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Wanted: ‘Lost Einsteins.’ Please Apply (nytimes.com)
162 points by dsr12 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 104 comments

(Pioneer founder here.)

Nat Friedman and I launched AI Grant last year (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14851806). The idea was to give out money to promising AI researchers around the world. To date, we've funded 50 researchers, from high school students in Hawaii to aspiring researchers in Africa. We’ve been inspired by the fellows we’ve funded all over the word. I’m following it with a new project called Pioneer.

Pioneer funds ambitious people around the world working on interesting projects. Unlike YC, this is focused on small projects, not companies. A project could be anything -- open source work, research in physics or biology, or creating art.

If one does start a company, Pioneer gets 3% of equity in it in return for the network, community and guidance it provides. But it's by no means a requirement or a goal. We're merely hoping the small fraction of companies help us fund this experiment in perpetuity.

I think the largest gift we'll give our Pioneers isn't money. It'll be non-intuitive things like a network of friends (other Pioneers), a forcing function to get that thing done and mentorship from inspiring individuals.

Unlike other grant programs, we’re trying to do most of the screening in software. Becoming a Pioneer requires winning the Pioneer Tournament -- a (hopefully) fun and interactive application process. More on that on the site.

I'm passionate about this work because I'm the beneficiary of a similar system. I wrote about my story here, if you're curious: https://pioneer.app/blog/hello.

I read HN daily. And I've lost a lot of sleep about how this comments section will react to Pioneer :)

I'm hoping you'll find this at least a worthwhile experiment to run. Do let me know what ideas or feedback you have!

P.S. This effort is unrelated to YC. If you have any complaints about it, shoot me, not them!

P.P.S. Nat remains a close friend to Pioneer but his focus is on GitHub. AI Grant will continue to run as a non-profit. More details on that soon.

"We expect a fraction of Pioneers to start companies. In exchange for the investment and benefits below, Pioneer will retain 3% of any company you found over the next eight years. Pioneer will also have the option of investing an additional $20,000 for 5% in any of those companies. These conditions apply if you already have an incorporated company."

yeah, as an outsider looking for entry into startup - it just doesn't seem right! i get the fact that you guys have to fund the company some way! but it just seems too costly. i would be short selling myself.

If you have the opportunity to join other programs, go for it! Our hope is that this model enables us to reach the billions of people that are outside the network of Silicon Valley. They might not even be sure if they have a "company". They just want support on whatever project they're pursuing.

We're hoping that becoming a Pioneer vastly increases the odds that you turn your "shower-thought" into something real, even if it takes a few years to mature.

We're going to be making bets on folks substantially before they have the indicia of success that investors screen for. Before anyone could even say "This person will someday found a company." The math for this to be sustainable requires that the equity slice be higher than someone would ask for if they knew 100% of their investments were in high-potential companies.

This is a chicken-egg scenario:

1) I'd be less apprehensive about giving away 8% to any (!) company I found if I knew the network/guidance/community were proven.

2) You need track records of success before the network/guidance/community is seen as worth it. Right now, it's a gamble since you're new.

So you need a population of people willing to take a lower amount of money with a gamble on community quality.

Given that, it seems better off to wait.

If you are able to think through this, this fund is not for you. As mentioned in OP's comment, they are targeting folks who aren't even sure if they are building a company, just based on their 'potential'. It is a risky endeavor and from that perspective, the equity portion is justified. For someone who has access to this advice and support, it's not worth it. But for those who don't, this is Godsent.

this is a deal breaker as it makes your plan B inviable.

if your startup fails, you will never join another as an earlier employer, which is the plan B for most failed founders. becuase now you are a toxic asset to any early stage company which you can be said to be a early founder. now you will only be able to find 9-5 jobs at big Co as your plan B.

> "shower-thought"

It strikes me that the lack of conviction in the people that the Pioneer fund itself is selecting (as evidenced by such a low amount of money for such a high percentage, and lock-in) means that all that they will get is going to be half-baked shower thoughts. Ultimately, you get what you pay for.

It's just marketing spin on what incubators and many early venture firms typically do, except your goal is particularly to exploit people from around the world who may not yet be savvy to how the SV system "works."

And before you object to the notion of exploitation, let's just contrast your quasi-moral claims about loss to "the economy from the loss of ideas and wealth they could have produced," to the rather huge liberties you'll take with the people who you'll be supporting. So are you really concerned about the grand loss to the world of people in whom the world doesn't sufficiently invest, or are you most concerned about maximizing venture capital? These goals are in logical conflict.

If the network you offer is very valuable, and you maintain a good relationship with the future founder, they will probably choose you as an investor automatically when the time comes, out of trust and simplicity.

3% for so little cash is not enough to fund projects in anything besides short term software plays with an acquisition exit strategy. This is a valuation of ~100k which is less than what a bay area software developer makes in a year.

+5% for 20k is not that much better, it's a valuation of less than half a million.

If you want a biotech, or a hardware company, or something that really moves the needle, you'll have to put more money in there. Things that really change the world need a longer runway. Things that change the physical world need 5-10 years of burndown funding, and a team of 5-20 people.

20k buys you an hplc. Or a really cheap shuttle run. What is the expectation beyond that? Further raises on an early seed? Even let's say there's a 5x bump in value, to raise 1-2m to do something real and hire people takes on the order of 20-40%... And I've seen more than one companies fail to raise a series A with a risky and dangerous new idea because there had been too much seed dilution.

I couldn't do some really basic cancer drug research on $60k - i had to stop renting a lab and move to my garage, deal with multiple equipment failures from out of pocket, and suffer 3-and-going-years of delay due to having to get a job and reequilibrate personal finances and lose time to work on it, and I'm continuing work on a dribble as and when I can afford to do it... $20K would not have covered my animal studies, which themselves were low-n and strictly "proof of principle". Even this project had its initial phases funded through the traditional academe, and I don't see such a low investment getting any such a thing to a point where a for-profit would have a saleable asset (be it IP or otherwise) or at least a product and cashflow to convince series A to throw in when so much equity has already been given.

Without hitting on whether or not this is the right company to do this, I don't think the idea is itself at all unreasonable. By the time you're concerned about 8% equity, you've basically already 'made it' in the sense that you have likely have enough capital to start to more independently pursue your other ideas, or alternatively seek more favorable funding with some history for more traditional venture capital types.

This project seems to be clearly aiming people who have ambition and competence, but minimal to no current resources or connections; the goal being to get them to where that is no longer the case -- helping them to reach their potential. It's hard to call anything at all exploitative if it succeeds in getting people from that critical nothing to something point, regardless of how it does it.

"by the time you're concerned about 8% equity, you've basically already 'made it' in the sense that you have likely have enough capital to start "

Nope! haven't made it.

"This project seems to be clearly aiming people who have ambition and competence, but minimal to no current resources or connections; the goal being to get them to where that is no longer the case -- helping them to reach their potential"

hi, that's me!

"It's hard to call anything at all exploitative if it succeeds in getting people from that critical nothing to something point"

i see the value of taking people from nothing to critical mass i.e - YC. in case of pioneers - i might be nothing now but highly unlikely - i will be nothing for the next 8 years!

imho, this 5 + 3% won't select for the best of people! I would totally judge a person who lock herself in this 8 year contract! that's just me

I've always thought this argument was really hypocritical. The argument is you shouldn't be concerned about a few percent of equity since once it matters you will be rich and not care. Except the person making that argument is certainly rich and seems to care a lot about these few percentage points. Why are we expected to not care when they clearly do?

Similarly, those few % of equity means less equity later for future rounds of funding or for paying out to employees.

8 years is a long time though, and could potentially be more than one company.

Indentured servitude.

At 3%? Indentured servitude was 100%.

urg. yeah. Seems like some baggage that might hurt your ability to be part of a founding team too.

I listened to your Kara Swisher interview recently and one part stood out above everything else. You admitted that if you had not been accepted by YC, you would likely not have had the success you've had.

That kind of honest self-reflection is something sorely missing in Silicon Valley. Far too many people think their success was inevitable and completely self-made. Very few acknowledge the very rare kinds of help they received, and for a small turn in fortune, might not have received.

It's a great thing that you've not forgotten how different your life could have been without opportunity. And it's a beautiful thing that you're using your success to extend that opportunity to others.

I'm sure your resources are limited now but hopefully over time you will expand the grant (or investment) to help more people and with more money.

Congrats and good luck!

Thank you! I wrote some more about that here: https://pioneer.app/blog/hello. Everyone needs their first stepping stone, and I'm hopeful with Pioneer that we can provide that in a much more scalable way.

Looking at your application process, I cannot help but notice how poorly Einstein himself would have performed in such an arena.

But, maybe I’m missing something.

You mention an aim to support high-achieving outcasts, but the application process appears to be, as another comment mentioned, a popularity contest. What is the thinking behind that?

Daniel, this is incredible! I was actually going to shoot you an email about when AI grant's next phase is going to be for my Modular Neural Networks project.

I think one of the largest problems a lot of creative, insanely formidable people face are a barrier to entry to a network like this. That is one thing I've always admired about YC, Startup school. Pioneer's value in this would be insane.

I'm looking forward to the results, and hopefully climbing up the leaderboard myself over the next few months ;)

One piece of feedback that stood out to me on the home page: in the headline you say you're building a community of "young" people.

You can probably imagine that–for some–that statement doesn't really jive with being "open for all", etc.

As someone who is an artist on the side, the fact that this can fund art projects sounds terrific. But I'm wondering what could be expected when an artist goes to SF? The mentoring and networking aspects of such things seem less applicable to an art project vs. a company, so could you tell us what you had in mind for such scenarios?

Although most comments here are kind of negative, I just want to say initiatives like this are amazing.

Not sure what kind of ideas you’ll fund but there are lots of really smart people who love to tinker and solve problems. Being able to give them some runaway fuel so they can focus on problem solving rather than staying alive by taking a job they don’t love can go a long way.

When YC started, no one knew what it would become. It had good intentions, some money and a pool of wiling young folks to bust their asses.

And I think that concoction is amazing. Mentoring + network + funding + talent.

I really wish you the best.

"we’re trying to do most of the screening in software. Becoming a Pioneer requires winning the Pioneer Tournament" Is this a code challenge? Where do I find it?


Looks like it's more of a popularity contest than anything else.

Right. The application process appears to openly prioritize marketing skills, which puts it in serious conflict with the stated goal.

> Right. The application process appears to openly prioritize marketing skills, which puts it in serious conflict with the stated goal.

Exactly. To quote [1]:

"The world is full of extraordinarily creative people that are struggling to fit in.".

If the candidate is struggling to fit in, he/she is probably not "the popular kid" or a highly successful self-marketer.

Another quote from [1]:

"Our goal is to build a decentralized network of young, creative and exceptionally motivated outsiders who don’t fit in to the traditional system.".

I personally would claim that such self-marketing is exactly what the "traditional system" is (among other things) strongly about. So making it a popularity contest is opposed to the self-stated/self-imposed goals.

[1] https://pioneer.app/

If I could make a recommendation, it wouldn't hurt to specifically call out some marginalized groups that often get left out of the Silicon Valley VC mix. Not to call out VCs or anything, but after a while people start to get the idea that even groups that seem generally inviting tend to have hidden biases. And yeah it could be an infinitely long list, but look at it as just being reassuring to those people who might not take the risk. Off the top of my head: people in so-called "flyover states", LGBT+, disabled people, anyone working on research or art that's remotely sex-related.

Neat idea, but isn't the $5k amount for 3 months kinda low?

good idea, I would be more specific about the company/equity side of it. 3% is a lot of equity to give up right off the bat. YC has a specific program at least.

> I'm passionate about this work because I'm the benefactor of a similar system.

Perhaps I misunderstand, but I think you mean "beneficiary".

I think what you're doing is great! Keep it up!

What a wonderful opportunity! Inspiring!

I really like the idea behind this, but I take issue with the fact that if someone does start a company, Pioneer will take 3% with the option of buying 5% more of the company for $20,000. That seems pretty unfair.

I would be inclined to participate if this term didn't exist, or if it were either more financially generous or took less equity. But I wouldn't want to develop any idea through Pioneer if any future idea (for the next 8 years) could be poached for so little. It almost strikes me as a lazy way of running a semi-accelerator. I do think it's great that you're giving $5000 grants to help people develop projects and themselves, but this seems to disproportionately penalize people who want to commercialize their current or any future ideas

(Edit: why was my comment moved from being the top reply to the danicgross comment to a reply to the top level article?)

I agree and I disagree.

I agree if you're a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur who knows they can raise a seed round together. If that's you, you shouldn't take our offer. Raise the seed round; you'll get great terms.

There are about 7.4 billion people who aren't Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs. Most of them do not have a convenient line to investors, because investors don't happily fund writing the next great American novel, working on a demo tape, trying to prototype out an undergraduate research paper, or running companies in their neck of the woods. Pioneer could potentially fund all of those things.

We're going to be making bets on folks substantially before they have the indicia of success that investors screen for... substantially before anyone could even say "This person will someday found a company." The math for this to be sustainable requires that the equity slice be higher than someone would ask for if they knew 100% of their investments were in high-potential companies.

I think there are a couple of reasons for the reactions here:

1. By using Einstein's name in your marketing, you're using the name of a scientist who worked for a university whose ostensible mission is to create and disseminate knowledge for the public good. By contrast, you're seem to be running a small investment firm.

2. If we accept that you're looking to make a financial investment in a company, the amount of money that you're offering is astoundingly low given the terms that you propose. Yes, if someone doesn't like your offer, they don't have to accept it. However, at the same time, you seem to be targeting people who don't know how to obtain their own money, which suggests young and naive. From that perspective, your investment seems exploitative.

Candidly, from my own personal opinion, these sort of arraignments are not OK. Learning to run a business is hard, but in my opinion, ultimately rewarding. Offers like these attempt to normalize a behavior that experienced business people would scoff at. Unfortunately, $5k is not going to pay many bills. If I'm in a position to take advantage of the networking that you imply, that means that I already need to have enough money to support myself until the business gets off the ground. If I have that much money laying around, then I'm already a good position to make a go at business and giving up that much equity is exploitative.

Further, there are details implied in the offer that are generally not good for a new business. Equity means I need to have shares, which probably means an S-corp or a C-corp. Most starting businesses should probably file as a sole-proprietorship (as an LLC or not) because the accounting is vastly easier, which means cheaper. How does your arrangement work if someone has a business structure with no shares?

In case someone else asks how to get money for a new business if not for programs like this: There are others depending on where you live. In the U.S., both government SBIR and STTR grants are, in my opinion, good sources of money and don't require equity. A phase-1 grant gives about $80-100k, phase-2 $400-500k, phase-3 low millions. In Norway, I've seen good things from Innovasjon Norge.

Certainly, I appreciate when people try to help others learn business. It just seems like this strategy isn't it.

> If you're a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur who knows they can raise a seed round together. If that's you, you shouldn't take our offer.

This definitely makes it seem like you are preying on the uninformed given the tiny amount of funding you are providing for the percentage of ownership and being essentially handcuffed for 8 years.

I see the logic behind this. I guess part of me wishes that the fact that this is investment, rather than philanthropy, were made more clear. I didn't realize that financial sustainability was contingent on bringing in non-donated money.

At first I was prepared to nod my head re: terms feeling a little exploitative. Then I traced my own path, and I think doing so publicly might help some people understand what you're trying to do.

I started graduate school in 2010 with the promise of "being educated for free" and was massively disappointed when I realized a good chunk of STEM graduate programs exploit well-intentioned lower to middle class students without safety nets for labor with the dangling promise of higher employability down the line. I quickly dropped out to try my hand at my first company.

This is where I started imagining Pioneer could seem exploitative. Reflecting, if Pioneer had existed I would have been very likely to apply -- potentially giving up some percentage of my future potential that I couldn't quite understand -- for a few thousand dollars in the process. I was desperately broke at that point in my life, though I had been coding since I was eight (was 22 in 2010). I had many ideas and projects I was working on. I had zero "signals" for future success -- no awards, a degree from a Canadian school unknown for software, nothing -- just a desire to learn and build.

It's 2018. That's eight years -- the time frame we're all talking about here re: Pioneer equity. Through a tremendous amount of luck, happenstance and many highs and lows, I'm now happily the founder of an early stage startup in San Francisco. There's still a lot of work ahead of us, but I wake up every morning thrilled and thankful to have the opportunities I have. If Pioneer had existed in 2010 and I had found the good fortune to be accepted, they'd own part of my company.

I recently spent some time helping two young (around my age in 2010) entrepreneurs with their business. They're looking at opportunities now I could only have dreamed of (and, well, was dreaming of) when I was broke and 22. I look at these talented founders and wish I had known somebody, anybody that could have helped me out eight years ago. I'm not sure how different my outcome would have been or where I would be, but I can only imagine even a few hours of advice and care from somebody who knew what they were doing could have accelerated my trajectory completely at that age. To be honest, the $5,000 grant would probably have ended up paying to fix scratches on a BMW I gently hit on the DVP in 2011 with my busted old Saturn (D:), but the connections... and really, just knowing somebody out there has your back... well, that would have been life-changing. The money is the least material aspect.

I don't know Daniel directly, but I anticipate he has heard these sorts of stories over and over again, and has found himself wishing to be able to give others more access and opportunity at an early and formative stage in their life.

So -- Daniel, I wish you the best of luck. And it's my hope you can do some good things for people who wish for the opportunities some of us have been very lucky to have. :)

This reply comes across as saying you’re preying on people too desperate or poor to have any choice but to accept your terms, and too inexperienced and naive to be able to evaluate them.

I could swallow the 3%, the networking opportunities are probably worth that to be honest (especially for a 'project' that isn't a tangible company or product yet), but the option is ridiculous.

I also don't understand the system. I have to put my idea for a project on some leader board for other people to vote on? If I feel my idea has any worth why would I do that?

I actually just planned on starting up a project, and I'd be interested in applying - but I don't want to put my plans out on a forum full of ambitious, eager, and talented people.

Ambitious, eager, and talented people that are likely already working on their own projects.

"Idea theft" is a thing that happens sometimes, but the far more common problem is "idea stillbirth", where people are willing to put ridiculous barriers up in front of themselves for fear of their idea being stolen.

If there's valuable help available that will improve the chances of turning an idea into a tangible thing, then people should accept it and let go of the fear that they're risking some kind of innate value in the idea itself.

I don't see that the ask from Pioneer is all that onerous either, although I'm not a cut-throat business guy. They seem to be pursuing people for whom this would be a fantastic opportunity regardless. I think HN is a being a bit quick to judge this through the lens of, "I already have lots of opportunities and this one just isn't good enough for me."

I agree on the 3% although the fact that it applies to any company founded over the next 8 years seems a little bit of a stretch. If you meet someone 5 years later who wants a cofounder, seems like it could be not-insignificant penalty. I would honestly prefer to not take the $5000 if it meant I could get the networking opportunities without the 3% equity.

The option is just egregiously not worth it and represents a major liability to anyone looking start a company that needs to raise significant amounts of capital

I didn't see the 8 year part until after I had commented. That is completely absurd.

I am glad I read the comments first, the 8 years clause is not at all obvious at first and that is a huge deal. Even if you are a starving genius in Africa with access to the internet, that hardly seems lucrative assuming you will go on from your first effort (with just $5k to run on you must really be a genius). Then this vulture fund takes and takes and takes. This reeks of exploitation.

This just looks like another VC firm disguised as something else:

1) 3% equity + 5% for an additional 20k of any company you found for the next 8 years

2) “The candidates will vote on each other’s projects, points will be awarded and there will be leader board. Subject experts will also vote, with their votes counting somewhat more than the candidates.”

I think what we actually need are less gatekeepers and instead work towards establishing communities that reward intellectual curiosity, encouraging the cultivation of ideas and potential businesses that provide value. We have to support this sort of development for those willing to apply themselves, and that means we should be there to help during all phases of that journey — not just when someone has a project idea or when they’re ready to IPO, but also when they may be educating themselves, researching areas of interest, or even when they may be going through a time of intellectual hardship.

This sort of work must be genuine and unconditional — the current VC model is flawed by design if you wish to “address the opportunity gap” — it will always be about maximizing ROI even if it’s not explicitly stated.

> This just looks like another VC firm

I don't think VC firms fund poets or musicians :)

> communities that reward intellectual curiosity, encouraging the cultivation of ideas and potential businesses that provide value.

I agree! That's exactly what's we're trying to do. I think most people we fund will never start companies. I hope they'll become great researchers, civic activists or artists. For the fraction that do, I hope we'll be significant enough of a needle mover in moving them as a person from idea to product that we'll deserve the small amount of equity we ask for.

> I don't think VC firms fund poets or musicians :)

How would you fund a poet or musician in your funding model?

Do they put an idea for a song or some such on the board and it's voted on? Who decides what poet is good or bad (it's entirely subjective?)

Also what's the payout for investment in a poet? They aren't likely to start a company.

So if I'm going to start a company and I take your investment is it "fair" that a poet receives the same investment but doesn't have to fork over a % back to you like I'll have to?

> I don't think VC firms fund poets or musicians :)

Most mainstream musicians are funded by VCs. I think they call them something else in the industry, but the economic model is similar.

is there any community, you know of, that helps other people in different phases of journey?

really need one!

Pioneers offer: https://pioneer.app/offer

> Pioneer will retain 3% of any company you found over the next eight years. Pioneer will also have the option of investing an additional $20,000 for 5% in any of those companies.

3% of all companies founded over eight years is a very big ask.

They also write at the bottom: "You are not obligated to accept this offer if you’re a Pioneer Tournament winner."

"Candidates will submit their project ideas. Each week, the projects will be updated. The candidates will vote on each other’s projects, points will be awarded and there will be leader board."

I like the stated mission, but this approach concerns me. Silicon Valley has ingrained in our shared consciousness the idea that genius or potential for societal contribution == creativity == (usually) a business or project. Having a thing you want to make and then problem-solving a way to get there. There's nothing wrong with that approach, but it's one of many, and for an organization that's claiming to seek out all flavors of human potential, it's extremely limiting.

Many - possibly most - of the world's greatest thinkers didn't have a "project", or at least that wasn't their primary activity. They didn't follow the model of

1. Have an idea

2. Execute on it

They lived, experienced, researched, contemplated, discussed, expressed. The literal "Einsteins" - the rockstar intellectuals who made it all the way into the popular consciousness - might have had a single big creation that made them famous. But they didn't set out from the beginning with that vision, and they make up a minority of the world's successful geniuses.

The Pioneer Fund? Unfortunate choice of name there! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_Fund

oo ouch.

Looks good; how do you handle the fact that most 'lost einsteins' are working a crushing 9-5 and don't have the time or capacity to conceptualize (let alone work on) their passion projects?

Maybe just trying to attract a certain type of person who wants to get out of a job they find crushing.

A job can be seen as crushing or a team effort. Einstein wasn't an island.

Get out of their job for $5k? I agree I may be used to an area with a higher cost of living, but folks don't win $5k on Wheel of Fortune and think "now I can finally pursue my dream of becoming a poet."

I imagine people are just trying to help.

That's super interesting. I'm torn between thinking the terms of this deal are clever and thinking they're usurious.

Putting that aside for a moment, though, this seems like a pre-accelerator. Traditional startup accelerators invest like vcs, but earlier and with worse terms. This company invests like an accelerator, but earlier (before the company's even started) and with worse terms. It invests in people years before they even start their business.

It's a people accelerator. They say they'll fund musicians + artists, which is interesting because those people aren't super likely to go on to found venture-friendly businesses. My guess is that those people are funded in order to provide a better + more creative environment for the people who are more likely to go on to start a company. And probably also some amount of marketing: a collection of geniuses of all ilks sounds like more fun to hang out with than just a bunch of pre-seed startup founders.

This may have some use, but the use of "Lost Einsteins" is so strange to me. I went to read the article thinking they will help educate unprivileged population, improve accessibility of knowledge, etc. But this is just another variation of a startup accelerator.

Can even real Einstein find this useful? How long can they support him while he works on his theories with no company/product to show? Do they have a system to find and support a Ramanujan? How many people will vote for his "projects"?

I really don't mean to discourage the founders. They got NYT to write about their them. Maybe it's NYT's fault. But using Einstein and such to market their company/fund is too over the top and only comes out as click-baity.

Similar sentiments here. This is a venture fund that sees individuals, rather than companies, as ventures. Not sure if that's a good idea, my gut feeling is that it isn't. But in any case it isn't finding "lost Einsteins" for society, it's finding returns for capital.

>Talented people suffer — one study called them “lost Einsteins” — but so does the economy from the loss of ideas and wealth they could have produced.

The irony is that Einstein himself was 'lost,' having failed to find a teaching post and forced to work in a patent office. And many contend it was only because he had the time and freedom to contemplate on his own that we able to put forth such revolutionary ideas. If only he could have been indebted to some VC firm instead. He could have made them millions!

> he had the time and freedom to contemplate on his own

Such an under rated aspect of human existence. It has given us so much, but somehow managed to remain invisible that when something rob us of it, we don't have a clue how enormous of a thing we are losing...

This doesn't feel right to me.

A survivor-style tournament. 8% of any company you start for eight years (3% + 5% more for almost nothing).

Eight years is a long time, especially at the age the participants will be (presumably). I don't think most participants will have the perspective to properly evaluate an eight-year commitment like that.

Meanwhile, the benefits are between $0 and around $10K for participants, depending on how they do in the survivor game.

I suspect most potential participants will be able to find a better expected value elsewhere.

The detractor's here are completely nuts. Most people, even Americans, can't even dream of $5000 that only expects repayment if the business is very successful. "Seed rounds" are basically a top 3 city only type thing.

I'm not sure they're completely nuts - if you set out looking for exceptional people, then you are already not talking about 'most people.' 3% for $5,000 and an option of total 8% for $25,000 seems a bit steep to me, especially over an eight year period. Let's say I start two companies over an eight year period. That's 3% of each now for $2500 initially per company and the option of an additional 5% in both or one for $20,000 per.

I don't want to shit on this because I think it is coming from a good place, but this sounds to me like the Thiel Fellowship meets YC with worse terms, at least as it applies to people building companies. It may make sense for poets and artists, but I also notice that none of the founders are artists, and while Hollis Robbins is awesome, it might not be able to accelerate an artist's career in the same way it could a founder's.

I thought on this more, and similar short-term rewards should be achievable without requiring people to give up any portion of future ownership stake in any business they start.

Charge a membership fee. If the payout beyond server and development costs is $5k a month, that's 200 people paying $25/month.

That's a bit high, but membership fee can be reduced as number of members scales. Or, alternately, the membership fee can be reduced from beginning (perhaps even optional, with some extra reward for people who pay) and the monthly competition reward can be increased as membership scales.

The ideas will flow. The selection process will hopefully draw attention to best projects (though perhaps there needs to be some criteria round who can vote, such as requirement to contribute in some manner to vote). The prize will get them their ticket, and the recognition of winning the prize can earn them the contacts.

There is no need for a permanent ownership stake in the users' future businesses. It could potentially be financially profitable on its own (though not spectacularly so).

The intangible benefit of being able to introduce yourself to these interesting people, and of being able to introduce the interesting people to others who are looking for a specific sort of interesting person, is not very calculable. But it would probably make the endeavor worthwhile in its own right, without closing yourself off to audiences that are turned away by the terms.

You can still invest your $5k/month into someone, and the winner of the contest still gets their prize, but it's on more mutually beneficial terms for everyone.

We often hear that may scientific advances happened as a byproduct of wars, could it be that in such times, patents become less of a priority or restraint.

Which brings me to the question - If Einstein was alive today, how would he fair in a World more curtailed by patent trolls and over-zealous application.

That in itself makes you wonder, what constraints do we have today that was less of a restriction in Einstein's times.

>what constraints do we have today that was less of a restriction in Einstein's times.

Facebook/Reddit/Hackernews will do more harm before any patent troll can hope to intervene. Because they prevent the very forming of ideas by their "perpetual distraction" and "fear of missing out" aspects..

OT: "The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking.... If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker."

Lots comments are focused on the funding structure, and that misses the point. Pioneer takes the risk in funding early projects not companies. They explicitly call out that they will invest in researchers or artists who aren't sure whether they want to start a company.

If you can raise funding through traditional VC channels, go for it. If you're a researcher in Iowa with a new physics idea, Pioneer is a better than a government grant.

The average size of an NIH grant in 2015 was under $500k. And that amount is intended to support the project expenses, not just the researcher. A close friend of mine is a physician at Stanford. She received a prestigious NIH grant. The grant amount to fund herself was $50k...in the bay area. This is common in academia.

Congrats on launching! Hope you guys are successful.

Brian Eno:

"I was an art student and, like all art students, I was encouraged to believe that there were a few great figures like Picasso and Kandinsky, Rembrandt and Giotto and so on who sort-of appeared out of nowhere and produced artistic revolution.

As I looked at art more and more, I discovered that that wasn’t really a true picture.

What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people – some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were – all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work.

The period that I was particularly interested in, ’round about the Russian revolution, shows this extremely well. So I thought that originally those few individuals who’d survived in history – in the sort-of “Great Man” theory of history – they were called “geniuses”. But what I thought was interesting was the fact that they all came out of a scene that was very fertile and very intelligent.

So I came up with this word “scenius” – and scenius is the intelligence of a whole... operation or group of people. And I think that’s a more useful way to think about culture, actually. I think that – let’s forget the idea of “genius” for a little while, let’s think about the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work."

Trying to find and fund "high potential people" falls in line with Silicon Valley's narrative of the genius founder, lone brilliant hacker, etc. Perhaps not too surprising, as many behind such initiatives would likely consider themselves to be such "high potential people", and thus have some interest in perpetuating that narrative.

If the goal is truly "to put more science and less happenstance into the process of talent discovery", then perhaps investing in the "scene" would be more apt, rather than trying to target some "high potential individuals" based on vague, often highly subjective metrics that often end up being "does this teenager remind me of myself/people I like" (typically, the approach described in the article - a tournament based on voting - essentially sounds like a popularity contest).

I've also taught a lot (many thousands) of teenagers over the past decade. I've witnessed plenty of "high potential people" - those who taught themselves CAD, electrical engineering, organic chemistry, etc. and who weren't afraid to email Stanford professors out of the blue. Those usually do fine, especially because there are so many programs targeted to students like them. They also tend to have one thing in common - a very supportive, stable home environment. The problem that's more interesting, and much tougher, to solve is the long tail. The students who have to pick up their siblings after school and cook for them because they have one parent working several jobs to pay the bills, etc.

When you start to peel those layers, you realize that really, most if not all students are "high potential" in one way or another. A problem is that "high potential" in this context really means "high potential of giving a good return on investment to the venture capitalists/companies/investors seeking them out".

They also tend to have one thing in common - a very supportive, stable home environment.

This bit is key, and really tells me that the best way to address issues in science and trying to help students is not to have more programs for students, but to have more programs for helping families.

You really need a holistic approach to this sort of stuff, rather than targeting say funding someone who is good at a specific thing.

There are many more people who can't focus at school and so fail because they don't get enough food, or they don't have the support they needed to succeed.

This is why programs like the food stamps has a high return on investment, because it addresses the actual issue at hand rather than a symptom.

This. I'm weary of Silicon Valley's (caricature of the classical American) narrative that the smartest, highest-contributing members of society think like engineers/businessmen; setting out with a clear vision and needing only the funds to execute on it.

1000% this. My experience, being close with some very high achievers in my life - some being CEOs, some being average Joe's at 9-5s - is that what determines success is not really the individual. This idea of the lone Atlas to raise the world on shoulders is false.

Innovation and genius happens when the environment is fertile and you have many great people working together to stand upon each other's shoulders. Of course, being outstanding is a prerequisite. But the highway to greatness requires more than that.

We desperately need universal basic income.

Yeah this is what I am thinking reading this. This raw deal would look unattractive to any intelligent person if a UBI was in place to incubate people at the stage this project proposes to attract them.

I really like the idea of sharing the project and getting feedback from community, the accountability of regular updates, and the voting system.

But I don't like the equity split. And I don't need investment. I don't particularly want to become a 'Pioneer' with access to the exclusive forum if I win the popularity competition, and I don't need a ticket to Silicon Valley.

Is there a way to join the website without commitment to future equity split? For example, it might be restricted to a section which is always outside the 'exclusive' are for winners who become Pioneers.

But it'd be cool to post my project and post regular updates, then have people follow, vote and comment on it on a regular basis to track the progress. Even if they are not experts and are simply other people on similar paths.

There's a community called Work in Progress that's kind of like what you describe: http://wip.chat/

Note: $20/mo subscription

Oh wow.. I literally just described something similar in a follow-up comment as a theoretically better approach.

Thanks for this.

Exciting to see this! I can attest to how programs like this can be so impactful. I attended a summer research program during my undergrad called the MIT Summer Research program, and it changed my life. The program enabled me to work and get connected with some of the most brilliant professors and researchers in the world. I worked at the MIT Media Lab, where it instilled my passion for Augmented Reality and software engineering. I leveraged that internship to get letters of recommendations, which enabled me to be accepted to an Ivy league school for graduate school, a dream that I didn't think was possible for me.

Choosing a name that, inevitably, will have you informally referred-to--and thus known as--"the Pioneer fund" seems profoundly unwise.

I suggest deepening your expertise in branding and PR.

Maybe the network he has available to him could have helped? /s

It is unfortunate there are two funds already with essentially the same name

Interesting idea, I like that Pioneer is looking for more than just startups (or tech in general). Obviously the $5k grant is too small to make this appealing for people in the U.S. who need money to pursue their ideas. BUT, of course, there's the entire rest of the world, where $5k can be stretched quite far.

One hang up - is it necessary to say that Pioneer seeks "young" people? Does Pioneer have a preference for young people when determining who deserves an offer?

I don’t see how this really helps ”Lost Einsteins”. That phrase in itself seems odd. In my opinion, ”Lost Founders” seems more appropriate.

I would like to believe that any person who has similar traits to Einstein would be driven to push forward their project, research, art, or idea regardless if they did or didn’t qualify or succeed through this program.

The fund name is misleading. Pioneer is a major multinational company in consumer electronics, that is publicly traded.


Worse than misleading. From Wikipedia: "Pioneer Fund is an American non-profit foundation established in 1937 'to advance the scientific study of heredity and human differences." The organization has been described as racist and 'white supremacist' in nature,[1][2][3] and as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.[4]."

Hi @danicgross, glad to see you're iterating in this space! :)

It feels like your comment about the network and community being the most valuable part of program is probably right. Given that, is it possible to be a Pioneer, but not accept the money?

interesting idea

will the general public get to see submissions in the tournament?

The bottlenecks around finding 'Lost Einsteins' (LEs) is an interesting problem

You have to make yourself known to potential LEs (NYTs & HN seems like good but not comprehensive start)

You have to have them make the connection that, yeah, they're the type of person you're looking for (difficulty unclear)

You have to make an offer that compels them to act

Once they act, you need a process for filtering them from the people you're not interested in having in your program


idk, good luck

For profit initiatives masked as for good initiatives like these are strictly for useless people with nothing to contribute and no drive to create

Everyone can find 15-20 hours per week. It's a matter of priorities and choices.

A 9-5 job is going to take up 50-60 hours per week, including prep time and travel (possibly less or more in some scenarios). 50 hours for sleep. That leaves a very solid 50-60 hours per week, that is left to allocation by priority (some will go to food, life maintenance, etc. - that all has a blend of choice and priority to it).

How can you not shave off 15-20 hours per week out of those 50-60?

Pursuing something like this should be assumed to be difficult and brutal. The world will fight you (the world, made up of people, does not like change), people close to you will reject your efforts (you'll be lucky if 5% of the people close to you are openly supportive) and you will suffer. A world filled with a crab mentality will try to kill what you're doing. Conform, give in, give up, quit, stay in your miserable 9 to 5 that you don't like, be one of us. It's part of the deal: you will have to suffer immensely for what you want, in most cases. If you want it, you have to absorb that.

So how do you handle it? You must want the thing you're pursuing more than the pain it's inevitably going to entail.

Steve Jobs has one of the great quotes on this matter, from the D5 conference in 2007 (say what you will about him, he plainly understood what he's talking about on this subject):

"People say you have to have a lot of passion for what you’re doing and it’s totally true. And the reason is because it’s so hard that if you don’t, any rational person would give up. It’s really hard. And you have to do it over a sustained period of time. So if you don’t love it, if you’re not having fun doing it, you don’t really love it, you’re going to give up. And that’s what happens to most people, actually. If you really look at the ones that ended up being “successful” in the eyes of the society and the ones that didn’t, oftentimes it’s the ones [who] were successful loved what they did, so they could persevere when it got really tough. And the ones that didn’t love it quit because they’re sane, right? Who would want to put up with this stuff if you don’t love it? So it’s a lot of hard work and it’s a lot of worrying constantly and if you don’t love it, you’re going to fail."

We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17726493.

You are getting downvoted because you are assuming everyone has similar living conditions and environments as yourself.

Many have children to take care of. Many have other family members (disabled relative, elderly parent, younger sibling, etc.) to take care of.

Many work multiple part time jobs because they can't find 9-5 work that pays well enough.

Many, especially amongst the poorer segments of the population, have significant travel time because it is very hard to find work (a notorious problem in the bay area [0]).

Many, for the reasons listed above, have weird schedules that do not lend themselves well to the sustained intellectual effort required to pursue passion projects even if in theory they have "10 hours of free time a week".

And so on.

Steve Jobs' remark presupposes that one has the privilege to pursue what they're passionate about. Many in society do not have that privilege.

[0] https://www.sfgate.com/traffic/article/Bay-Area-commute-San-...

> Everyone can find 15-20 hours per week. It's a matter of priorities and choices.

Do you have children?

> Do you have children?

So you have decided into what to invest the 15-20 hours. I can find more interesting hobbies for my time.

Even if you have children (which is a choice btw), it's still a matter of priorities and choice.

It is, but that is not a particularly fruitful avenue of thought for the problem at hand.

I could annoyingly argue that OP and yourself choose not to each dedicate 20 hours more per week to work for even more money, money that you will send me so that I can work less at my day job and work on more interesting projects. But you can't do that because you have made other choices etc. It's a bit circular isn't it?

so dumb

You want me to give you my best ideas? Lol, no. I can create them myself thanks.


As idlewords has pointed out, many smart folks seem to subsist on sorrow, video games, and cannabis, while working a loser's job and trying to keep from going under. This isn't coincidence.

Existence has quite a lot of suffering. For some of us, we want to get out of the way, stop being part of the problem, and find ways to positively contribute to society. These folks offer a path to getting in the middle of things, make more problems, and make a pile of money for all involved.


I think you're confusing misanthropy with genius.

Wrong thread?

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