Helium Grant

Helium Grants were microgrants ranging from $1K to $5K, awarded to people exploring questions at the edge of mainstream thinking. Currently on hiatus.

About the grants

What are Helium Grants?

Helium Grants were $1K-$15K microgrants awarded to people exploring questions at the edge of mainstream thinking. After two years of reading ~4,000 applications and awarding nearly $40,000 in grants to 26 people, I’ve decided to put it on indefinite hiatus and focus on other projects.

What kinds of projects did you fund? Who were the grantees?

I made a point of keeping grantees anonymous for most of the program, which you can read about here, though I eventually changed my mind.

As I learned more, the funding criteria certainly evolved over the application cycles, but Helium Grants were always about funding interesting individuals (not organizations) with good ideas.

Helium funded 26 projects, which fell into the following broad categories:

  • Education and living expenses (leaving one's home state and moving to DC for an unpaid internship; finishing a bachelor's in Russia to emigrate to Canada; paying for childcare to finish a PhD thesis; building a camper van to live in while finishing a degree; finishing medical school abroad; making a career pivot into machine learning and AI; finishing an unpaid internship; covering a new researcher's moving expenses)
  • Equipment and materials (buying a new laptop to work on coding projects; buying software and a laptop to do research; buying a laptop to finish undergrad degree)
  • Projects (building a crowdsourced database to better predict the U.S. immigration process; teaching a class at a summer camp; building a mentorship program for recently resettled refugees; developing and touring a circus strongwoman act; running a peer-support group pilot in residential colleges across India; building two classrooms for refugee children)
  • Research (developing brain-computer interfaces; researching music theory; trying an experimental approach to cancer immunology, using optogenetics; researching maternal deaths in Georgia; developing smarter & cheaper CubeSats; researching effects of urban planning on child development; reverse-engineering Azolla; developing alternatives to machine vision; applying category theory to intelligence)

Where did the funds come from?

Helium Grants were a personal experiment in income distribution. After publishing the initial announcement, other people also volunteered to sponsor grants. Nearly $40,000 in grants were awarded, most of which came from other sponsors.

Why did you do this?

I think there's a shortage of funding available for people doing cool stuff, which is silly when you consider how many people have disposable income today who want to support others' work, and how easy it is to find each other on the internet. There is no patronage equivalent to angel investing!

I also strongly believe that you don't have to be rich or famous to experiment with patronage: I'm just some rando on the internet, as are most of the people who sponsored a Helium Grant.

Are you ever going to do Helium Grants again?

I don't have any plans to start up again, but you never know.

Where can I read more about your process?

I've tried to publicly document my process over the past two years. Here are the blog posts I've written about it, in reverse chronological order:

How do I start my own microgrants program?

Check out this blog post. I also created a few templates for application forms and FAQs.

Do you know of any other grant opportunities?

Yes, I've started a list. If you're aware of other microgrant programs, I encourage you to add them to that list.