Jessica Holland catches up with Thiel fellow Adam Munich to find out why the young inventor quit university to take a chance on a new type of learning
Adam Munich, 21, is a serial entrepreneur and polymath who is working to design, build and find a market for portable, battery-powered X-ray machines that can be used off-grid
or during a blackout.
He started exploring the field as a 15-year-old high-school student living in Buffalo, New York, inspired by a chat room conversation with acquaintances in Mexico and Pakistan. With money earned as a freelance web designer, he sourced parts from China and Ukraine and successfully put together an innovative prototype.
A few years later, as a freshman at Rochester Institute of Technology, he won the top prize in Texas Instruments’ Analog Design Contest for making improvements to a Tesla coil, and soon after that he co-founded a makerspace lab for fellow inventors.
These successes impressed the admissions panel at the Thiel Fellowship, an ultra-competitive initiative set up by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel that provides a US$100,000 grant and mentoring support for extraordinary young minds to pursue world-changing ideas. On winning a place, Munich left RIT before graduation – a condition of the fellowship is that it can’t be pursued alongside college – and moved to San Mateo, California, to pursue his work in the field of mobile radiography.
Vision: How would you describe your relationship with formal education?
Adam Munich: I began playing with radio circuits before kindergarten, and oftentimes found class uninteresting. Naturally, this led to some boredom and troublemaking, although nothing more serious than scaring the administration with high-voltage transformers. I don’t think school ‘held me back’ because I had the internet to serve my curiosity, but I was reprimanded often for studying things such as Schwarzschild black holes instead of, say, English reading assignments.
V: How did you first find out about the Thiel Fellowship?
AM: While working in the hacker space, a friend suggested that I come to a summit in NYC for the Thiel Fellowship, so I joined them on the adventure. I had heard of this Fellowship prior to visiting the summit, but only after attending did I gain a good understanding of why I should consider applying for it – the fellows are truly a wonderful bunch. While they are young, and like me, make rookie mistakes, they are an extraordinarily motivated allotment of autodidacts unlike any other group of people I’ve ever met. After the summit, there was no doubt in my mind that these kids would be accomplishing great things in the future, and I hoped to also play a part.
V: Tell us about the project you are working on
AM: I set out to build low-cost, battery-powered X-ray machines for use during remote radiography. I succeeded at doing this, but learned from my customers that this problem isn’t one that can be easily solved with only better tools, because it’s equally an education issue. Currently, I am redesigning some of the things I’ve built to be more user-friendly, and I hope to relaunch our low-cost X-ray hardware in a simpler, more intuitive form, along with a few other neat inventions I stumbled upon along the way.
V: What are some of the thrills and challenges of being a Thiel fellow?
AM: The whole experience, in a way, has been terrifying. The Fellowship offers one essential thing crucial to a leader’s success: absolute freedom. Freedom to try, freedom to fail, and freedom to clearly analyse those failures [so that] you’re better prepared to execute the next time around. However, this comes at a cost, and this cost is the freedom to compare yourself to other fellows’ highlight reels, and get yourself down if things aren’t working to plan.
It’s easy to forget that years of failure are a prerequisite to every overnight success, and that everything tends to be harder than it initially appears. Also, it has forced me into circles of people who do things, who understand the value of unique accomplishments, and who have the self-confidence
to effectively perform their work without requiring continued external validation.
V: Do you think that college degrees are going to become less valuable in the future?
AM: I would say that the merit of a degree will [steadily] decline as younger folk continue to see it as a poor investment, and older folk holding the contrary belief continue to retire from the workforce. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because it means that individuals must build more faith in themselves and their skills to compensate for a lack of that social cushion, and that universities must learn to find other sources of revenue and use what resources they currently have much more efficiently.