The Pioneer project: finding “the lost Einsteins”

Silicon Valley has created a model for identifying and nurturing high-potential young companies…Pioneer… hopes to do much the same thing for high-potential people.

The group, which is being announced on Thursday, plans to use the internet-era tools of global communication and crowdsourcing to solicit and help select promising candidates in a variety of fields, along with evaluations by experts. Its goal is to put more science and less happenstance into the process of talent discovery — and reach more people, wherever they are in the world.

“We’re trying to build a kind of search engine for finding great people with talent, ambition and potential,” said Daniel Gross, 27, the group’s founder…

Selecting “pioneers” will begin with a monthlong online tournament. Candidates will submit their project ideas. Each week, the projects will be updated. The candidates will vote on each other’s projects, points will be awarded and there will be leader board. Subject experts will also vote, with their votes counting somewhat more than the candidates’.

That is from Steve Lohr at The New York Times, with much more at the link.  Here is the account from Daniel Gross at Pioneer.  I am pleased and honored to be an (informal) advisor to this project.


Rich get richer, the Sand Hill crowd that is.

Your style is unique compared to other folks I have read stuff from.
I appreciate you for posting when you've got the opportunity,
Guess I will just book mark this page.

My brother suggested I might like this blog. He was once entirely right.
This publish truly made my day. You can not believe simply how much time I had spent for this information! Thank you!

Okay. . . . But would this contest have identified the actual Einstein? After all Einstein was more of a *theoretical* success than a commercial one!

Only because he didn't get the trademark.

From an earlier MR post about Soccer Talent:
*The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars*
Researchers have found that the key ingredient is not how much formal practice or how many official games players had as kids, but how much pickup soccer they played in informal settings like the street or schoolyard.

Will we experience the same phenomena? The Einsteins are considered great because they always challenged the conventional wisdom and were not bounded by prizes, grants, and other accolades. By bringing these "lost Einsteins" into the "mainstream" don't we risk converting them into conformists and lose their potential?

To borrow a term from the scientific community, we need "loose electrons" in our system. They are the ones who truly can come up with new ideas.

Are you drawing the correct lesson from the soccer research? Do the players of pickup soccer succeed because they are playing soccer that is less "conformist", or is pickup soccer simply a better indicator of getting more practice? The latter seems more likely to me.

These are interesting ideas, though.

Interesting questions indeed. The way I read it, I thought that one needs to spend time outside the proverbial box. However, you and Zach have different interpretations. One thing is for sure. Everyone is on this quest to find the next Einstein.

One thing is certain though. Most research work is being done in teams rather than individuals. And AI research is progressing at warp speed. So maybe the "next Einstein" will be a computer program.

From an earlier MR post about Soccer Talent:
*The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars*
Researchers have found that the key ingredient is not how much formal practice or how many official games players had as kids, but how much pickup soccer they played in informal settings like the street or schoolyard.

That's not what they found at all! The book got it totally backwards.

What they found was that, in the sample of young professionals that they surveyed, all respondents had about the same amount of organized, professional practice. (Which makes sense, since they surveyed members of professional youth teams.) They then found an effect based on the amount of unorganized play.

All of the variation in playing time came from unorganized play! Their survey wasn't sensitive to the effects of organized play, because they had no in-group variation. They found an effect based on total playing time, which they can't separate into organized and unorganized components.

Your comments are interesting. I have not read the book but would appreciate your thoughts on it. The Atlantic, however, had a slightly different take on the book. If you have the time, please go through this. Interesting, albeit long.

How Not to Scout for Soccer Talent

The original Pioneer Fund, which is now defunct AFAIK, was also quite interested in "people with talent, ambition and potential":

What if someone was the "Einstein" of doing nothing? I mean... thats a person I'd rather know about. This whole thing is operating under the assumption that every Einstein must want to do something big.

Have you considered that maybe the people that are that smart may have realized its not worth it? (Not me, I'm still plugging away at my 8-5 operating under the assumption that this is still worth it.)

Suppose this were true. Would there be any point in finding those people?

Thus I suspect that the algorithm will be more successful in finding people with ambition.

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

LOL at thinking you've found anything but a bum who will sell all the rights to his IP for 8 years and $5000.

+1. If anyone takes up their offer, by definition, they wouldn't be the next Einstein, would they?

I wish they'd start looking and supporting talent in places like Africa. If their system is that good.

a) there are epsilon lost Einsteins
b) ‘candidates’ submit ideas and then ranked based upon those ideas? This sounds a lot like ycombinator.

I'm not so sure Einstein would have done well in this contest. It took awhile for his ideas to be accepted because they were so radical. Many truly great individuals aren't recognized by their contemporaries until later on.

This project leaves a bad taste in my mouth, I must admit. I like the geniuses who give the middle finger to the established thinkers.

This sort of thing, like the discussions of IQ, seem to have a simplistic notion of intelligence and how it works.

It assumes a general intelligence will return remarkable outcomes regardless of the environment or field.
As if, say, Einstein were born in 1650 to a farm family in China, he would be a remarkably successful farmer or something.
The things we use to measure IQ are things like abstract problem solving that are very meaningful to an industrial society in the 20th century, but not necessarily to any other society in any other time.

Abstract problem solving ability is helpful to a shepherd, carpenter, soldier or hunter but its not really a premium skill.
Physical skills, social skills, hand-eye coordination and sensory sharpness count for more in producing actual outcomes.

And as algorithms and learning machines take over more and more of the abstract problem solving skills, I'm not sure that our traditional measures of IQ are going to mean much in the coming centuries.

Is Pioneer more likely to fund the next Einstein, or the next Elizabeth Holmes (of Theranos fame)?

Patronage for promising people is a good, and an old, idea. There are some problems with the approach here, though.

(1) It will select for people who are good at self promotion, and at generating hype. Especially in science and technology, this is increasingly being valued at the expense of substance, especially by foundations and unconventional funders.

(2) The amount of money involved is tiny, especially relative to the chunk of ownership that Pioneer will take of anything that might come from this, even eight years into the future. $5000? Really?

(3) Even harder than coming up with a "big idea" is actually implementing it -- having the organizational fortitude, and the ability to complete tasks, not just start them, for years on end. How will Pioneer assess this?

On the Pioneer web site, one of the examples given is "Marie Curie was a starving student in Paris, rationing herself on bread and water before discovering radioactivity," implying that the beneficence of Pioneer would have helped her. Curie is one of the greatest scientists ever. Would she have gotten a Pioneer grant? What would her "pitch" be? That by being smart and working very diligently for years on end, she might discover something? Head-to-head against ~2006 Elizabeth Holmes, which of the two would Pioneer fund?

More constructively, if Pioneer really wants to give a small financial nudge to potential future successes, it should have a simple questionnaire / recommendation form that basically asks (1) what attributes (math skills, bike repair abilities, ...), (2) hobbies (drawing, fixing cars, discovering radium...), and (3) financial resources someone has; among everyone above some low threshold they can choose for assessing (1) and (2), award $5000 at random, with a probability inversely proportional to (3).

And don't take a chunk of their future earnings -- or if you do, don't write on your web page about how you're doing this to help humanity.

So the idea is to snatch the poor but talented away from their communities where they might do some modest good and get them well-paying jobs in Wall Street cubicles?

"In exchange for the funding, community and guidance you’ll get, Pioneer will retain 3% of any company you create over the next eight years. It will also have the option of investing an additional $20,000 for another 5% of the company."

This is absolutely crazy. 3% of any company you create over the next 8 years. Please no one do this.

The implied value of the company is incredibly low here. $5000 for 3% of the company implies a valuation of $166,000. $20,000 for 5% implies a valuation of $400,000. And that's an option! You're not even guaranteed to get the money.

A startup that fails and gets acqui-hired tends to go for $500K- $1M per engineer, depending on the value of the intellectual property and the hotness of the field. So the valuation here is about right for a one-person company that goes belly-up after a year. If you go in halfsies with your best friend, they're underpaying by a factor of two.

It would be a better idea if they just gave the kids $5000 and a free vacation and wished them well.

$5000 to give someone an option on your creative output for the next eight years of your life is too little. What if you came to San Francisco and wanted to join a startup created by your roommates? 8% of their cap table is now gone in return for $20,000 in cash (since they won't get to share the original $5000). They're not going to let you join the company! The money would constrain your horizons rather than expanding them.

Are there examples of anyone doing a really good job predicting who will be highly successful in life, very early? The best I know of is looking at either test scores or early achievements, but neither of those gives you very high success rates.

Comments for this post are closed