Year-End Reflections 2021 – A Choice of Story

December 22, 2021

Dear friends of Schmidt Futures:

“You are a born storyteller,” said the old lady. “You had the sense to see you were caught in a story, and the sense to see that you could change it to another one.” – A.S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye

As 2021 ends, we have a choice about the story we want to tell about the world. 

We can tell a story of success, or we can tell one of failure. In a triumph for science, more than half the world has been vaccinated against COVID-19 – with more than eight billion doses of vaccines that did not exist two years ago.  At the same time, fewer than 8% of people in low-income countries have received even one dose. 

We can tell a story of hope, or a story of fear.  The world came together in Glasgow to talk about climate change. The commitments probably weren’t enough.

And so on.

As Omicron spreads, as poverty deepens, as the Arctic melts, as disparities persist, as misinformation travels unchecked, it is easy to wonder whether we will be the generation to fail.  Whether democracy will die. Whether nihilism is rational.  

Let’s have the sense to see we can change this story to another one – to engineer possibility.

At Schmidt Futures, we scour the Earth for the next visionaries, betting early on the power of their ideas to solve hard problems in science and society. 

Yes, we see many challenges in the world.  Yes, we are tired and sometimes afraid like everyone else.  But we also see new and unusual partners coming together for collective action.  We see exceptional people rising, with new ideas to help others.  We see results.

The future is in our name. It is more than a description. It is a commitment that we stand by.

Collective action is alive

In 2021 we saw unlikely partners coming together across sectors, across fields, and across geographies.  Some examples of the partnerships that Schmidt Futures has formed or joined this year include:

  • Uniting philanthropy. The Families & Workers Fund brought together more than 20 different philanthropies to provide emergency relief to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable workers and families whom COVID hit the hardest – unlocking more than $100 million of funding for both individuals and small businesses as they work to rebuild their lives.
  • Crossing fields and geographies. The Eric & Wendy Schmidt Center at the Broad Institute, backed by a $150 million gift by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, was established to promote interdisciplinary research between the data and life sciences to transform biology and ultimately improve human health. The effort specifically creates and supports a global network of scientists across fields, both inside and outside the Broad Institute.
  • Piloting cross-sector models. Convergent Research, the first member of the Schmidt Futures Network, was formed to build a new model for innovative R&D called “focused research organizations” (FROs). Led by Schmidt Futures Innovation Fellow Adam Marblestone, Convergent Research creates FROs to join top talent from academia, industry, and startups for fundamental research that requires unusual levels of scale and coordination yet is not rapidly monetizable by industry. The initial pilots are focused on neuroscience and synthetic biology.
  • Encouraging commitments to action. Data Science for Everyone, inspired by Schmidt Futures Innovation Fellow Steve Levitt, has mobilized more than 270 diverse stakeholders to make commitments to data science education. These commitments from groups as varied as IBM, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the San Francisco 49ers football team, currently cover more than 3 million students and 25,000 teachers across 500 districts.

Wendy & Eric Schmidt, February 2021

Just this month, we are also proud to announce an unusual and exciting new partnership between our program Rise and the NBA.  As the anchor program of a broader $1 billion philanthropic commitment from Eric and Wendy Schmidt to support global talent, Rise is a global initiative of Schmidt Futures and the Rhodes Trust that finds exceptionally talented young people who need opportunity and supports them throughout their lives as they work to serve others.  More than 50,000 extraordinary young people from 170 countries joined our talent network this year through applications to Rise; our first class of 100 Global Winners, from 42 countries, will convene in 2022 to begin lifelong commitments to serving others. 

NBA Africa will work together with us to encourage youth ages 15-17 from across Africa and around the world to apply in the next rounds of competition. For example, NBA players will create special programming for Rise applicants and offer unique engagement opportunities for finalists.

NBA Africa & Rise Video, December 2021

In addition, our co-founder Eric Schmidt partnered with Henry Kissinger, the 56th Secretary of State, and Daniel Huttenlocher, inaugural Dean of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, to explore the question of what it means to be human in a world of artificial intelligence.  The partnership at the heart of their book The Age of AI: and Our Human Future demonstrates why it is so important for people from across government, business, philanthropy, and academia, to work together on hard problems that matter to all of us.

To advance multidisciplinary research and learning on the impact of AI on society, Eric and Wendy Schmidt supported the creation of the Schmidt Program on AI, Emerging Technology, and National Power at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs beginning in fall 2022.

Exceptional people produce results

At Schmidt Futures, we advance collective action to accelerate and scale the work of exceptional people with new ideas. We are building a network of the sharpest minds on Earth — helping them to solve hard problems by connecting them across fields, bringing multiple types of capital to bear, and applying modern tools and technology thoughtfully.  Just a few of the results for science and society that we are most proud of this year include: 

  • Two Schmidt Futures grantees, David MacMillan and Josh Angrist, won the Nobel Prizes in chemistry and economic science.  We support MacMillan’s work through the Princeton DataX program, which accelerates Princeton researchers’ use of artificial intelligence and machine learning.  We support Angrist’s work through Avela, which works to improve the education of 600 million students worldwide living in large cities that would benefit from unified enrollment systems.
  • A protein design lab developed new approaches to creating custom proteins that, among other things, can protect cells from COVID-19. PI David Baker was awarded “Breakthrough of the Year” by Science magazine just last week for this work. 
  • A South African virology lab we support through the Vaccine Information Network led the early detection of Omicron, as well as the subsequent early-stage immunological and epidemiological studies of the variant that is now traveling to every part of the world. This infectious disease unit has been called by CNN the “lab at the coalface of the COVID response.” We support VIN and its members on overcoming vaccine hesitancy and other related matters, including general support.
  • Schmidt Science Fellow alumna (and recent Forbes 30 under 30 awardee for healthcare) Shriya Srinivasan and her team invented iSave, a system that allows one ventilator to be shared safely by multiple COVID-19 patients – and which is now in use in Indian hospitals. 
  • The Commission to Reimagine New York, chaired by Eric Schmidt, successfully advanced first-in-the-nation legislation to make broadband universally available and accessible in New York, helping to increase access for seven million New Yorkers.
  • Schmidt Futures, the Ford Foundation, and New York State launched a supplementary emergency fund to provide approximately 50,000 students in economically disadvantaged New York school districts with free internet access.
  • The Commission’s work also helped direct more than $1 billion to help small businesses and others to recover from the pandemic, to educate and train workers for high-growth jobs, and to increase access to telehealth services for rural and underserved citizens.
  • Project Benjamin, one of the winners of our Alliance for the American Dream, received scale-up funding from the state of Arizona to serve every high school senior in the state as part of a broader goal to raise net incomes. Young people who used the AI-powered chatbot in their applications for federal student aid completed those applications at a rate 14%  higher than the state average.  
  • More than 1,000 Afghan civil society leaders, women’s advocates, journalists, and students were airlifted to safe places in Albania, Iraq, and elsewhere through efforts we supported both during and after the fall of Kabul.  Much of the work was performed directly by the Afghan Future Fund, a partnership between Schmidt Futures and the Yalda Hakim Foundation and a sponsored project of RPA – and accelerated through the assistance of our International Strategy Forum fellows.

In 2021, we were also honored to have been selected by the governments of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan to lead the new Quad Fellowships – a first-of-its-kind program to bring together exceptional masters and doctoral students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from each of the four countries to study in the United States. Founding sponsors of the fellowship program include Accenture, Blackstone, Boeing, Google, Mastercard, and Western Digital. Announced by President Biden at the first-ever Quad Leaders’ Summit, the program will launch in 2022.

Join us in 2022 

We named ourselves Schmidt Futures not only because we work to create better futures for more people, but also because we believe that people themselves – society’s most precious asset – are the futures investment most worth backing. 

The answers to the world’s toughest challenges already exist inside the imaginations of the world’s brightest minds. This is the story we choose to tell: we will bet long on human ingenuity every time.

Faced with a choice between action or inaction, courage or caution, we look forward to another year ahead of joining with others to bet on the exceptional. 

Thank you to you — our partners, advisors, grantees, and friends.  Thank you to our team members in New York, Washington, D.C., London, and all around the world.  Thank you to our founders Eric and Wendy Schmidt, whose vision and commitment make all of this work possible. 

Best wishes from all of us at Schmidt Futures for a happy and healthy holiday season – and another year ahead of taking on hard problems in science and society, together.

Eric Braverman



A selection of ideas from Schmidt Futures’ founders and team members in 2021