The rise of Peter Thiel, the iconic Silicon Valley VC who wants to cheat death

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Peter Thiel
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Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Peter Thiel is today known as one of the most successful and colorful venture capitalists in Silicon Valley.

He came to fame and fortune by co-founding PayPal and then as an early investor in Facebook and is now is trying to stop aging and death, find technologies that would let people live forever, and encouraging smart young people to skip college and start companies instead. (He’s a famously outspoken libertarian.)

If you take every classic tale of about Silicon Valley and combine them into one human being, you’d get Peter Thiel.


Thiel was born in Germany and moved to the US when he was one year old though his family moved around some more until they settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in fifth grade. He attended Stanford where he studied philosophy and got his JD law degree. At Stanford he met many of the people that would become key players at PayPal (later known as the PayPal mafia) including include Keith Rabois, David Sacks, and Reid Hoffman.

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The PayPal Mafia
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Corbis/The Telegraph

Source: No Death, No Taxes

Reddit AMA

Meet The PayPal Mafia, The Richest Group Of Men In Silicon Valley


Never afraid to share controversial opinions, in 1999, Thiel and his buddy David Sacks wrote a book called “The Diversity Myth” in which they argued that colleges were bowing to political correctness, dumbing down their admissions policies and silencing intellectual dissent in the “name of diversity.”

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The Independent Institute

Source: Amazon, “The Diversity Myth”


Thiel is also a world-ranked chess player who was reportedly once one of the highest ranked under-21 players in the US.

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Source: World Chess Federation


Before his career in tech, he was a clerk for an appeals judge, which landed him an interviews to clerk for US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and Justice Antonin Scalia. He didn’t get the job. “At the time, I was devastated,” he wrote in his book “Zero to One.”

Source: Here’s why PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel is glad he was rejected from clerking for Justice Scalia


So he took a job as a derivatives trader at Credit Suisse Group and made enough money to launch a fintech startup called PayPal with Max Levchin. PayPal merged with Elon Musk’s payment company, X.com, went public and was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002. Those early employees (the PayPal Mafia) became wealthy angel investors. Thiel’s stake was worth about $55 million, and from there he launched a hedge fund, Clarium Capital. By the time he was 37, Clarium was managing $270 million.

Source: Big Bucks From Bubble Fears


In 2004, Thiel led a $500,000 angel investment in Facebook for about 10% of the company, taking 3% himself. (Others like Reid Hoffman and Mark Pincus were also angels). This was the first outside investment in Facebook and between the shares that Thiel sold at the IPO and those he sold shortly after, he made about $1 billion.

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Young Mark Zuckerberg
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TechCrunch

Source: Facebook director Thiel sold 20 million shares after lockup

Source: LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman Made $111 Million On A $37,500 Investment In Facebook


“[My] biggest mistake ever was not to do the Series B round at Facebook,” he says.

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Source: Reddit AMA


In the movie about Facebook, “The Social Network” Thiel was played by Wallace Langham. Thiel wasn’t a fan of the movie, saying,”The zero-sum world it portrayed has nothing in common with the Silicon Valley I know, but I suspect it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of the dysfunctional relationships that dominate Hollywood.”

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Wallace Langham

Source: Reddit AMA


In 2004, Thiel cofounded another tech company, Palantir, with Alexander Karp. They landed the CIA as an early customer and investor. Thiel’s idea was to use financial industry fraud-detection software to detect terrorist activity. Palantir can sift through photos, videos and other data to watch for criminal activity. Palantir is known today as one of the most secretive successful companies in the Valley. It raised $2.42 billion and is valued at $20 billion and Karp has indicated that it has no plans to go public.

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Alexander Karp, Palantir cofounder CEO
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YouTube/Screenshot

Thiel’s parents didn’t let him watch TV when he was a kid. He did like to read and J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” was his favorite read as a teen. He tends to choose “Lord of the Rings” inspired names for his ventures. For instance, Palantir refers to the “seeing stones” in Tolkien’s books.

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New Line Cinema via YouTube

Source: Facebook Investor Peter Thiel Just Revealed What A Huge ‘Lord Of The Rings’ Fan He Is


Thiel is best known today as a venture capitalist. His VC firm, Founders Fund, had a manifesto that once famously said, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” a ding at Twitter that expressed his disappointment with what he considered a lack of big ideas from startups. Still, he’s also an active angel investor, who’s backed about 80 companies like LinkedIn, Yammer and Yelp.

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Fred Prouser / Reuters

Source: Founder’s Fund manifesto: What happened to the future?


The big idea he’s trying to solve: curing death. Or at least curing aging.”Most people deal with aging by some strange combination of acceptance and denial. I think the psychological blocks to thinking about aging run very deep, and we need to think about it in order to really fight it.”

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CBS News / Screenshot

Source: Reddit AMA


He says he plans to live to be 120 and takes human growth hormones every day. He’s donated over $6 million to the Methuselah Foundation, a foundation working on technology to reverse aging. He supports the SENS Research Foundation which is working to stop aging, and has backed a bunch of similar biotech firms.

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Getty / Chip Somodevilla

Source: Investor Peter Thiel Planning to Live 120 Years

Methuselah Foundation


And he’s signed up with cryogenics company Alcor, which will freeze your ailing body in the hopes of unfreezing it in the future when there is a cure. “In telling you that I’ve signed up for it [cryogenics], there’s always this reaction that it’s really crazy, it’s disturbing. But my take on it is it’s only disturbing because it challenges our complacency.”

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Business Insider at KryoLife

Source: Peter Thiel: the billionaire tech entrepreneur on a mission to cheat death


Thiel also supports a bunch of other anti-aging research, which he calls “The Immortality Project.”

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Alana Kakoyiannis

Source: Peter Thiel: the billionaire tech entrepreneur on a mission to cheat death


He likes other big ideas too. He’s backed the Seasteading Institute, which is building self-sustained floating cities that want to experiment with different types of governments, something that appeals to his libertarianism. One of its projects isn’t that high and mighty. It is Ephemerisle, “which is intended to be more like Burning Man on the ocean,” as Thiel describes it.

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Ephemerisle/Judd Weis

Source: Ephemerisle

Peter Thiel: I’m Really Not Crazy; I Just Want to Help Some Kids


He also believes that college costs too much for what it returns and that smart kids are better off skipping it to start companies. So he launched The Thiel Fellowship, a scholarship where young people get $100,000 and two-years of support to launch their companies.

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Thiel Fellowship

Thiel Fellowship.


The Thiel Fellowship has become a competitive and prestigious program. So far 104 young people, under age 22, have participated in class sizes that range from 20-30 people. Dropping out of school, at least for the two-years, is a requirement of the fellowship.

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Flickr / Fortune Live Media

Thiel Fellowship