2020 Magic Grant Call for Proposals

The 2020 Magic Grant Call for Proposals closed on May 15, 2020 with winners announced on June 5, 2020.

The Magic Grant Program. The David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation was founded in 2012 and is a joint effort between Stanford’s School of Engineering and Columbia Journalism School. Each year, the Brown Institute awards close to $1M in grants and fellowships to foster new tools and modes of expression, and to create stories that escape the bounds of page and screen. We are committed to radical experimentation with the potential to define new priorities and practices for both engineering and journalism.

The “Magic Grant” program provides 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, and an extensive and inspiring alumni network.

Successful Magic Grant projects have taken various forms — from novel works of journalism, to new software platforms, and even innovations in hardware. The common link among all our grants is that they develop new ways to find and tell stories. They can be platforms that extend our creativity, or powerful new kinds of journalism.

Since its founding, the Brown Institute has funded over 50 projects through its Magic Grant program and a complete list can be found on our website at brwn.co/magic-grants.

To date, the Institute has funded the creation of data sets and new database technologies to support journalism (Data Share, Democracy Fighters), editing tools that simplify audio and video production (RoughCut, Synthesizing Novel Video from GANS), advances in artificial intelligence and Machine Learning (Learning to Engage, Visual Genome), and significant stories exploring new modes of expression through data visualization and immersion (We Can, 1000Cut).

And with these grants we have supported the work of journalists, computer scientists, engineers, artists, designers, and communications and digital humanities scholars. This is just a hint at the variety of projects we support, and we expect similar breadth in the 2020 cohort of Magic Grants.

Evaluation and Requirements. Magic Grant proposals are evaluated on: 1) the originality of the project described; 2) its potential for impact; 3) the strength of the team; and 4) the timeline outlined to complete the work. Each of these areas should be clearly addressed in the proposal.

Depending on the needs of the project, teams can include members from outside our  university networks. Precisely who is eligible to receive funding under a Magic Grant varies by campus; please carefully review our eligibility criteria before applying. The Institute will give special preference to “bicoastal” proposals, those having team members from the research and creative communities in both the Bay Area and New York City.

Magic Grant recipients are expected to carry out their work in residence at the Brown Institute, either at Columbia or at Stanford, and participate in the Institute’s activities. Attendance to quarterly “All-Hands” review meetings in California and New York is mandatory. For these meetings, the Brown Institute will cover lodging and travel costs.”

Details of the Application Process. A successful Magic Grant application clearly explains a unique story or technological advance, and outlines a one-year (or less) plan for its realization or the creation of a prototype. We seek applications from teams of students, faculty, and alumni, as well as practitioners working in areas relevant to media and technology. 

Magic Grant applications should be  submitted via brown.submittable.com in the form of a single PDF made up of the following:

  • Cover Letter: A cover letter, including proposal title and the full name, affiliation, and contact information of each team member.
  • Proposal: A two-page proposal that explains the innovative idea(s); the projects originality, uniqueness, and relation to other work in the area; potential for broader impact; a work plan to demonstrate viability of the idea(s) within 12 months; and expected outcomes, results, prototypes, or media products. Please limit proposals to the two-page requirement; anything beyond that limit will not be reviewed.
  • Letters of Support: Two letters of support that assess the importance of the project and its chances of success.
  • Resume: Résumé/CV of each team member
  • Transcripts: Most recent transcript(s) of each individual on the team. Transcript requirements vary by campus — please consult our FAQ page for more information.
  • 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. Columbia applicants must use the budget template provided here. Stanford applicants should use the budget template provided here. Budgets will be evaluated on the scale and scope of the project and team personnel. When awarding Magic Grants, the Brown Institute may adjust budgets according to review committee recommendations and available funds.


  • Proposal submission deadline: May 15, 2020
  • Announcement of finalists: May 22, 2020
  • Presentation/Q&A by Columbia finalists (virtual): June 1, 2020
  • Presentation/Q&A by Stanford finalists (virtual): June 2, 2020
  • Announcement of winners: June 5, 2020
  • Projects start: September 2020 (July/August by special arrangement)

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 submit a 5-minute presentation video by May 28 for review. Following video review, Finalists will participate in a virtual Q&A session. We encourage any supporting faculty or outside advisors to join us for the Q&A, though their attendance is not mandatory. Finalist presentations will be organized both at Columbia and Stanford, each with its own jury. Bicoastal teams should be prepared to present at both events — Stanford team members presenting at Stanford, and Columbia team members presenting at Columbia.