Four Canadian youth will be putting their formal education on hold and accepting hefty cheques to help kick-start their budding technology-oriented business ventures.
The former students are among the 20 winners of the 2015 Peter Thiel Fellowship, a program that offers $100,000 in funding and two years’ worth of mentorship to young entrepreneurs who drop out of school to take their fledgling businesses to the next level.
The four Canadian winners, who hail from Ontario and Quebec, range in age between 18 and 22 and have all launched companies with a strong emphasis on up-and-coming technology.
Montreal’s Simon Tian has founded a company designing wearable technology to help people perform day-to-day tasks in any environment.
Cathy Tie of Toronto co-founded a startup focused on improving the accuracy of genetic testing.
The contact lenses being developed by Harry Gandhi of Waterloo, Ont., would be able to monitor glucose levels in diabetics. And Liam Horne, of Cambridge, Ont., is a co-founder of a software company dedicated to helping retailers set up shop in the right locations.
Horne said his company, Piinpoint, offers companies a simple piece of software that analyzes census data and other sources of demographic details, traffic patterns and spending habits. The software then offers recommendations and financial projections as tools to help guide the company’s decisions, he said.
Horne described his Thiel Fellowship win as very humbling, adding the monetary award will confer benefits that extend beyond the bottom line.
“It’s going to give us peace of mind to know that Piinpoint, and myself, can just go about doing what we’re doing,” Horne said in a telephone interview. “Take risks, do experiments and things like that. Focus on more important things such as hiring really important people rather than always worrying about having capital.”
Horne, who was studying computer science at the University of Waterloo this past year, said the fellowship feels like a further extension of his formal education rather than a departure from learning.
Fellowship founder Peter Thiel, the German-born billionaire who helped co-found PayPal among other tech ventures, appeared to view the program in the same light.
“College can be good for learning about what’s been done before, but it can also discourage young people from doing something new, especially when it leaves them in debt,” Thiel said in a statement announcing this year’s winners.
“Each of the fellows charts a unique course, but together they have proven that young people can succeed by thinking for themselves instead of competing on old career tracks.”
But others urge caution for would-be entrepreneurs, saying programs such as the Thiel Fellowships aren’t ideal for everyone.
Sean Mullin, executive director of Ryerson University’s Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said such programs are best suited to people who are firmly committed to their projects and have an unusual degree of conviction in their future paths.
He said most people favour an educational experience combining both theoretical and practical learning.
“If for some reason down the road your venture does fail, which does happen in this world, you do have education and a degree to fall back onto,” he said.
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