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Former Technology High school graduate Dylan Field was awarded a $100,000 grant to improve and simplify creative tools for popular software programs like Photoshop.

Sonoma County man gets $100,000 grant — if he leaves college

Dylan Field was on track to graduate next year from Brown University when the Penngrove native was offered a stunning financial incentive to take a break from school.

The 20-year-old will be paid $100,000 on the condition that he not go to school for two years and instead devote that time to developing an idea he has with computers.

Field, a graduate of Rohnert Park's Technology High School, was one of 20 young people awarded the hefty gifts through the "20 Under 20" fellowship program that PayPal founder and billionaire Peter Thiel established last year to encourage young people to consider alternate paths to enlightenment.

Despite holding two degrees from Stanford, Thiel's thesis is that college can stifle a young person's creative spirit and burden them with crushing debt.

"Pundits and hand-wringers love to claim that universities are the only path to a successful life. In truth, an inquisitive mind, rigorously applied to a deep-rooted problem can change the world as readily as the plushest academic lab," Thiel said in a statement last week announcing this year's fellowship honorees.

Field said he applied for the fellowship in December when his enthusiasm for college had begun to wane. He called Brown his "dream school," but he "wasn't feeling like I was getting as much out of it as before."

That was of some concern to his parents, who estimate they've spent about $130,000 to date on his education at the Ivy League school.

"Pretty much everything we earned went to education," said Andy Field, who works as a respiratory therapist at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. His wife, Beth, is a resource specialist teacher at Thomas Page Elementary School in Cotati.

Despite his desire to see Dylan graduate from Brown before going on to the next thing, Andy Field said he is proud of his son, whom he said always has followed his own unique path.

"He's always been a little weird," Andy Field said.

He said Dylan, who is his only child and is named after the poet Dylan Thomas, was solving algebra problems by the time he was 6 and was so bored in middle school that he mostly hung out with a janitor "who was kind of a math savant."

Dylan was 13 when he was enrolled at Tech High at Sonoma State University. He thrived at the alternative public school, where he was allowed to take college courses in math.

"Next thing you know, he's doing research with Sonoma State seniors in mathematics and presenting their findings in Washington, D.C.," said Laura Triantafyllos, a Tech High counselor.

A recommendation from noted social media researcher Danah Boyd helped Dylan gain entrance to Brown, which is in Providence, R.I. He said by his junior year, however, he started getting bored.

"I was taking all the classes I was interested in and I was doing well," he said. "But my favorite class was art history, and I spent all my free time working on a side project."

He took the spring semester off this year to take a paid internship at Flipboard in Palo Alto. The company creates a popular magazine-style application for smartphones.

Dylan simultaneously was applying for the Thiel fellowship. After surviving two initial rounds, he was invited to join other finalists in San Francisco. He said the weekend in April included a scavenger hunt and an event where the applicants pitched their ideas to an audience of investors and tech notables.

Dylan said he is being deliberately vague about his project, which he said could improve computer tools that people use for creative functions.

"When you are using Photoshop or any creative tool, you're often stuck. It's not as good as it can be," he said.

Other Thiel fellows are working on a device that could cut the cost and increase the availability of genome sequencing, payment technology that could eliminate checkout lines and thwart shoplifting and new counter-terrorism and medical applications for nuclear isotopes.

Dylan learned through a video chat on Skype that he had been awarded one of the $100,000 grants. He and a former Brown classmate who is helping him on the project plan to get a house or apartment in the Bay Area and devote themselves fulltime to the concept.

"We need two computers and desks, and we're hoping to get some office space. And an Internet connection. That's important," Dylan said.

It will be a much different environment than what he had at Brown. Dylan said the university allows students to take a leave of absence for up to five years, and he plans to go back one day.

Jonathan Cain, executive director of the Thiel program, said the group is not "anti-college."

"We're just pro-thinking about your future, what you want to do and how you are going to get there," he said.

Fellowship recipients meet quarterly and are connected with mentors who share their interests. The money is dispersed on a monthly basis and can be used for anything, Cain said.

"It's a pure gift," he said.

He said participants are not obligated to share their innovations with Thiel.

As a high school counselor, Triantafyllos said she understands why parents want their kids to get a college degree. But she said Dylan represents a different breed of student.

"These are very specific kinds of students who succeed no matter what," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com.

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