Awesome Foundation, Spreading Awesomeness Across the Universe, Expands to West Coast

For Boston-area Web developers, the place to be last Friday night was the Barron Building at 614 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square. Home to Conduit Labs, Oneforty, Shareaholic, and several other Web startups, it’s become the newest pin in Boston’s entrepreneurship map. On Friday, it was the scene of a rollicking joint housewarming party for Conduit and Oneforty.

The party doubled as the award gathering for the winner of the March 2010 grant from the Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences, the Cambridge-born “microtrust” that hands out $1,000 grants to projects that “promote awesomeness.” The March awardee was Charles Fracchia, an undergraduate studying biology at Imperial College in London who’s spending a year in Boston doing an internship at Ginkgo Bioworks. Fracchia’s project is to create special cultures of microorganisms engineered to excrete “conditional inks” that change color at different temperatures.

But in addition to the bio-ink award, the Awesome Foundation had some more big news last week—the opening of a San Francisco chapter of the organization. It’s the third chapter outside Boston for the organization, which was created just last summer by Berkman Center researcher Tim Hwang and Betahouse founder Jon Pierce.

Here in Boston, the Awesome Foundation counts people like former Microsoft Startup Labs manager Reed Sturtevant as “trustees,” who contribute $100 per month toward the informal grants. The money occasionally goes to technology projects, but just as often are awarded to people with ideas for nifty or unusual stunts or temporary installations. Previous awardees have included Hansy Better Barraza, a Rhode Island School of Design architecture professor who planned to build a giant hammock on Boston Common, and Lauren McCarthy, whose wearable devices train people to have more effective social interactions.

Jon PierceChapters in Providence, RI, New York, and now San Francisco operate autonomously, according to Pierce, but with the same charge: “funding awesomeness.” I interviewed Pierce about the organization’s rapid growth last week, and have written up our talk below.

Xconomy: What attracts people to start new chapters of the Awesome Foundation?

Jon Pierce: I think it’s the fact that it celebrates awesomeness over more traditional values. Awesomeness is a quality that is very impactful. It’s sort of that sense of wonder that you experience when you first hear about it. It’s “Wow, I didn’t think that was possible.” As a foundation, that’s novel, and the fact that it’s purely individually funded, with no real organizational structure, is also appealing to people.

The fact that we’re funding people on the basis of a really short, couple-hundred-word proposal, and we don’t have a strict vetting process or layers of bureaucracy that you have to go through at a traditional grant-making organization, enables us to get some more interesting ideas, because we aren’t necessarily concerned with whether [applicants] have corporate or academic credentials. We don’t even require that the projects be “successful” in a traditional way. We do fund projects that we hope will be … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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