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Young entrepreneur wins prestigious fellowship

Gary Kurek is going places. The 19-year-old graduate of Bonnyville Centralized High School (BCHS) and Fort Kent native is destined for California, after winning a coveted spot in the inaugural class of the Peter Thiel Fellowship's 20 Under 20.
Gary Kurek sits on a walker coverted to a multifunctional wheelchair combination using the kit he invented.
Gary Kurek sits on a walker coverted to a multifunctional wheelchair combination using the kit he invented.

Gary Kurek is going places. The 19-year-old graduate of Bonnyville Centralized High School (BCHS) and Fort Kent native is destined for California, after winning a coveted spot in the inaugural class of the Peter Thiel Fellowship's 20 Under 20.

Created by Peter Thiel, famed co-founder of PayPal and first investor in Facebook, the fellowship gives successful applicants a two-year tenure in Silicon Valley, California.

The fellowship's plan was to invite 20 entrepreneurs and innovators under the age of 20 to California, set them up with $100,000 and mentorship from the Thiel Foundation, and give them the chance to build ideas which will shape the future. Over 400 applications were received from nearly two dozen countries and in the end, the foundation found it impossible to narrow it down to 20 and 24 have been invited. Gary was one of the lucky few to be selected.

Gary, who has been inventing mobility aids since beginning high school and turned down a full scholarship to the University of Calgary to pursue his entrepreneurial goals instead, nearly wasn't chosen at all.

After finding out about the fellowship from a business contact, he submitted an application, and was initially passed over by the selection committee.

"I had received an email saying that my application hadn't made it through, so I basically fought back," he said. "I convinced them with my past, resume, and other awards that I'd won. I showed them some examples of my work and they notified me that they had reconsidered my application ... After talking to them and giving them a better idea of what it is I was actually doing, they had a better understanding of what I was doing and then gladly reconsidered me."

According to his father, Dennis Kurek, Gary had always loved creating things. When he was three or four years old, his father came home to find Gary playing with an airplane that at first, he assumed to be a new toy. Closer inspection proved Gary had made it himself, cutting the pieces from cardboard and constructing the airplane, which was so symmetrical it could have been traced from a stencil, he explained.

"He used to take Lego and build bridges," said Dennis. "He always just loved to create things."

In his first year at BCHS, Gary turned his love of building things into creating a device that converts a regular rolling walker into a motorized wheelchair.

"It was a multifunctional walker wheelchair combination," he explained. "A patient can go out there, buy any model of off-the-shelf rolling walker that exists, and they can take my kit and attach it to the walker and by attaching this kit, they can have a device that allows them to walk when they're able to, but if they become tired or fatigued, they can switch and use it as a wheelchair."

Gary finished developing the product last year and launched his own company, GET Mobility Solutions Inc.

When he received a full scholarship to the University of Calgary, he felt accepting it would slow down his plans for his company, and declined, intending to reapply in a year. He felt what he had learned in the four years he had spent developing his product had taught him more about entrepreneurship, starting a business, and launching a high-tech product than he could learn in a classroom.

"I've always been able to stand out and move forward by being different. By going to university, I would then go into an atmosphere where everyone else is trying to strive essentially for the same thing," he said. "After your four-year degree, everyone walks out in the same playing field - there's really no way to stand out and be exclusive."

His father was a little concerned at first.

"My thinking is a person goes from high school and they go to university," Dennis said. "But Gary was just going to wait a year, he was going to reapply and do it again, so I had no problems with that if that's what he wanted to do."

Gary focused his attention on his company, and when he found out about the 20 Under 20 Peter Thiel Fellowship, it seemed a logical next step.

"When I denied the offer for the scholarship to the University of Calgary, I was essentially already on the path of working on my company instead of going to school, so when I found out about this program being offered in California, I really thought that it would be a catalyst to move my company forward," he explained.

"Anybody who is in high-tech innovation, you want your product out as fast as possible. I thought this was a good way to do so, trying to tap into the network of some of the best tech people on the planet."

In California, Gary will be among some of the finest minds under 20 years old in the world, with interests varying from synthetic biology, robotics, solar power, economics, computer programming, and extraterrestrial resource extraction.

"I was up against some very, very challenging competitors," Gary admitted, referring to his trip to San Francisco for the final selections. "Out of the 50 that were there, it was really hard to figure out who was in the top 20, which projects really stood out, so it was kind of up in the air. I wasn't sure if I was near the top or near the bottom."

He was selected, however, and since the announcement, he has become a pro at dealing with media, whether it is a potential interview for Forbes Magazine, seeing his name pop up in Bloomberg Business Week, USA Today, or the New York Times.

In a May 25 press release from the Peter Thiel Fellowship, Thiel said, "The fellows are a tremendous group of young people who are going to advance the frontiers of knowledge, shake up staid industries, and change the world."

James O'Neill, head of the Thiel Foundation, added, "We're excited to be working with them, and we hope they will help young people everywhere realize that you don't need credentials to launch a company that disrupts the status quo."

As for right now, Gary is working on a few new top-secret projects, and preparing to move down to California in August or early September.

"I think a person always worries a little bit," he said, "but the pressure is definitely on. I have two years down there to make something happen, and that kind of puts the pressure on me, knowing how fast two years will go by. I'm really looking forward to what ultimately will happen. The networks are there to help out, and they should help guide me in the right direction."

He added, "With this program, I'm one of 20 people worldwide who are essentially trying to pave new paths in a different way. I think if you really want to create new innovation and change the world, people have to start creating new paths and not going down existing ones."

Gary Kurek is going places, and thanks to his innovations in mobility, he shouldn't have any troubles getting there.