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This 17-Year-Old Dropped Out Of High School For Peter Thiel And Built A Game-Changing New Kind Of Computer

Thomas Sohmers REX Computing Thomas Sohmers, CEO, REX Computing

On Tuesday, 17-year-old Thomas Sohmers unveiled a new super fast computer server that uses a fraction of the electricity that a normal computer does.

He’s showing it off at the Open Compute Project (OCP) Summit happening this week in San Francisco.

OCP is the Facebook-led project that is changing the data center hardware industry. It’s where big Internet companies like Facebook design their own hardware to be faster and cheaper than traditional options from companies like Dell, HP, IBM, or Cisco. (But Dell and HP are also involved in OCP). It gives those designs away for free, a concept called open source hardware.

This computer is the first product from Sohmers’ startup, REX Computing, created with 52-year-old co-founder and CTO Kurt Keville.

The computer is a very powerful machine built with ARM processors, the kind low-power processors that run smartphones and tablets. (In geek speak: these are multi-core ARM processors designed for servers, made by a San Jose company called Xilinx.)

These servers allow more computing power to be packed into a smaller space. The server is “2,500% more power-efficient for the same performance,” Sohmers told Business Insider. Think of it like a supercomputer running on the equivalent of smartphone battery.

And that has big implications for building green-but-powerful data centres.

“I think of myself as an entrepreneur besides just being an electrical engineer. I believe what I’m doing can have a major effective on the world,” Sohmers said.

Low-power ARM servers is big trend in the server industry with companies like HP and Dell now in the market, but one that hasn’t really taken off yet for a bunch of technical reasons that add up to one thing: there isn’t a lot of software that runs on them, yet.

In fact the company that pioneered the concept, Calxeda, ran out of money in December and closed its office, even though the concept is slowly taking hold.

So the tech REX is building is interesting and potentially powerful.

But the 17-year-old founder is even more so.

He dropped out of high school to join Peter Thiel’s controversial startup accelerator, the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship. Thiel, the former PayPal CEO and famous Silicon Valley venture capitalist known for his early investment in Facebook, is a libertarian who has often spoken out about the absurd cost of college these days.

So in 2011, he started a program that encourages kids to start companies instead of going to college. It gives them $US100,000 in seed money and access to some of the Valley’s greatest technologists as mentors.

Still, one of the requirements is that you can’t be enrolled in school at all. So in order to join the two-year program, Sohmers had to leave high school in the 11th grade and his home in Massachusetts and move to the Bay Area.

Sohmers is an electrical engineering prodigy who at age 13 started working at the research lab at MIT. That’s where he met his co-founder and CTO, Keville, he said.

With his technical genius and startup launched, he’s not planning on going back and finishing high school, either.

“This is my third time applying for the Fellowship. I first applied when I was 14,” he said. “I told my parents when I first applied and they weren’t really supportive. But then they kind of saw what I was doing in high school, I wasn’t spending my time as effectively as I could. I started spending more of my time at MIT and they understood. When I did receive the fellowship, they were supportive.”

Fortunately for Sohmers, he’s in good hands. He’s part of class No. 3 and Thiel fellows have a promising track record so far: it’s launched 67 companies that have created 135 full-time jobs and raised $US55.4 million in angel and venture funding, the Wall Street Journal’s Lora Kolodny reports.

At 17, Sohmers is unconcerned that being a high-school dropout will affect his career in any way.

“If I don’t end up changing the world with this I can find something else,” he said. “People think that there’s a big thought war between these two sides [education versus entrepreneurship]. But when it comes to the researchers, they care less about the degrees that you have, and more about what you can actually do.”

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