The UpPrize Social Innovation Challenge engages the community in producing innovative solutions to meet the critical needs of our region’s nonprofits and people. In its second year, UpPrize is the most significantly capitalized social innovation competition focused on improving the quality of life for residents in Southwestern PA. The challenge is organized by The Forbes Funds in collaboration with BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Bridgeway Capital, Comcast Business, UPMC and NEXTpittsburgh. After this cycle, approximately $1 million will have been invested in sustainable solutions proposed by local entrepreneurs and nonprofits.
During the final two weeks of this cycle, we are publishing short spotlight interviews with each of the finalist teams. Our next spotlight features BlastPoint. Interview responses provided by Tomer Borenstein, CTO.
Why did you apply to UpPrize?
There are plenty of pitching competitions in the United States and around the world, but, being local to Pittsburgh, we knew that UpPrize was more than just a competition. One of the biggest reasons that made us apply to UpPrize was that we wanted to form deeper connections with the nonprofit and economic development sectors in the Pittsburgh region so that we could get feedback directly from our target users. The UpPrize team has been amazing and have provided us with many opportunities to connect with industry and thought leaders in Pittsburgh. We have formed so many useful connections through the competition, even with some of our competitors. Additionally, going through the UpPrize process has helped us solidify how we can provide value for our users, better understand their pain points, hone our pitching skills, and more. Because of that, we feel that UpPrize is much more than just the prize.
How did you develop your idea? How will it impact the lives of vulnerable populations in Western PA?
The idea for BlastPoint was born when our CEO, Alison Alvarez, who has been working on creating data tools for Fortune 1000 companies for years, noticed that there were no comparable tools for small and medium sized organizations. Our team met at Carnegie Mellon and developed our core technology for the McGinnis Venture Competition in 2016. Once we had a prototype, we started looking for its potential applications by interviewing hundreds of people from a variety of industries. We quickly realized that, somewhat surprisingly, nonprofits and especially economic development organizations have an acute need for data but limited access to affordable and intuitive data tools. We have since been working closely with nonprofits and economic development organizations in Western PA to develop BlastPoint around their needs. We found that for many of the organizations we’ve worked with, to operate without data insights is to operate blind. Without data it is more difficult for them to make decisions, plan for the future, understand the forces at work around them, or self-advocate from a place supported by evidence. Larger organizations can afford to hire experts and pay for expensive data tools. Smaller organizations, ones where people often wear more than one hat, struggle to keep up.
Our mission is to bring affordable, accessible data analytics tools to organizations that are not adequately served by the current landscape of options. BlastPoint puts big data insights into the hands of non-experts by providing them with tools that eliminate the hard work of curating, grooming and visualizing data when it comes to geographic locations. Anyone who can doodle on a piece of paper and read a map can use BlastPoint to learn about a place.This lets nonprofits focus on their core mission of helping people instead of spending hundreds of hours searching for data, grooming it, and visualizing it.
In fact, BlastPoint is already making a difference: Jeff of RubyRide is using BlastPoint to write grant proposals backed up by data and plan initial locations for his ride access service. Annie of Jacob’s Creek Watershed is using BlastPoint to understand the needs of her constituency and communicate with it. Cody of the Charleston Area Alliance is using BlastPoint to explain why his city is a better fit for high tech businesses over competitors like Chattanooga, Tennessee. We’re looking forward to helping thousands of nonprofits and change-makers to operate more effectively and efficiently, starting with those located in Western PA, and are excited to then watch them use our tools to improve the lives of the millions of people they serve.
What have you learned about yourself or your team as a result of the process?
We learned that we are better communicators than we thought. Everyone on our founding team loves technology and science and sometimes it it difficult for us to break out of our own heads. Thanks to the coaching and communications workshops from UpPrize we are much better at presenting ourselves and talking to people in a more impactful way. We’re focusing less on the details and more on stories.
What advice do you have for anyone considering applying to UpPrize?
If you think you’re eligible for UpPrize, then apply! It is one of the most amazing opportunities for nonprofits and startups with social missions in Pittsburgh, and not just because of the prize. Just going through the application process has helped us better understand the value we bring to our users and how to communicate it. Whether or not you progress in the competition, attend the UpPrize Education Series. The UpPrize team has set up a series of workshops that covered topics such Business Planning Fundamentals, Competitive Analysis, Branding, and Financial Projections. [The workshops are] all extremely useful for any fledgling venture, UpPrize competitor or not. If you make it to the semi-final round, use the opportunity to connect not only with the mentors that UpPrize will surely introduce you to, but also with your fellow semi-finalists. We found that within our cohort of semi-finalists there were multiple opportunities to partner up and work with each other outside of the competition. As the UpPrize team likes to say: Everybody Wins.
Where can people learn more about your idea?
Anything you'd like to add?
Yes! We’d like to thank the UpPrize Team for being so supportive and for the incredible opportunities this competition has already provided us. We’d also like to thank all of the mentors who have worked with us throughout this competition. Thank you all so much.