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We desire your Brains
Announcing an accelerator for ambitious research ideas
We’re excited to announce Brains: an accelerator for research leaders developing ambitious concepts that don’t fit neatly into a single academic lab or startup. Ideas like: what if we could make products directly from atmospheric carbon, reduce the cost of solar panels by 10x, or transform archeology by scanning the world with ground-penetrating radar?1 Brains is a 13-week program to help these talented individuals refine those ideas, build the skills and networks to run them successfully, and then connect with organizations or funders who can provide a place to execute on them in government, nonprofits, and beyond.
Coordinated research programs that don’t fit into normal institutional buckets are responsible for a lot of human flourishing: from the internet to mRNA vaccines to entire fields like molecular biology. Recently, there has been renewed interest in creating new institutions for enabling this kind of invention and discovery both in government (ARPA-H,ARPA-I,NCADE, ARIA, SPRIND) and nonprofits (AERDF, Convergent Research, SpecTech). These programs depend on leaders who simultaneously have a critical balance of skills, agency, competence, and vision.
However, there’s a gap between people who might be great research leaders2 and being in a position to actually fund and lead impactful research programs. For the most part, the people who wind up at ARPAs, Focused Research Organizations and other places are already in their ecosystems through sheer luck; there are many people who would be amazing at the job who have neither considered it nor been considered. The default path for people with ambitious research-adjacent ideas is to either run an academic lab or start a startup: there’s a grain of truth in the simplistic view that the world is divided into “academia and industry.” But testing ambitious ideas and getting them into the world often requires unusual leaders and consortia: we need more talented brains going down these third paths.
Even when people find themselves running a coordinated research program, they need new skills to succeed. There are few experiences that help develop the unique skillset of technical precision, indirect people coordination, and hustle the role requires. While on-the-job training exists, success requires baseline skills that enable leaders to hit the ground running.
The skillset’s scarcity and difficulty of assessing who has it also means that it’s incredibly hard for organizations to find great leaders for these ambitious programs. Because there are only a few experiences that prepare people, it means that there are only a few ponds to fish in, and they are quickly depleted.
The goal of the Brains Accelerator is to change all this.
A good analogy might be the state of startups until the mid 2000s. Creating a company was a mysterious and difficult process unless you already knew someone doing it. As a result, many entrepreneurs never realized their potential. Startup accelerators like YCombinator showed that it is possible to drastically increase the quality of entrepreneurship, both directly in their cohorts and the world as a whole, with what is now a widely-followed playbook.
It’s ambitious, but we hope to do something similar for non-startup, non-academic innovation: both through the direct impact of helping talented individuals execute on their ideas within existing private or government institutions (or creating their own!) but also showing people more broadly that this is something you can do and here is generally how to do it.
Concretely, Brains is a 13-week, part-time, remote program3 to take researchers with good ideas and provide the skills and opportunities to translate those big ideas into big impact. These are people with visions of ways to upend everything from the way we make carbon-based products to how we interface with the brain to how we do science all together.
Brains will support them with:
Training — Calibrating risk and reward, thinking at the level of coordinated programs, and using best practices for program design and management.
Mentorship — Experienced mentors from DARPA and beyond will help rapidly mature participants and refine ideas for execution and impact.
Networks — Brains will connect participants to funders, partners, and peers; ultimately helping determine where to execute – whether a government ARPA, an existing nonprofit, or a new non-profit startup.
The program has a heavy emphasis on case studies, mentorship, peer-to-peer learning, and outputs. Case studies of successful (and unsuccessful!) programs are critical because each program is so deeply context dependent that a traditional teaching structure just wouldn’t cut it. Mentors will help participants figure out which ideas apply to their own context. At the end of the day, the point of all of it is the impact from great people executing on coordinated research programs, so we will judge our success by what participants go on to do. Everything else in the program is designed to be in service of that goal.
If you know anybody who should be running a coordinated research program or want to know more, check out the Brains website — applications are now open. If you or your organization wants to be involved, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re excited to unleash more brains on the world’s biggest problems and possibilities!
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It’s hard to give good examples because the best ambitious goals are unintuitive!
There’s no great umbrella term for this kind of role: it’s variably called “program manager” “program director” and a long tail of other things at different organizations.
People who should join are all over and generally have jobs!