SAN FRANCISCO In the movie The Social Network, the character of Peter Thiel is played as a slick Master of the Universe, a tech industry king and kingmaker with the savvy to see that a $500,000 investment in Facebook could mint millions later.
Reality is a little more rumpled.
On a recent December night, Thiel walked, slightly stooped, across a San Francisco stage to make a pitch to an invitation-only audience of Silicon Valley luminaries investors and innovators who had scored sometimes huge fortunes through a mix of skill, vision and risk-taking.
The billionaire PayPal co-founder didn't tell them about the next big startup. He wanted them to buy into a bigger idea: the future.
A future when computers will communicate directly with the human brain. Seafaring pioneers will found new floating nations in the middle of the ocean. Science will conquer aging, and death will become a curable disease.
If anything can transform these wild dreams into plausible realities, he believes it is the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley the minds and money that have conjured the technological marvels that have already altered everyday life.
"Do we try to pursue ideas that are weird and have optimism about the future, or do we give up on all new things and compromise?"
Sitting before him in the audience, among others: Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, Yelp co-founder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman and technology publishing guru Tim O'Reilly.
As venture capital in Silicon Valley chases the next big mobile app or group discount service, Thiel was asking for them to fund technological breakthroughs that some believe in fervently and others see as sheer fantasy.
He even has a name for it: Breakthrough philanthropy.
Instead of just giving to help the less fortunate here and now, Thiel encouraged his fellow moguls to put their money toward seemingly far-fetched ventures that he believes could improve the lives of everyone for good.
Gathered on the stage were eight groups that Thiel thinks are on the right path.
One was the Singularity Institute, whose members believe in the near-inevitability of the arrival within the next century of computers smarter than the humans who created them.
The institute works to ensure that self-programming machines will create a world that looks more like Star Trek, less like the Terminator.
Another was the SENS Foundation, a group of biomedical researchers seeking a path to radical life extension based on the controversial aging theories of computer scientist-turned-gerontologist Aubrey de Grey.
And the Seasteading Institute, led by Patri Friedman, the grandson of famed economist Milton Friedman. It looks to establish distant ocean colonies to serve as laboratories for experimenting with new forms of government or "startup countries."
"As innovators, you are the best at finding and nurturing the right big ideas that can change the world," Friedman told the audience.
The history of Silicon Valley is filled with such ideas. The smartphone, the Web, the search engine, the personal computer itself these all seemed far-fetched until they became commonplace.
To raise money from the wealthy, it's a time-honored strategy to flatter. Witness the names emblazoned across hospital wings and university buildings. But building important buildings has never seemed to especially interest Silicon Valley's elite.
They have "the right kind of cultural DNA to at the very least pay attention," said Greg Biggers, a longtime software executive who recently founded a startup, Genomera, that lets members conduct health studies using their own genetic data.