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Most Exclusive Tech Conference Ever?

Founders Fund, a venture capital firm, invited engineers and budding entrepreneurs to an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii. And you probably weren't invited. Here's why.
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In less than a month, 50 young engineers and entrepreneurs will board a private jet in San Francisco, bound for a resort in a remote part of Hawaii. They'll stay for at least three days, all-expenses paid. What's the catch? Did they win a golden ticket or something?

Well, yes, that appears to be the case.

A bit of explanation: Founders Fund, the audacious, enigmatic venture capital firm founded by Peter Thiel, is launching its first ever "Founders 50," an invite-only conference for 50 hand-selected people whom the fund's partners consider the best-and-brightest in the tech world. (Keeping with the illusive nature of the gathering, they're keeping the participant list secret.) The fund, which most recently raised $625 million, is headed up by Thiel and several well-known tech entrepreneurs, including Sean Parker, Brian Singerman (founder of iGoogle), and Ken Howery and Luke Nosek, who co-founded PayPal.

Scott Nolan, a principal at the San Francisco firm, says the intention of the conference is to foster meaningul conversations between brilliant—and young—minds in the world of tech.

"The general idea is that there are people in tech that are pretty likely to find the future," says Nolan. "In the midst of daily life, it's hard to find the time to  bring these people together to talk about the future."

It's not hard to deduce the ancillary benefits Founders Fund receives from a conference like Founders 50. The courting process between entrepreneurs and venture capitalists has grown increasingly important for both parties. Should any world-changing, truly disruptive, business ideas emerge from this conference, these young entrepreneurs-to-be will no doubt turn to Founders Fund for potential suitors.

Sure, it may be a massive expense to send more than 50 people to a tropical location for a few days, but when you're sitting on $625 million, it's not such a bad investment. After all, Founders Fund is probably trying to get a sense of who in this batch is worth investing in.

"The earlier you invest, the more you're investing in the people," Paul Graham has stressed in the past.

The conference organizers have yet to disclose exactly who has been asked to attend the Founders 50 summit. In fact, attendees won't even know who else is attending until shortly before the excursion. But according to Nolan, attendees hail from across the United States, and the list skews young.

Nolan explains that Founders Fund had been watching these people for at least six months. According to Bruce Gibney, a partner at the firm, the average attendee age is about 26, and the youngest is 21. There are relatively few people over 30. "I do not believe there is a single grey hair in the lot," he says.

The traditional conferences such as Davos or TED, are often prohibitively expensive or otherwise inaccessible for the younger generation.

"Although they're extremely valuable for some, it ignores a large segment of the productive population, which is younger people," says Gibney. "We would like to be able to have a discourse with those people."

He compares the event to a conference for scientists. "A conference for physicists over age 40 would probably be one of the least productive conferences you could imagine, because most of the students do their best work before they’re 25," he says. "A version of it holds true for younger entrepreneurs and engineers."

It's not all that much of a surprise that Founders Fund chose such a youthful batch, either. Peter Thiel, who has created a fund to invest in entrepreneurs aged 20 and younger, is evangelical when it comes to young entrepreneurs.

The event will also be largely free-form—aside from a few opening remarks and closing remarks, which will fill up only about an hour—the event will be unstructured.

"It's the stuff that happens after conference, like the piano bar," Gibney says, referencing the famed piano bar at Davos where attendees do their real networking. "Our idea was to strip out that idea—the most useful part—and make that the entire event."

"Our view is that one-to-one conversations or few to few conversations are much more productive for idea generation than one to many," he says. "One to many doesn't generate ideas—it simply transmits them."

Ultimately, Founders 50 is an experiment for future conferences. Gibney says the event is "outcome independent with respect to business," a fancy way of saying that the organizers don't necessarily expect to finance start-ups that emerge from the conference (although that is, no doubt, a possibility).

"As long as we have an intellectually stimulating conversations, we will consider the conference successful," he says. "There's no sort of forum for this conversation for engineers who haven't already made a huge splash. What we're trying to do is address an absence in a market place."

IMAGE: iStock
Last updated: Apr 25, 2012




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