The average university drop-out who founded a startup likely has never met Peter Thiel or even applied for his Thiel Fellowship, the infamous program that pays students $100,000 to drop out and start a venture.
But they’re alive and well, everywhere.
The reality is, there’s lots of current founders of startups who dropped out of school to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams without the slightest intent on sending an application to Thiel.
In Montreal, we spoke with the founders of three high-potential startup companies who have, thus far, chosen the path leading away from traditional education.
The poster child for a drop-out founder in Montreal might be Anthony Guay, someone who achieved more than the average 19-year-old before he dropped out of Computer Engineering at McGill to start his first (profitable) company. Before that, he won a major robotics competition at 16 and researched in Nanoscience at McGill University at 17.
Today he’s the founder and CTO at Retinad, a seed-funded company that helps developers creating virtual reality (VR) apps to better understand and measure how users interact with their apps. They’ve already gone through a VR accelerator in San Francisco and now call themselves the market leader in VR analytics. Guay said the team is currently raising a larger funding round from some “very big names” in San Francisco.
For Guay, it all started in 2012 when he was still in university. He did an internship with a company called Lumenpulse, an innovator and manufacturer of high performance, sustainable architectural LED lighting solutions. They wanted both iPhone and iPad apps, and Guay taught himself how to program them online three months prior.
Back in school, he decided to start his own agency business. He hadn’t heard of the Thiel Fellowship at the time.
“When I got into university I was mesmerized about how I was not learning what I expected to learn,” Guay, 23, told MTLinTECH. “I lost interest in school, not only because my business was going well but because I was learning by myself.”
Rémi Richard had a similar experience. He founded Chronometriq, a startup developing software for hospitals and clinics that reduces wait-times for patients.
Not long ago, Richard was studying business at McGill University. Like Guay, he started a business on the side, working on websites. His first contract was to develop One Drop’s website, the non-profit founded by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté.
He started Chronometriq while still in school, but it wasn’t long before seemingly frivolous university assignments were interfering with his ability to lead his company.
“I was overwhelmed with Chronometriq and I was losing time working on fake complaint letter assignments for professors,” Richard said. “It got to the point where I was like, ‘Okay, I really don’t have time for that.'”
Peter Thiel grants selected students under 22 a total of $100,000 over two years to drop out of school and pursue other work. It could be scientific research, creating a startup or working on a social movement. With an acceptance rate below 1 per cent, the fellowship has been called more competitive than the nation’s top colleges.
Thiel has argued that while traditional education is useful for certain career paths, there exist many career paths, such as entrepreneurship, for which higher education is not useful.
In December 2013, the Wall Street Journal reported that “64 Thiel Fellows have started 67 for-profit ventures, raised $55.4 million in angel and venture funding, published two books, created 30 apps and 135 full-time jobs, and brought clean water and solar power to 6,000 Kenyans who needed it.”
Moreover, a June 2015 piece by the Wall Street Journal credited the Thiel Fellowship for influencing the notion that dropping out of college to start a company is becoming an “honourable choice.”
Perhaps a future Thiel fellow could be Antony Diaz, a bright young man from Barranquilla, the sweltering town that sits on Colombia’s sunny Caribbean coast. Having arrived in Montreal with his family a few years ago, the 20-year-old is still in Cegep, at Brébeuf College.
Most impressively, Diaz founded Uvolt, a startup creating a bracelet that harvests thermal, kinetic and solar energy. The energy stored by the bracelet can be used at anytime to charge a mobile device. Diaz is the youngest cofounder at Concordia University’s District 3 centre, and started Uvolt when he was still in high school.
He was named the young scientific innovator of Quebec in 2015 and received the eco-energetic prize from Hyrdo-Quebec. Uvolt recently won $20,000 after winning a business contest run by Quebecor media.
“I think traditional academic learning is not the only way to learn, especially now with all the resources we have, all the meetups, the hackathons and online learning. I prefer to learn more in other places than those that are solely focused on going to university,” said Diaz.
Still, he said university is a very important part of our development, not to mention a better way to connect with other people.
“Einstein said something like ‘university should produce a nice brain, not a full brain,'” added Richard. “University should be a place where you can open your mind, touch as many subjects as you want and learn to be creative.”
Guay agreed there’s still a place for traditional education, but insisted that “you need to do before you can know,” particularly within technology.
The difference between theory and practise, he argued, is an enormous gap of knowledge.
“It’s all about trying and failing. After the agency I did two startups that failed miserably. This is my third company and we’re doing great, but it’s because I made all those mistakes in the past that I won’t repeat now. And you need to make them. They cannot be taught,” said Guay.
Richard is happy with his decision to drop out of McGill. Chronometriq attracted a seed round in 2013, two years after launching. Now the founder is looking to raise a series A round after building up a client roster of 520 clinics and over 1.2 million users per year.
Still, both Richard and Guay emphasized the massive role that family plays on the difficulties such weighty decisions come with.
“My parents were not happy with my decision and my ex-girlfriend was not happy as well, but it was more important for me to do whatever I wanted to do,” said Richard. “It’s a gamble you take. If you decide to not finish school without finishing then you choose to never stop hustling, because you have no parachute. You can’t just find a nice job after that. You need to hustle until you create your own success.”
Guay’s case was unique. His mother holds a PhD, his father a Master’s degree.
“My parents are supportive but you can see how this was not an easy decision,” said Guay. “I tried to explain that this was not the best path for me to go through life. I would rather experience and learn myself and maybe fail, and this would be better in the long run. At first they didn’t understand, but they trusted me. And that’s what’s important.”
What remains unknown is what decision the young Diaz will take with such a bright future seemingly ahead of him. Both Richard and Guay told us that people need to make their own decisions based on what’s best for them.
Diaz is still weighing his options about going to university. At the moment it seems the decision is hardly the most pressing matter in his busy life.
“I just hope I can encourage more younger people to come and explore the startup world,” he said.