UPMC Microneedle Array vaccine. Photo courtesy of UPMC.

Pittsburgh’s largest foundation, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, has released $15 million in emergency COVID-19 relief for Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The focus is threefold, including innovation grants in healthcare, operating grants for struggling nonprofits and economic development grants to prevent further job loss and help recovery efforts.

This support will include $196,000 for the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research, which has been prior the crisis on a vaccine for COVID-19. It was one of only a few research centers in the country to be given live virus samples to study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

“All credit is due to University of Pittsburgh and UPMC for building out the infrastructure, hiring the right talent and making the advances that they’ve made — both as a followup to the SARS and MERS outbreaks in previous decades, and then being able to act in real time as the new coronavirus started to impact human health,” said Richard King Mellon Foundation Director Sam Reiman.

“We’re very confident that they have all the right people in place to be able to solve this problem. There’s no reason why Pittsburgh can’t once again be the leader in addressing a major global pandemic in the same way it did polio.”

The funding will also include $160,000 for Global Links, which is partnering with backpack maker Day Owl and Highmark/Allegheny Health Network to create 50,000 plastic face shields for frontline healthcare workers.

“The real innovation is just to see the way community has responded,” says Reiman. “For Highmark to so quickly step up in a leadership role and place a purchase order for 30,000 face shields — really, none of this would be happening without them…It then shows all the other health care providers that there is something real happening here, and you can see that in the orders and inquiries that they’re receiving from other health care systems across the country.”

To aid economic recovery, $500,000 will go to The Progress Fund, to help prevent further layoffs and keep small businesses running, and $500,000 to Bridgeway Capital, to help small businesses handle sudden, catastrophic disruptions to their operations.

“If we’ve learned anything about those last few downturns — unemployment has a real human toll,” says Reiman. “It has the ability to rip at the very fabric of our community. It results in real mental and physical health consequences.”

In a time of extraordinary need, the Richard King Mellon Foundation is moving quickly to help in these key sectors.

“Our medical research grants will support essential health innovations, including the intensive efforts of Pittsburgh’s renowned researchers to once again find the world a cure, as they have so notably done before,” says Richard King Mellon Foundation Board of Trustees Chairman Richard A. Mellon.

“Our emergency grants will help our local nonprofit partners to continue their essential work at this most difficult hour. And our funding of smart economic development strategies will bring immediate relief to the people of Southwestern Pennsylvania — and position us to be poised to surge again when the economy starts anew.”

Details of other projects in the $15 million package will be announced as partner agreements are executed. The entire $15 million is expected to be disbursed within six months, and the Foundation will consider additional support based on health and economic data.

Reiman said the Foundation will continue to support its pre-pandemic projects too, though the pandemic may require the timelines for some of those projects to be extended. “Our five-year strategic plan that concludes in 2020 remains a sound formula for regional growth, and so we will continue to advance that established agenda,” Reiman said. “At the same time, we continue to advance our strategic planning for 2021 and beyond, and the pandemic makes the priorities we have been developing the past year even more timely and important.”

The Foundation has brought on additional expertise to respond just in time for the crisis. This includes includes Gabriella “Gaby” Gonzalez, formerly of RAND Corporation, where she focused on the future of workforce, who has joined the Foundation as program officer; Craig Markovitz, co-founder of the surgical robotics company, Blue Belt Technologies, and a faculty member at CMU’s Tepper School of Business, who is the Foundation’s first Prosser Mellon Fellow; and Tim Reeves, a principal at Allen & Gerritsen and former director of communications for Gov. Tom Ridge, who is supporting the Foundation’s strategic communications.

“Pittsburgh once again is stepping up against adversity, and the Richard King Mellon Foundation is eager to provide strategic support that helps at this essential hour,” said Reiman.

“As we do so, we will continue to look for opportunities to work in collaboration with our peer Foundations, for-profit and public sector partners to maximize our cumulative positive impact on the communities and organizations we all hold dear,” said Reiman. “The Richard King Mellon Foundation has served as a reservoir of stability in the face of economic, environmental and now health crises for more than seventy years. We will once again get through this crisis together.”

Other Pittsburgh foundations who have recently made emergency grants available include the Hillman Foundation for $4 million and the Heinz Endowments for $2.3 million.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.