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When I visited the Open Source Ecology farm in Missouri earlier this year, I met an impressive young Canadian named Yoonseo Kang. I wasn’t quite expecting to meet an 18-year-old who would tell me that “the heart of economic democracy is decentralized productive power spread throughout the populace.” Kang had finished high school in Mississauga, Ontario, where he was a member of the robotics club but decided not to go to college, much to the dismay of his parents, especially his father. Instead, young Kang moved to the Factor E Farm in Missouri where he’s been helping build the open source economy. It’s a gutsy thing for an 18-year-old to do.

I interviewed him outside the very cramped wooden shack he was living in. He told me: “Initially, I was going to go to college to study engineering but I also wanted to study economics and how we could build a better future. My father wanted me to get an MBA and go in to business but I didn’t terribly like the idea.”

But before he completed his college enrollment, Kang discovered Open Source Ecology, thanks to the TED Talk OSE’s founder Marcin Jakubowski gave. It got a lot of views on the web and triggered a steady stream of recruits for the project.

In Missouri, Kang has been working on a CNC milling machine that will be used with copper clad printed circuit boards. He’s also worked on the electronic controls for some of OSE’s other open source machines, including the compressed earth brick press.

When I left the farm to return to my home in New York, I was told that Jakubowski was in the running for a $300,000 grant from the South Africa-based Shuttleworth Foundation and that Kang had applied to be a Thiel Fellow, a grant for people under 20 who opt not to go to college and who want to pursue non-traditional careers. Working on open source hardware on a farm in Missouri would certainly fit that bill.

Well, Jakubowski got the grant from the Shuttleworth Foundation, and now, word comes that Kang has been selected as one of the 20 young people to become Thiel Fellows in 2012 and will receive $100,000 over the next two years. A formal announcement is expected from the Thiel Foundation later this month. The foundation was created by Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal who lives in San Francisco. Rated a master by the United States Chess Federation, Thiel funds the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Seasteading Institute, and the Human Rights Foundation.

Described as “a radical re-thinking of what it takes to succeed,” the Thiel Fellows program began last May. All of those selected are under the age of 20 and are said to be some of the most creative and motivated young people on the planet, The fellows are encouraged but not required to move to the Bay Area where there is a support network to aid them in launching entrepreneurial ventures.

“I was very glad to hear I was chosen,” the soft-spoken Kang told me over the phone from Mississauga. “It was a vindication of my skills and the character I showed.”

I’ll say.

His mother is relieved but he hasn’t heard any congratulatory words from his father, with whom he is still not on speaking terms.

Marcin Jakubowski praised Kang’s commitment to OSE and added, “Yoonseo’s clarity on his desire to create an open source economy is unmatched by anyone I know of. He is a technologist driven by a clear sense of higher purpose.”

Jakubowski says Kang’s selection as a Thiel Fellow will not only bring in funding to accelerate the development of the four dozen or so industrial and agricultural machine that comprise OSE’s Global Village Construction Set but will also benefit OSE because it comes with a network of contacts and resources.

“This is likely to accelerate our plans to create the OSE Fellows program – which is essentially an alternative to higher education – similar to the Thiel Fellowship,” Jakubowski told MAKE.

Paul Lewis, a computer engineering teacher at St. Francis Xavier Secondary School in Mississauga, served as Kang’s coache on the high school’s robotics club. He remembers Kang as a hardworking and focused member of the club. Informed of Kang’s selection as a Thiel Fellow, Lewis said he still hopes the young Canadian will eventually go to college.

When I last spoke to Kang he said he is heading back to the OSE farm. He will use some of the $100,000 grant to buy equipment and materials for his CNC circuit mill project. He’s also looking forward to moving into the farm’s nearly completed dormitory.

Jon Kalish

Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter, podcast producer and newspaper writer. He’s reported for NPR for more than 30 years.


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