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When Yoonseo Kang left home at 18 earlier this year, his hometown paper in Mississauga, Ontario, wrote a story about the event. Kang had not accomplished something significant as a young go-getter. Far from it. He had simply decided to skip going to college—a move that baffled his family and townsfolk.
Kang is a Thiel Fellow, which means that the foundation of Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal (EBAY) and prominent Silicon Valley investor, will pay him $100,000 over the next two years to avoid college. Thiel loves to challenge the status quo and has funded 20 Fellows, betting that the group of brainy kids will go out into the world and do big things.
It turns out that Kang is now on a farm in rural Missouri. The compound—known as the Factor e Farm—is the subject of a feature story I wrote this week for Bloomberg Businessweek. Kang, along with a dozen or so like-minded people, has set to work building 50 tools that man would need to start a civilization from the ground up. So they’re working on such things as bread ovens, brick presses, saws, tractors, and bulldozers and then posting videos and schematics online about how to build these objects. The end goal is sort of an open-source attack on the traditional companies that manufacture our fundamental machines.
In July, I went to visit the farm in Maysville, Mo. One of the stranger things about the place is that there are not really many people there who have experience building things. As a matter of fact, there weren’t even many engineers on the premises. As a result, you had folks spending the day trying to weld for the first time and ending up with severe burns on their arms and legs, and other people sitting and staring at machines for hours.
Of all the farm workers, though, Kang appeared to demonstrate the most innate knack for the tasks at hand. In a matter of days he built a circular saw from scratch that can cut through metal. “He’s very intelligent,” says John Marlatt, a retired local carpenter who has done work on the farm. “He does research online and then comes up with his own tool designs. It’s impressive for an individual his age.”
Kang is a quiet youngster who seems happiest doing his own thing. Now 19, he’s spent months living in the Hab Lab, a dormitory on the farm where he has a room to himself with a desk and a stand to hold sheet music when he’s playing the violin. He moved past being thin long ago; he made lunch one day by slapping some jam on a piece of bread and cleared the way for some orange juice in a teacup by cleaning the rim with a rub of his hand. “My father was extremely unimpressed when I came here and cut me off from communication,” Kang says. “It is not normal, of course, but I plan to be where I feel I have the most impact to fulfill my mission.”
And what is that mission? “My mission statement to the Thiel Foundation was essentially to improve the well-being of everyone in the world,” Kang says. Because, you know, why aim too big?