Clark Urzo

(Editor’s note: Here is an article from our archives which we think is still relevant)

Clark Urzo grew up in a not-so-good neighbourhood in a Philippines village. And his childhood was filled mostly with bad memories that he wants to forget in life.

The first major shocking event occurred when he was just four or five years; one of his neighbours was brutally killed in a shootout in front of his house. But it was just a beginning. When Urzo turned eight, he and his mother had to move to a police camp, as his father was bad with money management. However, he fought all odds to achieve something that many of his peers couldn’t really conquer.

“Statistically speaking, I shouldn’t be here,” Urzo tells me. “Don’t get me wrong: the Philippines is not as lawless and hopeless a land as is usually portrayed in the media. After all, I was able to go to a decent school and eat three square meals a day until I was old enough to forgo buying lunch to fatten up my piggy banks. But it wasn’t the most ideal setup, I guess, and I thank the lucky collusion of coincidences and opportunities that allowed me to survive to this day.”

Urzo, now 23, is one of the two entrepreneurs from Southeast Asia to win the Pioneer tournament —  a programme launched by Daniel Gross (whose startup Cue was acquired by Apple in 2013) and funded by Marc Andreessen and Stripe to discover the “lost Einsteins” of the world.

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Urzo was selected for creating a new programming language, which enables anyone who can code to contribute to serious physics research (for example, simulations of gravitating systems). This opens up the field to the wondrous forces of Open Source and promotes open and accountable science along the way.

The “itch” inside

From a very young age, Urzo was compulsively curious; he would see something and tinker with it until it yielded to “kid logic”, or otherwise he would be off reading books about topics that were frankly a bit over his head.

“We had this stack of encyclopaedias at home about magnetism, dinosaurs and star charts, and I read them all as best as I could. I also played pretend-scientist a lot when I was a kid, and I’m lucky I didn’t burn my entire neighbourhood down in all the times I toyed with fire and flammable substances,” he laughs.

Urzo learnt about computers while toying with gaming consoles. When he was about six, his older brother taught him how to use the ‘memory card’ of a PlayStation I, and from there he started doing all sorts of weird things to all the computers he could find.

“I got hooked especially on ‘cheat codes’ and I remember getting absolutely stumped as to why entering random hexes into the hulking machines translated into infinite money for my role-playing game characters. It was a pretty interesting (and oftentimes frustrating) ride, going from computer experimentalist to technician and the graveyard of PCs I’ve bricked is testament to that journey,” Urzo walks me through his early life.

“Eventually I learnt to code in Python when I was 12 and rediscovered my love for the sciences one year later, when I couldn’t advance in Algebra I. I had trouble grokking the concept of plotting equations when I first encountered them, so in response I discovered and found one of his really intuitive explanations of how you can get areas of figures by dividing them up into rings or bars (which is really Riemann summation in disguise),” he goes on.

In the ninth grade, he moved to a new school to curb some of his hyperactivity problems. It was a single-sex school which simultaneously operated as a seminary. “My mum couldn’t really afford to send me to a school abroad, so I opted to stay here. I decided to major in Physics instead of Computer Science (my university doesn’t allow double degrees). In the freshman year, I got wind of the whole Oculus Kickstarter and ordered from one of the first post-Kickstarter batches. Eventually, this led me to the folks over at VR Philippines, whose founding members roped me into starting a company with them.

Thus Urzo co-founded his fist company when he was just 19.

Applying for Pioneer

Urzo’s startup applied to 2018’s Y Combinator’s Startup School. Around this period, he encountered a headline ‘Lost Einsteins’ when he was looking for success stories (It was the American economist Raj Chetty, who first used this term, which refers to geniuses who would have been able to do great things had they been exposed to opportunities in the right way).

“‘Lost Einsteins’ was an interesting observation. Given the sheer abundance of talent in the world, where are all the geniuses — the groundbreaking scientists, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs?,” Urzo wonders.

“There was a paper I read way back, that looked at the variation in mathematical talent across countries as measured by performance on the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). I realised two things : 1) IMO scores reflected the underlying distribution of mathematical talent in the country, not a mere success-begets-success dynamic, and b) there was a pernicious disparity between the intellectual productivity of high-income countries vs middle-to-low income countries,” he says.

Urzo figured that it is part of a really telling pattern of absence in the modern world, like, given other plausible socioeconomic forces like the fact that high-performing people tend to clump together (in universities and other institutions where problem-solving and/or ability to compete for prestige is highly valuable), and the fact that there are very serious winner-take-all effects in various industries, like how Silicon Valley is literally three times bigger in terms of available venture capital than the next startup hub which is New York —all of these effects should lead to cities full of these Einsteins. “But we see none. And as the data suggests, it’s largely a structural problem.”

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This is when he heard about Pioneer, which is on a mission to discover the lost Einsteins of the world.

What is Pioneer?

Pioneer was started early this year. According to Founder Gross, the Pioneer programme was created to tackle the uneven distribution of wealth and opportunity around the world; using software and internet scalability to reach high-potential outsiders no matter where they may be.

“I started Pioneer in an attempt to build a community for people who feel the way I do about the world. It’s an attempt to find the most brilliant people in the world, wherever they are, and to identify cheap and scalable interventions that might help them achieve their goals. I want to provide some of the non-intuitive benefits of Silicon Valley to many more people,” says Gross.

Pioneer has been intentionally designed without strict application criteria. People all over the world can submit an idea (across any discipline) and compete in a four-week tournament to rapidly advance their startup/research/project/idea. Pioneers share weekly updates detailing the progress of their projects, allowing the community to upvote the projects that move on to the next round.

“Those at the top of the leaderboard get a final ranking from a panel of mentors—including people like Marc Andreessen (Andreessen-Horowitz), Patrick Collison (Stripe), and Balaji Srinivasan (Coinbase)—and the highest-scoring applicants become Pioneers. The selected cohort of Pioneers receive a grant of US$5,000 (with the option of receiving a US$100,000 investment), an additional US$6,000 in Stellar lumens, as well as a round-trip ticket to San Francisco to connect with one another and relevant mentors. A new tournament starts every four weeks. For the December Tournament, winners will also receive US$100,000 in Google Cloud credits and a cash grant of US$1,000,” he explains the process.

Pioneer’s first tournament attracted applicants from more than 100 countries, ranging from 12 to 87 years old, claims Gross. “We believe the world has thousands — maybe millions — of ambitious people who have the talent and creativity and just need a nudge of support to unlock their potential. Our mission is to scalably identify and nurture the creative outsiders of the world.”

In Gross’s opinion, traditional institutions like the Ivy League try to solve this problem by relying on a small set of individuals to screen thousands of applications. This doesn’t scale, he claims. And it leaves many geniuses (especially those from non-traditional backgrounds) undiscovered.

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“We’re trying something radically different. We’re trying to find these “Lost Einsteins” by building an online game — Fortnite, for productivity. Players are rewarded based on the progress they make on their project. Every month, we fund the best with a cash grant, return-ticket to Silicon Valley, and up to US$100,000 in follow-on investment,” Gross continues.

Long-term benefits

“The biggest help would be the financial security from the US$5,000 grant,” Urzo says. “My country has been hit by the worst inflation crisis in recent memory and all my bills have skyrocketed as a result. With US$5,000 in the bank I wouldn’t have to worry about going without food on some days and getting my internet cut off.”

“That said, the network of Pioneers has also served as an avenue to meet interesting people. Interacting with others doing ambitious stuff, getting constructive criticism on your projects, occasionally hearing about sudden low-hanging fruits like conferences, all of these have network effects that will only scale as the number of Pioneers grow. And of course, the success of Pioneer will also help us people from low-income countries to have a shot at improving our quality of life significantly and permanently, allowing us to pursue more ambitious projects in service of humanity,” Urzo concludes.