Pittsburgh skyline
Photo by Tracy Certo.

The Richard King Mellon Foundation is hosting a $1 million pitch contest that is open to businesses of all sizes. In this pitch, winners will be chosen not only for their ability to make money but also for their positive social impact.

It’s a new role for the Foundation — investing in for-profit companies that can accomplish positive things for the region. It’s part of $50 million in social impact investments planned for the next decade by the Foundation.

“There is a new generation of compassionate entrepreneurs who are using their talents to change the world,” says explains R.K. Mellon Foundation Director Sam Reiman. “Too often, they are unable to obtain the financial support they need to make their dreams a reality. Pittsburgh’s abundance of philanthropic capital makes this an ideal city to launch and grow such companies that at the same time create high-paying jobs, attract capital and enhance our communities.”

They’re trying to keep the realm of possible ideas as wide and deep as possible.

“(We want) any company that has a service, a technology, or product that would allow them to make a difference as it relates to one of our four grant-making categories: economic development, conservation, economic mobility or health and well-being,” says Reiman. “Those are the lenses through which we will evaluate every single one of these applications.”

Businesses can apply here.

Winners of the kickoff pitch will be determined by the Foundation, along with prominent national advisers. The main prize is a $500,000 investment, the second prize is $300,000 and the third prize is $200,000.

Businesses that don’t win stand to benefit as well. Companies that submit strong ideas but don’t win prizes will move into the Foundation’s Social-Impact Investment pipeline for potential future funding.

“If you are an entrepreneur with a dream to change the world for the better, you should be in Pittsburgh,” says Reiman. “We expect to receive many strong ideas that make a difference. And we expect to fund many of them, beyond the three initial winners.” They could invest in as many as 20 additional organizations, he adds.

Though they don’t want to limit potential applicants by giving too much direction, Reiman does envision a few possibilities, such as a for-profit educational tech firm. “We could very well find a way to help them work with local school districts to help kids get access the type of educational tools they need to customize their learning experiences,” he says.

Or it could be a company working in conservation, say a sensor company out of Carnegie Mellon or a drone company that has the ability to work in any of the landscapes that the Foundation has helped to protect across the country. It might use artificial intelligence to track the bird species that are indicators of a healthy forest system, he adds.

There are several steps of the judging process, which will end with a presentation to the Foundation’s board in December. In January 2022, there will be a public event with the finalists and others in the community.

To boost the impact of the pitch competition, the Foundation is partnering with the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation in Silicon Valley and Boston, one of the biggest venture philanthropy firms in the world. OneValley, the Silicon Valley-based global entrepreneurship platform — which recently expanded into Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh — will provide assistance, as will Ascender, the East Liberty-based coworking space and community/support system for entrepreneurs.

The R.K. Mellon Foundation ultimately sees a trend in Pittsburgh, and nationally, of entrepreneurs interested in the double bottom line — of being financially successful, but also having a positive impact on their community and world.

“It is hard to raise that upfront money that you need in order to grow a company like that,” says Reiman.

“Pittsburgh is the place you need to be if that’s the type of company you want to create, adds Reiman. “So our Foundation community is the equivalent of Silicon Valley in terms of the capital that’s available for those types of entrepreneurs, and RK Mellon is proud to be sort of the first to innovate in this space.”

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.