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peter thiel

Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel doesn’t shy away from making risky bets in disruptive technology and research.

Today, the Thiel Foundation announced it would grant $350,000 to two of Breakout Labs’ teams: SkyPhrase and Stealth Biosciences. Both startups are working to bridge the gap between technology and the biological sciences.

SkyPhrase is working on making computers understand human language with greater precision. It’s creating a platform to search, access, and monitor data that relies on natural language processing. The company is already viewed as a potential competitor to Apple’s Siri, which struggles to understand complex-language questions.

Stealth Biosciences is developing a device that can exert control over biological processes at the level of single cells. The technology is the brainchild of Stanford University professors Nick Melosh and Craig Garner. These devices could be a new toolset for research and diagnostic applications; it will initially use the funding to develop a “Nanostraw” device that can reprogram human T-cells for the purposes of cancer therapy.

Thiel is funneling the millions he made through early investments in Facebook, Yammer, and Yelp into potentially life-saving research. Through the nonprofit Breakout Labs, which was founded in 2011 and received financing through the Thiel Foundation, he kick-starts ideas that most traditional venture capitalists wouldn’t touch.

Last year, Breakout Labs’ funded a dozen startups, including a venture to produce bioengineered animal products — lab-grown meat — with about $4.5 million. Breakout Labs awards grants from $50 to 350,000 on a rolling basis, but the funded companies retain their intellectual property.

Many of the companies admitted into Breakout Labs go on to win government and academic grants, and many of the founders are university professors. This reflects “a growing and much welcome interest from the academic community in commercialization,” said Breakout Labs executive director Lindy Fishburne.

Peter Thiel image via Kenneth Yeung/Flickr


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