UpPrize finals event. Photo by Erika Gidley.

When Chris Maury learned that he had an incurable, degenerative disease that would steal his eyesight slowly over the next 10 years, he fought back—with an app.

Maury founded Conversant Labs, a startup that is bringing the world of online shopping to the visually impaired. Imagine trying to shop online for a pair of socks by listening to the indecipherable gibberish the visually impaired must use today, he said in his pitch at the UpPrize event on Friday at the New Hazlett Theater.

Photo by Erika Gidley.
Photo by Erika Gidley.

CL’s voice-enabled retail app Say:Shopping clearly enunciates each product on a mobile or computer screen so purchases are made with ease. Impressed nationally retailer Target has already licensed the technology.

“It’s changing lives by fostering independence and choice,” Maury told the audience of 200 or so gathered for the final round of UpPrize.

The UpPrize social innovation competition challenged Pittsburgh entrepreneurs to make the world a better place with the creation of new social tech tools. Conversant Labs landed first prize and $400,000 for further company development.

The challenge was the culmination of months of research with more than 150 local nonprofits. The finalists were determined by a panel of judges who evaluated the finalists’ ideas in giving $800,000 in prize funding, which included a combination of investments and grants to bring their products to market.

The second-place winner ($200,000) Marinus Analytics stunned the audience with the story of a crime-fighting tool to stop the horrific problem of human trafficking in western Pennsylvania by helping law enforcement agencies and victim services organizations.

“Sarah was a foster child who never had a safe home,” explained founder Emily Kennedy, a CMU grad, to the crowd of around 200. “She ran away—and was taken in by a manipulative, violent pimp who made her sleep with eight to 10 men a night, all for $1000.”

Photo by Erika Gidley.
Photo by Erika Gidley.

Machine learning gives Marinus Analytics the edge in fighting trafficking crime by detecting phone data, following leads and successfully tracking criminals. So far it has aided in the rescue of 70 victims, including Sarah, said Kennedy in her pitch.

Third place winner was PHRQL ($200,000), pronounced freckle, a CMU spinout in 2011, with a health and nutrition-based education tool for medical professionals, nutritionists and families. The acronym stands for Personal Health Recording for Quality of Life.

The centerpiece of the digital health management platform is a mobile app, Connect & Coach, which assists in the creation of a personalized nutrition plan for patients. The mobile tool also allows customers to make smarter food choices when shopping.

PHRQL helps people manage their diabetes, lose weight and improve their health while encouraging their loyalty to participating grocery store. It is currently available in 30 Giant Eagle supermarkets in 16 states.

The other UpPrize finalists were:

Application Verification, a software platform to verify job applicant information and streamline the hiring process.

Five Star Development, developers of an online survey to assist social service nonprofits.

PathVu, creators of a mobile app that assists walkers and people with disabilities in navigating treacherous sidewalk terrain and curbs.

Reuse Retail, makers of a software platform to manage and distribute donated goods for nonprofits.

Treatspace, creators of a technology to facilitate the processing of medical referrals between primary care providers and specialists.

The Forbes Funds team. Photo by Erika Gidley.
The Forbes Funds team. Photo by Erika Gidley.

“We are thrilled to see where UpPrize goes from here,” says Matt Zieger, vp of The Forbes Funds. “No question that Pittsburgh is ready to lead the world in innovation and investment that improves lives, but for right now, we’re focused on supporting the winners and evaluating how we can take the vision behind UpPrize to the next level of impact.”

Batman and Robin or is is Robin and Batman? Rebecca Young and Matt Zieger of The Forbes Funds. Photo by Erika Gidley.

 UpPrize is a collaboration between BNY Mellon, the BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania and The Forbes Funds. At the event on Friday, Kate Dewey of The Forbes Funds welcomed the crowd while others spoke prior to the pitches, including Ian Stewart of BNY Mellon, Kenya Boswell of BNY Mellon Foundation and Matt Zieger (of the “Batman and Robin” team that includes Rebecca Young) of The Forbes Funds.

NEXT staff

The staff at NEXTpittsburgh writes about the people driving change in the region and the innovative and cool things happening here.