The Rethink Priorities Existential Security team: Founder in Residence hire

$0raised of $189914 goal
08/02/2023date created
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Project summary

Our Team: The main focus of the Rethink Priorities Existential Security Team (XST, formerly the General Longtermism team) is helping launch entrepreneurial projects that aim to reduce existential risk from AI. 

  • We think of our work in this area as being in three distinct buckets: project research, founder search, and founder support. 

  • Our current major goal is to help launch one new highly promising project by the end of November 2023. 

  • See here for more information on our current work, here for a summary of our work in 2022, and here for our strategy for 2023.

Planned Use of Funds: We’re asking for funding to hire a Founder in Residence on a 12 month temporary contract. The person filling this role would be an in-house entrepreneur, investigating a certain sub cause area within existential risk, developing potential project ideas, and eventually founding a project idea they think is particularly promising and where they have a great fit. By hiring them to our team, we’d provide them with the time and stability to carefully investigate an area and potentially pivot from their initial ideas.

Feel free to email ben [at] rethinkpriorities dot org with any requests for further information.

What are this project's goals and how will you achieve them?

We want to explore various methods for helping launch projects tackling existential risk. One program we’d like to run is a founder in residence program: we want to trial giving someone the relative stability of a 12 month contract and the space and freedom to deeply understand a narrow sub area within existential risk, identify a project that they think should exist in the space and that they’d be a good fit for, and then found that project. 

We will provide the Founder in Residence with management support, advice from relevant experts, and operational support through the Rethink Priorities Special Projects as they launch their project.

Funding for the Founder in Residence hire will allow us to run this trial, allowing us to potentially commit more strongly to the founder in residence program or to pivot away from it and focus our resources elsewhere.

The Founder in Residence model differs from our main pipeline for helping launch projects tackling existential risk, which is described here.

How will this funding be used?

The funding would go towards the Founder in Residence’s salary, operational costs, and a budget for expenses such as travel (detailed breakdown available on request).

Who is on your team and what's your track record on similar projects?

XST consists of 5 staff, with the team lead reporting into Peter Wildeford. The team includes experienced generalist researchers within longtermism and existential risk, as well as EA-related entrepreneurial experience, such as Research Manager Renan Araujo founding Condor Camp, a longtermist talent search organization focused on Brazil. See the bottom of this page for our bios. 

See this EA Forum post for a summary of our work in 2022, and see this EA Forum post for a list of 20 promising project ideas tackling existential risk we identified earlier this year.

What are the most likely causes and outcomes if this project fails? (premortem)

  • XST fails to provide the Founder in Residence with a sufficiently good environment for them to succeed within the role. We haven’t previously run a founder in residence program and we might fail to provide the Founder in Residence with adequate support or other resources. 

    • Outcome: the Founder in Residence doesn’t launch an impactful project, we don’t learn as much as we could have from running the program, possibly the Founder in Residence has a bad experience.

    • Note that we will devote significant effort to designing the program in a sensible way and get outside advice from people with experience running similar programs.

  • The Founder in Residence fails to identify a project within their chosen area that seems worth trying to found.

    • Outcome: the Founder in Residence doesn’t launch an impactful project, but we potentially still learn valuable things from running the program.

  • The Founder in Residence launches one or several projects, but none of these are successful in the medium term.

    • Outcome: the Founder in Residence doesn’t launch an (ultimately) impactful project, but we potentially still learn valuable things from running the program.

What other funding are you or your project getting?

The team’s existing funding is drawn from multiple small and large donors, and we are currently fundraising for the team more broadly and have submitted proposals to multiple donors for this. Please get in touch via ben [at] rethinkpriorites dot org if you’d like to discuss this further.

Austin avatar

Austin Chen

4 months ago

Hi Ben, appreciate the application and I'm personally interested in the XST approach here. I have a deep question about whether "founder in residence" as a strategy works at all. I have met a few such "FIR" individuals (usually attached to VC firms), but I'm not aware of any breakout startups in tech that have been incubated this way; they always seem to have been founder-initiated. Some more evidence is that the YC batch where founders applied without ideas seemed to go badly. From Sam Altman:

YC once tried an experiment of funding seemingly good founders with no ideas. I think every company in this no-idea track failed. It turns out that good founders have lots of ideas about everything, so if you want to be a founder and can’t get an idea for a company, you should probably work on getting good at idea generation first.

Of course it's plausible that longtermist startups thrive on different models of incubation than tech ones. Charity Entrepreneurship seems to do fine by finding the individuals first and then giving them ideas to work with?

Also, do you have examples of individuals you'd be excited to bring on for the FIR role? (Ideally people who actually would actually accept if you made them the offer today, but failing that examples of good candidates would be helpful!)

bensnodin avatar

Ben Snodin

4 months ago

Thanks for the thoughtful comments! Re whether the founder in residence approach works -- I do think the story could be quite different for the longtermist space compared to the for-profit space, because there are some significant differences between those two areas (but experiences from the for-profit space do provide info so I think it would be a mistake to ignore those experiences). At this stage it seems worth testing out this model and seeing how well it works in practice here (rather than doing additional theorizing or doing nothing in this area).

I don't have particular names immediately in mind that seem obviously fine to share (though 1+ people have expressed interest over the past few months who seem like they could be great candidates)