Q&A with Alex Koren: On Winning a Thiel Fellowship and His Recent Pilgrimage to Silicon Valley

By Alex Dragone
There’s an old adage that used to say: ‘Go west to California and find your fortune.’ Since the Gold Rush, this narrative of opportunity has entered our national ethos. It’s as American as Apple Pie. Except now we’re not panning the water for flickering specks, but trying to start or get on board the next big technological innovation. Alex Koren is one such pilgrim to Silicon Valley.

Koren is a former Hopkins undergraduate, who left school after his sophomore year in 2014 upon winning a Thiel Fellowship. As a Theil Fellow, nineteen-year-old Koren will receive $100,000 to pursue whatever goals he chooses. The fellowship, funded by entrepreneur and co-founder of PayPal Peter Thiel, aims to help creative and motivated young people bring their most ambitious projects to life outside of a university setting.

Koren spoke to me via Skype from his Napa Valley home to tell me more.

How did you find out about this Fellowship?

A student at Johns Hopkins actually told me about it. He was a friend of mine, David West. He’s our year [class of 2016]. He and I spoke a lot about our ideas and things we were working on. He was too old to apply, by sixteen days or something stupid, and he was like, “Alex, you should totally apply.” I wrote my application over a couple of weeks and sent it in like three hours before the deadline.

What was it like to apply to this fellowship? What did they want?

So you know, first of all the fellowship is funded by a guy named Peter Thiel, who basically wanted to make the point that college isn’t the best option for all young adults – especially [for some students who have] ideas that can’t wait. He wants to empower them to work on them. And so the application process started with a few essays and stuff, I’d say about nine or 10 written questions, a little bit longer than what you’d see on the average college app. You wrote about, you know, the risks you’ve taken, why they’re important to you, and then you send it in. And once you’ve went through [written responses] a few times, they bring on phone interviews, technical and general interviews, to see kind of what you’re like. And they take the top 40 and they fly you out to San Francisco for five days of meetings, pitches, and interviews, and [they] choose roughly twenty [applicants].

So I was reading a little bit about the fellowship. They offer you $100,000 and it’s two years, right? 

Yup, two years.

And, basically, what the fellowship is is it gives you $100,000 to do a project of your own making, right?

So basically they give you $100,000 over two years. So it’s kind of like having a monthly salary. It’s not like they just hand you $100,000 and say, ‘go!’ It’s monthly over two years. That way every month we send a form saying like, progress, how everything is going. They keep track of us and see how things have been continuing. And it’s a monthly thing.

Okay. And so what was the project that you applied to do?

I had applied [to work] on distributive systems in computing. Basically the idea that you can take multiple computers and combine their processing power together via the internet, so to make them solve tasks that are too large for one computer to solve by itself. And the idea was to do it on mobile phones, people’s phones all over the world. It didn’t pan out in the end, that’s fine, it’s totally fine with the fellowship. It didn’t work out for a multitude of reasons. But that’s part of the game out here, you know. You got to try things, let them fail, but you got to know when to let them fail. You can’t just follow things blindly forever, because then you get stuck on these ideas and never end up moving on to the thing that might actually work for you.

Right. So what kind of project are you working on now?

Basically the fellowship has mentors. They’re like, successful entrepreneurs, lawyers, just very, very, cool, intelligent people that can help us out. And I got linked up with one of the mentors, just on my own, who was working on this idea to help EV [electronic vehicle] owners charge their cars and find places to charge their cars and understand that whole system around charging EVs as that space grows. And so I came on to the project as a cofounder of the company, where we are basically creating and discovering payment software for electric vehicles. And what that means is like, imagine when you go to a gas station, you put the thing into your car, and it charges you for every drop of gas that you get, every gallon. That doesn’t really exist for electric vehicles, on like a massive scale, and we’re creating a system where you can kind of turn any outlet or charger into a payment-processing unit for electricity.

Okay, so this is the Chrg, Inc?

Yeah, Chrg, Inc.

Okay, and how long have you been working for this company?

It’s March, so five months, six months. Five – six months.

At the end of your two years, do you have to show them where Chrg, Inc. is? At the end of the process do you have to show what you’ve done, and is there, like, a reward or anything?

At the end of the two years, it’s not like there’s a big presentation where you get up there and I say ‘Chrg is going really well, and here’s what we managed to do.’ Yes, they know exactly how everything’s going. We’re very close with them, the directors of the program and the staff. But really it’s more just like a – imagine it as an alternative to education, and a young adult, self-improvement program in a lot of ways. [Maybe] I wouldn’t use the word self-improvement – I just mean it’s an alternative to education that helps the development of technical skills in a lot of ways. You know, business skills, life skills. In college, you’re in a real bubble. You’re around people who are studying similar things, that are in the exact same place in life, but out here I can easily be talking to a sixteen year old who’s trying to cure cancer, and later in the day be talking to a forty-year-old who works at, you know, Google. It’s all places, and those kinds of skills you don’t find in school, there’s just not the opportunity there. So think of it more as a learning opportunity than as a “I need to build something and then show it to them to be successful,” you know? You don’t have to make a certain amount of money for your fellowship to be successful; you have to have learned, improved, built upon yourself, had experiences that somehow impacted something.

Okay. And at the end of your two years, do you maybe intend to keep working with Chrg, Inc?

Yeah. So, you know, again, the fellowship and Chrg are almost like two different entities. You can think of it like Chrg is a company that I’m starting and a founder of, and what ends up happening is you’ve got this company that kind of like is the focus of my fellowship. So Chrg is not hard-limited by my fellowship in any way.

So the decision – when you like, when you heard you got into the Fellowship – was it a hard decision to leave Hopkins?

No. You know, I had a Skype call one day, right after I finished a midterm actually. And they offered me my fellowship, and I kind of jumped for joy. I was super excited. And you know, that day I was kind of on a high because I knew my life was about to change so vastly. But after that kind of wore off, after – whether it was hours or a day or two of like it being amazing – I was [still] super-duper excited, I was happy the whole time. But I started to realize, you know, friends were something I’d be missing, and that was the biggest thing, was friends. But you know, again, good friends of mine understood that it was the best decision for me. And so I still keep in touch with some of my best friends at Hopkins on a regular basis.

 Cool. So I actually should’ve asked before. So the company, how is it going right now?

Good. You know, we’ve raised some money to back us, which is great. We have people really interested in what we’re working on. We’re kind of in a bit of a – I don’t want to say stealth mode, because that’s not the word. We’re happy to show people what we’re working on. But we are kind of like, we haven’t really released some products yet. We’re just working on them until we’re ready to blast out to the general public with what we’re working on. But these technical things take a long time. Me, I’m working very much on the engineering and technical side, kind of taking the role of CTO of the company. And we’ve got a 17-year-old kid as a web developer. He’s awesome. He’s actually taking his spring break right now with us in California, he’s from Texas. My other cofounder is part technical, part business; he kind of switches back and forth. And the last cofounder is all business. So really, the factor here is building products quickly and efficiently so that we can release the best possible experience for these EV drivers.

 Do you have any ideas for future projects right now?

I’ve always got a trick up my sleeve. I’m constantly questioning. If I had one thing to say to every entrepreneur out there, every person who feels they want to be an entrepreneur out there, I’d say question everything. One of the biggest problems with people is that they don’t ask the right questions. And I want to ask you, is my TV at an optimal distance from myself, or is this going to hurt my eyes? Problems where you’d be like, ‘huh, I’m really interested in that.’ And that spark is the one that sparks a creation.’ So I’ve always got tricks up my sleeves because I’m always questioning everything.