Silicon Valley has created a model for identifying and nurturing high-potential young companies. Pioneer, an experimental fund, hopes to do much the same thing for high-potential people.
The group, which was announced last week, 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.
Pioneer joins a growing number of efforts by foundations, nonprofits and some companies to address the “opportunity gap” in America and worldwide. They all begin with the recognition that skills and talent are far more evenly distributed than opportunity. Talented people suffer — one study called them “lost Einsteins” — but so does the economy from the loss of ideas and wealth they could have produced.
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 one another’s projects, points will be awarded and there will be a leaderboard. Subject experts will also vote, with their votes counting somewhat more than the candidates’.
The initiative is inspired partly by Gross’ personal experience. When he was an 18-year-old student at a military prep school in Israel, Gross, on a whim, sent in an idea to Y Combinator, the prominent startup incubator. To his surprise, he was accepted and departed for Silicon Valley. “That changed my life,” Gross recalled.
In 2013, Apple bought his fledgling company, Cue, a predictive search startup. Gross spent four years at Apple, leading several projects and departed last year to join Y Combinator. Gross will retain a link to Y Combinator, but his main commitment now is to Pioneer, he said.
Many of the proposals coming into Pioneer will likely be for technology and startup ideas. But Pioneer is looking for innovators broadly. So far, it has lined up advisers to act as online or in-person mentors in nine categories including the arts and humanities, diversity, economics, music and philosophy. Pioneer is seeking more expert advisers.
The winners of the monthly tournament will receive $5,000 grants and plane tickets to San Francisco. They will stay for a week or more, meeting with each other, the advisers and others in the Bay Area.
Pioneer, Gross acknowledged, is an experiment that will start small. The first group, he said, will probably be six to 12 people. A new group of pioneers will be admitted each month, and, if successful, Gross said, could eventually increase to hundreds a month.
The several million dollars to sustain Pioneer for its first year have come from Stripe, an online payments processing startup, and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who grew in Wisconsin and co-founded Netscape, which introduced the first successful web browser, when he was 22.
Pioneer is not a conventional investment fund in the sense that investors seek big payouts. It has a long-term plan to become self-sustaining, by taking a small stake in companies that emerge from Pioneer projects. But any proceeds will be put back into the Pioneer initiative, Gross said.