Funding Founders: New Entrepreneurship Opportunities at the Brown Institute

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation is pleased to announce the winners of its inaugural “Impact Grants,” a new award for technology and media entrepreneurs  looking to scale commercial enterprises or not-for-profit ventures. This unique opportunity is made possible by a generous gift from the Helen Gurley Brown (HGB) Foundation. 

The Brown Institute, a collaboration between Columbia Journalism School and Stanford University’s School of Engineering, is celebrating ten years of investing in people and projects — exploring intersections of media and technology and building a strong public mission. With its new Impact Grants, the Brown Institute is emphasizing entrepreneurship and promoting projects that have the potential for commercial success or sustained social impact. 

Along with these new grants, the HGB Foundation has provided resources for an “Entrepreneurs in Residence” program to be created jointly at Stanford and Columbia. Participant residents will not only provide coaching to “Impact Grantees,” they will reach out to both campuses — their students, faculty and alumni — to work with potential founders as they design, pitch and implement their tech and media projects. Throughout the process, the emphasis of these new programs will be sustainable impacts, whether commercial or social.

In the inaugural year of the Impact Grants, the Brown Institute is pleased to announce four projects, each of which meets a particular need within a community or technical space. Each of these grants builds on existing “Magic Grants,” a program at the Brown Institute that provides support to students, faculty, researchers and alumni at Columbia and Stanford. The DataPlus initiative builds a funding strategy for journalistically-curated data sources, expanding on BigLocal, a 2019-2020 Magic Grant recipient. The next Impact Grant, called KRYSTL, expands on the Screenomics 2019-2020 Magic Grant. It is a two-sided data broker, purchasing streams of smartphone data from individuals and providing them personalized analysis based on their on-screen behavior.  This venture is billed as a smartphone era’s Nielsen company. 

Local Live(s), a 2020-2021 Magic Grant recipient, explores how live journalism that peels back the curtain on what it means to be a reporter can increase community engagement and trust in media. With an Impact Grant, this project  will bring events to 30 newsrooms across the country. Finally, the Documenting COVID-19 project, a 2020-2021 Magic Grant recipient, is curating a massive collection of government public records and data related to how state and local officials made decisions around the pandemic — for its Impact Grant extension, the team will look to make this and similar efforts sustainable. 

The Brown Institute was established in 2012 with a generous gift from longtime Cosmopolitan magazine editor and author Helen Gurley Brown. It was inspired by the memory of Gurley Brown’s late husband, David Brown, a graduate of both the Columbia School of Journalism and Stanford University. Through its Magic Grants and now Impact Grants, the Institute encourages unique interdisciplinary collaborations. As Gurley Brown put it, “Sharing a language is where this magic happens.”

Below are full descriptions of 2021-2022 Impact Grants as described by the participants themselves:


Big Local News: Data-Plus
Team: Cheryl Philips, Founder and Director of Big Local News, Stanford University; Serdar Tumgoren, Visiting Professor in Professional Journalism, Stanford University; Justin Mayo, Senior Data Journalist at Big Local News, Stanford University; Eric Sagara, Senior Data Journalist at Big Local News, Stanford University; Dilicia Mercedes, Data Journalist at Big Local News, Stanford University; Regina Roberts, Bibliographer at the Cecil H. Green Library, Stanford University

Big Local News proposes Data-Plus, a sustainability initiative to generate revenue through enhanced data services. In the past year, Big Local News (BLN) has become a vital resource for local journalism, from providing data related to the coronavirus to developing new automated tools to mine story tips from public documents. Stories from the data we share have informed local communities and created policy change. BLN has been successful in raising philanthropic support, but we believe we can create even more financial security thanks to the data we collect. The Data-Plus project aims to provide high-value data through a flexible automated data service (Application Programming Interface, or API). Data-Plus also will increase the discoverability and usability of BLN offerings through a data catalog backed by a knowledge graph. For journalists, the data will remain free, while commercial interests will receive data as part of a tiered membership service. This creates revenue to support the journalistic work. The Impact Grant would enable us to build out Data-Plus while exploring the optimal organizational structure for long-term sustainability. We aim to become a vital journalistic utility, with ongoing revenue that supports local accountability reporting into the future. The Impact Grant will make this work possible.

Team: Daniel Muise, Ph.D. Candidate in Communications, Stanford University

KRYSTL is a two-sided data broker, purchasing streams of smartphone data from individuals and providing them personalized analysis based on their on-screen behavior. We are the smartphone era’s Nielsen company. KRYSTL’s cutting-edge screenomics approach automatically captures and analyses a continuous recording of users’ smartphone screens: exactly what the user sees, especially cross-platform behavior. Users are directly and transparently compensated for their passive contributions. Users’ data is automatically analyzed to determine user moods, trajectories of behavior, and anomalies in usage patterns, providing psychological and social empowerment tools to the users. For our corporate subscription customers, this same method powers cutting-edge insight. Subscribers can dive deep into our automated consumer-journey analysis to track products, ads, content, or keywords as they’re each encountered by users in real time . With the Impact Grant, we plan to build out our existing concept (developed under a Magic Grant) into a freshly created app and data pipeline, with a panel of local beta-users and our first subscription. We aim for our first subscriber to be a news organization with localized interest in the Bay Area. These crucial first steps will demonstrate our viability to funders and our utility to prospective subscribers.

Local Live(s)
Team: McArdle Hankin, Co-founder/Executive Producer at Back Pocket Media (Stanford 2020); Tay Glass, Senior Producer at Local Live(s) (Columbia 2020); Allie Arnold, Story Production Fellow at Insider Inc. (Columbia 2020); Carissa Quiambao, Journalist at VICE (Columbia 2020); Lauren Peace, Reporter at Mountain State Spotlight (Columbia 2020) 

Local Live(s) aims to change how journalist’s voices are used to tell stories. Last year, our bicoastal team of alumni partnered with six newsrooms to produce live storytelling events that featured journalists sharing first-person narratives behind their reporting. 75% of attendees (over 10 events) said they were more confident in their understanding of the journalists’ process after a Local Live(s) event and 90% of attendees stayed for the entire 1-hour-virtual production. This year our team aims to scale the impact of these events — humanizing journalists and increasing trust in the reporting process — by shifting to a franchise model that will allow 30 newsrooms across the country to participate.  Our partner newsrooms will have access to our playbook from Season 1, one-on-one workshops, and sustained mentorship that will help them establish a live journalism event model.  We will also experiment with how to maximize the reach of stories told on our stage by using them as derivative content for videos and podcasts.

Documenting Covid-19 / Documenting project
Team: Derek Kravitz, Adjunct Faculty and Research Scholar, Columbia Journalism School

The Documenting COVID-19 project, funded by a 2020-21 Magic Grant, has examined decision-making about the virus by state and local officials in the face of incomplete or uncertain information. Through thousands of Freedom of Information requests, the Documenting COVID-19 project has compiled more than 275 documents and datasets from nearly every U.S. state and territory. In the process, we have built a searchable public clearinghouse to share the records with newsrooms and the public and have collaborated with more than 30 newsrooms on 75 different accountability stories in 2020 and 2021. Several of our stories detailing classified outbreak and epidemiological data from Illinois, Kansas and North Carolina have resulted in statewide policy changes regarding the disclosure of public health data. Others have led to smaller, but no less meaningful, local reforms. For its work, the Documenting COVID-19 project has been the recipient of free speech awards from the First Amendment Coalition and the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and grants and in-kind support from Columbia’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, FRONTLINE PBS, National Geographic, the Los Angeles Press Club, USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. With our Impact Grant, we will build on this experience to explore the long-term financial sustainability and impact of public-records-focused journalism by working with newsroom partners on a broader range of news coverage and developing a new platform — called Documenting — for collaborative projects. By pooling resources and offering public records services to a broad array of partners, the Documenting project aims to be fully sustainable with a small but full-time staff by the end of 2022.