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 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 questioning the profit share in his previous company. He moved to Honduras while it was the murder capital of the world. Now he’s stumbling through Africa looking for city settlers.

Nicholas Donahue (21) and Austin Kahn (20), United States
Nick and Austin are making, 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. And 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, 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:

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

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 1st: 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:

- 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: