UpPrize awards for-profit companies in Pittsburgh-Project Olympus - Carnegie Mellon University

Saturday, August 1, 2015

UpPrize awards for-profit companies in Pittsburgh

Four years ago, Chris Maury learned he had an incurable genetic disease, Stargardt’s, that would likely rob him of his eyesight over the next decade.

The diagnosis prompted Mr. Maury, 28, to research technology that can assist visually impaired people, but he found that most tools focused on helping people with job-related training.

That became the motivation for launching his startup, Conversant Labs, which uses voice-based technology to help people who can’t see perform everyday tasks such as shopping and cooking.

On Friday, Mr. Maury and his team at Conversant were the top winners at UpPrize, a competition that awarded a total of $1 million in cash and technical support to for-profit companies with a strong social mission. Sponsors of UpPrize are BNY Mellon, the BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania, and The Forbes Funds.

“Today we’re matching the mission and passion of nonprofits with the passion of entrepreneurs,” Kate Dewey, president of The Forbes Funds, said before Mr. Maury and seven other finalists delivered eight-minute pitches for their firms to an audience of several hundred at the New Hazlett Theater, North Side.

During his presentation, Mr. Maury demonstrated a new voice-enabled app developed by Conversant in partnership with retail chain Target that allows visually impaired people to speak their shopping orders into their smartphones. He showed how the app, “Say: Shopping,” helped him buy a gray and black pair of argyle socks to match the suit he wore on stage.

“Our mission is to create better experiences for the blind community,” he said.

Conversant won a total $400,000, and two runners-up, Marinus Analytics and PHRQL, each won $200,000.

Marinus provides data to help the FBI and other law enforcement agencies and victims’ services agencies monitor human trafficking crimes. PHRQL, which develops software to help supermarkets provide better nutrition to customers, collaborated with CHS Food Pantry for a system to provide better information on diet and nutrition to the needy.

All eight finalists who presented on Friday were awarded a $10,000 seed grant.

The eight emerged from a field of 100-plus applicants who submitted proposals after the inaugural UpPrize was announced in February.

Of the total pool of applicants, 19 made it to a semi-final round in which judges and advisers conducted in-person interviews and did due diligence with the entrepreneurs.

BNY Mellon is funding the prize to promote “purpose-driven innovation” which addresses “some of the most pressing social issues in our communities,” said Kenya Boswell, president of the BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The other finalists were:

• Application Verification, which provides technology to streamline employment screening;

• Five Star Development, which makes software to aid employee hiring and organization management;

• PathVu, which developed a mobile mapping app to help pedestrians and people with disabilities better navigate hazardous sidewalks and curbs;

• Reuse Retail, which makes software to improve management and distribution of donated goods;

• Treatspace Inc., which develops technology that speeds up processing of patients’ medical referrals between primary care providers and specialists.

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By: Joyce Gannon, Pittsburgh Post Gazette