeah, there's a nice little workspace downstairs and we all live upstairs.
HENN: There, she refined the Sunsaluter. Now dripping water from a filtration system creates the weight that slowly moves the solar panel. This simple system gives villagers both more solar power and clean water.
FULL: We want people to be able to maintain it themselves without having technical knowledge. And the reason that a lot of these type of technologies fail in the field is just they're simply too complicated. And we want something that's really intuitive and easy to understand.
HENN: Her business has a small staff and she's confident it can sustain itself while she finishes her degree. Full has decided to go back to college. But she thinks the Thiel fellowship taught her how to get the most out of her time in school. Eden Full started off her college career in a hurry. But her advice to other students in a similar spot today is to slow down, take some time off and figure out what you really want to do.
FULL: Then once you have gotten a taste of that, then go back to college when you're more mature and not, you know, not so distracted. And actually go and finish and make something of that experience. And I think it can be really rewarding and really meaningful.
HENN: Most of the first class of Thiel fellows probably won't go back to college, at least for now. But few of them are ruling it out completely.
Steve Henn. NPR News, Silicon Valley.
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