Behind a New "Genius" Award for Young Environmentalists



One strategy science and medical research funders often use to nurture new talent is to run competitive grants programs that support young or early-career scientists.  

This approach offers a couple of advantages. For one, finding money is tough when you’re just getting started, so a young investigator grant can offer a bridge into a more stable stage of a career and keep a talented researcher from bailing. It also helps to avoid a common pitfall in research funding—showering well-established people with funds. 

A new prize takes a similar logic and applies it to those working in environmentalism, although it reaches well beyond those in research. The newly launched Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award is the first of its kind, only open to environmentalists under the age of 40. 

“For young innovators just starting out … awards can open doors and inspire investors. They can mean the difference between grand success or ideas prematurely scrapped for lack of support,” the announcement states. The winner takes home $100,000.

The funding comes from the Pritzker clan, which is most often associated with Chicago, but has members camped out in other places, too. Rachel Pritzker, for example, is out in the Bay Area—where she runs a small funding outfit that focuses heavily on backing innovative environmental thinking. 


But Rachel is not behind this new green Pritzker award. It's backed by the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation. A few years ago, the couple signaled their strong interest in environmental issues when they made a $20 million gift to UCLA, $15 million of which went to the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Tony and Jeanne Pritzker’s foundation gives to education, the environment, medicine, foster children and community programs, with a focus in the Los Angeles area. They also recently gave $1.5 million to UCLA faculty participating in a carbon capture XPrize.

And now they have a prize of their own. The way it works is that a team of nominators from across industry, science and advocacy pull together 20 nominees. After some evaluation done mostly by UCLA faculty, scored nominees are presented to a panel of judges, which include L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Wendy Schmidt (a big fan of philanthropic prizes). 


The first set of nominees delivers on the promise of recruiting from a variety of fields. There are plenty of academics and scientists on the list, including two Nature Conservancy staff scientists, although they are rare examples of nominees from the big green NGOs. Not surprisingly, climate change, along with water issues, are common subjects. A number of communications specialists made the cut for efforts in fields like virtual reality, marketing and satellite data. There’s even a food blogger who writes about race and ecology in the mix. 

Activists are also represented, and work in justice and equity, one of the most underfunded corners of environmentalism, got some nods. Vien Truong of Van Jones’s Green for All received a nomination, as did Susana De Anda, whose organization works on water solutions in low-income communities. 

Another thing to note about this award is the emphasis on innovation, creative ideas, and even entrepreneurship. The list of nominators includes some folks from the startup investment world, along with the science curator for TED. You’ll also notice that they borrowed the “genius” nickname commonly foisted upon the MacArthur Fellowships and worked it into the official title, here. 

But there’s a clear pursuit of people who might be off the beaten path of green funding, which gets back to the reason funders use such an age restrictions. That pursuit makes this somewhat similar to one of our favorite philanthropic awards, the Goldman Prizes (although Goldman takes it quite a bit further, and focuses exclusively on grassroots organizing), in that it’s hoping to support some unsung heroes. It also wants to see what they can do with 100 grand.