UpPrize photo by Erika Gidley.

It was the moment that a great idea truly became a business: Last year, Alison Alvarez and Tomer Borenstein won $150,000 in The Forbes Funds’ UpPrize BNY Mellon Social Innovation Challenge.

They knew that collecting and analyzing data is essential to running effective organizations. But without the right tools, it can be daunting. And for nonprofits with limited resources, those tools are often out of reach.

So Alvarez and Borenstein used the award to make data analytics accessible to smaller nonprofits through BlastPoint.

Participating in the competition was “huge,” says Alvarez, BlastPoint’s CEO.

“We had a working product, but we were just starting to sell it when we joined the competition,” she says. “Thanks to UpPrize, we found our first paying customer.”

Making connections, finding a mission

Alvarez and Borenstein met that customer at a networking event — one of the program’s many perks, which also include mentorship and educational sessions on everything from writing a lean business plan to projecting financial goals.

Participating in UpPrize also helped the fledgling company define its purpose.

“We now have serving our community as a part of our DNA,” she says, “and we have a mission of helping nonprofits collect and use data based on best practices.”

Since winning the top prize in last year’s Impactful Technology category, BlastPoint has hired three full-time staffers and has grown from zero subscribers to almost 70. The award also enabled Alvarez, who burned the midnight oil on nights and weekends, to quit her day job and concentrate on growing the startup.

Should you apply this year?

Now in its third year, UpPrize supports innovative ideas that connect nonprofits and vulnerable populations to valuable resources. This year, it will host two Impactful Technology competitions to level the playing field. Whether applicants have a germ of an idea (Great Ideas) or a fleshed out proof of concept (Great Solutions), they’ll get a shot at prizes ranging from $5,000 to $150,000.

The 3 Great Ideas winners will get $5000 each. The Great Solutions will be for $10,000 each for the five finalists. The top three winners in the Great Solutions category will be awarded prizes ranging from $50,000 to $150,000. 

The Great Ideas application cycle runs from March 1 to April 15, and Great Solutions applicants can submit their ideas from May 7 to June 21.

“A really important value of UpPrize is getting the whole community involved — nonprofits, doers, thinkers, companies, universities, colleges, students, residents,” says Kate Dewey, senior adviser to UpPrize.

Although she notes that Allegheny County’s nonprofit sector employs more people each year than the construction or manufacturing industries, UpPrize Director Nadyli Nuñez believes nonprofits remain an untapped market for technology innovators. She hopes the program will position Pittsburgh to become “a region that is a social innovation hub focused on solving gnarly and persistent community challenges.”

For Marinus Analytics, that means bringing human trafficking investigative tools to law enforcement at the local, state and federal levels in the U.S. and Canada.

Founder and CEO Emily Kennedy says the funding Marinus Analytics received from UpPrize in 2015 allowed the company to scale up its software development and expand its reach through continued press coverage.

“We are so thankful for the support of UpPrize, which helped take our company’s impact to the next level to rescue more victims and bring their exploiters to justice,” says Kennedy.

And that support begins with the application — UpPrize staff provides pitch training and will help with everything from uploading videos to troubleshooting technology.

“We focus on breaking down barriers and supporting applicants throughout the process,” says Dewey.

She encourages applicants to take the time to refine their ideas and collect feedback from individuals and nonprofits on their “pain points.”

“It’s a first impression and an important opportunity for applicants to express their ideas,” she says. “We don’t expect a fully fleshed out analysis; we just want to know they’ve had some kind of input from stakeholders.”

NEXTpittsburgh is a media sponsor of this year’s sold-out launch event, set for 6-8 p.m. on Tuesday, February 27 at Nova Place on the North Side. More than 480 guests — including speaker County Executive Rich Fitzgerald — are registered to attend the kickoff which will feature Indian barbecue from Choolah and healthy platters from Square Café.

Kenya Boswell is excited to see the innovative solutions the challenge inspires.

“After two successful cycles, we believe we’ve only scratched the surface on ideas that can truly transform nonprofits and our communities,” says Boswell, president of BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania, which sponsors UpPrize. “We cannot wait to see what this third cycle will bring.”

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications. She enjoys cooking, reading, crafting and exploring Pittsburgh with her husband and two sons.