Upcoming college graduate’s entrepreneurial goals boosted by $100k grant


When he was 10 years old, Jimmy Koppel decided he wanted to create video games when he grew up. Just a decade later, Koppel has been there and done that – and now he has been named one of 20 young entrepreneurs to receive $100,000 to work on his new goal, which is to make software engineering more efficient.

The grant is from the Thiel Foundation, based in San Francisco and headed by venture capitalist Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook. Along with the money, Koppel and the other Thiel Fellows will have access for the next two years to mentors from the foundation’s network of tech entrepreneurs, investors and scientists. 

Just eight days after the fellowship recipients were announced, Koppel, 20, said in a phone interview from San Francisco that the grant already has changed his life. “If I hadn’t won, I’d probably be working in an office somewhere instead of sitting in a living room, talking to a reporter,” he said.

Brought up in West St. Louis County as a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth, Koppel has completed his course work at Carnegie Mellon University and in December he will receive dual degrees in computer science and mathematics. 

Koppel will spend the next two years looking into new software development tools. As an example, he cited Y2K (aka the Millennium bug), which was a problem for both digital and non-digital documentation and data storage due to the abbreviation of a four-digit year to two digits. The fix was small enough, Koppel said, but it had to be made in thousands of places.

“Changing the program from using two digits to a few more cost $300 billion dollars,” Koppel said. “I am working on tools to automate problems that have these properties and that take a lot of work. I am really interested in this problem, and working on it over the two years of the fellowship is the best way to approach it.”

Jonathan Cain, president of the Thiel Foundation, said that he is enthusiastic about Koppel’s ideas. “Jimmy has a vision where programmers are more like builders than handymen, and he is working on systems or tools to enable manipulation of programs without having to have access to the source code. It would be great if more people felt the way Jimmy does. It’s inspiring.”

Koppel is in the second class of Thiel fellows, chosen from applicants in more than 40 countries and more than 350 high schools, colleges and graduate schools. The first 24 grant recipients were announced last April. According to the foundation, in just one year members of the inaugural class have “started and sold companies, closed million-dollar funding rounds, won international entrepreneurship and scientific awards, spearheaded innovative social movements, and begun to transform fields like education, software development, clean energy, electric vehicles, robotics, medical technology and finance.”

The goal of the grants is to “highlight an alternative path for promising young people with potentially groundbreaking ideas.” Recipients are required to leave school to advance their entrepreneurial projects. The idea of Koppel dropping out of college concerned his parents, Suellen M. Koppel, an industrial organization psychologist, and Ralph Koppel, who owns a computer software business. 

“When Jimmy told us he had applied for the grant and that if he got it, he would drop out of college, we were not thrilled,” said Suellen Koppel. “The neat thing for all of us was that he finished at Carnegie Mellon in three years.” Koppel has an older sister, Julie Ann, who recently completed pharmacy school.

The Koppels knew early on that their son was extremely bright. “When he was a year old, still not talking, he would spread out 100-piece puzzles, crawl around and put them together,” his mother said. “We wanted to ask how he knew which piece went where, but of course he couldn’t answer.” 

At age 5, Jimmy told his parents he wanted to be an entrepreneur “just like Bill Gates.”  Jimmy started school at McKelvey Elementary School but was so far ahead of his classmates that his parents decide to home school him. In sixth grade, he entered the St. Louis Regional Program for Exceptionally Gifted Students, attending classes at Lindbergh High School, and graduated when he was 17. 

“What truly is amazing about Jim is his drive,” said his father. “He has extremely high ambitions and he totally devotes himself to them.” Before he received the grant, Jimmy spoke with his dad “about the Ramen noodle lifestyle — that he could pursue his work and dreams as long as he could endure living on Ramen noodles.” Now, of course, he won’t have to do that. Both parents say they are “thrilled and delighted” that their son will have mentors and financial backing from the Thiel Foundation.

Koppel recently told his father he was trying to “eliminate his non-productive time,” but he does have interests outside work. Koppel is a 5th degree white belt in Shotokan Karate and he holds a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Doh, which he practiced for 12 years. The summer after his freshman year in college, he started piano lessons.

“My leisure activities are a short list,” Koppel admitted, “because I spend most of my time working.”