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Five Harvard Students Just Won $100,000 From Peter Thiel. Now, They Have to Drop Out.

Peter Thiel, the founder of the Thiel Fellowship, speaks at a Harvard Kennedy School IOP forum in 2012. Five Harvard students won grants from the Thiel Fellowship to support their startups.
Peter Thiel, the founder of the Thiel Fellowship, speaks at a Harvard Kennedy School IOP forum in 2012. Five Harvard students won grants from the Thiel Fellowship to support their startups. By Daniel M. Lynch
By Alexander Z. Gong and Caitlyn C. Kukulowicz, Contributing Writers

Five Harvard students were awarded $100,000 grants by the Thiel Fellowship on Thursday to pursue their startups. The only catch? They have to drop out.

The 2024 fellowship class of 20 students includes Adarsh S. Hiremath ’25, working on his company Mercor; Christoper G. Zhu ’24, Gavin J. Uberti ’25, and Robert S. Wachen ’24, working on Etched.ai; and Walden Yan ’24, who co-founded Cognition AI.

Founded in 2011 by Peter Thiel — a billionaire co-founder of PayPal — the fellowship is a two-year program for people under 22 who “want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom,” according to their website.

The fellowship awards an $100,000 grant which can be used at the recipients’ discretion, along with industry recognition and access to professional networks. The grant’s main condition is that the recipients drop out of school.

Cognition AI — for which Yan also serves as chief product officer — recently made waves when it introduced Devin, their artificial intelligence software engineer, which has significantly outperformed ChatGPT in certain tasks and could disrupt the software engineering industry.

With Etched.ai, Zhu, Uberti, and Wachen are working to build superconductor chips specialized for artificial intelligence. Hiremath’s project Mercor uses AI to streamline and automate the job recruitment process for both applicants and companies.

In a press release announcing the grant winners, Thiel — a Republican megadonor who has emerged as a thought leader in anti-establishment and libertarian circles — denounced the current state of higher education.

“Today’s universities are as corrupt as the medieval Catholic Church,” Thiel said in the release. “The Reformation is underway.”

In an interview, Hiremath said he already dropped out of Harvard after completing his sophomore year to turn his full attention to Mercor, which he started in January 2023 alongside co-founders Brendan Foody and Surya Midha.

To date, Hiremath said Mercor has raised more than $3.6 million from venture capital firm General Catalyst and other investors.

“It was definitely the busiest semester of my life,” Hiremath said of his sophomore spring. “You could sort of compare it to doing a club that maybe takes 60 hours a week or 70 hours a week.”

“As it stands right now, I’m on an indefinite leave of absence and really, really excited to be working on Mercor and changing thousands of lives and creating opportunities around the world.” Hiremath added. “So for me, that’s an opportunity that’s so amazing and fulfilling that I just have to be working on it.”

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