emergent ventures prizes

$1 million plus in Emergent Ventures Prizes for coronavirus work

I believe that we should be using prizes to help innovate and combat the coronavirus. When are prizes better than grants? The case for prizes is stronger when you don’t know who is likely to make the breakthrough, you value the final output more than the process, there is an urgency to solutions (talent development is too slow), success is relatively easy to define, and efforts and investments are likely to be undercompensated. All of these apply to the threat from the coronavirus.

We do not know who are the most likely candidates to come up with the best tests, the best remedies and cures, the best innovations in social distancing, and the best policy proposals. Anyone in the world could make a contribution to the anti-virus effort and it won’t work to just give a chunk of money to say Harvard or MIT.

Progress is urgent. I am still keen on talent development for this and other problems, but the situation is worse every week, every day. It is important to incentivize those who are working on these problems now.

The innovators, medical professionals and policy people at work on this issue are unlikely to receive anything close to the full social value of their efforts.

I therefore am grateful that I have been able to raise a new chunk of money for Emergent Ventures — a project of the Mercatus Center — for ex post prizes (not grants) for those who make progress in coronavirus problems.

Here are the newly established prizes on offer:

1. Best investigative journalism on coronavirus — 50k

2. Best blog or social media tracking/analysis of the virus — 100k

3. Best (justified) coronavirus policy writing — 50k

4. Best effort to find a good treatment rapidly — 500k, second prize 200k

5. Best innovation in social distancing — 100k

6. Most important innovation or improvement for India — 100k

What might be an example of a winning project?  What if this attempt to build scalable respirators succeeded?  That would be a natural winner.  Or a social distancing innovation might be the roll out of more meals on wheels, little libraries, online worship, easier ways to work from home, and so on.  The vision is to give to people whose work actually will be encouraged, not to give to Amazon (sorry Jeff!), no matter how many wonderful things they do.

These are not prizes you apply for, they will be awarded by Emergent Ventures when a significant success is spotted.  (That said, you still can propose a coronavirus-related project through normal channels, with discretionary amounts to be awarded as grants per usual procedures.)  And typically the awards will apply to actions taken after the release of this announcement.

I would love to be able to offer more second and third prizes for these efforts, and also to increase the amounts on offer, and perhaps cover more countries too. Or perhaps you have an idea for an additional category of prize. So if you are a person of means and able to consider making a significant (tax-deductible) contribution, please email me and we can discuss.

In the meantime, the rest of you all need to get to work.

Emergent Ventures Covid-19 prizes, second cohort

There is another round of prize winners, and I am pleased and honored to announce them:

1. Petr Ludwig.

Petr has been instrumental in building out the #Masks4All movement, and in persuading individuals in the Czech Republic, and in turn the world, to wear masks.  That already has saved numerous lives and made possible — whenever the time is right — an eventual reopening of economies.  And I am pleased to see this movement is now having an impact in the United States.

Here is Petr on Twitter, here is the viral video he had a hand in creating and promoting, his work has been truly impressive, and I also would like to offer praise and recognition to all of the people who have worked with him.

2. www.covid19india.org/

The covid19india project is a website for tracking the progress of Covid-19 cases through India, and it is the result of a collaboration.

It is based on a large volunteer group that is rapidly aggregating and verifying patient-level data by crowdsourcing.They portray a website for tracking the progress of Covid-19 cases through India and open-sources all the (non-personally identifiable) data for researchers and analysts to consume. The data for the react based website and the cluster graph are a crowdsourced Google Sheet filled in by a large and hardworking Ops team at covid19india. They manually fill in each case, from various news sources, as soon as the case is reported. Top contributor amongst 100 odd other code contributors and the maintainer of the website is Jeremy Philemon, an undergraduate at SUNY Binghamton, majoring in Computer Science. Another interesting contribution is from Somesh Kar, a 15 year old high school student at Delhi Public School RK Puram, New Delhi. For the COVID-19 India tracker he worked on the code for the cluster graph. He is interested in computer science tech entrepreneurship and is a designer and developer in his free time. Somesh was joined in this effort by his brother, Sibesh Kar, a tech entrepreneur in New Delhi and the founder of MayaHQ.

3. Debes Christiansen, the head of department at the National Reference Laboratory for Fish and Animal Diseases in the capital, Tórshavn, Faroe Islands.

Here is the story of Debes Christiansen.  Here is one part:

A scientist who adapted his veterinary lab to test for disease among humans rather than salmon is being celebrated for helping the Faroe Islands avoid coronavirus deaths, where a larger proportion of the population has been tested than anywhere in the world.

Debes was prescient in understanding the import of testing, and also in realizing in January that he needed to move quickly.

Please note that I am trying to reach Debes Christiansen — can anyone please help me in this endeavor with an email?

Here is the list of the first cohort of winners, here is the original prize announcement.  Most of the prize money still remains open to be won.  It is worth noting that the winners so far are taking the money and plowing it back into their ongoing and still very valuable work.

Emergent Ventures prize winners, third cohort

I am happy to announce two further winners of the Emergent Ventures prizes to fight Covid-19.

The first is to Statnews.com for their excellent and intelligent reporting on public health, including the coronavirus, with the latter articles being ungated.

This is not only a prize for past achievement, but also resources to allow them to continue into the future.  As most of you know, journalism is a highly precarious enterprise these days.

And to be clear, this is a one-time prize and it involves absolutely no editorial control or influence over what they publish.

Here is a recent NYT article on Statnews.com.  the headline reads: “The Medical News Site that Saw the Coronavirus Coming Months Ago.”

The second winner is Tina White and Covid Watch, for their work on track and trace apps, you will note that Tina and her group were earlier winners of a (smaller) Emergent Ventures fellowship.  This is an Early Response prize, for their critical and timely work to boost the quality of these apps and to make them more privacy-friendly and more palatable to civil liberties concerns.  Here is some coverage:

This App Protects Privacy While Tracing Covid-19 Infections

Here is the second cohort of prize winners, here is the first cohort.  And here is an update from Celine, from Curative Inc., from the very first cohort of winners:

Emergent Ventures is pleased to have been their very first funder, and to have consummated the entire grant process, including the wire of funds (at the time critical for materials purchase), in less than 24 hours.

Fast Grants against Covid-19, an extension of Emergent Ventures

Emergent Ventures, a project of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, is leading a new “Fast Grants” program to support research to fight Covid-19.  Here is the bottom line:

Science funding mechanisms are too slow in normal times and may be much too slow during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fast Grants are an effort to correct this.

If you are a scientist at an academic institution currently working on a COVID-19 related project and in need of funding, we invite you to apply for a Fast Grant. Fast grants are $10k to $500k and decisions are made in under 48 hours. If we approve the grant, you’ll receive payment as quickly as your university can receive it.

More than $10 million in support is available in total, and that is in addition to earlier funds raised to support prizes.  The application site has further detail and explains the process and motivation.

I very much wish to thank John Collison, Patrick Collison, Paul Graham, Reid Hoffman, Fiona McKean and Tobias Lütke, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Chris and Crystal Sacca for their generous support of this initiative, and I am honored to be a part of it.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world (FT):

The president of the European Research Council — the EU’s top scientist — has resigned after failing to persuade Brussels to set up a large-scale scientific programme to fight Covid-19.

In contrast:

During World War II, the NDRC accomplished a lot of research very quickly. In his memoir, Vannevar Bush recounts: “Within a week NDRC could review the project. The next day the director could authorize, the business office could send out a letter of intent, and the actual work could start.” Fast Grants are an effort to unlock progress at a cadence similar to that which served us well then.

We are not able at this time to process small donations for this project, but if If you are an interested donor please reach out to [email protected].

Emergent Ventures winners, eighth cohort

Eibhlin Lim, Penang and University of Chicago.

“I interview founders from different industries and around the globe and share their origin stories to inspire the next generation of founders to reach for their own dreams. I previously shared these stories in Phoenix Newsletters, an online newsletter that organically grew to serve more than 7000 high school and university student subscribers primarily from Malaysia. In July 2018, I decided to self-publish and distribute a book, ‘The Phoenix Perspective’, which contains some of the most loved stories from Phoenix Newsletters, after learning that some of our biggest fans did not have constant access to the Internet and went through great lengths to read the stories. With the help of founders and organizations, I managed to bring this book to these youths and also 1000+ other youths from 20+ countries around the globe. I hope to be able to continue interviewing founders and share their origin stories, on a new website, to reach even more future founders from around the world.”

Carole Treston/Association of Nurses in AIDS Care

To jump-start a Covid-19 program to produce cheap informational videos and distribute them to their nurse network for better information and greater safety, including for patients.

Kyle Redelinghuys

“Right now, the main sources of data for Coronavirus are CSV files and websites which make the data fairly inaccessible to work with for developers. By giving easy access to this data more products can be built and more information can be shared. The API I built is an easily accessible, single source of Coronavirus data to enable developers to build new products based on COVID19 data. These products could be mobile applications, web applications and graphed data…The API exposes this data in JSON which is the easiest data format to work with for web and mobile developers. This in turn allows for quick integration in to any products. The API is also completely free to users.”

Seyone Chithrananda

17 year old from Ontario, wishes to work in San Francisco, he does computational biology with possible application to Covid-19 as well, Twitter here.  His Project De Novo uses molecular machine learning methods for novel small molecule discovery, and the grant will be used to scale up the cloud computing infrastructure and purchase chemical modelling software.

Joshua Broggi, Woolf University

To build an on-line university to bring learning programs to the entire world, including to businesses but by no means only.  His background is in philosophy and German thought, and now he is seeking to change the world.

Congratulations!

There is also another winner, but the nature of that person’s job means that reporting must be postponed.

Here are previous Emergent Ventures winners, here is an early post on the philosophy of Emergent Ventures.  You will note that the Covid-19-related work here is simply winning regular EV grants, these are not the prizes I outlined a short while ago.  I expect more prize winners to be announced fairly soon.

Emergent Ventures prize winners for coronavirus work

I am happy to announce the first cohort of Emergent Ventures prize winners for their work fighting the coronavirus.  Here is a repeat of the original prize announcement, and one week or so later I am delighted there are four strong winners, with likely some others on the way. Again, this part of Emergent Ventures comes to you courtesy of the Mercatus Center and George Mason University. Here is the list of winners:

Social leadership prizeHelen Chu and her team at the University of Washington.  Here is a NYT article about Helen Chu’s work, excerpt:

Dr. Helen Y. Chu, an infectious disease expert in Seattle, knew that the United States did not have much time…

As luck would have it, Dr. Chu had a way to monitor the region. For months, as part of a research project into the flu, she and a team of researchers had been collecting nasal swabs from residents experiencing symptoms throughout the Puget Sound region.

To repurpose the tests for monitoring the coronavirus, they would need the support of state and federal officials. But nearly everywhere Dr. Chu turned, officials repeatedly rejected the idea, interviews and emails show, even as weeks crawled by and outbreaks emerged in countries outside of China, where the infection began.

By Feb. 25, Dr. Chu and her colleagues could not bear to wait any longer. They began performing coronavirus tests, without government approval.

What came back confirmed their worst fear. They quickly had a positive test from a local teenager with no recent travel history. The coronavirus had already established itself on American soil without anybody realizing it.

And to think Helen is only an assistant professor.

Data gathering and presentation prize: Avi Schiffmann

Here is a good write-up on Avi Schiffmann, excerpt:

A self-taught computer maven from Seattle, Avi Schiffmann uses web scraping technology to accurately report on developing pandemic, while fighting misinformation and panic.

Avi started doing this work in December, remarkable prescience, and he is only 17 years old.  Here is a good interview with him:

I’d like to be the next Avi Schiffmann and make the next really big thing that will change everything.

Here is Avi’s website, ncov2019.live/data.

Prize for good policy thinking: The Imperial College researchers, led by Neil Ferguson, epidemiologist.

Neil and his team calculated numerically what the basic options and policy trade-offs were in the coronavirus space.  Even those who disagree with parts of their model are using it as a basic framework for discussion.  Here is their core paper.

The Financial Times referred to it as “The shocking coronavirus study that rocked the UK and US…Five charts highlight why Imperial College’s research radically changed government policy.”

The New York Times reportedWhite House Takes New Line After Dire Report on Death Toll.”  Again, referring to the Imperial study.

Note that Neil is working on despite having coronavirus symptoms.  His earlier actions were heroic too:

Ferguson has taken a lead, advising ministers and explaining his predictions in newspapers and on TV and radio, because he is that valuable thing, a good scientist who is also a good communicator.

Furthermore:

He is a workaholic, according to his colleague Christl Donnelly, a professor of statistical epidemiology based at Oxford University most of the time, as well as at Imperial. “He works harder than anyone I have ever met,” she said. “He is simultaneously attending very large numbers of meetings while running the group from an organisational point of view and doing programming himself. Any one of those things could take somebody their full time.

“One of his friends said he should slow down – this is a marathon not a sprint. He said he is going to do the marathon at sprint speed. It is not just work ethic – it is also energy. He seems to be able to keep going. He must sleep a bit, but I think not much.”

Prize for rapid speedy responseCurative, Inc. (legal name Snap Genomics, based in Silicon Valley)

Originally a sepsis diagnostics company, they very rapidly repositioned their staff and laboratories to scale up COVID-19 testing.  They also acted rapidly, early, and pro-actively to round up the necessary materials for such testing, and they are currently churning out a high number of usable test kits each day, with that number rising rapidly.  The company is also working on identifying which are the individuals most like to spread the disease and getting them tested first.  here is some of their progress from yesterday.

Testing and data are so important in this area.

General remarks and thanks: I wish to thank both the founding donor and all of you who have subsequently made very generous donations to this venture.  If you are a person of means and in a position to make a donation to enable this work to go further, with more prizes and better funded prizes, please do email me.

A report from the hospital front, from a reliable source

I visited *** Health Center in ***.  They are not a hospital, more like an urgent care clinic funded by the city and state. They act as triage for three area hospitals, take vital signs, can write prescriptions and send serious cases to Hospital ERs.  They have been overwhelmed with people worried about COVID-19…They had been testing people for the virus; they have run out of re-agent so they have stopped that….If they were provided with isolation beds and ventilators, could they take 20 patients?  No, it is not in their license and an application to change their license takes two years. When NYC reaches maximum hospital capacity, this clinic will not be part of the solution.

I visited [underfunded public health consortium] in ***, which was at the forefront of the response to H1N1 in 2009 and Sandy in 2012.  They typically see 150 ER patients a day; during H1N1 they averaged 350 at the peak; they think they will be over 1000 during COVID-19….There is no such thing as a “test kit” which tests for the virus; when people talk about those kits, such as those dropped onto that cruise ship, they are talking about a nasal swab packaged with some reagent, which is then mailed to a facility with a Polymerase Chain Reaction Machine that can look for the RNA from the virus.

You can find PCR machines on eBay for $25,000; such a machine is labor intensive and can do maybe 10 tests a day.  The hospital complex I visited, which has been designated a testing center, has been swabbing about 200 people a day and receiving multiples of that number from other hospitals. The vast majority they are sending off to a federal lab.  Two weeks ago the turnaround time was three days; now it is five to six.

There are much faster machines.  The Roche Cobas 6800 can do 3000 tests a day with very little human interaction; it costs $500k a year to rent, which is way outside a poor hospitals’s budget (while still not providing sufficient testing for the receiving area in the coming months.) Outside their budget until today, when we gave that money (I specified first year only, though they should be sure to ask in a year) as part of a larger check.  We also gave money for 10 transport ventilators with two ports, 20 isolation beds, the money to hire 14 nurses for round the clock coverage of those beds for 6 weeks, and other things that they need.  Overall it was a $1 million check, with a promise to talk to them in a week to cover anything we might have missed and to talk to them whenever they ask during the crisis.  Overall, I was pretty happy with the visit.  They were stunned, they work in a bureaucracy where everything takes 3 years.

One thing that they can’t get enough of is N-95s [face masks]. The first thing that almost every doctor I talked to mentioned was the frustration at having to re-use N-95’s, not for multiple patients, but for multiple days.

Again, here are the Emergent Ventures prizes to encourage work to support work to fight the coronavirus, and please support them if you can.

Covid-19 India prize (post with fixed links)

It goes to the COVIN Working Group for their paper “Adaptive control of COVID: Local, gradual, and trigger-based exit from lockdown in India.”

As India ends its lockdown, the team, led by Anup Malani, has developed a strategy to inform state policy using what is called an adaptive control strategy.  This adaptive control strategy has three parts.  First, introduction of activity should be done gradually.  States are still learning how people respond to policy and how COVID responds to behavior.  Small changes will allow states to avoid big mistakes.  Second, states should set and track epidemiological targets, such as reducing the reproductive rate below 1, and adjust social distancing every week or two to meet those targets.  Third, states should adopt different policies in different districts or city wards depending on the local conditions.

This project provides a path that allows states to contain epidemics in local areas and open up more of the economy.  Going forward the team plans to help address shocks such as recent flows of laborers out of cities and estimate how effective different social distancing policies are at reducing mobility and contact rates.

This project has 14 authors (Anup MalaniSatej SomanSam AsherClement ImbertVaidehi TandelAnish AgarwalAbdullah AlomarArnab Sarker, Devavrat ShahDennis Shen, Jonathan GruberStuti SachdevaDavid Kaiser, and Luis Bettencourt) across five institutions (University of Chicago Law School and Mansueto Institute, MIT Economics Department and Institute for Data Systems and SocietyIDFC InstituteJohn Hopkins University SAIS, and University of Warwick Economics Department). 

Draft of the full paper is here. And for the visualizations see their website https://www.adaptivecontrol.org

Congrats to all the authors of the paper and their institutions.  And here are links to the previous Emergent Ventures anti-Covid prize winners.

And I thank Shruti for her help with this.

MRU and the Coronavirus

Many universities are moving rapidly to teach online. Tyler and I and the entire team at MRU want to do everything we can to help make the process as successful as possible not just to improve education but to help to reduce the threat from COVID-19.

First, we have created a Resources Page on Teaching Online at that page you can also find a Facebook Community Page where educators are providing lots of tips and resources not just on videos but on how to use Zoom and other tools. Here, for example, is an excellent twitter thread on teaching online from Luke Stein that covers hardware, software, and techniques.

Second, If you are using Modern Principles, our textbook, and want to move online, Macmillan will do that for you for free, very rapidly, and including online tests, homework etc. If you want to move online from a different book, send Tyler or myself an email and we can discuss the best ways to do that.

Third, MRU has hundreds of videos which are free for anyone to use. Most notably our courses on Principles of Microeconomics and Principles of Macroeconomics but a lot more as well. You can search for MRU videos here. Here is a “greatest hits” list.

MRU is, of course, not the only source of excellent teaching material. Here are some others:

One place to begin might be to explain to your students the mathematics of why universities and schools are closing despite relatively few deaths to date in the United States. As always, this 3Blue1Brown video is excellent.

Addendum: See also Tyler’s important announcement on EV Prizes.