Thiel Fellow David Merfield: ‘The Outside World Is an Excellent Place to Learn Things’

Like so many students around the country, David Merfield, 17, graduated from high school this June. Merfield, the Valedictorian of his class at The Hun School in Princeton, N.J., had been accepted at Princeton, where he planned to study philosophy. That is, until he got what he felt was an entirely better offer. On May 25, Merfield was one of 24 students from around the world awarded a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship from the Thiel Foundation – to which he had applied — to help fund and nurture OPEN, a technology platform that he and another teen from Boston, Nick Cammarata, had been developing for several years.

The Thiel Fellowship: 20 Under 20 program, launched this past September by PayPal founder Peter Thiel, encourages bright young technologists to pursue ideas that they believe can change the world. Merfield, one of the youngest scholarship winners along with Hun classmate John Marbach, was selected from among 400 applicants. Merfield is now headed to Palo Alto, Calif., to begin a two-year fellowship, during which mentors chosen by Thiel will help him and Cammarata (also a Thiel fellow) turn their technology innovation into a working business. Merfield talked with Knowledge@Wharton High School before flying out to California to begin his high-tech entrepreneurial endeavor.

Knowledge@Wharton High School: How did you find out about the Thiel Fellowship?

Merfield: My father pointed me to an interview that Peter Thiel did on the BBC. He’s interested in starting online businesses, but he also has a real passion for philosophy, which is what I was going to study at Princeton. I’ve also been into starting web businesses, obviously not on the scale of PayPal, but those connections [with Peter] were immediately attractive.

KWHS: What is OPEN and when did you start developing it?

Merfield: OPEN is a tool for teachers to make and share digital lessons with their students. Our mission is to stop the classroom lecture. Teachers have a very limited time with their students each day, around 40 or 50 minutes, and it didn’t make sense to me that they spend a large percentage of that time unilaterally lecturing to their students and not engaging in discussion or more enriching classroom activities. We realized that the Internet is a very powerful medium to share information. Our goal is to create software that lets teachers make lessons to share with their students over the Internet. Instead of doing homework, these students will watch these lessons and do problems and more engaging activities in class. More broadly, our goal is to build a tool that lets teachers ‘flip’ the current classroom.

My co-founder Nick Cammarata, a developer who is the same age as me and has worked at Mozilla, Microsoft and Stanford, mentioned to me last year that the current tools for providing lessons over the Internet were very poor. Nick and I met four years ago at a forum for Internet design. He posted one of his projects for critique, and I said, ‘Hey, I’d like to give you a hand with that.’ We talked last November about how there was an opportunity to really improve [lessons over the Internet].

KWHS: What are your plans for the $200,000 you have both received?

Merfield: I think that is designed for living costs. Nick and I are building out a very basic version of our product over the summer and that is going to go into about 250 classrooms in about 22 countries at high school and college level this fall in a private beta project. We put up an application page on our website, and in the first 24 hours, we had about 5,000 teachers visit the page and a couple hundred applications. We’ve been sorting through those to pick teachers we feel will suit this product.

KWHS: How is the Thiel Fellowship designed?

Merfield: On June 22, all of the fellows are going on a retreat in northern California. Over the next couple of months, the Thiel Foundation is sorting it out with mentors who will advise us on various aspects of starting a business – approaching investors, incorporation and all these topics. Most of the 20 of us are not true businesspeople. It’s good that we have the opportunity to expand our skills in running a business in the more practical sense.

KWHS: How did you make the choice to forego Princeton University for the Thiel Fellowship?

Merfield: Education was never really a means to get anywhere for me. I enjoyed reading books about philosophy, and that was what I was going to study at Princeton. I don’t see why not going to Princeton will stop my study of philosophy. Princeton is certainly an excellent place to study, but it’s not the only place to learn and continue an education. For sure, there are certainly risks involved. Most of us are deferring enrollment or taking a leave of absence. So if we completely fail, most of us will be going back to college. In my case, I don’t think that’s very likely. I think the classroom is an excellent place to learn things, and I also think the outside world is an excellent place to learn things. I don’t think you need to make a complete judgment as to which one is the better place.

KWHS: What are your thoughts about the culture of young technologists that Thiel is trying to tap as a way of developing important technologies for society?

Merfield: I’ve been aware of a lot of people my age who do websites and design. One thing I’ve observed is that you typically don’t know how old the young people who are doing cool things on the Internet really are. Like it or not, people judge you on your age. Nick and I have done freelance web design for companies these last couple of years, and at no point would they know that we were 16 and 17. If they knew that, we simply wouldn’t get the work. The lesson is that there are thousands of kids doing really cool things on the Internet, but people just don’t know about them. Making it more accepted that you can build really cool stuff on the Internet at a young age is a real step forward.

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4 thoughts on “Thiel Fellow David Merfield: ‘The Outside World Is an Excellent Place to Learn Things’

  1. The conversation here is so interesting and important because it touches on shifting social norms and questions whether those norms meet our real needs. We need to remember in the history of civilization that it is new for a person’s classroom education to be extended so far into his adulthood, not new for a person to become an entrepreneur at a young age. I’d like to address two issues, choosing a career as opposed to higher education and the issue of age.
    I think it is important not to underestimate the power of higher education; the lucrative paths less taken are not for the masses. As a college student, I have found the experiences had within the university space to be crucial for growth. There is not anther time in life when your full-time job is to learn and when you can make the transition into adulthood with hundreds of thousands of others your age. Movements start in college, shared ideas shape futures. Yet the alternative is not necessarily less fulfilling, a person who opts out just needs to be incredibly open to learning in different ways that have very real consequences to failure. Merfield has an incredible idea that, well executed, will add value to society. I think that is often the missed point of our education, at least going into our college years. We should become educated to grow and gain skills to add positive value to the world. If the Thiel Foundation can identify people with real actionable business plans then the ‘youth’ of these award recipients is a matter of experience, not age. If they believe this experience in their life will add value to their own lives and those of others, then the decision is right.
    As a student sparked to become a businesswoman because of entrepreneurship, I see the brilliance of business in the ability to create change with innovation. Ideas and talent can come from all ages. Age in itself is relative, but is made significant by lack of experiences, in all areas of life. The decision not to pursue higher education at a point in time when most young people do is made, as Merfield described, with an understanding of trade-offs in experiences. We should empower ourselves and others to find a purpose in our work. Have that, and all else just follows.

  2. The world needs more students like David, who has struck on a very relevant problem world-wide. Education should be accessible to everyone irrespective of social or economic status, because the right to learn should permeate to the lowest strata of society for there to be inclusive development. great job, David.

  3. David shows a lot of wisdom for his age. Most people have a very narrow view of how things should be done. David has the rare foresight to realize that as important as the academic world is, the outside world rounds off that education. Great work David -you’ll go a long way!

  4. Wow what an AMAZING oportunity. To be able to make a change in something so important as education! If more teenagers that have this kind of ideas could be able to make their dreams reality, we would be living in a much better world.

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