By Ariel Schwartz
The eccentric PayPal billionaire doesn't just invest in Silicon Valley tech companies. He's giving money for crazy projects that do everything from get power from the weather to find ways to program human cells like computers.
Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel isn't the kind of guy who invests in mindless smartphone apps that make lots of cash. He's not anti-software by any means; he has sunk millions into accounting software company Xero. But Thiel also doles out cash to companies doing things that aren't just world-changing--they seem insane (in a good way). Could we expect anything less from the guy that's funding a floating startup incubator for foreign entrepreneurs?
Thiel's latest investment--a $300,000 bet-- is in AVEtec, a startup from Canadian engineer Louis Michaud that wants to harness the energy created by tornados. Michaud doesn't want to chase tornados a la Twister; he plans to generate man-made tornados that can be safely switched off if necessary.
Louis Michaud Michaud's design features warm air blown into a hollow cylinder, where it turns into a "controlled vortex" (aka a tornado) that's supported by the temperature difference between the heated air in the cylinder and the atmosphere. No carbon emissions are produced, no energy storage is required, the device can produce 200 megawatts of electrical power (the same as a coal power plant) and power can potentially be produced at just three cents per kilowatt hour.
Now Michaud just needs to build the proof of concept--a project that will be helped along by Thiel's cash. He's working on a 131 foot-tall, 26-foot-in-diameter prototype at Lambton College in Ontario.
AVEtec is one of 12 startups that Thiel is funding through Breakout Labs, a program of the Thiel Foundation that the organization calls "a revolutionary, revolving funding model through which successful projects fund the next generation of daring scientific exploration." Some of our other favorites are listed below.
Modern Meadow An alligator purse that doesn't require killing an animal. A burger that keeps cows intact. That's the far-out dream of Modern Meadow, a startup that could have test tube leather ready for large-scale production in five years. To make leather, the startup biopsies a living animal, isolates the necessary cells, multiplies them in a bioreactor, centrifuges them into spheres of thousands of cells, layers and fuses cell aggregates, matures the cells in a bioreactor, and harvests the skin tissue. All for your guilt-free leather accessory.
"At this point, the goal is to create products that are both biomimetic--very, very similar to real leather--and also to look at ways that we can improve upon it and make products that are superior to traditional leather," CEO Andras Forgacs told Co.Exist in an interview earlier this year. Down the line, Modern Meadow will move into test tube meat. Why buy a cow when you can get the meat from a lab?
Inspirotec This company has the ambitious goal of creating a universal system for gathering and identifying airborne toxins. The research for the project is being conducted at the Northwestern University Department of Biomedical Engineering.
Inspirotec is working on two different models: a portable air collector that collects samples which can be analyzed in a lab (available in 2013), and a more-ambitious sounding next generation portable collector that allows for real-time monitoring. The Inspirotec website explains that "It is based on well-established biological detection methods and connects with smart devices allowing for mobile applications." Funding from Breakout will be used to create a proof-of-concept device.
Immusoft Corporation This startup, founded by a computer security expert, is taking a programmer's approach to disease treatment: the company wants to program patients' cells to become tiny drug factories. The website explains: "Within 50 years, we will program human cells like we program computers. Envision a stand-alone device capable of modifying a patient's cells to manufacture biologic-based therapies for a wide range of disease including cardiovascular disease, cancers, infectious diseases, and lysosomal storage diseases. Programming a patient's cells to manufacture their own treatments could dramatically reduce therapy costs." With the price for certain cancer treatments hovering over $100,000 per year, that's a big deal.
Within 50 years, we will program human cells like we program computers. Immosoft is testing its methods first with a rare genetic disease called MPS I. If the company is successful, it will program the human immune system to generate cells that secrete enzymes to treat the disease, first in genetically modified mice before moving on eventually to humans. Immusoft has already conducted a proof of concept for its treatment where B cells were modified from a healthy human to create antibodies that neutralize HIV.
Arigos Biomedical Organ transplants are tricky, time-sensitive things--if an organ isn't transplanted within hours, there's a decent chance it will be rejected. That doesn't bode well for patients, who may have a perfectly good organ waiting for them--on the other side of the world. Arigos Biomedical is working on high-speed methods to cool organs for long-term preservation. One day, patients may be able to receive organs that have been preserved for months or even longer.
Arigos doesn't have a website (that we can find, anyway), but co-founder Tanya Jones told the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal: "We've done all the math that we can do to prove that this method will work, ... now it's a matter of actually beginning to use organs. We are hoping to basically have all the pictures and all the proof necessary." First up: testing the technology with animal organs.
Check out all of Breakout Labs' investments here.
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.