Mentoring Is the Secret to Innovation Say Silicon Valley’s Top VCs and Entrepreneurs

Mentoring Is the Secret to Innovation Say Silicon Valley's Top VCs and Entrepreneurs

Mentoring transforms big ideas into high-impact innovations.

Having worked with dozens of the Fortune 1000 companies, coached startups, and founded three companies, I can say there’s a universal truth when it comes to innovation:  big ideas are just ideas until they deliver real value to the world.

That’s why just about every venture capitalist, entrepreneur, corporate innovator and university researcher is searching for the same thing:  the formula for identifying, developing and scaling big ideas into high-impact innovations.

There’s a lot of buzz when it comes to innovation these days, and the dramatic growth of incubators, accelerators, crowd funding and shared working spaces is the result.

But there’s a new model on the horizon for sourcing and scaling big ideas. While the new approach recently arose from Silicon Valley, the model knows no geographic, cultural or technical boundaries. And it’s based on the number one success factor involved in helping young entrepreneurs transform their ideas into real-world innovations.

It’s all about mentoring. And it’s called Pioneer.

Pioneer was founded by Daniel Gross, an entrepreneur who sold his first company to Apple at 21. Gross had benefited from being mentored at the startup accelerator Y Combinator. After working at Apple, he returned to Y Combinator as a partner.

Pioneer is basically a search engine for underrated talent. Pioneer scours the web for incredibly productive, ambitious people who are in the early stages of their lives, and then funds their work. The idea is to provide capital, expert mentorship, brand and network to thousands (perhaps millions) of people, who are secretly brilliant themselves but have been overlooked by the world.

People all over the world apply by telling the system about themselves and the project they’re working on. They then play in an online tournament that rewards points based on how productive they are and how much progress they’re making on their project. Winners receive grant money, Google Cloud credits, and – most importantly – mentorship from a who’s who of experts like:

  • Patrick Collison, Cofounder & CEO of Stripe
  • Mark Andreessen, Cofounder of Andreesen Horowitz
  • Tom Standage, Deputy Editor of The Economist
  • Balaji Srinivasan, Former CTO of Coinbase
  • Nat Friedman, CEO of GitHub

Some of Pioneer’s tournament winners include:

  • Daniel Getman (age 22, USA): A neuroscience major at Duke University who’s figured out how to modify food flavors using miraculin, a glycoprotein found in an exotic berry that can trick taste buds. His lab-grown miraculin may one day help dieters make healthier choices and get kids to eat more vegetables.
  • James Gallagher (age 16, Scotland): The 16-year-old created Open Commit, a servicewhere software developers receive on-demand, actionable reviews of code from other expert software developers.
  • Mishka Orakzai (age 27, Pakistan). Mishka is building a platform called, a place to save, share and bookmark code snippets. It’s like GitHub meets Pinterest.

Commercializing ideas goes far beyond technology. It requires business savvy, networks of relationships, and experience living with uncertainty while making decisions with limited data. Pairing eager young minds with experienced experts in a scalable way may just be the new secret sauce for disruptive innovation.

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Soren KaplanSoren Kaplan is the bestselling and award-winning author of Leapfrogging and The Invisible Advantage, an affiliated professor at USC’s Center for Effective Organizations, a former corporate executive, and a co-founder of UpBOARD. He has been recognized by the Thinkers50 as one of the world’s top keynote speakers and thought leaders in business strategy and innovation.

Soren Kaplan

Soren Kaplan is the author of two bestselling and award winning books, Leapfrogging and The Invisible Advantage. He is a former corporate executive, an affiliated professor at USC’s Center for Effective Organizations, and founder of InnovationPoint and upBOARD. For more information about Soren visit or




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