Possessing exceptional talent is an innate experience–a born quality. But, applying this talent and realizing its full potential is a different experience entirely–an extrinsic and social experience requiring recognition, nurturing, and mentorship. Many individuals deemed ‘exceptional’ did not leave their mark on history without significant guidance from others, particularly other gifted people. Notable examples include writer Henry David Thoreau (mentored by Ralph Waldo Emerson), designer Yves St. Laurent (mentored by Christian Dior), mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (mentored by G.H. Hardy), and countless others.
Until now, the process of recognizing and nurturing brilliance has been driven in large part by luck, by being in the right place, with the right people, at the right time. The vision of Pioneer, a new startup launched in August 2018, is to remove luck from the genius equation–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.”
Founder Daniel Gross and his small team aim to create a systematic and scalable software platform to uncover and amplify the impact of the world’s most talented individuals by 10x, streamlining the journey from spark, to idea, to product, to results. What makes this venture so compelling, beyond its ambition, is that the background of Pioneer and its founder serves as the ultimate case study demonstrating what’s possible when everything comes together–when talent is uncovered and fostered to produce something great. This is the story of Daniel Gross and Pioneer, from its own spark and idea, to its product and results.
Gross grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household in Jerusalem, Israel. In 2010, at age 18, he applied and was accepted to the prestigious startup accelerator program Y Combinator, at which point he moved to San Francisco. Little did he know at the time that this decision would activate a positive feedback loop and series of events that in his own words have led him to “achieve far more than I ever anticipated possible for myself.” The idea Gross presented at the culmination of the Y Combinator program morphed into Cue, a cloud data search engine company that was acquired by Apple in 2013 for somewhere in the US$40-50 million range, and that today powers much of the Spotlight Search feature in Apple’s phones and computers.
In the span of a few years, Gross went from being an outsider in Jerusalem, to overseeing hundreds of people within Apple’s machine learning organization, a role he assumed following the Cue acquisition. He’s the first to acknowledge that his successes are the byproduct of several cosmic interventions that provided guidance and motivated him to take himself and his work more seriously.
These experiences had a profound impact on Gross, and after stints at Apple and a return to Y Combinator as a partner, he was inspired to once again take a chance and devote his energy and resources to a new side project: figuring out a way to systematically create and operationalize the types of interventions from which he benefitted, and to do so globally. In other words, scaling the process of finding and pushing exceptional talent around the world, and creating a future in which all those with talent and ambition are driven to make the most of their gifts.
Pioneer was born as an experiment to test this idea: that it’s possible to isolate the quality that makes someone exceptional across disciplines or domains, and that it’s possible to create an environment to cultivate this talent. In describing the experiment, Gross introduces numerous metaphors, ranging from a digital Ivy League campus to a search engine for creative outsiders to X-Men’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
Where these references intersect represents the core of the company: a home and community for extraordinary individuals. It offers an opportunity for the tens, hundreds, maybe even thousands that have the potential to do great things, but for whom the stars wouldn’t have otherwise aligned. More than that, it offers a new model for tackling global issues and moving society forward, in the hopes that the Pioneer community will go so far as to solve global warming or cure cancer.
While developing the Pioneer concept, Gross spent time examining the benefits and limitations of the environments surrounding us daily, such as cities, companies, college campuses, startup incubators, and even bars. This research reinforced just how much environments dictate an individual’s default thoughts and actions, and the potential impact the right environment can have on its members. A fundamental difference between the aforementioned types of environments including leading fellowship and accelerator programs, and that of Pioneer, is that the Pioneer environment functions completely through software, enabling greater scalability across geographies, demographics, and domains.
Gross’ ‘hidden geniuses’ project has come a long way since the idea was first conceived, receiving funding from both prominent tech investor Marc Andreessen and payments startup Stripe. It has evolved into a web platform and community combining aspects of an idea incubator, video game, and search engine. How exactly does this platform help uncover and support exceptional talent?
It begins with a simple application. Anyone in the world with an internet connection and an idea can apply to become a Pioneer. Applicants answer a few prompts, offering background about themselves and their projects. Pioneer, as a global platform, aspires to attract talent from all over the world. The team is constantly thinking up new ways to spread the word, targeting people in developing countries by advertising on research paper sites or even visa forms, as well as creating a referral program on its own site.
Following the application, players enter a 30-day tournament. Currently there’s a single tournament run each month. Over the course of this tournament, players strive to make progress on their project and to complete as many ‘quests’ as possible, ranging from tests and puzzles to weekly project status updates.
Progress is demonstrated through the accumulation of points from the completion of these tasks, as well as based on a peer voting system in which players vote on each other’s projects and even provide weekly written feedback. Scores are then displayed on both a global and regional leaderboard for all to see, and are updated throughout each tournament.
This transparency and constant sharing motivates players and creates a system of accountability. As Gross describes, the points system is meant to “quantify productivity”–to separate players who are highly productive, and who have the highest potential. Given that the platform is still in its early stages (only 3 tournaments have occurred so far), the relationship between points and productivity is constantly being tested and developed further. In the short-term, a panel of experts including renowned economists, mathematicians, CEOs, investors, and more provide a final sweep of the rankings to ensure the platform is producing meaningful results.
At the end of the 30 days, Pioneer selects the tournament winners, or ‘Pioneers,’ from the top of the leaderboard (the number of winners from each tournament varies), whom they fund with a US$1,000 investment and fly to Silicon Valley to connect with each other and expand their networks. Winners are also added to Pioneer’s internal messaging platform to form more regular and lasting connections with their peers. In the long-term, if winners end up creating companies, Pioneer has a right to provide follow-on funding and invest further up to US$100,000.
Looking ahead, Gross and the Pioneer team are continuing to experiment with the platform and add new features. This week, the company released its Board Builder feature, enabling players to select and assemble a company board from a group of qualified advisors (50-60 advisors are part of the initial pilot) based on their specific needs. Players can communicate with their board, receive points from board advisors, and rate their board based on the support each advisor provides.
Pioneer’s success depends on the ability of its software to find great people who go on to do great things. As Gross explains: “my vision is that in a couple of years for now, when we look back at the people changing the globe and pushing human society forward–building the products we love, doing celebrated research that improves our lives, and working on making the human species better–all or certainly the majority of those people are Pioneers.” The goal isn’t that every single person Pioneer finds is extraordinary, but rather that it doesn’t miss anyone that could be extraordinary. To this end, even if 10 out of 1,000 people funded and supported by Pioneer end up becoming ‘Einsteins,’ it would be a huge accomplishment for the company, and for the world.
So far, the Pioneer vision shows promise. As mentioned above, 3 tournaments have been completed, and a fourth is underway. The company’s reach extends globally, with players from over 100 countries, and around half of the players are from outside the U.S. Player ages span from teenagers to octogenarians, although the average player is in their twenties.
More importantly, the winners of Pioneer’s first tournaments have had the opportunity to flex their talents and are working on extraordinary projects across a diverse range of disciplines. James Gallagher, a 16 year old from Scotland, is working on Open Commit, a revenue generating marketplace pairing developers with expert code reviewers; Pavle Goloskokovic, a 28 year old from Serbia, is building a virtual reality adventure game for the blind; Harshu Musunuri, an 18 year old from the U.S., is creating synthetic materials to improve the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of sepsis, a leading cause of death in hospitals around the world. These exceptional innovators, and many more like them, have been found, highlighted, and motivated through the Pioneer platform.
A key indicator of Pioneer’s value is that many of its players have reapplied and participated in multiple tournaments. This speaks to the power of the platform: even for players who don’t win, Pioneer provides an environment that motivates and pushes them to “punch above their weight and take their dreams more seriously.”
As long as the company continues to attract qualified applicants and to further the development of the applicants, Gross is not worried about Pioneer’s future and long-term financial success. As Gross puts it: “we’re hunting for people with the potential to change the planet. If we accomplish this goal, there are plenty of ways for Pioneer to be a profitable company.”