Home' Technology Review : March April 2012 Contents Business Impact 67
The Youth Effect
Laura Deming was studying for finals
in a crowded MIT reading room last
April when her phone rang. That’s when she
learned she may never take another exam.
Deming, only 17, had just been chosen
by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel for
a high-profile experiment: put $100,000
apiece in the hands of 24 entrepreneurial
teenagers and give them free rein to pursue
innovative ideas. The condition? Deming
had to leave her studies and classmates, and
vow to stay out of college during the two-
Thiel, who is PayPal’s cofounder and
holds two Stanford University degrees, says
a “crazy bubble” in higher education has the
effect, like a bad mortgage, of saddling stu-
dents with debt for too little in return. A
vocal libertarian, Thiel, 44, takes the view
that a college degree can be harmful to inno-
vators because of the conservative, career-
driven mind-set it imparts.
only 7 percent came before the age of 26.
What’s more, Jones found that the age at
greatest achievement is actually rising, by
about six years over the last century. Indeed,
that effect was due to decreasing rates of
invention at younger ages. The explana-
tion is probably simple. People are spend-
ing more time in training as a prerequisite
to contribute to complex fields.
The reality is that there is no age require-
ment for innovation. The young and old can
both innovate. The young dominate new-
era software development, and software will
be a key driving force in the convergence
of other technologies that are expanding
exponentially. So we badly need our young.
And we need our older entrepreneurs to
develop cross-disciplinary solutions that
solve the grand challenges of humanity.
VIVEK WADHWA IS VICE PRESIDENT OF ACADEM ICS AND IN-
NOVATION AT SI NGU LARITY UNIVERSITY AN D HAS AFFILIA-
TIONS AT DUKE, STANFORD, AND EMORY. HE IS 54 YEARS OLD.
parts of the country and the world. In most
places, if you fail, you don’t get a second
chance. But cultures are changing. They
are beginning to accept failure. So entre-
preneurs all over the world are trying again
and again. In the process, they are getting
older and smarter, and eventually achiev-
Most of what I discussed above was
in the computing world. But today other
fields of science and engineering, such as
robotics, synthetic biology, medicine, and
nanomaterials, are experiencing growth as
dramatic as the expansion that Moore’s Law
describes for computing power. The human
genome, for example, was first sequenced
about a decade ago at a cost of more than
a billion dollars; now the same feat costs
a few thousand dollars. Together, all these
advances are making it possible to address
many of the grand challenges of humanity:
making sure we all have adequate educa-
tion, water, food, shelter, health, and secu-
rity. Entrepreneurs can now do what only
governments and large corporations were
once capable of.
But understanding these diverse tech-
nologies isn’t the domain of the young.
Though college dropouts may know all
about social media, it is very unlikely that
they understand the intricacies of nano-
technology and artificial intelligence as
well as their elders do. These are complex
technologies that require not only a strong
education but also the ability to work across
domains and collaborate with intellectual
peers in different disciplines of science and
Given all the new complexities in the sci-
ences, it is no surprise that innovators are
actually getting older.
Kellogg School of Management econo-
mist Benjamin F. Jones analyzed the back-
grounds of Nobel Prize winners and other
great inventors of the 20th century. He
found that the average age at which they
made their greatest innovations was 39.
The largest mass of great advances, 72 per-
cent, came in an inventor’s 30s and 40s, and
Too Young to Fail
At 17, Laura Deming doesn’t drive and can’t vote. Is now her chance
to change the world?
By JessiCa LeBer
THIN K AHEAD Academic
prodigy Laura Deming
left school and moved to
Silicon Valley after winning
a $100,000 grant.
Mar12 Business Impact.indd 67
2/8/12 3:18 PM
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