The Brown Institute for Media Innovation announces “Magic Grant” funding opportunity

Deadline: March 17, 2017

Are you passionate about the role that emerging technologies can play in the future of media? Do you have a story that can only be told using technology outside the scope of traditional media? A Brown Institute Magic Grant might be for you.

Established in 2012 as a collaboration between Columbia University’s Journalism and Stanford’s School of Engineering, Brown Institute Magic Grants seed innovation in the changing media landscape.

Magic Grants provide year-long funding awards of up to $150,000 ($300,000 for teams with members of both the Columbia and Stanford communities). In addition to funding, grantees have access to a distinguished advisory and mentoring group, an extensive and inspiring alumni network.

We are looking for hardware, software, and story proposals. We are interested in projects that advance storytelling and journalism through new applications of technology. We also are interested in new tools and technologies that can be applied to the media space.

Since its founding five years ago, the Brown Institute has funded over 30 projects. An open repository for data on the Panamanian government. A multimedia documentary exploring “offline networks in Cuba and their role in supporting entrepreneurship on the island. A hotspot detector for social media feeds, highlighting important stories in a city. A tool to auto-generate rough cuts for documentary videos. A 360-video documentary on the famine in South Sudan. An augmented reality application for enhancing tours though art museums. Experiments with natural and gestural (i.e., not a joystick) interfaces to drones. A platform for helping science journalists better contextualize new research reports. And the list goes on.

For the coming grant cycle, everything from the current state of politics to the impending threat of climate change indicate storytelling and journalism is in need now, more than ever, for innovation on how we discover, create, tell, and distribute stories. 

A successful proposal clearly explains a unique idea or story and outlines a one-year plan for its realization or the development of a prototype.  Proposals go through a competitive review process. The Institute will give special preference to “bicoastal” proposals, those having team members from each university community. Funded teams are expected to work together at one or both of the Brown locations and participate in Institute events, helping build a multi-disciplinary community of researchers and storytellers.

We seek applications from teams of students, faculty, and alumni working in areas relevant to media and technology (e.g., journalism, communications and the digital humanities, as well as statistics, computer and data science, engineering, design and business). Depending on the needs of the project, teams can also include members from outside the university networks. 

To foster collaboration and team formation, as well as answer questions about the application process, the Brown Institute will host a series of information sessions, prior to the March 17 deadline. 


David and Helen Gurley Brown believed that magic happens through a unique kind of collaboration — when powerful (yet untold) stories emerge through the creation of groundbreaking technology. It is in this spirit that the institute bearing their name offers “Magic Grants” to support small, interdisciplinary teams of graduate students or postgraduates inventing new ways to inform and entertain. Successful projects might continue as ventures outside the university, and the institute has various ways to help teams on that journey.

Information Sessions

Stanford University

Wedensday, February 8 and March 1, 4pm, Gates 159. RVSP

Columbia University

Wednesday, February 8 and Monday, February 27, 6pm, Pulitzer 202 (The Brown Institute)


Stanford University

Teams of two or more graduate or postdoctoral students working in disciplines relevant to media and technology, (e.g., computer science, engineering, data science, statistics, communications, journalism, the digital humanities, design, and business) are encouraged to apply. Teams may also include an exceptionally qualified undergraduate student or a visiting student, as long as the other team members are graduate or postdoctoral students. All grant recipients must be matriculated at Stanford during the 2017-18 academic year. Magic Grants can complement fellowships or similar unrestricted funding from other sources. Students who already have partial funding for the proposed project are also encouraged to apply. Applications may be submitted directly by students, with supporting letters from faculty.

Columbia University

We seek applicants from teams of students, faculty and alumni working in areas relevant to media and technology (and specifically journalism, communications, the digital humanities, statistics, computer and data science, engineering, design and business). Depending on the needs of the project, teams can also consist of members form a journalistic or other institution, or be part of Brown’s larger creative or research communities. Magic Grant recipients, however, must spend time in residence at either Columbia or Stanford during the 2017-2018 academic year. 

We Encourage Bicoastal Teams

The Brown Institute is a unique connection between Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford School of Engineering. As such, we are particularly interested in supporting “bicoastal” Magic Grants proposals, those with teams that have at least one member associated with each university meeting the institutional eligibility requirements listed above. To seed this kind of project, we have sponsored two special networking events known as “Base Camps.” These events are held annually in November at Columbia and in January at Stanford. 

Benefits and Expectations

Each winning team will receive:

  • Funding of up to $150,000 for the 2017-18 academic year (with up to $300,000 for bicoastal teams)
  • Access to the resources of the Brown Institute. Columbia teams have 24/7 access to the Brown Institute space in Pulitzer Hall. Stanford’s Brown facilities will open in the 2017-2018 academic year.
  • Opportunity to work with the Brown Fellows and other Magic Grant recipients.

We expect that Magic Grant recipients to carry out their work in residence at the Brown Institute, either at Columbia or at Stanford, and participate in the Institute’s activities, including quarterly “All Hands” review meetings in California and New York. To promote cross-fertilization, we expect that Magic Grant recipients will collaborate with others Brown Institute members.

Application Process

Team must submit an application to be considered for a Magic Grant. Applications will be evaluated on various criteria -- the novelty of a platform or the quality of a story, the broader impact of the project, and the strength of the team. 

Each team must submit the following documents in PDF format:

(1) COVER LETTER: A signed cover letter, including proposal title and the full name, affiliation, and contact information (postal address, email address, phone) of each team member.

(2) PROPOSAL: A two-page proposal that explains:

  • The innovative idea(s)
  • Originality, uniqueness, and relation to other work in the area
  • Potential for broader impact
  • Work plan to demonstrate viability of the idea(s) within 12 months
  • Expected outcomes, results, prototypes, or media products

(3) LETTERS OF SUPPORT: Two letters of support that assess the importance of the project and its chances of success. At Stanford these should be from faculty members, preferably written by the advisors of the team members. If both team members have the same advisor, one letter suffices. At Columbia, students and alumni can submit letters from their advisor or another faculty member familiar with their work. Letters from non-faculty should identify the recommender’s relationship to the team members.

(4) RESUME: The résumé of each team member

(5) TRANSCRIPTS: The transcript of each student on the team

(6) BUDGET: A budget for 12 months not exceeding a total of $150,000. The budget can include financial support of the team members (e.g. tuition remission and salary in accordance with University guidelines); cost for specialized hardware, software, and materials; travel, services; etc. and should follow the rules of the respective university. Each line item must be justified. Do not include indirect costs/overhead. Students are urged to consult with their faculty advisor(s) and the university administration. Bicoastal teams must submit separate budgets for Columbia and Stanford, under respective rules, each individually not exceeding $150,000. Columbia applicants should use the budget template provided here. Stanford applicants should use the budget template provided here.

(7) SUBMISSION: Each team should combine their application documents—cover letter, proposal, letters of support, résumés, transcripts, and budget—into a single ZIP file. This should be uploaded by midnight PDT March 17, 2017 via:

Selection of winners.  

Judging will take place in a two-step process. First, based on the reviews of the written applications, a small number of teams will be selected as finalists at each university. Finalists will then be invited to give a formal presentation, followed by a Q&A. We encourage any supporting faculty or outside advisors to join us for the presentations and Q&A, though their attendance is not mandatory. Finalist presentations will be organized both at Columbia and Stanford. Bicoastal teams should be prepared to present at both events -- Stanford team members presenting at Stanford, and Columbia team members presenting at Columbia. Magic grant winners will be selected after the finalist presentations.


  • Proposal submission deadline: March 17, 2017
  • Announcement of finalists: March 30, 2017
  • Presentation by Columbia finalists: April 24, 2017
  • Presentation by Stanford finalists: April 28, 2017
  • Announcement of winners: April 30, 2017
  • Projects start: September 2017 (Summer 2017 by special arrangement) 


Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can the team members be from different departments?

A: Yes, of course. Multidisciplinary teams are especially encouraged.

Q: Can a team have only one member?

A: No. We ask that a team of two or more work together on forming and executing the idea.

Q: Can the same team submit more than one proposal?

A: No. We expect that you devote your undivided efforts to the project, if it is funded.

Q: Can a person be part of two different teams who submit two different proposals?

A: No, for the same reason.

Q: What happens if one or both applicants on a winning team already have financial support?

A: This is great, if this support is compatible with carrying out the proposed project. For example, if a student has a fellowship or a research assistantship from his/her advisor to work on the proposed project, we welcome this as a partial offset of cost.

Q: If one or both members of a winning team already have financial support, should this support be included in the budget?

A: No. Cost that is not funded by the Brown Institute should not be included in the budget. It also does not count against the $150,000 maximum budget. However, you should explain in your budget justification that you already have support and this particular item is therefore not included in the budget.

Q: Can Magic Grant recipients apply for a project continuation after the first year?

A: Yes, if there are compelling reasons. Proposed projects should be designed to reach their goals within one year. Follow-on proposals will have to compete with new proposals and go through the same application and review process.


Established in 2012, the Institute is a collaboration between Columbia and Stanford Universities. Our mission is simple: Sponsor thinking, building and speculating on how stories are discovered and told in a networked, digitized world.
Join our mail list.
See us on YouTube.


Brown News