This blog received money from Tyler Cowen’s Emergent Ventures program. Emergent Ventures (EV) describes itself as ‘a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center, [that] seeks to support entrepreneurs with highly scalable, “zero to one” ideas for meaningfully improving society.’
I think this is actually not strictly true. I've met plenty of people who got an EV grant who aren’t working on a project that they believe will meaningfully improve society in the near future. They might be working on a cool thing they want to pursue for a year, or perhaps they received a grant for general career development. I think what the grant is actually designed to do is get money into the hands of talented people, whether they have a big idea or not. (Although, obviously, people with big ideas should apply.)
So, who should apply to Emergent Ventures? What’s the application process like? How much money can you expect to receive? Since applying to EV, I’ve encouraged a few others to apply, and many have had the same questions, so I thought I would write an FAQ and encourage readers of Samstack to apply.
Who should apply to Emergent Ventures?
You, probably! The cost of applying is very low, and the potential upside is high. But more specifically: the people most likely to receive EV grants are talented young people, and especially talented young people who can write well. You should also be ambitious. The application consists of only one page explaining what your idea is, but ‘the idea’ can be anything really: a blog, a podcast, a start-up idea, a book idea, or whatever else. If you go to Marginal Revolution and search ‘cohort’ (or click the link here), you can see what past winners have received money to do.
There are several categories of people I’ve met with an EV grant, with some overlap between them. I think of the categories roughly as: people who are talented writers and communicators, people who have start-ups, very young people who are figuring out what to do in life, and random miscellaneous people doing interesting stuff.
Writers and communicators usually have a Substack or podcast (or are writing a book), ‘people who have start-ups’ needs no further explanation (although note that start-up here can refer to either a typical start-up or some variant on a start-up - think-tanks and non-profits are included here), the very young people are often economics/maths superstars who are about to begin at Cambridge/MIT/Harvard/Stanford or wherever. I don’t think Tyler actually consciously selects for young people going to those universities, but the most talented people generally are going to those universities.
From a selfish perspective, loads of the people who get the grant are working on tech start-ups or AI safety/capabilities stuff. I would love to meet more people who write weird blogs, write art/literature/film criticism, etc. So if you do one of those things, apply!
How much money will I get?
Depends on your project, and why you need the money. If you’re in the ‘very young person’ category, I reckon you might get between $5k and $10k. Otherwise, the median amount seems to be around $15k to $20k, but some projects receive significantly more than that if they really are highly scalable and from someone with a track record of success. But I’m not really sure here, I only know what I got and around 20 other people who were willing to tell me what they got.
What’s the application process like?
You have to fill in a one page form. You’re writing a proposal of no more than 1500 words. Here is what you have to write about (copied from the Emergent Ventures website):
The first part of the proposal should be about you. Tell us your personal story, and how it relates to what you wish to do. We probably don't care much about your formal education, credentials, or awards, unless they're particularly germane to who you are or your idea. Do tell us your background briefly, but credentials are not what will impress us.
Second, what is one mainstream or "consensus" view that you absolutely agree with? (This is our version of a "trick" question, reversing the now-fashionable contrarianism.)
The third part should be about your idea. Convince us that this is a great idea worth investing in, and tell us what is new or unusual in your vision and understanding. What's the problem you intend to solve? If you have a ballpark budget (with revenue sources and expenses), let us know the bare basics now; we won't hold you to it strictly.
You can read my application here. You can read my friend Pradyumna’s application here. After you apply, you may receive an email from Tyler Cowen inviting you to a Zoom call. You’ll probably receive the email quickly if you’re successful (and presumably unsuccessful?), so be prepared for an interview the day after you send your application.
I think I performed pretty badly in the interview, but I still got the grant. My general impression is that conditional on you getting an interview, the chance that you receive the money is very high (~80% or so? Unsure). From talking to other people, it seems like the question you’re most likely to be asked is ‘how ambitious are you?’, and you should only apply if you have a convincing answer to that question.
When I had my interview, I was asked about my view that the returns to education are mostly not from signalling (read more on my view here). If I remember correctly, Tyler’s question was ‘what do you make of the view that the signalling thesis can’t be right, because employers can spot who is talented fairly quickly?’, referring to the point he makes on MR here. I didn’t really have anything convincing to say about that, because I wasn’t expecting a question that takes my side of the argument, and also because I’m not too familiar with the literature on employer learning about employee productivity. Regardless, I got the grant.
What are the benefits of getting an EV grant?
Well, money. But if you don’t need the money, is there any point applying? I think there is. The first benefit is that you get to go to the yearly Emergent Ventures Unconference. You will be flown out to either India or the US (probably in Virginia/DC), and meet a load of interesting people working on various projects. It’s fun, you can read more about it here or here. You get to eat a lot of nice food, too.
The second benefit is that it probably functions as a good signal of ability in the right circles. I’ve recommended it to undergraduates I know because I think if they end up trying to work for an EA org or some other rationalist or Progress Studies Org, having an EV grant will be beneficial in their application. I’m not certain that this is true, but I suspect that it is. And even for employers who have never heard of Emergent Ventures, receiving a decently sized grant of any kind is probably a good signal, right?
What are the downsides of applying?
There aren’t many. You can apply multiple times, so a failed application doesn’t mean you won’t get the grant in the future. A bruised ego, maybe? Filling out the application form itself doesn’t take that much time. You should make sure the writing in your application is good, because you’ll be judged on that (and obviously that applies especially if you’re applying for a grant for your writing).
I think the percentage of people who get accepted is 10% or so, so it’s far from a sure thing that you’ll get it. Rather arrogantly, I think readers of this blog have a significantly better chance than the average applicant, so maybe your chance is more like 30%.
What steps should I take before applying?
I don’t think there’s anything that’s completely necessary, but reading/skimming Tyler Cowen’s book Talent will at least let you know the sort of person he is looking for and what the interview process will be like. Watching his interview with Russ Roberts on Talent is also worth doing, perhaps as an alternative to reading the book.
Should I apply?
This was super interesting. I really loved the application doc you wrote as well. Congrats on getting the grant.