Peter Thiel Challenges Silicon Valley’s Wealthy to Back “Breakthrough” Philanthropic Causes

Last night Silicon Valley icon Peter Thiel, of PayPal fame, gathered eight of his favorite future-oriented organizations and a couple hundred of his wealthiest friends in an auditorium at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts and made a magnanimous offer. For every dollar attendees contribute to the organizations before New Year’s Day, Thiel’s foundation announced, the billionaire investor-philanthropist will contribute another dollar, up to a limit of $1,000 per organization per attendee.

If everyone who attended Thiel’s so-called “Breakthrough Philanthropy” event gives a full $8,000, Thiel could be on the hook for a lot of money. My own rough estimate is that 200 people were on hand—and 200 times $8,000 comes to $1.6 million.

It was a bold, assertive way to promote the fortunes of these unusual groups, which included the Foresight Institute, Humanity Plus, the Santa Fe Institute, the Seasteading Institute, the SENS Foundation, the Singularity Institute, Singularity University, and the X Prize Foundation. But Thiel is known an iconoclast who’s attracted to long bets and radical solutions; he possesses the sort of optimism that often seems to be engendered by (or perhaps engenders) extreme self-made wealth.

In “lightning presentations” of about five minutes each, representatives of Thiel’s chosen groups described their goals. These range from the merely ambitious—harnessing nanotechnology, in the case of the Foresight Institute, or sequencing the human genome more cheaply, in the case of the X Prize Foundation—to the barely conceivable and arguably loony, such as transhumanism (Humanity Plus), reversing aging (the SENS Foundation), and establishing ocean cities that function as independent countries (the Seasteading Institute).

In remarks at the event, Thiel drew a distinction between “extensive” technologies, which “take things that are working and replicate them,” and “intensive” technologies, which try to “take the things that are best in the world and make them qualitatively and dramatically better.” All eight of the groups included in the donor challenge have agendas that, to lay people, may sound “really weird and really strange,” Thiel acknowledged. But he argued that “it may be in the nature of things that are ‘intensive’ that any time you are doing something singular that’s never been done before…it will be seen as weird.”

Thiel co-founded PayPal in 1998, made tens of millions after selling the company to eBay in 2002, and started the hedge fund Clarium, which he still runs. He’s also a major shareholder in Facebook (he was the company’s first outside investor) and is a partner in the Founders Fund, a San Francisco venture firm known for supporting early-stage Web companies. A chess prodigy and a self-described libertarian, Thiel founded the conservative Stanford Review when he was a student at Stanford University.

This fall the Thiel Foundation announced a new program called 20 Under 20, which will award two-year cash grants of $100,000 to 20 people under the age of 20. The program’s goal is to find budding visionaries and give them the resources and mentorship to pursue their ideas without having to wait until after college. “From Facebook to SpaceX to Halcyon Molecular, some of the world’s most transformational technologies were created by people who stopped out of school because they had ideas that couldn’t wait until graduation,” Thiel said in a statement announcing the program.

“The future is not an abstraction,” Thiel summarized at last night’s event. “It is not something that just happens or that other people do. It is something we all participate in helping to create and forge and shape, and if we do that and set our minds to it, we can do a lot more.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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