Civic News

Pittsburgh’s UpPrize just funded these 3 idea-stage startups for social good

The competition that connects technologists with communities in need announced its 2018 Great Ideas winners, which are trying to solve problems relating to nonprofit measurement, blight and language access.
IMPULSUM doesn’t have a website or a formal structure, but founders Albert Cheng and Leigh Solomon Pugliano just won $5,000 for their “great idea” to help Pittsburgh area nonprofits.

In their volunteer and professional work with nonprofits, Cheng — product manager for digital services at Siemens — and Solomon Pugliano — director of opportunity at New Sun Rising — found most were struggling with how to measure impact, and they thought they could help solve that problem.

Enter UpPrize: BNY Mellon Social Innovation Challenge, a competition that connects technologists with communities that need their help. Nonprofits, startups, students and government agencies all are eligible for UpPrize grant funding and mentorship support, as long as they meet the criteria: technology-based solutions for vulnerable populations, or solutions that help nonprofits in southwestern Pennsylvania with their operations.

“UpPrize has been an incredible conversation starter in this region, in terms of, ‘Let’s think beyond the bottom line, the profit, and let’s think about our community,’” said UpPrize Director Nadyli Nuñez.

UpPrize launched in 2015 as a partnership between The Forbes Funds and BNY Mellon to fund and incubate startups and entrepreneurs working for good.

To date, UpPrize has distributed $1.5 million in grant funding. Last year, five startups shared in the $550,000 prize for social innovation. UpPrize also provided $140,000 to Economic Development South and $110,000 to 412 Food Rescue as part of its Healthy Food Access program, aimed at startups working on food insecurity issues.


Great Ideas showcase attendees. (Photo by Rick Southers, courtesy of UpPrize)

Now in its third cycle, UpPrize planned its latest round of competitions based on trends they saw in past years: Its new Great Ideas competition focused on startups that were not only pre-revenue, but in some cases, pre-website and pre-formal structure of any kind. That’s in addition to UpPrize’s Great Solutions competition for existing companies with working products that could scale in the next 18 months.

“We saw a lot of applications that weren’t far along in the process, who didn’t have access to capital or a network,” said Nuñez. “We thought we could at least get them to the prototype phase.”

In addition to the $5,000 prize money, the three winners of the Great Ideas challenge, announced Wednesday, June 6, will receive assistance for applying to incubators and accelerators.

The project’s senior advisor, Kate Dewey, who worked from 2013 to 2015 as president of The Forbes Funds, said UpPrize is part of a growing social innovation movement in the area, and that organizers have been pleasantly surprised by the richness of the ideas and prototypes they received.

“What rang true was that there are great ideas in our region that could really make a difference, not only in southwestern Pennsylvania but around the world,” Dewey said.

The program serves as a way to vet and accelerate ideas that are needed by marginalized communities. In the second cycle, she said, organizers were very intentional about seeking out entrepreneurs in these communities — and it’s focused on “creating an ecosystem around innovation.”

“Many of the accelerators and business incubators have begun to see social innovation in the work they do,” Dewey said. “They see it as an active, profitable space for people to venture into and have realized that ‘nonprofit’ does not mean ‘no profit.’ The companies we did support done extraordinarily well.”

Three pre-startup startups were chosen as winners of UpPrize’s 2018 Great Ideas competition. Here’s who they are and what they’re trying to solve:


The pitch: Help nonprofits measure their social impact and effectiveness.

Cheng and Solomon Pugliano met when both were mentors at Social Venture Partners, another accelerator that provides mentorship and assistance to Pittsburgh nonprofits.

“We coached many teams, and what seemed to come up time and time again was the struggle that nonprofits face being able to measure and report their impact, not just for themselves, but back to their funders and the community,” Solomon Pugliano said.

Cheng added that most funders don’t like to pay for operational costs, preferring to be able to see the impact their money is having on the nonprofit’s audience.

IMPULSUM would create a standard evaluation process and offer guidance to nonprofits on what the metrics should be. It would also help gather data and generate reports so that nonprofits can be “demonstrably impactful” and reassure funders about how their funds are being spent.

Virtual Vacant Property Realtor

The pitch: Empower residents to acquire and rehab blighted buildings.

Carlos Gasca Yanez envisions his project being put to good use in Wilkinsburg, a socioeconomically disadvantaged community east of Pittsburgh.

“If we can connect people in the community with vacant properties in the community, it will benefit the community overall,” he said.

His plan would create an online database of properties to help potential buyers, a vacant property “academy” to help potential buyers plan for their purchase, and a community real estate co-op that would help with financing, acquisition and rehabilitation. He stressed that the project is not aimed at helping property flippers or speculators, but rather those buyers and residents with a long-term commitment to the community.

ESL Assistant

The pitch: Help bring English as a second language programs into the digital age.

Roger Solano wants to make free ESL programs in and around Pittsburgh more useful to students; he’s aware of the numerous language-learning apps, but notes most come with a price for advanced learning. Programs taught by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and area churches for instance, don’t have any digital tools, instead giving students review work on paper.

“It’s hard to learn a new language without some interaction,” Solano said.

He wants to build an app that would have a vocabulary module with grammar and idioms as well as videos to help students learn English more easily, particularly if they have limited time to spend in a classroom. The extra coaching would help teachers in free ESL programs better serve their students, he said.


UpPrize is now accepting applications for its Great Solutions competition through June 21. Applicants must have a prototype for an existing product or service meets the UpPrize criteria, with a goal of making an impact within 18 months. Find more information here.

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