A Behind-The-Scenes Look at Emergent Ventures so Far

Q&A With Tyler Cowen

Now that the Emergent Ventures Fellowship (EV) has approved grants for multiple recipients, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to sit down with the program’s central decision-maker, Tyler Cowen, and get his thoughts on how the project is progressing.

For those thinking of applying, what is the process actually like?

The application process is designed to be fairly painless. We only ask for 1,500 words, though I occasionally have follow-up questions or requests for more information.

You might think of the “software” for the project consisting of paper, pen, and several piles of printed applications stacked in my home. It’s a retro approach, but for now it seems to be working. I read all the proposals and try to respond in a timely manner. When it makes sense, I reach out to other “referees” to get their view, and then I make a final decision. That’s it.

We’re at the point now where we can probably call those who have received grants the “first class” for EV. Can you share with us some examples from that class? What kinds of projects are receiving grants?

The applicants are extremely diverse. They range from a small travel grant to a University of Maryland economics student to a larger grant supporting the Center for Innovative Governance. The latter aims to create the world’s first charter city.

The cohort also includes a teenager in India who is designing brain-computer interfaces to help those with disabilities manipulate and move objects.

Perhaps one of our more unique applicants was a senior editor at a major US newspaper who wrote a detailed proposal requesting career advice instead of money.

We also have one in-residence Fellow, Eric Lofgren, who spent nearly a decade working at the Pentagon on weapon systems acquisitions and regulatory policy. He’ll be building on that research, applying classical liberal and market insights to defense acquisition systems.

If those are the kinds of applications that have been accepted, can you tell us a little bit more about applications you’ve rejected, and why you did so?

Marginal applications fall into a number of categories. They may be ambitious and interesting, but lack sufficient detail to convince me that they are feasible. Or they may seem rather smart, but fall into areas where there has already been plenty of capital thrown around, or are otherwise a bit too crowded.

Still others simply failed to follow the application process instructions.

It is important to note that I have encouraged some individuals to reapply in the future.

What does the future of EV look like? Is the hope to grow the fellowship?

Because so much of my own time and attention is required with the current model, I do not see EV scaling dramatically by increasing the amount of money or the number of grants we provide tenfold.

A better, and more realistic, possibility is that the model serves as an inspiration for other philanthropy-minded individuals who might raise money for their own version of the fellowship. One can imagine public intellectuals like Steven Pinker or Paul Krugman representing a diversity of opinions and approaches at least trying out the approach.