The MIT Media Lab has canceled a new fellowship program intended to be funded by the philanthropy of FTX, the cryptocurrency firm that imploded last week with a bankruptcy filing and billions of dollars in customer funds reportedly lost.
In an update posted on the Media Lab’s website Wednesday, MIT said it will no longer offer its “Future Fellowship” that was set to welcome its first class in September 2023.
“Due to the recent bankruptcy filing of the FTX Cryptocurrency Exchange, and the resignation of the team that managed the FTX Future Fund, the planned MIT Media Lab Future Fellowship will not be supported in 2023/2024,” the update read.
The news comes one month after the school announced the Future Fellowship, supported by the FTX Future Fund, in an article dated Oct. 12 authored by Kevin Esvelt, an associate professor at the Media Lab known for his work on ecological engineering. The program aimed to recruit student fellows “who are committed to ensuring a long and flourishing future.”
Esvelt said in an interview that he proposed the fellowship to the FTX Future Fund in March and received a letter of intent from the organization in August. The FTX Future Fund is a project of the FTX Foundation, a philanthropy founded by FTX executives.
The fund agreed to support two to six students per year for two years, a commitment potentially worth $3 million, he said.
Esvelt said he realized the fellowship was in danger last week while reading about FTX’s troubles. Then he got an e-mail from the Future Fund indicating that all the staff members had resigned. The MIT fellowship didn’t receive any applications yet — the deadline was to be in December — but several students were interested in applying, Esvelt said.
“They are quite devastated that it all fell apart,” he said.
Fellows would have received full tuition, a stipend, and $25,000 per year in research money for “ambitiously benevolent projects,” the Media Lab’s website said. Examples of projects included “creating works that expand our moral circle, designing to cultivate wisdom, developing new technologies to promote or safeguard wellbeing, or directly improving the lives of current beings in ways anticipated to benefit future generations.”
The fellows also would have received “speech training” from a professional coach and the opportunity to “practice clear and persuasive writing” with Michael Specter, a staff writer at The New Yorker. They also would have met “regularly over tea” and enrolled in a class called “Safeguarding the Future,” taught by Specter and Esvelt.
FTX has some personal connections to MIT. The cofounders of the Bahamas-based company, Sam Bankman-Fried and Gary Wang, both graduated from MIT. And Caroline Ellison, who ran Alameda Research — the troubled trading firm founded by Bankman-Fried — is the daughter of Glenn Ellison, head of MIT’s economics department, and Sara Fisher Ellison, a senior lecturer in economics there.
Bankman-Fried, who majored in physics and minored in math, graduated in 2014, and Wang, who studied math and computer science, graduated in 2015, an MIT spokesperson confirmed.
Since Esvelt was dealing with the philanthropy arm of the crypto exchange, he said he was aware the wealth backing the program could “vanish” at any time. He planned to mitigate the risk by awarding students their funds in a lump sum once their money was received.
Candidates for the fellowship had to be nominated by a Media Lab faculty member, then evaluated by a selection committee including “advisors to the FTX Future Fund” and MIT Media Arts and Sciences faculty.
According to FTX’s list of Future Fund grants, it awarded a $1.2 million grant to support Esvelt’s pandemic prevention work at SecureBio, a Cambridge nonprofit he started earlier this year. It also awarded a $2 million grant to Watertown-based Sherlock Biosciences and a $1.5 million grant to the Khalil Lab at Boston University. (A spokeswoman for BU declined to comment.)
Esvelt said he has already spent around $30,000 of his grant to hire people at SecureBio. But he doesn’t plan to spend the rest of the grant, he said, since he can’t be sure whether the money may have been obtained fraudulently by FTX.
“We’re going to put money in a separate account,” he said. “Now we’re scrambling to secure additional funds so we don’t have to let anyone go.”
According to its website, the FTX Future Fund was primarily backed by Bankman-Fried, with “major contributions” from Caroline Ellison, Gary Wang, and Nishad Singh. It was set up to make grants to nonprofits and individuals, as well as investments in socially impactful companies.