When the Richard King Mellon Foundation announced a Social-Impact Pitch Competition last summer, it was planning to award money to three companies that could accomplish something positive for the region. But the foundation was so impressed by the 108 entries that it decided to award money to 16 winners instead, with the top three getting the biggest prizes.
The foundation plans to invest $50 million over the next 10 years in for-profit companies that can make a difference in four categories: economic development, conservation, economic mobility, and health and well-being.
One of the big winners was the Garfield-based modular housing startup Module, which won third place and $250,000. The company recently completed a project in East Liberty that went from vacant lot to house in less than two hours. The project consists of three factory-made modules constructed in Clarion that were shipped here with everything from plumbing to windows to flooring already installed.
“Our pitch for the competition was to open a clean advanced manufacturing facility in the region that can produce new housing our region desperately needs and provide clean, advanced manufacturing jobs at the production facility,” says Module CEO Brian Gaudio. “A company’s investors reflect its values, so we are thrilled to have such a reputable organization to partner with moving forward.”
Module has finished five houses to date, with active projects in Garfield, East Liberty, Friendship and the North Side. The startup is poised to finish its first project in Seattle and has partnered with a real estate developer in Nashville. Module has five employees and is hiring two this year.
“In 2022, Module will launch a workforce development program specific to the modular construction industry,” says Gaudio. “This program will provide opportunities for women and minorities to enter the construction trades. In our first program, we will combine some entry-level hands-on training accompanied by some soft skills coursework.”
OneValley, the Silicon Valley-based global entrepreneurship platform — which recently expanded into Hazelwood Green — will provide assistance to the winning companies, as will Ascender, the East Liberty-based coworking space and community support system for entrepreneurs.
The RK Mellon Foundation’s recent hiring of Pittsburgh startup expert Bobby Zappala gave the Social-Impact Pitch Competition an even more dedicated focus. He was one of the judges on the panel of 54 local and national experts that selected the winners.
First Place: Fabric Health, $500,000
About 32 million Americans spend two hours a week waiting at laundromats. Fabric Health unlocks that existing downtime by helping people access discover and access healthcare information while waiting. The project will launch at laundromats in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Second Place: Gus Gear, $300,000
The Pittsburgh-based manufacturer produces medical devices and supplies that help make central catheters, feeding tubes and colostomy bags more secure and protected, particularly for children. The prize money will allow Gus Gear to offer its products at reduced prices to people who are experiencing financial hardship. It will also allow the company to establish a distribution center and recruit team members in a financially distressed community.
Third Place: Module, $250,000
The startup working on sustainable, better-designed housing through modular homebuilding will open an advanced manufacturing facility in the region to enable housing authorities, governments and the real estate community to work with Module to alleviate the housing supply shortage.
• Behaivior, $200,000
The digital wellness company uses behavioral health technology and wearable tech to assist treatment for substance misuse. The startup plans to expand its East Liberty-based business and offer the technology at a discount to nonprofit addiction treatment centers.
• bosWell, $200,000
The free and customizable web application strengthens the capacity of food pantries. The model has been validated in pilot projects in New England and will launch in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
• Brightway Health, $200,000
This virtual neurorehabilitation platform for serious chronic conditions enables patients to join more than 100 live, virtual group classes every month — from support groups to physical, cognitive, occupational, vision and speech therapy. Brightway Health will create jobs in the Pittsburgh area and reach low-income families.
• Civic Champs, $200,000
The mission of this public benefit company is to create the most intuitive and effective volunteer engagement platform for nonprofits and those who support them. In 2021, Civic Champs co-created and piloted the MENTOR app with the National Mentoring Partnership to track and facilitate mentorship relationships.
• DisSolves, $150,000
DisSolves developed the first all-natural edible packaging that dissolves in water. The goal is to eliminate the non-recyclable single-use plastic packaging for food products.
• Farm to Flame Energy, $200,000
The company’s biomass-powered generators operate smokeless and odorless, at half the cost of diesel, using materials such as sawdust and cornstalks. The funding will help Farm to Flame Energy bring dozens of jobs to Allegheny County, and provide generators and fuel at a discounted price to the community.
• Lumis Corp, $200,000
The technology company is working to democratize healthcare training to reduce the frequency of medical errors, improve patient outcomes and support public health initiatives.
• NuMoola, $200,000
The banking app helps young families work together to build lifelong positive money habits and break the cycle of financial literacy deficits. NuMoola is available in the App Store for iOS devices.
• Safe Space Technologies, $200,000
Covid-19 has revealed that the cleaning and disinfection industry still operates much in the same way as it did in the 1920s. But Safe Space Technologies uses ultraviolet light to disinfect rooms and devices.
• Toyz Electronics, $150,000
Started by a Black father-and-son duo, Toyz Electronics is an ed-tech company focused on diversity in STEAM fields to ensure that minorities are included in the jobs of the future. Students can create and tell stories of superhero versions of themselves, or make 3-D models and learn skills for advanced manufacturing and entrepreneurship.
• Trek Gum, $100,000
Trek Gum is a plant-based, plastic-free chewing gum company. It was started by a University of Pittsburgh alum after she learned that 95% of the gum on the market is made of synthetic plastic and rubber.
• Rubitection, $200,000
About 30 million people suffer from chronic skin conditions and diseases but have no access to low-cost, reliable tools to monitor the health of their skin. Rubitection’s skin health risk assessment and care management improves the early assessment and management of dermatological, surgical and vascular-related wounds.
• PHRQL, $150,000
The mission of this technology and services company is to make eating healthier easier with FoodScription, an AI-powered meal-planning solution providing recipes, shopping lists and nutrition information based on individual needs. The grant will expand a just-launched 14-week nutritional health program for middle school students and their families in an underserved Pittsburgh community.