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Investor Peter Thiel asks Silicon Valley: Where's the innovation?

September 27, 2010 |  1:39 pm

When Peter Thiel speaks, Silicon Valley listens.

But Thiel, the head of Clarium Capital Management who was a founding investor in PayPal and Facebook, had a sobering message Monday at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference that some might not want to hear.

In an interview with TechCrunch's Sarah Lacy, Thiel, 42, argued that the high-tech gold rush that has skyrocketed valuations for Internet companies represents a sharp disconnect from the economic malaise that has blanketed much of the world, stagnating median wages and living conditions for most people just 30 miles outside of Silicon Valley.

The success of Internet ventures such as Facebook has blurred Silicon Valley's focus, leading to a dearth of futuristic technologies such as artificial intelligence, Thiel argued. Thiel invests in technology in three ways, through his hedge fund, his venture capital firm Founders Fund and as an individual.

“We need to ask ourselves more: How are we actually doing things to make the country and the world a better place in the next few decades?” he said.

Thiel urged entrepreneurs to solve hard technology problems by embracing science fiction goals from the heyday of the original “Star Trek” series, such as permanent lunar bases.

“We need to spend a lot more time focusing on breakthrough technologies that take our civilization to the next level,” Thiel said.

An example of such an investment for Thiel: Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket company.

His sentiments echoed those of Daniel Lyons in a recent Newsweek piece.

Thiel, who is worth $1.1 billion according to Forbes, is still a big believer in Facebook, which he said continued to be undervalued. But, he said, he would be “a lot more careful” about investing in Facebook now.

He has steered clear of many Internet deals because he thinks the big winners in mobile applications will be the established Internet players, not fresh-faced entrepreneurs coming up with major innovation. “The Yelp of cellphones will be Yelp, the Google of cellphones will be Google,” he said.

“It’s quite possible that the Internet is at a much more mature stage than people realize,” Thiel said.

Thiel, who sits on Facebook’s board, made a prescient bet on Facebook as its first angel investor in 2003. That bet, a $500,000 investment, paid off with the company now worth as much as $34 billion. (In a separate interview with Fox Business network, Thiel confirmed that Facebook would not explore an initial public offering until 2012). Thiel said Facebook continues to innovate because its founder Mark Zuckerberg is a product visionary on par with Apple’s Steve Jobs.

To reach out to the Zuckerbergs of this generation, Thiel announced he has launched a new “20 Under 20” program that will give grants to up to 20 students younger than 20 who are interested in science and technology start-ups. Students can apply for the 2011 program until the end of this year, either individually or in teams of up to four.

Thiel said he is not encouraging students to drop out of school, but to “stop out” of school.

-- Jessica Guynn

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