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Peter Thiel funds next round of under-20 entrepreneurs

The latest group of "20 Under 20" Thiel Fellows includes a junior at Harvard who's leaving to work on education software. Other projects: a desktop fabricator for electronics and a telepresence device.

Peter Thiel

Billionaire investor and philanthropist Peter Thiel plans to announce Thursday the next group of 20 young men and women who will receive $100,000 each to work as tech entrepreneurs instead of spending that time on a college campus.

The group, dubbed the "20 Under 20" Thiel Fellows, is the third group of entrepreneurs the Thiel Foundation has funded. It includes Christopher Walker, who dropped out of college to form a software company, and Zach Hamed, a junior at Harvard who's leaving to work on education software.

Jonathan Cain, president of the Thiel Foundation, said in a statement that the previous groups of Thiel Fellows has launched more than 30 companies and have collectively raised over $34 million in outside funding.

It's an irreverent alternative to a traditional -- and increasingly expensive -- university education that reflects the iconoclastic entrepreneur's beliefs about a bubble in higher education.

"My sense is that it's very overvalued if you take into account that most of it isn't about learning," Thiel told CNET in an earlier interview. "It's about credentialing. If you take into account that people are amassing this massive amount of debt, which destroys a lot of future optionality in terms of what they can do with their careers and their lives. Parenthetically, it's very hard to get out of debt. It's worse than housing in the sense that a house you can always walk away from. Debt is typically nonrecourse."

Thiel said his creation of the "20 Under 20" fellowship was not intended to be a poke in the eye to the education establishment, saying it's funding only 20 people out of perhaps 6 million a year who graduate from high school. (Thiel co-founded PayPal, invested in Facebook early on, and is a managing partner in The Founders Fund.)

In an feature that CBS News' 60 Minutes aired last year, Thiel criticized the higher education bubble by noting that in many cases degrees are unnecessary: "The average plumber makes as much as the average doctor." Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur who teaches at Duke and Stanford, disagreed, telling the news program: "What I worry about is a message that's getting out there to America that it's okay to drop out of school, that you don't have to get college. Absolutely dead wrong."

Here's the list of the entrepreneurs receiving this year's fellowships, provided by the Thiel Foundation:

Andrew Brackin (18, London, England) co-founded a marketplace for designers that grew to 100,000 signups. Andrew runs Tomorrow's Web, an event for young technologists with hundreds of attendees and major sponsors. He will be working on Bunchy, a funding platform that allows organizations to raise money from their audience on their social platforms and websites.

Austin Russell (18, Newport Beach, Calif.) has a passion for developing innovative optoelectronic technologies for industry. His projects range from high-efficiency far-field wireless power transmission to low-cost early cancer detection systems. As a fellow, Austin will be focusing on 3D depth mapping and projection of interactive holograms through a compact laser-based module.

Christopher Walker (20, Chevy Chase, Md.) is a video game designer, programmer, and artist. After leaving college to start a software company, he created a game designed to improve spatial cognition. As a Thiel Fellow, Chris will focus on developing interactive software to teach technical skills like programming, music, and mathematics.

Daniel Zulla (19, Regensburg, Germany) is a software engineer who is about to introduce a secure computing architecture used for servers and desktop computers alike.

Darren Lim (19, Singapore) came to love scientific innovation while studying in China, and remains a consumer at heart who is obsessed with cutting-edge gadgets. He is currently working on a startup that focuses on how we interact with technology.

Delian Asparaouhov (19, Salt Lake City, Utah) wants to help improve health care. As a Thiel fellow, he will work on leveraging technology to help manage disease and improve patient outcomes.

Diwank Singh Tomer (19, Palo Alto, Calif.) stopped out of his college in India to work on an online platform for learning to code. Aside from his love of poetry, he is an exceptional hacker and engineer who was awarded the Mozilla WebFWD fellowship for his efforts to improve learning online. He has since moved to the Bay Area to further his efforts and is currently working on a collaborative learning platform.

Gary Le (19, East Brunswick, N.H.) envisions a safer, cleaner, and more trustable Internet. He is working on a real-time online identity verification system for various applications in e-commerce, online communities, and collaborative consumption businesses.

James Schuler (19, Armonk, N.Y.) started his first company when he was 12 and hasn't stopped since. In high school he founded a health care company called Eligible and attended Y-Combinator as one of its youngest entrepreneurs. Recently, James left Eligible in order to focus on a bigger market: politics. As a Thiel Fellow, James will be focusing on implementing crowd funding in order to revolutionize the campaign finance market.

Kevin Wang (18, Vernon Hills, Ill.) began developing games and applications when he was 9. Since then, he has moved into entrepreneurship, applying his highly technical background to solve bigger problems. As a Thiel Fellow, he aims to simplify the world of law and open source software to end the wasteful litigation epidemic.

Laura Ball (19, Wauwatosa, Wisc.) is researching value in neural systems. She would like to determine how information becomes important, and how important information maintains dominance over other information in order to define our conscious mind-states and behavioral responses.

Maddy Maxey (18, San Diego, Calif.) began interning in the fashion industry when she was 16 for companies like Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Ricco, Peter Som, and Nylon Magazine. After founding a popular fashion blog while in France and then winning a scholarship from the CFDA & Teen Vogue for her work, she started a clothing company of her own. As a Thiel Fellow, Maddy will focus on optimizing the clothing patterns and the enterprise software that make our current garment industry inefficient. Her goal is to make domestic production profitable through better integrating software, not just hardware technologies, into our manufacturing system.

Mark Daniel (19, Nashville, Tenn.) co-founded social goal achievement site GoalHawk in 2011. Since then, he has been building StatusHawk, a workplace accountability tool that changes the way that companies handle status reports. As a Thiel Fellow, Mark will focus on taking the early stage company and building it into a profitable and sustainable business.

Nelson Zhang (19, Toronto, Ontario) has always loved making things. He has been tinkering with electronics since he was 10, and designed, manufactured, and sold several hardware products during high school and college. He is currently working on a desktop fabricator for electronics, aimed at lowering iteration time and costs for hardware companies. He hopes to make the design and production of physical things accessible to everyone.

Nick Liow (18, Vancouver, British Columbia) believes everything is a remix and information wants to be free. Now, he's challenging copyright by building ways for creators to get paid for giving their work to the public domain.

Riley Drake (18, Baltimore, Md.) has been conducting scientific research since she was 15 years old. She has studied immunology at Johns Hopkins University and infectious disease at Massachusetts General Hospital. During her fellowship she intends to focus on applying physical principles to virology: utilizing biophysics to create broad-spectrum viral therapies.

Riley Ennis (19, McLean, Va.) founded Immudicon, an early-stage biotechnology company that has developed a novel cancer vaccine platform and telemedicine sweat-monitoring device in order to improve how we treat and diagnose diseases. The company was spun out of his research in high school at Georgetown University and the Sheikh Zayed Institute at Children's National Medical Center in Washington DC. His ultimate goal is to exercise empathy within health care to revolutionize and personalize the future of treating patients.

Ritesh Agarwal (19, New Delhi, India) is one of the youngest entrepreneurs from India to raise angel investments. He runs OYO Inns, a chain of affordable, tech-enabled inns, and Oravel, a rising popular alternative to hotels in India. As a Thiel Fellow, Ritesh will leverage technology to bring affordable and standardized accommodations to emerging economies across the world, starting in India.

Thomas Sohmers (17, Hudson, Mass.) is a technology geek and hardware hacker who has been working at an MIT research lab since he was 13, developing everything from augmented reality eyewear to laser communication systems. Currently, Thomas is working on developing a new computing platform that utilizes very low-powered processors in a cluster to revolutionize the server, cloud, and research computing industries.

William LeGate (18, Marietta, Ga.) is an entrepreneur and computer scientist. He taught himself programming at age 14 from online Stanford lectures and has since created more than a dozen mobile apps which have been downloaded more than 5 million times and are now used by 1 in 16 U.S. teens. During his fellowship he plans to change the way that we discover apps for things around us.

Xinyi Chen (19, Beijing, China) is passionate about entrepreneurship and technology. She participated in the Tigerlabs accelerator last summer and developed prototypes for her project Helios, which attempts to make telepresence devices accessible to average families.

Zach Hamed (20, Holbrook, N.Y.) originally from New York City, was a junior at Harvard studying computer science before joining the Thiel Fellowship. The son of a teacher and a computer programmer, Zach is a first-generation American who hopes to apply his interest in user interface and experience design to K-12 education. As a Thiel Fellow, Zach will focus on developing a suite of beautifully-designed tools for K-12 teachers, saving them time, providing them supplemental income, and helping them do what they do best--teach.