Meet the Pioneers - August 2019

The first class of Harvard numbered 9 souls. There were 8 students in Columbia’s inaugural class, and 10 in Princeton’s. Over time, these institutions became minters of exceptional talent. We hope Pioneer will be the same, for the next generation. An Ivy League community for children of the Internet. So far we’ve managed to exceed our ancient incumbents: in Pioneer’s first year, we’ve funded 65 creative hackers from around the world in over 20 different countries.


The game continues! We’re excited to tell you some more about our latest winners:

‌‌Mohamad Rajabifard (18) and Behnam Rajabifard (24), Estonia
The Internet is a borderless world, enabling more and more teams to work fully remotely. Yet we lack the software yet to fully simulate a sense of an “office.” Their company, There, solves that problem. It’s a desktop app that gives you a sense of who's around, who might be sleeping, what they’re up to, etc.

Noteworthy: Behnam’s previous projects include one of the most popular subtitle-search websites. And Mohamad, though only 18, has created popular open-source libraries and organized one of the largest GraphQL conferences in Europe.


Dave Jeffery (33), Ireland
Making a website is significantly easier than a native app. But native apps have powerful advantages: fixed real-estate on your dock, better API access, and more generally, they become part of your life in a way a website doesn’t. ToDesktop enables any web developer to have their own Spotify or Discord-style native experience.

Noteworthy: Dave started careening through the Internet as a 17-year-old, making thousands of dollars by juicing Dreamhost for affiliate marketing. He also started selling newspapers— about himself—when he was 9 years old.


Brad Dwyer (31), United States
Roboflow grew out of Brad’s award-winning Sudoku solver, which is a great demonstration of the power of AR. Imagine everything around you—your headphones, water bottle, desk—all coming to life through AR. Meshing atoms and bits. This feels like the inevitable future we all want. Like payments before Stripe, it’s just hard to do. Roboflow is a set of APIs that make it drastically easier to bridge worlds over AR.

Noteworthy: Brad previously build a gaming company that hit 10 million players without raising any outside capital. He’s also a serial project-builder, placing top-10 or winning awards at MHacks, LAHacks and PennApps. You want him on your hackathon team.


Esteban Vargas (25) and Juan Sanmiguel (26), Colombia
If you’re a business that handles credit cards, you’re burning a lot of time ensuring you remain PCI-compliant. Engineers writing tests. Paying manual auditing firms. You do this because you must; it’s critical to your business. SafeTalpa is bringing the magic of SaaS to this hairy problem. It’s a Kubernetes pod. Install it. Stay complaint. Like Norton Antivirus on your 2005 Windows XP machine.

Noteworthy: Esteban has rich experience in adjacent areas, building a polymorphic malware detector and organizing an online machine learning group. Juan has similarly worked on hate-speech detection through ML, and focused on cybersecurity during his CS studies. He’s also a born leader, having been captain of multiple athletic teams in high school.


Andrey Pyankov (30), Russia
Shopify is an enormously popular website builder. But it requires a desktop to use. Billions of people are coming online in a mobile-first world—without a desktop. The universe needs a website builder that works with just a few taps and swipes, from the palm of your hand. Airsite is that.

Noteworthy: Andrey left a rich career to start Airsite: he previously studied physics and economics and was working in private equity. His previous project was an English learning app which he bootstrapped to six-figure revenue.


If these people and projects sound interesting to you, check out the full list: http://pioneer.app/winners. And if you’d like to earn your place on that list… just start playing: https://pioneer.app.






Software 2.0

The latest product trend Silicon Valley has many names: some call it “NoCode”, “Devsumer”, “Lego Code”, or “RPA” (Robotic Process Automation).

The idea is this: first we had Assembly. Then C++. Then Python. Then Javascript. Now… point-and-click. It’s a new era in software, where anyone can write code with a few clicks. I like to think of it as “Software 2.0”. A new way of teaching computers to do things.

This is exciting because it might expand the blast radius of software development. Far more people could become “software developers” if it didn’t require worrying about type-safety, syntax, etc. While this idea was underrated a year ago it has since gotten over-hyped in my opinion. Here’s a quick overview of the market:

Self-serve Automation

The idea is powerful: teach your computer how to write code by having it watch you. Automator, in Chrome. Click “record”, perform a series of actions (searching for text on LinkedIn, pasting in Pipedrive), click “save”, and now just click “play” any time you want to perform that action again.

All the latest products still seem too brittle. The issue that is the computer doesn’t really understand the website the same way a human does. Things break the moment the developer makes the slightest change in their project. Most of these are just too brittle. Since the DOM isn’t semantic, things break easily.

Self-serve doesn’t change behavior. Automation is selling bicycles to people that have walked their entire lives. “Please take 15 minutes out of your day to learn our product and integrate it into your workflow. I promise it’ll save you hours in the future!” doesn’t work. Instead of using your whizz-bang automated macro, I’ll still stick to my old behaviors. Most of the self serve teams are focused on the technical details of their product, forgetting the requirement of an enterprise sales force that will aggressively “educate” their users. More Marc Benioff, less Doug Englebart.

High End Automation

Everyone’s chasing UIPath. The market has been somewhat conquered by a European unicorn named UIPath. They use the techniques mentioned above, but with a sharp focus on the upper echelons of the enterprise market. This, plus a sales-heavy culture enables them to engineer individual solutions to fix the aforementioned brittleness. A “no-coder” gets started with the 80%, and an engineer builds the final 20%. The company has done well building an entire educational ecosystem around this.

The Remaining Frontier

Where are the AI-powered automators? The holy grail. Observe, learn and automate, but do it the way humans do. Instead of the brittle, DOM-based solutions I described above, leverage a  few clever machine learning techniques to see like a human (in pixels) and learn like a human (re-enforcement, not static rules). This would enable you to make something far more robust. I’ve seen lots of talk, but little real examples. There’s something big to be built here.

Lego blocks > automation? So far we’ve discussed automation: building apps by having the computer observe, then copy you.

Maybe that’s too hard. “Lego blocks” are a different idea: build apps by assembling different “prefabricated” building blocks of software. A table. A list view. A database. Link them together with a few clicks, and suddenly you have an app. Retool is an example of a company doing this. Airtable is another. This approach might be far simpler and more effective than trying to learn through automation.

Clippy 5.0. The most exciting vision to me is some form of crowd-sourced workflow generation. Imagine you had an anonymized feed of all the “automations” or “activities” users are performing. Bob is copying names from LinkedIn and pasting them into Excel. Mary is cropping image after image and pasting into a collage. Etc, etc. Could you start predicting at the beginning of an activity what I’m about to do and suggest the answer to me? We know this is possible: I can sit over your shoulder and watch what you do, and provide useful suggestions. Could software do this as effectively? That would be exciting.

If you’re building something in this space, I’d be happy to help! Join Pioneer to get funded, or email me at daniel@pioneer.app.

Academic Progress: An Outsider’s Perspective

Why does academia move slowly? I spent some time talking to researchers about the current system. Below are the notes of an outsider peering in, trying to decipher why things are broken and how one might help fix it:

A conservative cultural feedback loop. People optimize the cultural reward system they’re in. This is one of the reasons why Nigeria doesn’t have 10X more successful startups. It isn’t that they lack the IQ; it’s that when you grow up in Africa you’re told the best thing you can do is provide sustenance for your family. Not start the next Google. “Winning” means something relatively modest by global standards. You move at the cultural cadence set by your peers. And the academic cadence is (a) just not as speedy as Xiaomi’s (b) very conservative. Over time, this becomes particularly pernicious with adverse selection. Anyone seriously adventurous just pursues another path.

It’s bad practice to be openly ambitious. Californian startup culture rewards big thinking. Academia penalizes it. Publicly declaring a big bold goal (“We’ll be the most prolific, hardest working cancer research lab in the world”) is seen as wrong, especially for a young upstart. This isn’t new. Even in industry, the patriarchy often rejects the bold, challenging generation. The difference is the reward function and feedback loop.

Hard to raise money. Imagine you were a startup founder and had to raise a seed round every 2 years. And your career is over if you go more than 5 years without raising a round. You probably wouldn’t pursue VR in 2012.

No independent point system. In startups, the point system is revenue. Make giant amounts of it and you’ll win. This is important because it allows for fast-moving outsiders to dethrone incumbents. The chairman of IBM may not like Steve Jobs challenging him. But his opinions don’t matter: if Apple produces a product people want, it’ll generate revenue. It will win the game. Academia has no revenue. The point system is the approval of the geriatric elite. In order to win you need your professor to like you. Academia is like Twitter, except you can only get Likes from verified accounts. And, importantly, verified accounts are run by old people who aggressively defend their status turf and who can’t lose their magic status. Which brings us to tenure.

Tenure. Imagine you had a boss. And if your boss really liked you, they’d grant you a cheat code: infinite status and salary at the company. Forever. How would you spend your career? Would you be focused on innovating as much as possible, or would you spend your energy on making your boss like you? Progress often requires challenging the status quo. I’m not sure why you’d do that once tenure is being offered. Dangling infinite status in front of a young scientist is as immoral as offering JUUL to teenagers. It’s un-naturally addictive and will cause even the most dedicated Einstein to misdirect their attention towards playing the game, instead of progressing science.

Hard to measure progress. Suppose you wanted to fix this problem and launch a new way to fund the best scientists. Not so simple! Academic projects take a long time. Scientists can go for 5 years with little to show for it until they suddenly discover CRISPR. That being said, its strikes me that this is the problem in science. Not curing cancer directly. Not extending human lifespan directly. Instead, work at a deeper layer: engineer a measurement system for short term lab progress. If we had that -- if we had a “scientific revenue” system, everything else would follow. Young “startup labs” would be able to prove themselves worthy of more funding with modest resources to bootstrap. We’d break the shackles of the existing hierarchy and unleash a new generation of ambitious, differently-styled thinking on our current set of problems. We built the Saturn 5 rocket. And the Internet. Assuredly with enough effort this problem can be solved, too. But how?

sci-rev, a form of "revenue" for the science world:

  1. New metrics. What should we measure? Here's a problem: scientific advances take time. The final outcome may take years. In companies, the solution to problems with delayed output is a focus on input metrics ("how hard are you working?"). The significant “work unit” of a scientist is running an experiment. One notion of quality is what you learn from an experiment. The more information you can capture from a spin of the simulator, the faster you’ll snap-to-grid. Imagine scientists submitting anonymized status updates before and after each experiment you run. Those updates are voted on by a crowd. What I'm describing here is very similar to Twitter. But here’s the twist:
  2. New mods. The way to drive change in science is by changing who the influencers are. Which accounts are “verified” to give “likes”. Change that, and you’ll change what the players optimize for. It’d be great to have a science funding model where the “professor” students are performing for is Stephen Wolfram. Or Jim Keller. Or even other young scientists themselves. A youthful generation performing for each other can yield nuclear energy: the average age of NASA’s control room during Apollo’s launch was 27.
  3. Bonus: Dirty metrics. Keyboard strokes. Amount of communication. Location. Language. Assuredly some of these variables correlate to success. Which features are common amongst successful teams? Do they use Slack a lot? A little? Etc.

What should Pioneer do? I can’t wait to read the comments on this piece, lambasting me for my naïveté in thinking we could solve this problem. But we will try. We must try. We could use help! I’d be very curious for any constructive criticism, ideas or generally jovial insights anyone has on this topic. And if you’d like to build this world with us at Pioneer, apply here: https://pioneer.app/about.

Pioneer Livestream #2

The next Pioneer Livestream is Wednesday July 31st, 11am - 1pm PDT. Register here: https://pioneer.app/livestream.


Our mission is to create real-world experiences on the Internet. We want to simulate the benefits of being in a great city, university campus or company. In the spirit of providing an online “sense of place”, we broadcast our first Pioneer Livestream last week.

Like a real-world conference, we had a “stage” where 17 Pioneers were interviewed about their projects and companies by the CEOs of Zeit, Figma, and Shippo. Like the real world, we had a peanut gallery: a chatroom where attendees could converse about the presenters (that’s often the best part of any event!). And in typical Pioneer fashion, the Livestream featured a dynamic leaderboard, updating as participants cast their vote for who they thought was most impressive.

Unlike a physical conference, the event took place all over the world. The 17 Pioneers presented from 7 countries across 4 continents (one reason Pioneer could only exist today is due to the recent availability of good video conferencing software).

Projects were equally expansive, spanning everything from nuclear fusion research, to a new software search engine, to new forms of orthotics, to a new video game.

Over 100 VIP guests flooded us with input on their favorite participants, distributing 11,000 points. Congratulations to our winning presenters:

1. Tshepo Mohlala of Metacode, a way to quickly navigate and understand any codebase.

2. Mark Lutter and Tamara Winter of the Center for Innovative Governance Research, the ecosystem for charter cities.

3. Arun Johnson, researching the properties of ultra-dense deuterium, a recently discovered phase of matter with applications in fusion energy.

We’re thankful to our audience of experts, Pioneers and viewers who spent an average of almost 90 minutes with us! Our long-term goal is to make this event the most thrilling broadcast on the Internet. Game of Thrones, for the frontier. We're broadcasting our second Livestream next week. Click below to watch:

Register to watch

Meet the Pioneers, Take 5

From a 27-year-old doctor in Lithuania creating next-gen echocardiograms, to a high-school senior creating new nuclear fusion material, to a physically distributed self-hosted WhatsApp alternative, Pioneer’s engine seems to be detecting (and hopefully generating) exceptional talent.

We recently made a giant change to our product: you can apply to Pioneer at any time. No more monthly tournament. Start here: https://pioneer.app/

(We're really trying to remove any excuses you might have to not follow your dream project idea. Give it a shot – maybe you'll win! And even if you don't, you might enjoy the process.)

Meet the winners:

Karolis Šablauskas (27), Lithuania‌‌
Karolis is creating Ligence, software that will analyze echocardiograms (heart ultrasounds) more efficiently. Currently, cardiologists spend a substantial amount of time measuring parameters for echocardiograms. The idea is to use machine learning to predict those values and vastly speed up the process. His goal is to integrate Ligence into hospitals’ information systems or the ultrasound machines themselves.

Noteworthy: Karolis was part of the Lithuanian team that won the grand prize at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) in 2017. He’s also a doctor and self-taught machine learning engineer.

Arun Johnson (18), United States
‌Imagine something so heavy that a 4-inch cube of it weighs 130 tons. It’s called "ultra dense deuterium," and it was first described less than a decade ago. The density and superconducting properties of UDD haven't been seen in any other material. It's like that mythical, rare, shiny Pokemon. UDD isn't very popular to study given the hoaxes surrounding cold fusion. That's what makes it exciting to us. Cold fusion is somewhat of the final, final frontier. And Arun is going to try and understand how to create the fuel for it, which may be UDD.

Noteworthy: Though only in high school, Arun has already done research in carbon dioxide recapture by using electrolysis. He's also a research intern at the Cargnello Lab and an Emergent Ventures fellow.

Sarah Oh (36), United States
‌‌Spectrum allocation today is rigid and regulated. Bidding on spectrum requires industry know-how, connections, large amounts of capital, etc. The prices are not transparent, nor are they efficient. This should not be the case. As the airwaves become increasingly saturated, we'll want a free market it for it, just as there is for gold or oil.

If this were to be created, the "clearinghouse" would become an incredibly important asset. Like NASDAQ, but for radio waves.

Noteworthy: This project is equal parts regulatory and software engineering, and Sarah already works full-time on spectrum policy in Washington, DC. She also previously worked for Tyler Cowen.

Zachary Canann (24), United States
Many of us got into coding by reverse engineering games or websites. Zachary is operationalizing that insight. Squally is a game that teaches kids assembly. It’s the game every software engineer parent wants their kids to play.

Noteworthy: Zachary is already selling the game successfully on Steam and Kickstarter. As an insider, his family is intensely immersed in software games: his Mom started a store selling downloadable content for The Sims, his father is an engineer who taught him how to code and his stepfather was on the original team that made The Sims.

Toni Gemayel (29) and Daniel Fernandez (30), United States
‌The benefits of the cloud are numerous, but a major downside is centralization of trust. All of our data is stored with a handful of companies. Toni and Daniel are changing that with Hola. Hola is a box that plugs into your home router and lets you self-host your own encrypted chat server. Think Wordpress, but for WhatsApp.

Noteworthy: Toni previously built Banyan, a Git-like collaboration tool for academics, and currently works at Figma. Daniel’s previous projects include an award-winning telemedicine app and efficient dataset serializers for researchers. He also spent his teenage years mastering the art of downhill skating, peaking at 62mph(!) downhill.

Sabarish Gnanamoorthy (15), Canada
‌If you’ve ever gotten lost at a conference or in a shopping mall, you’ll appreciate what Sabarish is working on: Google Maps for indoors. Prior apps have required 3D scans of the environment, but WaypointAR only requires a simple floor plan. This can be useful in a variety of places, including airports, college campuses, offices, and large events. Users of the app see a 3D avatar in their current location that guides them to their intended destination.

Noteworthy: When he first started learning about VR/AR, he didn't just want to follow the developments in the industry, he wanted to participate. He cold-emailed Microsoft executives and got sponsored to work on the HoloLens. He’s also a Thiel Fellow.

Tom McCarthy (19), Ireland
‌Tom is the founder of Patch, a summer accelerator for extraordinary teenagers. He created this after feeling isolated as a younger teen, without similar-minded peers to share ideas with. Patch is an 8-week, all-expenses-paid program in Dublin, and 12 participants form teams and work on new tech projects together. Tom plans to expand the accelerator to include those interested in science, engineering, math, etc.

Noteworthy: When Tom was 13, he read about nuclear fusion reactors on Wikipedia and saw that a 13-year-old American had built one. So he built one, too. That is all.

Ahmed Moselhi (17) and Cameron Kerr (15), United States
‌The world is more connected than ever. While generally helpful, this increases the tail risk of a rapidly spreading global pandemic. Super-vaccines take precious time to develop. Ahmed and Cameron are leveraging AI to predict the binding of T-cells to antigens, which will allow them to rapidly predict the efficacy of current immunotherapies as well as quickly develop new vaccines.

Noteworthy: Ahmed studies at the University of Toronto and has worked on a project to double the life of cells and designed a system to slow down cancer growth with light. Cameron is working at the Pugh Lab at the Princess Margaret Cancer Center this summer on a T-cell therapy project and is also part of The Knowledge Society.


‌Pioneer invests in ambitious people working on interesting projects around the world. You could be next.

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The Power of Small Groups

Here's a small secret: teams and groups can apply to Pioneer too! We don't do a good job of framing this today, but it's very much part of the system. You'll create a profile for yourself, then have the option of adding teammates alongside you.

There's a view that all that matters is the small group. Not the market. Not the people. The idea is that perfect group chemistry can cause a nuclear reaction amongst otherwise unremarkable atoms.

In addition to counterbalancing super-powers (Steve and Woz), the mutual performance that each player enacts for each other (the "leaderboard", in effect) can cause a dramatic shift in output.

This requires of course that all players respect each other. That they can predict a reality where one player might outperform them. That makes things exciting!

We decided to focus on individuals because it felt more leveraged. Groups already have each other. Ramanujan had nobody (for a while).

We should do a better job of appealing to groups, but also at connecting. We'd like to be responsible for pairing Larry and Sergey, like Stanford did. Or Elon to Gwynne. Or composing PARC. That's really exciting, because it's proof of our counterfactual significance. More on this soon.

So regardless of if you're working alone or with a friend or two, Pioneer is for you.

- Daniel

Start playing now

P.S. Thank you to Nat Friedman, one of Pioneer's Experts for highlighting this fact.

The Infinite Tournament

We originally shaped Pioneer as a search engine for finding productive, ambitious people early on in life.

You often get your best insights from your users, and Pioneer has been no exception. Much like climbing a mountain or hiking a trail, our players found the journey as equally important as the summit. They enjoyed the motivational benefits of the Pioneer leaderboard, the weekly structured updates, etc, even when they didn't win. They wanted that all the time.

We've been bad at delivering that, since Pioneer tournaments only run every 6 weeks. You shouldn't have to wait 6 weeks to play. You should be able to come to the website, click join, and go. And starting today, you can do just that.

Pioneer is now open 24/7. Sign up at any time. Here's how it works:

  • Visit pioneer.app and click “play now”.
  • Start collecting points by completing Quests.
  • Submit a progress update once a week.
  • Your score is driven by your performance on our Quests.
  • Play better, chart better.
  • Once you place in the Global Top 50, you’ll be eligible for review by one of our experts.
  • Experts periodically select new winners from the Top 50 on an ongoing basis, usually every week.

Level yourself up and get started now: pioneer.app.

0-1 Hiring Guide

Almost every early stage team I meet goes through a similar cycle:

  1. Raise money.
  2. Find early product market fit.
  3. Stress out. “We really need to hire!”
  4. 6 months goes by.
  5. Nobody is hired.

If this sounds familiar, don’t panic. You’re not alone. This happens. It often takes 6-10 months for the founding team to hire their first few employees. “Hiring” is best segmented into two problems:

Scouting. As a CEO you’re a college basketball scout, hunting for the next Kobe Bryant. You need to spend a lot of time proactively meeting athletes. Most won’t be good or won’t be immediately free to transfer to your team. But at some point this will pay off.

Screening. Systematically handling the inbound flow. Building a perfect water filter for qualifying talent.

You need to get great at both of these in order to win. Here’s how:

1. Build a time allocation system. You’re thinking a lot about hiring, but you’re spending your time fighting other fires. Look at last week’s calendar. What fraction of the events were interviews? If you’re the CEO, it should be at least half. Talent is always the important, but not urgent goal. If you don’t forcefully prioritize it, it will slip. The trick is not to rely on willpower. Build a system. Work with an external entity (executive assistant, a recruiter, etc) to drive your schedule and flood you with interviews.

2. Hero Interviews. Here’s a trick: you can interview anyone, even people you have no business hiring. Think to yourself: “Who are the top 10 people in the world I’d love to work with?”. Write those names down. Go meet them. Get a sense for what excellence is like. Once in a blue moon, you’ll be able to hire these “Heroes”. Even if not, you’ll properly calibrate yourself.

3. Don’t decide until you’ve built a dataset. A very common mistake is not interviewing enough great people. Interviewing has a second purpose: you’re enriching your dataset. You need many examples of what “great” feels like. It’s hard to get that from books and words. But the mind is great at “building indexes” from in-person interactions.

When you interview, you’ll often think: “This person reminds me of X”, which then prompts you to recall your experiences with X (this can lead to negative bias, too. It’s a powerful tool!). Increase the breadth of your search corpus by interviewing people, even if you can’t really hire them. This also free advertising for your company, and a great time to practice your pitch.

4. References. You might be introverted, preferring a small amount of strong ties to many weak ties. But nothing — nothing — is more effective for filtering than references. The best references are people that you know. My trick is to think about this almost as a market: honest critical feedback comes at social cost, and you won’t be able to afford it if you don’t have a prior relationship with the reference. This is another good reason to do “Hero Interviews”. You might not hire them, but you’ll find they become valuable references in time.

5. Take home projects. Resumes are generally useless for screening. Instead, develop take home projects that you can apply without taxing your time. These are usually multi-hour assignments or games that provide better information on the candidate’s ability. At Pioneer we have about 10 of these all with varying role types and difficulty. An example: pick a time, and we’ll email you a prompt: “Research the latest advances in quantum computing. Develop a coherent opinion on the market. Which companies would you invest in, if any? What are the immediate go-to-market products? You have 3 hours to send us back your thoughts.”

Once we get something back, we’ll reply with: “If you’re completely wrong about your hypothesis, why?”

This will give me a sense of the candidate’s critical thinking, writing and research abilities. You’ll want to customize this for your domain, e.g. we do different projects for engineers.

6. Get a recruiter. Find a remote recruiter if you can’t find one locally. Try Upwork. You’ll want someone who you can give high level search queries to (“people who worked at X, Y, Z for N years”) and can give you back a spreadsheet of data. Send cold emails to all of them using MixMax. Schedule time to do this twice a week, if not more.

7. Do trial periods. Especially if you’re early stage, a trial period is a great way for you to realize what your culture is. You’ll get a sense for what clicks and what doesn’t. Some hires can’t do this (they’ll be looking to start immediately), but it’s always a good baseline to start with.

8. Work with feeders. KKR famously worked with dozens of financial consulting firms, then proceeded to hire the best consultants they worked with. Much like trial periods, this allows you to engage in a low-commitment fashion and progressively upgrade. A “hyperextended interview”. This doesn’t work for all industries. Startups shouldn’t hire software consultancies for this reason alone. But if you need a business operations role, consider the best associate at your law firm, as an example.

Hopefully these tips give you an actionable path towards ramping up hiring faster than your competition does.

- Daniel Gross

Meet the Pioneers, Take 4

Pioneer's last tournament featured frontier projects like a $1,000 brain scanner and new city in Africa. This latest cohort features similar shades of ambition. From micro-satellites to software that translates natural language into code, Pioneer continues to be a faction of ambitious outsiders: founders and scientists working on practical and scalable projects that will reshape our planet as we know it.

Meet the winners of the February Pioneer Tournament:

Geffen Avraham (17), Israel
Geffen is making a next-generation CubeSat, a small satellite that can fit in the palm of your hand. His satellite parts will cost 10-100x less than usual, using smartphone technologies. By substantially lowering prices to affordable levels for schools and individuals, Geffen plans to democratize space.

Noteworthy: Geffen designed a CubeSat mission to one of Saturn’s moons, leading him to become the only high-schooler invited to an academic space conference in China. Last year, at 16, he left school to pursue his passion for building satellites at a local laboratory. He’s also currently working on a program to tell where (on Earth) a satellite picture was taken.

Daniel Getman (22), United States
Sugar tastes better than healthy food. This simple fact drives much of the modern obesity epidemic. Daniel is going to change that. He’s modifying food flavor using the miraculin protein -- the thing that causes the magic in miracle berries. His lab-grown miraculin will help dieters make healthier choices and encourage kids to eat more vegetables. Interestingly, this work even has implications for improving the appetite of chemotherapy patients.

Noteworthy: Daniel is studying neuroscience at Duke University and works in a synthetic biology lab. Last year, he worked on getting cells to manufacture Taxol, a chemotherapy drug.

Jake Cooper (23), United States
‌When making a product, you often want to test a feature before unveiling it to your entire user-base. Like an early access group. Jake is building Darklaunch, a platform that makes doing this much easier. Larger companies like Google and Facebook often build an internal platform like Darklaunch, but now smaller startups and individuals will have access to these time-saving tools.

Noteworthy: Jake started out hacking video video games at age 13. As a 14 year-old, he was making over $10,000 trading virtual hats online. He moonlighted as an engineer while finishing up school. He then worked at Wolfram whilst simultaneously traveling through Italy, Holland, and Japan. Jake is now an engineer at Uber, focusing on bikes and scooters.

Tshepo Mohlala (26), South Africa
Tshepo is creating Metacode: an app that converts natural writing into code. This is a bit of a moonshot project: if it works, it’ll reshape the world as we know it. But even if it succeeds in more modest form -- as a variant of super-smart macros -- it’ll enable a far faster gear for the bicycle of the mind that the computer is. Even the best engineers spend hours Googling to find a stub of code. He’s going to decrease the amount of time and effort between knowing a solution and implementing it.

Noteworthy: As a 10-year-old, Tshepo was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's polymathy and started to shape himself in similar multidisciplinary ways. He started by becoming a prolific trader of rare marbles, then expanded to designing custom math theorems, and even built a wearable phone charger. Tshepo has been producing things since the moment adults let him.

Everett Berry (25), United States
Computer vision is changing the world. But it’s complicated to build. Perceive is changing that. Perceive is a kind of game engine (like Unreal or Unity), for computer vision. It’ll enable a whole new generation of retailers, warehouses, and factories by measuring traffic, finding ways to increase efficiency, analyzing customer-employee interactions, and creating security and safety alerts, all while maintaining people’s privacy.

Noteworthy: Everett joined a research group at 19, eager to better understand human behavior in physical places, and received a $1 million grant a few years later to commercialize the product (now Perceive). Between graduating and working full-time on Perceive, Everett and some friends built DongerBoard, a mobile phone keyboard for Dongers (emoticons like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). Later, he created DongerBank, a decentralized store of Dongers built on Ethereum.

Francisco Valencia (27), Julio Barriga (22), & Guillermo Herrera-Arcos (23), Mexico
Francisco, Julio, and Guillermo are building the first low-cost medical assistive technology provider in Mexico. Their focus is helping children with cerebral palsy to walk. Prothesia uses 3D scanning and printing to create ankle-foot orthotics at a literal fraction (10%) of what commercial orthotics cost.‌‌

Noteworthy: Despite their age, this trio has been working on improving lives for a long time. Francisco previously was working on a pager that notifies deaf people of ambulances in the vicinity. He’s also a volunteer cyber-security expert for the local police force. Julio created an EMG watch that monitors wearers’ hearts and sends alerts to their loved ones. Guillermo developed the first open-source pediatric robotic exoskeleton. He’s published work on the interplay of brain-computer interfaces and art and spent last year working on computer control algorithms for ankle robotic prostheses at MIT.


Pioneer invests in ambitious people working on interesting projects around the world.

You could be next. Find out when the next tournament opens here: https://pioneer.app

Advisor Chat

A few months ago we launched the Advisor Board Builder -- a routing system that connects promising players to advisors like Tyler Cowen, Stephen Wolfram, and Devon Zuegel.

But we’re not resting on our laurels. Pioneer’s mission is to build a real online city. A place that feels vibrant. Alive. Where interactions are immediate and intimate. So we’re upgrading from interacting over email to live chat with a new feature called Advisor Chat.

Over the course of the tournament, advisors will make surprise appearances in Pioneer’s chat universe. They’ll answer questions, learn what players are up to and generally try to help out. Just like bumping into someone on the street, some of them will be unscheduled -- an advisor will go online whenever they have a few minutes free. So stay connected to avoid missing out!

Here's what it looks like when one of our advisors, Sriram Krishnan (who runs product at Twitter) signs on:

Nick is an advisor on Pioneer and a researcher at OpenAI. Here’s what his session looked like last week:

This feature is rolling out to players in the current tournament. If you’d like to interact with advisors like Sriram and Nick, sign up to play the next Pioneer Tournament here: https://pioneer.app.

Pioneer Houses

The story of global progress isn’t written by lone actors. It’s often a collection of small groups that change the world. Things are easier with friends. They hold you accountable. They cause you to punch above your weight.

We’re turning this insight into software. Pioneer is going multiplayer with a new feature called Houses. Houses let you invite a few friends you think are promising to your scene and play the Pioneer Tournament, together. House scores will be based on the point average of the group. At the end of the tournament, players in the best-performing House will each get $1,000 (in addition to anything else they might win individually).

This is the perfect chance to work alongside someone you think might be great, even if you’re pursuing different projects. (You can still win Pioneer in single-player mode.)

You have until Sunday night to build your House. Game on! Get started here: https://pioneer.app

P.S. Secret cheat-code: you’ll get extra points if you invite Housemates that aren’t already active in the Pioneer Tournament.

Pioneer Interview: James Gallagher

James Gallagher (@jamesg_oca) got started early. He’s 16. And he’s building Open Commit, a platform for code review as a service. The project connects developers around the world with the support they need to write efficient code and improve its overall quality.

Can you give me a brief explanation of your project?
Open Commit is a service where developers can receive on-demand, actionable reviews of code from expert software developers.

How did you decide to start working on this?
I started programming when I was eight years old and, since then, have spent the majority of my spare time learning best practices for programming code. When you’re self taught, it’s really easy to pick up bad habits, because you simply don’t know they are bad habits.

There have been multiple occasions during my journey as a coder where I had no idea I wasn’t in compliance with industry standards until I stumbled upon the information in a Stack Overflow thread. If I had access to a platform for reviewing code from day one, I would have been more confident and acquired best practices a lot earlier on.

A platform like that just didn’t exist, so I decided to create one with Open Commit.

How are things going with the project lately?
Open Commit has continued to grow. We’re focusing on scaling the reviewer community and refining our internal documentation for code reviews. There are two main areas we’re working on right now: hiring partnerships, so we can turbocharge our reviewer hiring funnel, and improving user experience for developers on the platform.

Developer experience has come down to developing internal policies to help with consistency and clarity in code reviews, whilst maximizing code coverage. We’re also making the platform easier to use by enhancing integrations with GitHub and BitBucket.

What did you learn through playing a Pioneer tournament?
Pioneer exposed me to a community of young innovators, who I connect with over everything from computing to longevity. This community has allowed me to network and learn from the wisdom of people I’ve looked up to for years and has also showed me new perspectives on issues and challenged me to think about problems in different ways.

Can you tell us a bit more about the community?
During the Pioneer tournament, other players would give detailed and diverse feedback like share links to interesting posts, insights into how I could create more actionable and measurable goals, and tips to refine my pitch.

But what I really enjoyed was the informal community that grew out of the tournament. About a dozen of us created a Twitter group to share status updates, compare progress, and spend time giving more in-depth feedback. We also shared tips for staying productive, which introduced me to new concepts on how to stay focused.

Did any feedback stand out?
When I was finishing product development and starting to focus on building the reviewer community, I was given really useful feedback on ways to get started building a marketplace and develop a stronger hiring pipeline. It helped me plan my strategy for the months after the tournament, and gave me ideas on how to build a more unified community. Acting on this feedback eventually resulted in a developer from AngelList reaching out to follow our progress.

What are some of the weird things you worked on or you've done in life?
My most peculiar project is probably becoming a publicly traded person. I now sell shares in myself in exchange for the ability to vote on key decisions in my life. Inspired by the stock market, I crafted a basic platform that allows me to facilitate trades, share updates, and post questions for shareholders to vote on.

The basic rule is, if it’s a decision I’d ask a friend for advice about, I ask the shareholders. They have literally invested capital in me, which helps keep me accountable in my projects. It’s still early days but, I believe that publicly traded people and personal tokens will become a trend in the next few years. It has the potential to guide the way we look at human opportunity and potential.

James’ top tip for playing Pioneer
Use feedback to widen your horizons and challenge your set perceptions. You never know what you might be missing out on that an outsider can easily identify.

Introducing Pioneer Chat

Our goal with Pioneer is to build a vibrant online community of unconventional, ambitious outsiders who will change our world.

To date, players of our tournament interacted with each other in a limited way: they voted on each other’s project once a week. This medium allows for powerful crowd-sourcing of the most promising applicants, but it starved our players of real relationships. They didn’t seem to mind: around the Internet, bootleg Pioneer chatrooms started to emerge on Twitter, Telegram and Discord.

Our users are desperate to talk to each other. To bond with each other. And with our next tournament, we’re going to make that happen. Introducing our most requested feature: Pioneer Chat!

Players in our upcoming tournament will be paired in different variations of chatrooms, based on mutual project interest, mentorship requirements and more. We’re working on UberPOOL-style matching between the applicants that would benefit from it the most. We’ll also have mentors and advisors “go online” for brief, fast-paced AMAs. It’ll be fun. And lively.

The story of global progress isn’t written by lone actors. It’s often a collection of small groups that change the world. Highly productive individuals that form mutual kinship with each other. Perform for one another. By connecting the dots over a global chat, we’re optimistic we’ll create hundreds of these groups and hopefully enrich our petri dish of innovators a thousandfold.

The April Tournament starts Sunday night. Winners get $7,000 in cash and Stellar, $100,000 in Google Cloud Credits, a ticket to Silicon Valley and more. Enroll in the next few hours here: https://pioneer.app.

Meet the Pioneers, Take 3

A $1,000 brain scanner. A crypto key you can’t lose. Settling new cities in Africa. This is The Frontier. The builders of tomorrow. Weird, interesting companies and research projects that will change our world. Our Pioneers are a collection of unconventional people who don’t fit into the traditional system yet have the power to completely upend it.

We’re proud to invest in them, highlight them and super-charge their path to success. Fun fact before we get started: 7 out of the 10 winning teams were players in a previous tournament. Our residents seem to like living in the online city that we’ve built. A home for the creative and curious, quietly building the future.

Meet the winners of the third Pioneer Tournament:


Azlen Elza (18), Canada
Azlen is making an app that uses new memory techniques to teach people Chinese characters at surprising speed. His project works a principle of mnemonics, connecting new information (pronunciation, tone, stroke order) to existing structures in the brain through memories or stories.

Noteworthy: Azlen learned R (a programming language for data science) in elementary school. He’s only 18 and has built a ton of impressive projects, from teaching computers how to design business cards to a video game about social anxiety.


Fraser Greenlee (21), United Kingdom

Fraser is building desc2code, an app that converts English into code. Engineers constantly task switch between writing code and finding it on sites like StackOverflow or searching Google. Fraser is connecting those worlds by letting developers specify intent and pulling in the right incantation. Accelerating the link between the human mind and the machine. It’s Occam’s Razor for Neuralink.

Noteworthy: Almost everyone in the tournament that came across his work found him very productive, often exceeding his weekly goals. He’s also a tinkerer across all disciplines. Like a young Edison, he became popular in his neighborhood by making tools that made it far easier to hang and clean laundry, then giving it away to his neighbors, who were not too happy about his new found passion for code.


Hannah Le (18), Samarth Athreya (16), and Ayaan Esmail (14), Canada
Hannah, Samarth, and Ayaan Esmail are using AI and nanotech to predict diseases like lung cancer 12 months before they occur. They plan to leverage the power of machine learning to better understand human biomarkers, in order to identify risks, diagnose and intervene well before the onset of disease symptoms.

Noteworthy: Prior projects from this team include: a DNA origami icosahedron, personalized blood-clot medications, and engineered artificial ear cartilage. If you ignored their ages and focused on their output, you’d think you were reading about grad students, not teenagers.


Mark Lutter (29) and Tamara Winter (23), United States
Mark and Tamara are building the ecosystem for charter cities — a concept where cities are governed by their own charter rather than general law. Imagine a world with dozens of new cities, each with their own distinct style, governance and populace. Mark and Tamara are working to make that vibrant future a reality.

Noteworthy: Mark has a PhD in Economics from George Mason, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s conventional. He’s a disagreeable, life-long adventurer. He decided to do his own thing after realizing little progress was being made on charter cities. He moved to Honduras while it was the murder capital of the world. Now he’s stumbling through Africa looking for new city developers to work with.


Nicholas Donahue (21) and Austin Kahn (20), United States
Nick and Austin are making Atmos.world, a VR headset that’s optimized for web developers. Developing mixed-reality apps is hard. You need to know the annals of advanced 3D libraries, like Unity. Atmos will unleash VR to a generation of developers born online, who are far more comfortable with Javascript than C++.

Noteworthy: Though only 21, this is Nick’s second company. During the last week of the tournament, Nick and Austin left their jobs at another startup to focus on Atmos. Austin is a designer and tinkerer -- he’s built everything from giant 12” steel arcs art exhibits to his own glucometer(!), which he uses daily.


Arsalan Bashir (23), UAE
Arsalan is creating AfterClass, a new kind of document editor. AfterClass helps you pull live data from your existing tools and APIs to create self-updating documents, and build custom automations for repetitive business logic.

Noteworthy: Arsalan is a mechanical engineer and self-taught programmer based in Dubai. He started coding when he was 12 years old and has previously built a classroom-AI program which became the #1 app used by homeschoolers in UK.


Mishka Orakzai (27), Pakistan
Mishka is building ThisCodeWorks.com, a place to save, share and bookmark code snippets — think GitHub Gists meets Pinterest. New forms of social networks are the type of small, seemingly-uninteresting ideas we think could get surprisingly big in time.

Noteworthy: Mishka is defying statistics twice: once by starting a startup in Pakistan, another by learning to code relatively later on in life. Week after week, players of the tournament were impressed with her crisp goals and consistent progress.


Elena Nadolinski (26) and Dusty Phillips (35), USA/Canada
Elena and Dusty are creating a universally accessible, borderless, and private payment system. They want to build a way for people to attain full autonomy and financial privacy when it comes to personal wealth.

Noteworthy: Outside of her coding prowess, Elena has also run a side business making jewelry out of old electronics salvaged from dumpsters. She sold these pieces at women in tech events and on her Etsy store. Dusty has a Master’s degree in computer science and has worked across environments as diverse as a two person start up, to the UN, to Facebook since then.


Thomas Ribeiro (18), Wilfred Mason (19), and Raffi Hotter (19), Canada

Raffi, Thomas, and Wilfred are making a $1,000 portable brain scanner. They envision a future where an instant medical diagnosis can be obtained whether a patient is in the hospital room, in field hospitals or in an ambulance. The scanner will use a portable brain-imaging helmet with photoacoustic tomography to map proteins, blood flow, and signaling molecules in the brain.


Noteworthy: The team have all spent time on individual projects in medical or scientific research and been recognized on the local and international stage. Raffi has worked on brain imaging protocol to diagnose Alzheimer's Disease, and Thomas has created a small scale prototype of a power plant that generates more efficient electricity, while Wilfred has mutated and transplanted nano-metallic agents into photosynthetic bacteria.


Justin Zheng (18) and Sungun Huh (39), United States
Justin and Sungun are creating a new form of a crypto private that you can't lose by applying novel biometric techniques. The idea is for the user to utilize their own body as their authentication and recovery system.

Noteworthy: Justin is still completing high school, but is rapidly expanding his expertise in robotics, esports, blockchain, and encryption. Sungun has a Ph.D in Biochemistry and is a post-doc at Stanford University School of Medicine in Neurodegenerative Diseases.

Have your own idea? Get $7,000 in cash and Stellar, $100,000 in Google Cloud Credits, a ticket to Silicon Valley, mentorship from experts and more. It's the perfect rocket booster for success. Apply to play: https://pioneer.app.

Pioneer Interview: Lenny Bogdonoff

Lenny Bogdonoff, a New York-based software engineer and graffiti artist, is creating the world’s first digital genealogy of street art. He played and won a Pioneer tournament while developing a set of machine learning tools for his project, Public Art.

By gathering photos from around the internet and using machine learning models to identify street art, Public Art aims to digitally preserve murals around the world.  

Where did the idea for your project begin?
A few years ago, I relocated to China. The move was officially part of a study abroad program, but I really wanted to go to paint graffiti. I had a connection to a local Shanghai artist with an open spot in his street art crew and by my third night in the city we were rolling out and painting street murals — it was such an awesome experience.  

When I finally left China, I was grappling with some big questions about street art, its role in society, and how I could help it achieve greater public recognition as a serious art form.

That was the beginning of the idea — what if I could create a genealogy of street art so, like other art forms, it was searchable and citable for the first time?

What was the next step?
I majored in the humanities at college, so I didn't know how to code well. I decided to invest my time learning to build small apps and experiment with how that could help me answer this question.

I settled on two major areas that I needed to tackle, in creating the genealogy:

   • Creating a way to technically analyse images
   • Crafting and managing a digital archive

I’m currently focused on surfacing images that are geotagged with a longitude and latitude point and scraping Instagram. Eventually, through machine learning tools, Public Art will analyse images and start to aggregate data about the forms that street art can take.

What does that mean in practice?
Every day, people take hundreds of thousands of photos of street art around the world. If these are logged in Public Art, important details like when the artwork appeared, when it was erased, and what neighborhood it was painted and photographed in, can be logged. The images can also be compared for stylistic trends and influences. Having these digitally archived creates a central location where images can be viewed.

Why are you focusing on machine learning?Analysing art is a passion project, but the skill set I’m developing in machine learning is more tangible for changing the world. These technologies are valuable, and whatever I develop for Public Art can be implemented by other industries, too.

Why did you decide to play Pioneer?
I heard about Pioneer online and decided to play the tournament as a method of experimentation. Having a level of social validation is really important for creativity, motivation, and energy, and I wanted to test out ideas with a like-minded community. Just knowing that others found my project interesting was a nudge to keep exploring. I’ve stayed connected with the Pioneer cohort through Twitter and Slack.

What’s next for your project?
I’ve just launched Public Art. We currently have photos from 180 countries (and counting) in our digital street art museum.

Since I have started the scraping, I have gathered photos from all over the world, including places like Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nigeria, and Kazakhstan. My current workflow for getting images, results in approximately 10,000 new geo-tagged photos a day, so I'm working on some improved ways of browsing the content.

I’ve also developed training models for classifying street art so that others can start applying the principles. As a whole, Public Art is still in the experimentation phase and I’m currently exploring different ways that the tools could be applied across commercial art, education, and the not for profit sector.  

What are some other crazy projects you’ve worked on?
For fun, I made a tool to finish long New Yorker articles, co-organized hackathons for journalists at major media companies, am an avid follower of graffiti and painter, and once I even co-created a break up story hotline (check it out here).

Top tip for playing Pioneer?
Don’t necessarily play to win. There is value in getting feedback on the areas of your project that won’t necessarily be the quickest to progress.Think about the big picture of how connecting to the community will help you reach your ultimate goals.

Pioneer x Lambda School

Welcome Lambda Schoolers!

We’re excited to have you join your own special edition of the Pioneer Tournament. Pioneer is a 30-day online game that’s built to identify motivated, productive people. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to succeed. You just need drive.

You’ll be competing both in the global Pioneer Tournament as well as amongst other Lambda applicants. To win the housing stipend, you don’t have to win the overall tournament, just the Lambda Leaderboard.

Applying to Pioneer requires a project. You can pick anything you’d like as long as it’s technical and involves coding. If you don’t have any particular project, no worries! Below are some ideas for you to try. There’s no extra credit awarded for picking these; applying with a custom idea is fine and even encouraged.

Applications are open until the tournament starts on April 1st: Apply now.


Lambda Project Ideas

IsMyFlightSafe.com

With the 737 MAX grounding, flight safety is on everyone’s mind. IsMyFlightSafe is a simple website that given your flight number tells you how safe the aircraft is. Bonus: offer rebooking on a safer flight if the safety is low. (You’ll generate revenue from that.)

Laziest Game in the World

Lots of people open their phone without a clear purpose of what to do. They just want to tap around and get bored. Make a mobile website that just does cool stuff when you tap, perhaps based on tap speed or tap location. Sprinkle in some “secret levels” -- particular points on the screen that cause special reactions!

The Graph Museum

Scrape Twitter for images of graphs (use some API to figure out if an image is a graph). GDP growth. Human longevity over the years. Etc. Find a way to score them. Then aggregate all of these in a nice site. Imagine a museum of all the cool graphs in the world. Bonus: search through them.

Terms of Service Generator

Every company needs a privacy and terms of service page when they get started. Make a generator for these. Get your “basic template” approved by some notable legal team. I should be able to type in my company name, state, etc., and get the right HTML template to put on my site. Or maybe you even host it yourself! I bet you can grow this one enough to generate revenue during the tournament.

Snack Database

There are so many bars and snacks these days. And most of them are terrible for you. Make a database of snacks that allows users to pivot based on detailed nutritional facts of the food (carbohydrate/fat/sodium/sugar/sugar alcohol/etc). This idea could turn profitable if you use affiliate links.

Hotels For Runners

Hotels are the most lucrative online category. TripAdvisor is a multi-billion dollar company for directing people to hotel booking sites. There’s a niche market today that’s underserved: runners. Runners want a hotel that has a nice running route nearby. This may sound silly, but it’s a problem and it shouldn’t be. Curate a list of hotels that are near good running routes. Host them on a site and direct people to book. And growth hack it! Could become a surprise hit.

Hotels For Weightlifters

The same thing as above, but for weightlifters looking for good gyms either in the hotel, or nearby (with a day-pass).

Fly To Sun

This is a website where you can type in your location and it shows you the nearest drive or flight to where it’s currently sunny. Bonus: offer hotel bookings, generate even more revenue!

Applications are open until the tournament starts on April 8th: Apply now.

Markets To Build In (2019)

Founders often ask me what areas they might entrench themselves in if they want to come across or tackle an interesting problem. Here are a few markets I find interesting:

1. Radar

Everyone has their eyes focused on computers analyzing images via AI. Or LIDAR. Curiously, the radar scene is far less popular. It’s an exciting platform technology for two reasons. First, machine learning is getting far better at analyzing noisy, short-range radar data from commodity hardware. Second, US regulation has become increasingly lax towards using new power and spectrum bands due to a desire to support autonomous cars. (Shorter range waves can support a substantial increase in usage without any out-of-band interference concerns, so it’s easier to coordinate, too.)

Google’s Project Soli was equal parts regulatory and technical innovation, with the FCC’s exclusive grant that permitted operating at higher power levels than currently allowed.

In 2017, the FCC quietly assigned exclusive spectrum for “vehicular radar systems”. Zendar is taking advantage of this to make radar systems that see through snow and fog, which LIDAR can't. The regulation also permits the “deployment in airport air operations areas of fixed and mobile radars that detect foreign object debris (FOD) on runways”.

You can easily imagine this extending beyond runways. Anduril is using radar sensing technology to build a better wall. Just like GPUs rose to popularity in gaming and “spilled over” into AI research, this regulation may have second-order effects in industries beyond autonomy.

2. Integrated Software Empires


Atrium is re-inventing the law firm with technology. Pilot is doing the same for accounting and Triplebyte is doing this for recruiting. These startups trade a simpler sales cycle for the shackles of a margin-light service layer. Instead of selling components to incumbents like Wilson Sonsini, they just sell the end-product to users.

Skeptics will say these are just service businesses hiding behind a facade of SaaS multiples. Reality is more nuanced. Assuredly law firms and accounting firms could be using more software! Even if not, leveraged buyouts have taught us that incumbents can naturally lose operational efficiency. This playbook may appear across other industries: Re-build Accenture with an army of “Lego Apps” (see below). A new KPMG that audits using software instead of clipboards. Etc.

These companies are also an important component in workforce retraining. A truck driver may not become an accountant at PWC, but they might be a great fit for a software-enabled accounting firm that relied on a lower level of human expertise.

3. Lego Apps


Technological progress follows a continuous theme of creating abstractions. It’s hard to program in assembly. So we made C, which is easier. Java is easier than C, and Python is easier than Java. We’re starting to see another layer emerge. Companies are allowing non-developers (“builders”) to sling together different blocks of code, like joining lego blocks.


Zapier allows builders to move data between different services with a few clicks. Airtable and Notion enable advanced storage and manipulation of data through a simple interface. Glide super-charges those databases by enabling builders to turn them into mobile apps, a skill previously relegated to an elite few. Retool offers related "assembly" functionality for the desktop.

Now we’re able to make things without really knowing much Javascript. This is a really big deal. Simplifying software is incredibly important. Millions of people will need to be re-trained to new jobs over the next decade. The current coding bootcamps are making good progress on this goal, but simplifying the programming environment may be a more leveraged way to enable 10X more people to code. What if coding was as simple as driving? Lego apps may be the answer.

Lego School. I haven't seen anyone work on training lego builders. Instead of teaching JavaScript, teach how to make a Retool dashboard that connects with Zapier and Gmail. Or a Glide app that sucks in data from Excel. Then use your army of "lego builders" to become the next Accenture, with far better margin.

4. Internet Campuses


Environment is a potent force in shaping habits and lives. When freshmen arrive at Harvard, Yale or even organizations like McKinsey, they feel challenged. They punch above their weight because of the surrounding environment. There’s a new collection of websites that are attempting to digitize this effect and settle Ivy League campuses on the Internet.

ProductHunt is gradually becoming the default place to showcase your work, enabling unknown hackers from around the world to achieve recognition. IndieHackers has a vibrant community of business builders, each excitedly sharing and comparing notes with each other on how to grow their company. Pioneer is an attempt to fully operationalize the Ivy League into software. There’s a global leaderboard of the Top 100 players on the planet to mimic what’s it’s like to “walk around campus” and compare notes. Mentorship from experts in industry, and more. (BTW, our next tournament starts this weekend, apply here.)

Websites are the new cities, and a generation of founders born online are attempting to found enduring communities that serve as generators of great people that dramatically accelerate societal growth.

5. Gaming, a New Third Place

The future remains curiously unpredictable. We thought VR was going to create the metaverse. Turns out all we needed was Fortnite. Marshmello played a concert to millions (perhaps even 10M, actual numbers are unclear) of people on Fornite, the online multiplayer game.


This is an interesting example of what’s to come: games as a “third place”, after home and work. Come for the points, but stay for the concerts, the entertainment, stand-up shows, etc. A 24/7 carnival on the Internet. In other news, Twitch continues to grow like a weed, and may surpass YouTube and Instagram as the cheapest acquisition ever.

It remains unclear exactly how a startup should invade this frontier. But given the change and derivative, I suspect one will.

6. Container-izing the World

Opendoor enables home-owners to achieve near-instant liquidity for their home by using software and machine learning. Convoy is serving as a software dispatcher for freight and trucking, bringing Uber-style efficiency to a a $700B industry. Cloud Kitchens (started by Uber founder Travis Kalanick) allows chefs to spin up “dark kitchens” with a click of a button, creating a new generation of restaurants optimized from the ground up for delivery.

We’re using software to more efficiently containerize and move objects around the world. You could imagine this extending: better use of un-occupied parking lots, instant mobility between homes or offices, etc.

7. Island Internet

A centralizing power of the early Internet was that building stuff was hard. Since making YouTube scale is hard, we only have one World Wonder. Once things become easier to clone, I think we'll have a Wordpress effect. Every tribe of people would have their own.

But what about network effects? Depends. I believe YouTube's network effects are far weaker than people realize. YouTube is not Facebook. It is a media company. Most people consume from a select few creators. Should a cadre migrate en masse to a new platform, many would follow, especially since there's no exclusivity required.

We just saw this happen with Patreon (which, admittedly had zero network effects), where several influencers like Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin all flocked off the service to their own islands. Closed WhatsApp groups seem more popular than Facebook. If someone were to make a very (I mean very) well-executed Wordpress-for-Twitter, we might see a similar migration.

8. AI Silicon

The GPU silicon market is clearly one where the current product is not "good enough". Research labs scramble to get as many training cycles as they can, at times taking over entire data centers to build models. There's a secondary market for particularly scarce NVIDIA GPUs. In conversations with researchers, it’s clear the thirst for compute insatiable.

We're clearly thirsting for more, and companies like GraphCore, Groq, Rain, Google's TPU unit and others are racing to provide it.

9. Developer Tools

Like an endless tiramisu cake, the bicycle for developers can always get better as higher layers of abstraction are built. Streamlit is building a better version of Jupyter Notebooks (Google Docs for data scientists). Weights & Biases makes analytics software for models (New Relic for AI). Rookout enables you to debug production code with a click of a button. Figma is Adobe with collaboration.


10. Bonus: Crypto

This post is getting too long and the cryptocurrency world deserves it’s own piece. The one thing I’ll say is nobody has really cracked developer adoption. I just don’t think the Ethereum coding environment is pleasant. And any network effects are highly overrated if someone would built something that was both useful and fun to code in.

If you’re thinking about starting something and need mentorship or a network of like-minded people, you should check out Pioneer. We built it exactly for people like you: https://pioneer.app.

- Daniel Gross

The Board Builder

Socrates and Plato. Max Planck and Albert Einstein. Mike Markkula and Steve Jobs. Across almost all innovators one thing is common: a connection to another innovator. That person acts as a kind of rocket booster, enabling the young, unknown outsider to achieve stratospheric levels of success and change our world.

Our mission is to find the most leveraged way to launch more people-rockets into space. Board Builder is our way of operationalizing this principle.

With this new feature, players in the Pioneer Tournament can assemble a board of advisors for themselves, just like a company would. Our catalog of characters include people like Dylan Field (CEO of Figma), Shola Akinlade (CEO of Paystack), Josh Tobin (OpenAI), Devon Zuegel (GitHub) and many others.

Board Builder is unlocked when a Pioneer player reaches our Top 100 leaderboard. Once you assemble yours, you’ll be able to message the board just about anything. They’ll be able to award you points if you’re doing particularly well and (like Yelp or Uber ratings) you’ll be able to rate them, too.

Pioneer was built to find unconventional people who don’t fit in and help them achieve extraordinary work. If you want to experiment with a project, give it a shot.

Winners of our Tournament get a ticket to Silicon Valley, $1,000 in cash, $100,000 in Google Cloud Credits, $6,000 in Stellar lumens and much more. All it takes to apply is a few keystrokes. The February Tournament closes next week. Apply now: https://pioneer.app.

Meet the Pioneers, Take 2

Today we’re excited to announce the winners of the second Pioneer Tournament! Our second tournament encompassed players from across the entire globe. From Albania to Guatemala and Tanzania, Pioneer is being played wherever there’s an Internet connection. The most popular countries were the United States, India, Nigeria, UK, Canada and Ghana. 60% of our players were outside of the US.

This tournament featured several software upgrades—smarter, regional leaderboards, better voting and more community feedback provided to players. Pioneers of this tournament also get a matching grant from the Stellar foundation, bringing the total winnings to $11,000.

Here are the winners of the second tournament:


Eibhlin Lim (23, Malaysia, @eibhlin_lim)

Innovators are kickstarted into action by stories of other innovators. There’s so much that hasn’t been written about how our modern geniuses got started. What their life was like as teenagers, etc. Eibhlin is going to produce a series of publications about this. A magazine that radicalizes people to follow their dreams.

Noteworthy: Eibhlin started writing for The Star—the most widely read English newspaper in Malaysia—when she was 15. Though only 23, she’s published more than 50 articles in news outlets in Malaysia, Hong Kong and USA.


Matthew McAteer (26, USA, @matthewmcateer0)

Software that lets anyone easily run AI algorithms on sensitive data without it being personally identifiable. Data privacy is of increasing scarcity and importance in our world. Since AI requires data to fuel its intelligence, it’s important to figure out ways to both make smart models and preserve customer privacy, especially in domains like biomedical research.

Noteworthy: Matthew has the perfect background for this job, having spent years studying neurology research and as a software engineer at Google, working on AI tooling. He also writes algorithmic trading scripts on the side. If that wasn't enough, previously created a bacterial strain that produces an anti-aging molecule (NMN) at 100x less the cost.


Abhijit Gupta and Rohan Rao (22^2, India)

A driver telemetry assistant that makes vehicles safer and more connected, aimed at the chaotic traffic of India. Plug it into your car (or fleet) and it’ll enable you to stay alert, avoid collisions, follow road rules and drive better.

Noteworthy: Both Rohan and Abhijit’s lives epitomize precociousness. Though only 22, they've already done work on autonomous cars, industrial IoT systems, smart pollution monitoring systems, indoor positioning systems, and smart power grid systems, culminating in 3 publications and 5 filed patents.


Benedict Asamoah (24, Ghana, @wrilben)

A Thumbtack for Africa, with a particular lean on service trust and vendor vetting.

Noteworthy: Benedict is a self-taught engineer who has been working on startup ideas since he was 16 years old. Progress was the defining characteristic of his gamesmanship in the tournament. He went from a barebones prototype, to launch, to revenue in the short span of 30 days.


Huw Evans (19, Australia, @huwsername)

Huw is applying deep-learning to noisy EEG signals. Many have tried to use EEGs to infer thoughts. From controlling drones to mind-reading words, the results have been somewhat lackluster. However, very little research has been done using new, novel deep learning techniques to properly sift through the dirty mud of EEG data. If Huw’s project works, it’ll revolutionize brain-computer interfaces. Cheap EEG sensors will become the new mouse.

Noteworthy: Huw’s already worked on an incredible collection of projects despite being just 19. Previously he made AI models that help self-driving cars detect where pedestrians are looking (in real time) to help prevent fatalities. Before that, he tried to predict weight loss using microbiome data. Before that he was researching AI models that function with little data. Etc. Etc.


The most difficult part of this experience was limiting ourselves. We had nearly a thousand qualified players working on nearly every profession imaginable. We selected only the top 5 teams this time. We’ll continue to be flexible with this number, as we’re interested in experimenting with different batch sizes to determine which is most optimal for bonding. All isn’t lost—we run the tournament monthly (the 3rd is already underway!). Players can re-apply with a click of a button.

You could be next! Register for our February Tournament here.

Pioneer's Holiday Tournament

tl;dr: Pioneer winners now get $100,000 in Google Cloud credits, apply now!

Just a few days ago we announced the winners of our first Pioneer Tournament. In a few days, our second Tournament will be closing. Today, we’re excited to announce that the third December Tournament is now open!

Quick Primer

Pioneer’s mission is to scalably identify and nurture the creative outsiders of the world.

Traditional institutions like the Ivy League try to solve this problem by relying on a small set of individuals to screen thousands of applications. This doesn’t scale. And it leaves many geniuses (especially those from non-traditional backgrounds) undiscovered.

We’re trying something radically different. We’re trying to find these “Lost Einsteins” by building an online game. Fortnite, for productivity. Players are rewarded based on the progress they make on their project. Every month, we fund the best with a $1,000 grant and up to $100,000 in follow-on investment.

What’s New

During our second tournament, we added more leaderboards, improved our peer voting process, and worked on our selection algorithm. We also grew the grant size: the winning Pioneers get $6,000 in Stellar lumens, in addition to the cash grant of $1,000.

Like the iPhone, we hope to improve with every release. The December Tournament comes with an epic feature: $100,000 in Google Cloud credits via Google Cloud for Startups to the winning applicants. This is a big deal. Not all of our applicants need Cloud Credits, but many do. Stellar is re-joining us for the tournament as well. Winning applicants receive:

  • $1,000 in cash (check out our FAQ for more info about this).
  • $100,000 in Google Cloud credits.
  • $6,000 in Stellar lumens.
  • A potential $100,000 follow-on investment.
  • A ticket to Silicon Valley.
  • Mentorship from experts.

It’s the perfect package to kickstart a genius.

We believe the world has thousands -- maybe millions -- of ambitious people that have the talent and creativity and just need a nudge of support to unlock their potential. If you know someone who fits that bill (it could be you!), tell them to apply!

Applications close Sunday night. That's in five days. Get started here: https://pioneer.app.


Meet the Pioneers

We’re excited to announce the winners of the first Pioneer Tournament.

In the short 3 months since its launch, Pioneer has garnered a global reach. Our first tournament featured applicants from 100 countries, ranging from 12 to 87 years old. Almost half of our players hailed from countries like India, UK, Canada, Nigeria, Germany, South Africa, Singapore, France, Turkey, and Kenya. Projects were spread across almost every industry—AI research, physics, chemistry, cryptocurrency and more.

We started this company to find the curious outsiders of the world. We think we’re off to a good start. Meet the winners of the first Pioneer Tournament:


James Gallagher (16, Scotland, @jamesg_oca)

James is working on Open Commit, a marketplace for code review. It pairs developers with expert code reviewers who provide actionable feedback on their code, covering everything from style adherence to best practice implementation.

Noteworthy: James has been coding since he was 8 years old. He decided not to attend university so he could pursue the startup path. He’s a true child of the Internet and learned how to code on Udacity. The community also loved that he’s working on a project with a very clear value proposition.


Emma Salinas (18, USA, @emmalsalinas)

Emma is designing and engineering a new kind of digital watch. It’s minimalist and can be read by both sight and touch. It is a beautiful and unique timepiece for the blind, but its aesthetic can be appreciated by anyone.

Noteworthy: In her application, Emma came across as extremely curious, learning at an impressive rate. She spent her last two years of high school taking classes at a local college, and is currently self educating herself.


Leonard Bogdonoff (29, USA, @rememberlenny)

Lenny is building a digital genealogy of street art. He’s scraping Instagram and making a searchable database of street art around the world. This project might amplify the voice of “protest art” against the constraints of censorship from autocratic governments, but it is also a new way to glean usable information from Instagram.

Noteworthy: Lenny has an impressive history of doing lots of stuff. He also demonstrated rapid week-over-week progress, with actionable goals and metrics (“Labeled +58,255 images from 191 street artists from around the world”, “Built an iPhone app”).


Clark Urzo (23, Philippines)

Clark is making a programming language for physics. The idea is to enable anyone who can code to contribute to serious physics research (for example, simulations of gravitating systems). This opens up the field to the wondrous forces of open source and promotes open and accountable science along the way.

Noteworthy: Clark has an insanely impressive trajectory. He learned to code when he was 12. By 16, he was doing Laplace transforms, tinkering with Arduinos, reading Marx and Nietzsche, and taught himself conversational German. He co-founded a VR company by 19.


Harsh Sikka (23, USA, @harshsikka)

Harsh is building AI that’s inspired by biological principles from neuroscience. The algorithms will be applicable in disease diagnosis, robotics, synthetic biology, environmental sensing and other complex problem spaces.

Noteworthy: Harsh is a graduate student studying Biocomputation and AI at Harvard and Georgia Tech. His work is a long shot. But if it works, it stands to provide a dramatic breakthrough in computing, enabling us to better prevent the outbreak of diseases by doing better forecasting. Harsh also has a long standing history of making stuff. He built a kind of Pinterest for ML models and an automated reading assessment tool. This mixture of researcher and hacker is a rare and powerful combo.


Hunter Scott (28, USA, @hunterscott)

Hunter is making engineered plants and microbes optimized for growth on Mars as a sustainable food source for the first astronauts there.

Noteworthy: Hunter has experience with engineered food, as a co-founder of what would become Soylent. More recently, he founded a company to develop a new kind of battery and works at Reach Labs, where he builds high-frequency phased arrays for long-range wireless power transfer.


Bhav Ashok (25, Singapore & USA, @bhavashok)

Bhav came up with a way to train a neural network to compress other neural networks. The compression process produces a faster and smaller network without sacrificing accuracy. This has the potential to vastly improve response time in self-driving cars, satellite imaging, and mobile apps.

Noteworthy: By age 12, Bhav was programming and making money selling graphics add-ons for games. At 16, he started doing research in machine learning for bioinformatics. He left Singapore for Austin, where he created TexteDB and founded a company. Bhav later enrolled in the Masters program at CMU, earned the highest GPA in his program, founded a computer vision club, and worked on various research projects.


Atsu Davoh (23, Ghana, @atsudavoh)

Atsu is building a way for Africans to easily acquire and spend crypto-currencies in everyday life. He built a service for buying Bitcoin via phone texts (without the internet) and is currently building the equivalent of Alibaba for Bitcoin in Africa (out January 2019).

Noteworthy: Atsu dropped out of college in the US and moved back to Ghana to work on this idea. “I pursued this path instead of going to work at a tech giant like my friends because I wanted to do something impactful. I strongly believe that smart Africans should stay in Africa to solve the continent's problems; and this philosophy motivates every decision I make.”


Harshu Musunuri (18, USA)

Harshu is creating synthetic materials to improve the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of sepsis, a leading cause of death in hospitals around the world. Unlike other approaches, these materials don't require refrigeration and enable low-cost toxin capture in resource-poor settings.

Noteworthy: Harshu comes from a humble background: she was born to an electrical engineer and an elementary school math teacher in a small village in South India. But her work is anything but humble. In her short career, she’s done research with NASA’s JPL, built a seizure detection app for epileptic patients and is now working on a project with the potential to save thousands of lives. She’s also a hacker at heart: when she lacked the formal lab tools to braze at high temperature, she used the exhaust vent of a ceramic kiln.


Neelay Trivedi (17, USA, @neelay_trivedi)

Neelay is building PlaySafe, a wearable that predicts if and when someone will have a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). It costs under $40 and works by analyzing variations in a person's heart rate, providing up to 8 minutes of prior warning before SCA occurs.

Noteworthy: Neelay has been prolific despite his young age. Despite being just a high school senior, his work on AI-assisted disease diagnosis, computational cancer genomics, and health wearables has already been recognized by Intel, Maker Faire, Conrad Foundation, the US Army, and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy.


Julia Wu (23, USA & Brazil, @thejuliawu)

Julia is making a game where one collects and trades elements of renewable energy on the Ethereum blockchain. She’s leveraging the surprising power of crypto-kitties to address climate change. The values of the tokens fluctuate with the performance of clean energy in public markets.

Noteworthy: Coming from China to Brazil at a young age and speaking only Chinese, Julia grew up as an outsider. She graduated from Brown last year, where she was a CS teaching assistant, and founded Lean In at Brown University. She interned at Microsoft and currently works at Apple.


Caroline Oluka (28, Uganda)

Caroline is working on RideUp, an eco-friendly bike delivery service for corporate offices in Kampala that aims to empower girls from the streets.

Noteworthy: Caroline is a testament to the human spirit. She had an incredibly tough home environment that would have crippled most. She ran away from home and grew up on the streets of Uganda. She’s now decided to start a business that’s aimed at helping girls in similar situations. The world has taken note, too: she won a Ugandan social innovation award during the Pioneer Tournament and has been relentless about fundraising to grow her business.


Pranay Prakash (21, USA, @pranaygp)

Pranay is making Windsor, a programming assistant for web developers. Developer tools are static today. They don’t understand what you’re trying to accomplish and why. That shouldn’t be the case. If Windsor changes that, it might become the most important company in the world. Nell’s Primer, for coding.

Noteworthy: Pranay got started early, learning to code at age 8. He interned at Facebook on the GraphQL team, then at ZEIT where he worked on a lot of experimental tooling. Voters loved the potential of his project. He also managed to hit his goal of getting Windsor in the hands of real users with a real codebase by the end of the tournament.


Lucas Gleba (18, Spain, @lucasgleba)

Lucas is building a set of ML APIs that enable ordinary businesses to take advantage of machine learning without being subject experts in the matter. Just like Oracle enabled anyone to use a database, Lucas’s platform will enable any business to use ML.

Noteworthy: Lucas is an untraditional polymath. Before working on machine learning, he designed a chemical process to transform atmospheric carbon dioxide and water into fuel. He’s also done work on artificial neural networks and computational flock behavior.


Thomas Uhlenbruck (23, Canada, @pulseindustrial)

Thomas is building sensors for industrial equipment that will reduce CO2 emissions and improve safety. Industrial equipment is often inspected by hand today with manual audits. This is exactly the type of the world software has yet to eat. Their sensors provide operators the information they need to keep their system optimized and safe at all times.

Noteworthy: Thomas is an undergrad at Waterloo. He’s worked in water treatment, lake modelling, and municipal engineering, but left his research group because he wanted more practical work experience. Over the course of the Pioneer Tournament, he managed both to work on engineering and secure multiple prototype installations at different plants, which is no simple feat.


Pavle Goloskokovic (28, Serbia, @pgoloskokovic)

Pavle is building a VR Adventure Game for the blind. Yep, VR for blind people. It’s a narrative-driven adventure game that completely relies on audible and tactile feedback to guide players in a role of a protagonist through an interactive story driven by exploration and puzzle-solving.

Noteworthy: Pavle’s a risk taker: he left his job at a startup to start his own gaming studio. He’s already built several projects and games. He also had a conscientious habit of submitting actionable status updates early. He’s working on the type of unusual project the Pioneer community seems to love.


Amulya Balakrishnan (18, USA)

Amulya is creating a wearable device that provides real-time, continuous ECG heart rate monitoring data. There currently exists no FDA-approved solution that can monitor ECG data in real time. Amulya is going to make it.

Noteworthy: Amulya recently graduated high school. Her friends and family expected her to go the standard collegiate route, but she decided to charter her own course. Her earlier project, an ADHD diagnosis tool, won the Disrupt NY 2017 Hackathon Grand Prize.


The Road Ahead

Pioneer is constantly evolving—click here to read more about the latest in our product.

Applications for the December Tournament open today. If you’re eager to become a Pioneer yourself, click here to apply.

The Road Ahead

We originally thought Pioneer was a search engine. Our main effort would be finding the creative outsiders. It turns out we built something... slightly different:

  • “Hugely appreciative of Pioneer for the sense of urgency it created for me last month. I highly recommend you to participate in the next cohort if you have a side-project, but are burdened with inertia... For me, even the positive feedback was socially reaffirming. It spurred my creativity and excitement to do more.
  • “I would highly recommend everyone with an idea in mind to apply for this tournament as the voting and the positive feedback will help you in developing the idea into a better version and get closer to converting your idea into a reality.
  • "The video-game aspect of the tournament further incentivizes you to complete your goal to get a higher ranking, much like you’d want to happen if you were playing a game, and this might be my favorite feature of Pioneer.
  • “By having to submit weekly progress updates, you feel more accountable for your actions which acts as a key motivator during the week. Throughout the week, I was constantly thinking about what to include in my update which helped me work as hard and as efficiently as possible."

And many more. People really enjoy the the motivational aspects of Pioneer and the encouragement from other players. It helps them accomplish what they couldn’t have done alone. Pioneer seems to be a kind of digital Ivy League campus, where the virtual surroundings motivate you to get stuff done.

As a result, we’ve been working on making Pioneer a really fun game. Something that people come back to play month after month (even when they win). The leaderboard has been upgraded to show regional positions, so that you have a better sense of peer camaraderie. Applicants receive both positive and constructive feedback from their peers. And other new features. We're constantly iterating and thinking about how to make this an amazing experience for everyone.

We hope to make the Pioneer Tournament the ultimate multiplayer game for productivity. Click here to start playing.

Pioneer Interview: Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen is an American economist and professor at George Mason University, where he holds the Holbert C. Harris chair in the economics department. He also hosts the economics blog Marginal Revolution. In 2011 poll by The Economist, Cowen was included in the top 36 nominations of "which economists were most influential over the past decade".

Tyler is also a Pioneer Expert.


Hi Tyler! Tell us a little about yourself in a sentence or two.

I am a Professor of Economics. I run a research center, try to build my school into an intellectual center, and direct various projects (most of them online), catalogued at marginalrevolution.com. I’ve tried to redefine what the career of an economist can be. Often I’m known as a polymath or infovore.”

How old were you when you decided to do what you’re doing right now?

Ages 13 to 14. For a while, I pondered being a philosopher. But soon, I realized that was less practical than studying economics. But I still view myself as somehow sitting between those two disciplines.

What were you like back then? Tell us about a day in your life.

I would wake up before seven, read the New York Times, walk to school, suffer through the day, do enough work to get A minuses, leave school at 2:46, and then come home and read as much as I could for as long as I could. Or hang out with my few smart friends, two of whom also went on to become professional economists. We had a great group.

Who were you in high school?

Recognizably the same Tyler Cowen. But back then I liked listening to Bruce Springsteen, and today not so much. My perspective today is much less nation-centered. I also have much broader and better taste in food — not just hamburgers and pizza.

What’s a decision that seemed small at the time, but led to a big impact in your life today?

Meeting various people who led intellectual lives and seeing and learning that this was possible.

What “happy accidents” did you have in your youth? Things you didn’t plan on doing that lead to a positive outcome?

My path has been pretty linear. I have always felt in control, arguably a bad thing! Yet it is true. I thought that the compound returns from learning in a steady environment could be really high, if only I would stick with it.

What are some behavioral mistakes you made early on in life?

I was always too impatient. But that also helped me get things done, and I meant I did not really waste many days. Arguably, I should have spent more time cultivating contacts at Harvard when doing my Ph.D. But would that really have put me on a better path? Hard to say.

If you were applying to Pioneer today with a fresh project, what would you make?

Something like Pioneer itself?

If you became really good at something (physics, programming, art, music), how exactly did you first get hooked?

Learning is fun. I found that social sciences are a good vehicle for learning things all the time. That got me hooked. It made my travel more salient, and it enriched the time I spent with music and the arts. It helped me make sense of people, too. All that at once. That was a pretty potent brew, and it still is.

What are some weird things you worked on or did as a teenager?

These days, what’s weird? I play chess intensively for four years, ages 10 to 14. Then I studied economics for the rest of my life. Arguably I was less weird as a teenager than I am today. What’s weird is that I haven’t matured into a less intensive course of study.

What books, movies, or music do you like?

Favorite books are Moby-Dick, Proust, Bleak House, and Shakespeare.

Favorite movies are Scenes from a Marriage, Rear Window, some Kubrick, Tarkovsky, and The Empire Strikes Back, and don’t forget Asian cinema.

Music? Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart and Brahms. Indian classical music, performed live. Classic rock, the usual stuff starting with the Beatles.


If you were inspired by this post, consider applying to Pioneer! Applications for our October Tournament close in a few days. Click here to apply.

(If you'd like to send us your own Pioneer Interview, click here.)

Pioneer + Stellar

tl;dr:

We're air-dropping cryptocurrency to Pioneers. The Stellar Development Foundation will award winners of our second tournament $6,000 in lumens in addition to the Pioneer investment ($5,000 with the possibility of a $100,000 follow-on).

Apply for the October Tournament here: https://pioneer.app.

Background

Pioneer is an experiment in building an online game for productivity. We launched this August.

The Harvard campus is a wonderful place to nurture and grow. It affords its inhabitants a network of other like-minded people, an invaluable stamp on their resumes and encouragement to take their passion more seriously. We want to instill those virtues in an online game that anyone can play — not just the elite that make it to the Ivy League.

By funding the best players of our game, we hope to surface and support the millions of "Lost Einsteins" around the world — creative outsiders who have tremendous creativity and energy but lack opportunity. Each month we start a fresh tournament of our game. We just closed our first.

Partnership with Stellar + October Tournament

As we grow, a surprising challenge we face is getting money to our Pioneers. Turns out sending small amounts of money around the world is hard. Which is why we're really excited about our new partnership with Stellar.

The Stellar foundation is joining us in funding Pioneers. Winners of the October Tournament will get $6,000 in lumens in addition to the Pioneer investment ($5,000 with the option of a $100,000 follow-on). $1,000 lumens will be completely unlocked and $5,000 locked up for two years.

Excitingly, Pioneers will get their lumens before the dollars arrive. This really speaks to the power of the Stellar network.

Human potential is one of the world’s most underestimated resources. With the start of the October Tournament, we hope to amplify the work of extraordinarily talented people and accelerate the progress of pioneering ideas.

The October Tournament opens today. Apply here: https://pioneer.app.

The Updated Pioneer Offer

Startups are all about listening to user feedback. Today we’re doing just that.

tl;dr: New Pioneer offer:

Get a $5,000 grant to work on whatever project you want. If you turn it into a company, Pioneer may additionally invest up to $100,000 in it. That’s it.

Longer:

Last week we announced Pioneer: a search engine aimed at finding the millions of Lost Einsteins around the world. Since then, applications have poured in from all over the world -- Estonia, India, Slovenia, Nigeria and many small cities across the United States.

Pioneer is trying to provide what we think are the long term benefits of a university -- the network, community and motivation. To do this over the long run, we need a way to scalably fund Pioneer in perpetuity. Universities charge students. As a consequence many end up in serious debt, which can take years to pay off. This is a broken model, and we know we can do better.

And so we decided to try something new. We don’t expect all Pioneers to start companies, but we think some will. We want to help them do that, and if their companies become wildly successful, capture a small fraction of the gains. If you become Facebook, Pioneer can fund a million people. And you’re still very rich. And if you never start a company, you owe Pioneer nothing.

It's important that this offer be attractive to ambitious, creative people in a wide variety of fields. We spent the last three days reading thousands of applications from users around the world. Most didn’t seem to mind the terms. A few prospective applicants gave us good feedback on our offer. We decided to improve it and make our first batch of offers on more flexible terms. Our top priority is building a vibrant community. Nothing else matters.

Most Pioneers will receive $5k and owe us nothing. If you create a company from your project and raise money from investors, you agree to let us invest up to $100,000 alongside them. Our right will expire once we've invested $100,000 in the company, and it is capped at 20% of the round size (if others are investing $50,000, we’ll invest at most $10,000). More on our offer page.

We started Pioneer to support the the millions of brilliant people who lack opportunity and access to role models. We hope this gets us closer to that goal. To ensure that our updated message reaches the broadest set of applicants, we’re extending the application deadline to August 27th.

Introducing Pioneer

My name is Daniel Gross. I was born in Jerusalem, Israel. I spent most of my youth feeling like an outsider looking in. High school wasn't interesting. I didn't have many friends. And I didn't have much to be passionate about. Eight years later, I live in Silicon Valley and have built products that have touched billions of people and sold a company along the way. Today, with Pioneer, I want to help make that a possibility for anyone.

Everyone has something they are passionate about. There was one thing I loved: programming. I loved programming because I could make anything I wanted. Unlike chemistry or biology, there were no rules. No dangerous substances to avoid. The only limit was my own imagination. And I did a lot of it during my teenage years.

After graduating high school, I had felt that I hadn’t found my people or my cause in life. My Dad forwarded an article about “Y Combinator”, an entrepreneurship program in San Francisco. It sounded cool, and the people in it sounded like the kind of outsiders I wanted to be around. I connected my trusty Nokia cell phone to a clunky laptop and applied to YC from the desolate Israeli military camp where I was based. I was 18 at the time.

To my surprise I was selected for interviews. The journey from there was something of a whirlwind. I started a company called Cue, raised money from some of Silicon Valley’s best investors (including two rounds from Sequoia), and ended up selling the company to Apple in 2013 when I was 23. I became a Director at Apple, leading various AI projects before returning to YC as a Partner (I’ve since stepped down my role to focus on other efforts). The most surprising part of the experience was how much it meant for someone to believe in me. I didn’t know how important that would be, but it meant everything to find a community of similar outsiders.

I’m by no means “successful”. I was able to accomplish these things because of the people who took a bet on me despite me being unknown. Others that have gone far further started small too. SpaceX was originally conceived as the "Mars Oasis Project" -- a PR stunt aimed at increasing NASA’s budget. Google was a university research project. And many great scientists started as unknown as Ramanujan.

Over the past few years, I’ve been reading research that touches on how ambitious kids fare with a lot of interest.

For example, Raj Chetty found that "children from high-income (top 1%) families are ten times more likely to become inventors than those from below-median income families" , despite low-income kids scoring just as well on early childhood tests. Chetty used the term “lost Einsteins”, referring to geniuses who would have been able to do great things had they been exposed to opportunities in the right way. We’ll never know what they could have achieved.

More recently, two economists showed how International Math Olympiad winners are broadly geographically distributed (talent is everywhere!), but that winners from rich countries have a much higher likelihood of going on to produce significant mathematical work. They observe that there’s a lot of “lost knowledge” stemming from the structural impediments facing brilliant young mathematicians in poorer countries.

Lastly, there was this pretty remarkable paper. Two researchers in the US reported that an extraordinarily cheap intervention ($6 per student) targeted at high-achieving, low-income students -- basically, just encouraging them to apply to top-tier colleges -- had a marked impact on their propensity to do so. (Students who simply saw their notice were, on average, admitted to colleges whose median SAT score was 53 points higher and that spent 34% more on their students.)

This all matched my personal experience. The combination of a few fortuitous events and people who gave an outsider opportunity drastically altered my life trajectory.

So I started to wonder: would it be possible to somehow scale this? There are obviously tons of organizations doing great work trying to create better opportunities around the world. But the vast majority were started before internet usage was so broadly pervasive among global adolescents. Could you augment their efforts by going “direct to consumer”? Could you build something that helped to identify brilliant people, no matter where they are, and help turbocharge their careers and unlock opportunities?

I started Pioneer in an attempt to build a community for people who feel the way I do about the world. It’s an attempt to find the most brilliant people in the world, wherever they are, and to identify cheap and scalable interventions that might help them achieve their goals. I want to provide some of the non-intuitive benefits of Silicon Valley to many more people.

While Pioneer will provide money to people, it’s not about the money. My hope is that this experiment can broaden people’s horizons of how they view themselves. I met amazing peers and challenged myself to do what I thought I couldn’t because of my environment.

If any of this resonates with where you are today, please sign up!

If you’re interested in working with us, we're hiring. And if you’ve ideas about how we can make this a success, please drop me a line. Pioneer is proudly funded by Stripe and Marc Andreessen.