August 24, 2020

Zero to $3.4 Billion: Luminar Goes Public

1517 had some great news break today: one of our companies, Luminar Technologies, announced it is going public at a $3.4 billion valuation. This is a tremendous win for the company, 1517, and for all of us working to build new paths outside traditional forms of education. Luminar is going public via a SPAC which involves a merger, but by the end of this year, they will be listed on NASDAQ with the stock ticker symbol LAZR. It will mark the first company to go public for 1517 and the first Thiel Fellow to do so as well.

Some things are a long time in the making, but in some sense it’s hard for those early beginnings to fade away for us. It still seems like only yesterday that we were sitting at a coffee shop inside the Infinite Corridor on MIT’s campus, when Danielle turned to Michael and said, “Hey, that’s Austin and his mom!” They were taking a self-guided tour of the campus. Austin still hadn’t decided what university he might go to or whether he would pursue the more unschooled route of the Thiel Fellowship.

After he applied, while assessing him for a fellowship, we wondered if Austin’s ideas were crazy or crazy awesome. And truth be told, we couldn’t tell at first. But what we did know was that Austin had the attributes of the types of young people we wanted to back: hyper-fluency in a technical field, zeal in getting started on his work, and enough social-emotional intelligence to lead a team, hire employees, and work with investors. By the end of his two years in the program he was ready to start getting Luminar fully underway.

Michael in a Luminar electric gocart, circa 2015.

This company started in a nondescript warehouse in Irvine, California with a bunch of physics geeks who liked to build things with lasers. When they weren’t working on the 1.0 version of their lidar sensor, they built electric surfboards and gocarts for fun.  

Now the world knows Austin wasn’t crazy -- he was crazy awesome. Luminar’s list of customers includes 50 major players in the automotive industry, including the lidar industry’s largest production series deal with Volvo to provide units to their fleet of cars in 2022 and beyond. It is both surreal and awesome in the literal sense of the word for us to be a part of this story and to see this growth over the last seven years.

There have been many naysayers over the years. We think of the former Treasury Secretary and former President of Harvard, Larry Summers, who said that the Thiel Fellowship was “the single most misdirected bit of philanthropy this decade.” And MIT banned us from recruiting on their campus. But we didn’t listen. We started a venture capital fund dedicated to backing the sorts of people Larry Summers didn’t think could possibly exist: world-changers who never set foot on an Ivy League campus. In fact, now that we’ve seen ten thousand applications, and have worked with thousands of founders, we can state without reservation that many things the Ivy League selects for in their students are negative signals when it comes to building the future. It isn’t that these students are not smart enough. It’s that they try too hard for respectability, which is deadly to creativity.  

It will have been 10 years ago next month that Peter Thiel and his colleague Jim O’Neill pulled Michael into a meeting on his first day at work and told him that we were starting an “anti-Rhodes scholarship” by paying people to drop out of college to work on science and technology. Danielle joined and quickly brought structure to that unconventional program, the Thiel Fellowship. In the following decade, we’ve been able to work with thousands of young people who don’t have degrees--or any credentials whatsoever. Luminar is but the first of the companies from that anti-Rhodes scholarship to go public. With 1517, we’re fortunate to work with many founders like Austin Russell, and there are more great companies in the pipeline. In our first fund, we’re excited to see Loom, nTopology, Fossa, Union Crate, and others continue to scale. And that doesn’t even count our Fund II, which is just underway.

There is over $1.6 trillion in outstanding student debt and many universities think they can charge $60k a year for lectures over Zoom. There is a bubble in higher education. 1517 is the pin. 2020 is the year the bubble pops.