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 successful in a social way, but if it’s something that’s just crazy and brilliant and has no kind of practical value, that’s fine.

It’s a pleasure for us to go through the submissions that we get. It’s a great motivator for us, personally, to pick the one we want to see in the world, maybe because it has some great value or maybe because we just think it’s really great and really fun. To be in a position to be able to make that happen is a really enjoyable experience for us as trustees, and we hope that by highlighting some of these projects, it will enable people to follow through on them but also inspire people to do projects of their own that are like this. The goal really is to see more awesome stuff in the world.

X: Can you back up a bit and explain how the Awesome Foundation actually runs?

JP: Each trustee chips in $100 per month, and typically each chapter has 11 or 12 members. One of those members is typically the “Dean of Awesome.” That person, instead of contributing money, contributes some time to handling logistics, wrangling people about meetings, getting their selections in, and setting up the party for the grant award.

The grants are monthly. It used to be that we would have the applications open for a couple of weeks at the beginning of the month and then cut them off, but now we leave it open all the time. We have a central database of submissions, and people go and review them, and the chapter gets together and decides by whatever process works for them on a grant to fund. Typically they have a party where the awardee, if they are in the same city, can come and talk a bit about their project. It’s a way for the community to get an understanding of what the project is.

X: How do new chapters get started?

JP: We’ve done some level of coordination to seed the chapters with people we know and trust. Because it’s just getting started, we are setting the tone for what we want the Awesome Foundation to represent. We like to have some sort of confidence that [the founders of a new chapter] are not crazy, that they are responsible and have the right mindset about the process. Beyond that, as long as we think that they can pull it off and get a chapter together, that is about the extent to which we care.

Once you get a few people on board, [the chapters] are meant to run autonomously. Each chapter is more or less free to set their own direction about what projects they want to fund and what schedule they want to get together on. It’s really the power of the organization structure that makes it work. It’s not a lot of money—it’s $100 a month per individual. For a lot of people, that’s within reach. There’s no formal process, which makes it easy to start one up. We’ve had interest from people in half a dozen more cities, and we’ve got chapters in various stages of development in Ottawa, London, Austin, Philadelphia, and Australia. Some of these might take a few months to get together, and some might be ready to go next month.

X: How did the opening of a San Francisco chapter come about?

JP: Three of the people that are doing it are Boston expats who I’m friends with. They knew about the Awesome Foundation and they reached out very early and said they would like to do this. But we wanted to hold off for a few months before we started expanding to other cities, so we had an idea about what works and what doesn’t. We started with Providence, and then New York City, and now San Francisco—but a few of the trustees in San Francisco were expressing interest in doing this back in July or August, when we started in Boston. You’re right, it’s a natural place to do it. There is so much creativity out there. They may need to have a few chapters.

X: Who are some of the people involved in San Francisco?

JP: It’s a good cross section of the community. Mitch Altman runs the Noisebridge hackerspace. Jesse Taggert is the manager of Citizen Space [a coworking space in San Francisco]. Amit Gupta started Jelly [a casual series of coworking get-togethers in over 100 cities] and wrote Photojojo and was an early BarCamp guy in New York City. Raffi Krikorian is one of the lead writers of application programming interfaces at Twitter. Brynn Evans does social search stuff and is the girlfriend of Chris Messina, the open Web standards proponent and BarCamp co-founder. Ivan Kirigin was a founder of TipJoy and is at Facebook now. Rod Begbie used to work in Boston for Bose and moved out to San Francisco to work for Slide. Kevin Adler is a co-founder of BetterGrads, a company that one of the Boston trustees started. Jesse Farmer built one of the early Facebook analytics apps.

X: Forgive me for saying this, but the description you gave a minute ago, where you have a dozen trustees who contribute $100 a month and pick their favorite applicants, almost makes the Awesome Foundation sound like a social club or an excuse for having a party every month rather than a serious effort to fund impactful projects. It reminds me a little bit of an investing club where the members each put a small amount into the kitty and invest together in stocks—more for fun or education than to make money.

JP: I would actually say the exact opposite. Certainly it’s great to get together with friends, or strangers who are interesting, and have a party. But really it’s about wanting to be of some help. It’s true, $1,000 is not a huge amount of money, but for some projects it can be all that somebody needs. Also, just as in the case of Y Combinator or TechStars, sometimes it’s not really about the money. It’s about the endorsement and the recognition and the awareness that is built around something. I’m not saying we have the world’s attention right now, but for a lot of people who apply to the Awesome Foundation, the validation and the awareness that get created around their work is actually very valuable. I think it can make a difference.

And as we find more ways to get the community engaged around this—and I’m not sure what we’ll do to do that—hopefully we’ll see a lot more stuff happening. There’s already been at least one other organization modeled after the Awesome Foundation that has started up in Chicago, called ScaleWell. It’s exactly the same model as the Awesome Foundation, except that they fund startups and businesses. It was started by a couple of guys who were in the TechStars Boston program last summer. They have a bunch of trustees in Chicago, including Harper Reed, the former CTO at Threadless.

X: That’s interesting. Going back to what you said about the absence of any legal structure—I assume that means you don’t own the Awesome Foundation trademark, and that the Chicago group or any group could call themselves the same thing and you wouldn’t be able to stop them.

JP: Sure, I guess they could call themselves the Awesome Foundation, but they wouldn’t be on the site, where we have the chapters listed. As long as we make it clear that we expect chapters to be formed through us, with our blessing, I would hope that it wouldn’t really be an issue. There is a broad goal that we want to make sure is preserved. We’re okay with every chapter having autonomy around which grants are selected, but we want to make sure that everyone who starts a chapter is doing so within the broad-stroke framework of funding awesomeness.

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

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