Peter Thiel: The tech visionary at war with death

Peter Thiel has often been described as the world’s greatest tech investor and visionary, and when he opens his mouth people tend to listen, says TechCrunch, a popular blog. Speaking at a conference in his native Germany this week, his frustration was palpable.

Science is stagnating, he claimed: we’re travelling no faster today than 50 years ago. We still haven’t cured cancer and the space travel remains largely in the realm of science fiction.

True, computer power has come on in leaps and bounds, but Thiel thinks a lot of the potential has been frittered away. “We wanted flying cars,” runs a treatise from his venture capital firm, Founders Fund. “Instead we got 140 characters.” (A reference to the limit of a post on Twitter.)

If you find yourself warming to this theme, there’s plenty more in Thiel’s forthcoming book The Blueprint – co-written with former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and Thiel’s fellow PayPal founder, Max Levchin, says The Huffington Post.

Innovation, they argue, is “between dire straits and dead”. We have become a risk-averse society, “hobbled by tort laws, government regulations, short-term financial thinking and mind-numbing complacency”.

So far, so Thiel: he has always been a libertarian with a strong distrust of government and institutions. But what will surprise many is his apparent aversion to social media. As The New Yorker noted in 2011, the man who has made billions from the information age (his 2004 investment in Facebook alone yielded $1bn) shuns Twitter, rarely updates his Facebook page, and has “never adapted to the BlackBerry/iPhone/email thing”. He hasn’t mastered the voice-recognition system in his sports car either.

Facebook was “on balance positive” because of the “disruptions” it created. “That’s the most he will say for the celebrated era of social media.” Thiel’s attitude to Facebook landed him in trouble with the market commentariat last year (see below). But his often controversial philosophies and championship of “wild” projects have always made him an easy target. He was recently accused of “puerile libertarianism, infused with futurist fantasy” by the Slate columnist Jacob Weisberg.

Having emigrated to California as a toddler, Thiel studied philosophy at Stanford, became a US chessmaster at 21, and sold derivatives for Credit Suisse before founding his first tech blockbuster, online payments firm PayPal, in 1998. He is feted as a near-god by some in Silicon Valley, yet he “holds elites in contempt”.

Thiel is certainly a member of the new establishment. But he remains an angry one, permanently at war against apparently immutable forces. His preoccupation with “fighting death” is striking, says the New Zealand Herald.

Thiel has invested in everything from cryogenic research to biotech start-ups focusing on anti-ageing and curing diseases. Perhaps, at 43, he already feels his time is running out.

The punt that paid a 200,000% return

Last year was “a year for regrouping and resurgence” for Peter Thiel, says Vanity Fair. Having taken huge losses in 2010 at his New York-based hedge fund Clarium Capital, he decamped back to San Francisco – and the “back-to-his-roots” move seems to have paid off.

Thiel’s venture-capital fund holds stakes in many of Silicon Valley’s hottest companies, including Spotify, Palantir and his former partner Elon Musk’s SpaceX. And he notched up a whopping 200,000% return when he sold most of his founding stake in Facebook at the first opportunity after its float.

Thiel’s share dump must have rattled Mark Zuckerberg and co, says Jeffrey Goldfarb on Reuters Breakingviews.com. It was certainly a kick in the teeth for ordinary investors, cementing the idea “that Facebook’s initial public offering was run by and for its early backers”. The fact the celebrated investor has retained his seat on the board is a further “snub”.

“Thiel seems to think he and his investors can do better putting most of their money elsewhere. Newer shareholders might prefer a representative who’s in their corner.” Yet he still occasionally extols the virtues of Facebook, says Frederic Lardinois on TechCrunch.

At a conference in Munich this week, he named it as a prime example of “companies that connect the virtual and the physical world”. It’s the same over-arching theme that drives his interest in the “bioinformatics revolution” he hopes will transform healthcare.

It’s that kind of vision that makes me furious with Thiel’s detractors, writes the blogger Brandon K Thorp on Randi.org. “Thiel takes big risks with possibly enormous payoffs”. Yet this “nigh-heroic chutzpah” gets written off.

Slate.com’s mean-spirited characterisation of Thiel’s scholarship programme for young entrepreneurs is typical of this. It’s all down to “narcissism” and a desire “to clone himself”, says columnist Jacob Weisberg. But wouldn’t the world be better off if there were more billionaires like Peter Thiel?

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