Engineering student Charlie Stigler will spend two years away from Columbia after winning a $100,000 fellowship to pursue an entrepreneurial project.
Stigler, who finished his freshman year last month, was one of 20 students from around the world, all of them under age 20, to receive a Thiel Fellowship this year. The fellowship provides students with $100,000 and mentorship from scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs, on the condition that they don't take classes full time and that they develop a business plan centered around science or technology.
Stigler, who created the popular study app SelfControl while in high school, found out he received the award at the end of May and officially started the fellowship on June 1. He will move to the Bay Area in August, as encouraged by the Thiel Foundation.
At least initially, Stigler plans to continue developing Zaption, an online app he created with his dad and another partner that he said can be used to create "interactive experiences" with video. Zaption could be useful for market research, teaching, or coaching, but Stigler said he's particularly interested in how video can be used to make education more effective.
"I would really like to improve U.S. education systems,” he said.
Stigler is open to exploring other entrepreneurial ideas, though—especially ones related to education— over the course of the fellowship. Stigler said the fellowship “places no constraints” on his work.
“It’s just a really … broad, kind of very flexible, not restrictive fellowship,” Stigler said. “I can do whatever. I’m really happy about that, and I plan on doing whatever works out.”
At first, Stigler was unsure what he thought about the fellowship, and he ultimately made a last-minute decision to apply. But after going through a five-day interview and meeting the other finalists in mid-April, he became “really excited” about the opportunity, he said.
“The other people there were really awesome,” Stigler said. “The other finalists were incredible.”
Stigler isn't sure whether he'll return to Columbia in two years. He said he's "totally open to doing anything," depending on how the next two years go, but that administrators have assured him he can come back if he wants to.
“I’m really happy that the dean and the administration have been really great about working it out,” he said. “If I return, everything’s going to be really smooth.”