By Mick Krever, CNN
Peter Thiel has made more than a billion dollars investing in Silicon Valley’s innovations, but now he says American society has become “somehow very hostile to big ideas.”
“If Einstein wrote a letter to the White House, it would get lost in the mail room,” Thiel told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday, referring to the letter Einstein wrote to U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the promise and danger of nuclear technology.
“Something like the Manhattan project or the Apollo program are quite unthinkable today,” he said.
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“The technology story in the last 20 or 30 years has been a story of tremendous innovation in the world of bits, and computers, but much less innovation in the world of atoms and stuff,” Thiel said. “And the energy problem is certainly a problem that’s more a problem involving atoms, and how we build new kinds of power sources.”
Thiel was a co-founder of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook.
Silicon Valley has tried to innovate in green technology, he told Amanpour, but of the $50 billion he said had been invested most of it has been lost.
Thiel, a hard-core libertarian and under normal circumstances no fan of government intervention, admitted that energy is a sector that requires some “complex coordination” from regulators.
The problem, he opined, is that a worrying percentage of our political leadership is technology illiterate.
“I looked at the U.S. Senate and House – there are 535 people – by a generous count, 35 of them have degrees in science or engineering. And the rest are basically living in the Middle Ages.”
“They don’t know that solar panels don’t work at night or windmills don’t work when then wind is not blowing, and so there is this incredible disconnect between Silicon Valley and Washington DC in this regard.”
Contemporary politicians, he said, talk in “very abstract terms” – “processes,” “innovation hubs.”
“You have to be very specific to actually try to get things done.”
“Nixon went on TV in 1970 and promised that we would cure cancer in six years. Now, that did not happen, but you could not imagine a major political leader in the U.S. or anywhere in the Western world trying to coordinate against specific innovations.”
Thiel, in an attempt to put his money where his mouth is, started a grant program in 2010, awarding $100,000 to 20 people under age 20 to, controversially, drop out of school and pursue their big ideas.
“Some ideas just can’t wait,” the fellowship’s website boasts.
“The United States has always been the country where people do new things,” Thiel said. “If we no longer are the place where people can do new things, we will have lost very special about this country.”