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CS undergrad wins tech fellowship

Imagine winning $100,000 to forgo the traditional college experience.  

This is what happened to Brown undergraduate Dylan Field - formerly '13.5 - when he was awarded the prestigious Thiel Fellowship in May to work on a technology startup that will allow users to creatively express themselves online.

The Thiel Fellowship, which announced its first fellows in 2011, chooses 20 "creative and motivated young people" under 20 years of age each year, according to its website. Recipients are given $100,000 each to leave college and instead transform their ideas into successful startups. Peter Thiel, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, created the fellowship to support technological projects that would push the limits of what people think is possible. 

Thiel believes education is part of the establishment that holds back development of technological advancements and innovations, according to a profile of Thiel featured in the New Yorker. Instead of studying humanities or sciences, Thiel argues that students should dive right into the field of entrepreneurship he believes will help society the most: technology. 

And when the opportunity to do this came along for Field, he accepted it, leaving Brown behind to live in California and be mentored by some of the nation's brightest minds. 

The path less traveled

Apart from appearances in a CNBC documentary and on the "Today" show, Field has kept himself busy doing exactly what the fellowship intended - working on the software for his startup. 

"What we are trying to do is make it so that anyone can be creative by creating free, simple, creative tools in a browser," Field said in the documentary. 

Without the hefty price tag and long acclimation process of programs like Photoshop, the program will help people create pieces and manipulate images that match the taste level and creative vision of what he called their "inner artists," Field said. 

"Think about it as taking some of the 'pro' features of Photoshop and making those available to everyone," he said. Field and his startup partner Evan Wallace '12 are starting by constructing an in-browser photo editing process "to create things online that normally you wouldn't be able to," Field explained. 

The idea has evolved since Field's initial pitch. "At first we were looking at 3-D content generation," he said. "What we are doing now is mainly segmentation." This feature refers to the ability to cut people or objects out of an image and displace them into other images. 

"I think it will be an amazing tool to help people unleash their creativity," Field said. 

Mike Gibson, the Thiel Foundation's vice president for grants, said he looks forward to what Field will accomplish. "He has a wonderful blend - he is obviously technically very talented - but he also has a sense and intuition for the art that he will use in his current project, which is blending art and engineering." 

A Muggle's attempt at magic

When Field started college, he initially intended to follow the traditional path by pursuing a degree in math and computer science and graduating after four years. 

During a recent "Today" show interview, Field said his goals were similar to those of many first-years - to discover himself and the world around him. 

Despite attending Brown for just five semesters, Field told The Herald he was able to take a variety of classes and meet friends who helped him have an enjoyable college experience. 

"I loved everything about Brown," he said. "Just being with friends and late-night talks ... it's not all about what I learned, but about the people I have met."

"He is genuinely interested in what other people are doing all the time," said Madeline Sall '13, who has known Field since freshman year. "Even things that he doesn't know that much about, he really wants to know what you are thinking and what your opinions are." 

Field did more than take classes within CS - by his junior year, he co-chaired the CS Departmental Undergraduate Group with David Trejo '13.  

"The computer science department at Brown is a really tight-knit, awesome group of people and so that was really hard to step away from," Field said.

Being an involved member of the CS department led to one of Field's most notable achievements as a student - organizing the New England College Hackathon in 2011, which attracted 150 students and notable speakers. "He almost single-handedly organized it," Trejo said.

Field's passion for computer science started at a young age. 

"It might sound a bit silly, but I think computer programming is pretty much the closest thing we have to magic," he said. In a reference to growing up with the "Harry Potter" series, Field said he found programming and technology to be akin to a Muggle's attempt at magic. 

This early interest led to an impressive slate of internships - including one with O'Reilly Media - and conference attendances as early as high school. These experiences allowed him to form connections and make relationships with people in the social media and technology industries. 

It was through one of these internships that Dylan was offered the opportunity to take off the spring semester of his junior year as Technical Product Management Intern at Flipboard Inc. 

Field viewed the internship opportunity as similar to a semester abroad.

"I wanted a new perspective on Brown and really to be able to appreciate all of the amazing resources that were available," he said. "I also wanted to learn more about design entrepreneurship."

The technology games

It was during this time off from school that Field decided to apply for the Thiel Fellowship after consulting with Wallace, his startup partner. 

"I doubted that I would end up doing it, and even if I were to get it by some off, crazy chance, I'd probably go back to Brown in the fall," he said.

At first his parents were skeptical about the idea of Field taking a long-term leave from Brown. "I was sort of secretly hoping that maybe he wouldn't get (the application) in on time and that submit button didn't get pushed," his mother Beth Field said during the "Today" show segment. 

"They totally did not want me to apply. They tried to distract me from the application process, inviting me out to dinner and stuff," Field said. 

But as Field advanced in the fellowship's qualifying rounds, they warmed to the idea, becoming as excited as Field when he was one of 40 finalists - out of a pool of more than 500 applicants - brought into San Francisco to present his idea. "Everyone was incredible. I have no idea how the foundation chose between all the finalists because I was so impressed with everyone that was there. These people are insanely brilliant, and it was a total honor," Field said. 

"There is the hard, difficult decision," said Gibson, vice president at the Thiel Foundation. "There are some tough calls, so we want to give a lot of thought and attention to who we are pi

Besides the more obvious traits of intelligence and creativity that the board and its network look for in the candidates, a certain toughness is also a key attribute. "Entrepreneurship is a very difficult enterprise - there are going to be highs, and there are going to be lows. Intelligence isn't enough - we need someone when the dark times eventually come," Gibson said.

Field had that "grittiness," Gibson said, as well at what he referred to as "a tremendous track record," citing his numerous internships. "He is extraordinarily talented, and meeting him in person, you realize he has this incredible spark and an enormous amount of creativity."

After seeing the other finalists' pitches, Field said he was shocked to hear he was selected, immediately calling Wallace.

"Evan was in the middle of (teaching a) class," Field said. After being told it was not a good time to talk, Field let Wallace in on the good news. "He's normally really reserved and shy, but he just went 'OH MY GOD!'" 

Leaving Brown behind

All the while, Field said he still misses Brown. 

"The longer I was at Brown, the more I learned about different techniques, and my skills as a programmer improved," he said. "I don't think you'll ever replicate the people, and that's what I'll really miss. I'll miss all of my friends and the incredible community at Brown." But he soon warmed to the idea of leaving Brown. 

"I figured it was almost like an independent study, just you don't get course credit, it's a little bit longer and you get paid," he said.

The fellowship's requirement to leave the college system behind for two years has caused controversy as some critics fear the fellowship is causing students - many of whom would reap the benefits of college both inside and outside the classroom - to begin to question the value of higher education, as the New Yorker reported in its profile. These critics reportedly believe staunch libertarian Thiel, who called for "an escape from politics in all its forms" in an essay and believes government to be antithetical to technology, uses the fellowship to further an anti-government agenda. But it was the departure from Brown, not the politics, that gave Field pause about his decision.

"He struggled - it was not easy for him to leave," Sall said. But she said she was not surprised that he had chosen a less traditional path, pointing to his strong desire to apply what he had learned at Brown to practical projects. 

"This guy, in 20 years, is going to be someone that everyone knows."



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