Michael Montague, a staff scientist at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, met Kettner Griswold Jr. when Griswold was 15.
Montague said he knew right away that Griswold was someone special.
“Kettner is really the only true genius I have ever met,” Montague said. “He has a near photographic memory and an uncanny mechanical aptitude. He must have been a terror with Legos as a kid.”
That aptitude has led Griswold, 19, to be chosen as a member of the 2012 class of 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellows, a group of young people awarded $100,000 from the Thiel Foundation to pursue scientific and technical projects and learn entrepreneurship.
The fellowship “provides highly motivated teens with financial support and mentorship to skip college and change the world,” according to the foundation website.
“I thought it would be perfect,” Griswold said. “I could go out and do all the things I wanted to but couldn’t because of school.”
The 20 Under 20 program, founded in 2010 by Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, is headquartered in San Francisco.
“They were very interested in the person, like, how do you handle failure, what sort of leadership style do you have, how do you handle a group of people?” Griswold said of the application process. “That’s geared towards [entrepreneurship]; any sort of startup requires strong leadership.”
Griswold, who graduated from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, in 2010, and Paul Sebexen, 19, of Staten Island, N.Y. will create a bench-top genome synthesis device that will allow individual laboratories and medical practices to synthesize large genome constructs quickly and inexpensively.
“I really think I can change the world with this technology,” Griswold said. “For me it’s not about the money as much as changing the world.”
Such a device could be used in projects related to treatments for the human body, biofuels and plastics, he said.
Griswold and Sebexen met while students at Georgia Tech, in Atlanta, where Griswold finished two years.
Griswold said he is “stepping out” of college during the two years of his fellowship and does not believe he will go back.
“I don’t want to go back to school again because I want to solve this problem.” he said.
Montague, a staff scientist at the Venter Institute, a scientific research organization dedicated to the advancement of the science of genomics, met Griswold when Griswold sent the Venter a suggestion for a scientific study.
“It was a horrible Frankenstein project, unworkable, but I was impressed that he synthesized material from several sources and put it together,” Montague said.
Montague convinced Griswold to apply for a summer internship at the institute. He spent two summers there and one at the institute’s La Jolla, Calif. campus.
Montague wrote a recommendation for Griswold when he applied for the Thiel Fellowship.
“I’d definitely put my money on Kettner,” Montague said. “What sets him apart is this diamond hard drive, his focus. He will solve a problem.”
Griswold said he satisfied his sense of adventure while at Calleva summer camp in Poolesville.
“I’d alternate my nerd summer at J. Craig Venter Institute with my outdoor summer at Calleva,” Griswold said. “My favorite part was all the programs — kayaking, rock climbing and being with my best friends from school. I was a high energy kid.”
Calleva Director Alex Markoff remembers Griswold well, he said.
“I always loved working with him,” Markoff said. “He was an all around great kid, very well balanced.”