Innovation is finding purpose again in Pittsburgh

In a world filled with communities vying to be the next Silicon Valley, Pittsburgh has begun to differentiate its role in the innovation economy with a unique focus on solving real world challenges that improve lives.

Simply put, Pittsburgh can show the world that innovation should have purpose.

The fruits of our labor

Take for example, Speck. A sleek, low-cost, indoor air quality monitor designed by Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, Speck empowers individuals to understand and take control of their air quality.

Or, consider the Pittsburgh Health Data Alliance, an innovative collaborative among clinical and academic partners to fund research on new ways to use health data to drive health outcomes.

Another example is the multiyear University of Pittsburgh Innovation Challenge helping drive health care innovation by encouraging nontraditional faculty teams to focus on the commercial application of their research.

And other partnerships may not be viewed through the lens of social innovation immediately, such as Uber’s recent investment in a Pittsburgh-based automated vehicle research center. This builds upon local leadership in smart infrastructure design and is sure to attract additional capital focused on improving issues, such as carbon emissions, energy use, mobility and access.

Demand trumps capacity

Even as large-scale partnerships begin to bear fruit, Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurial community has been redefining its goals to include social mission alongside building financially sustainable businesses.

Walk into any local business incubator and you’ll see some of the world’s smartest minds tackling public safety, disaster recovery, water purification, assistive technologies, early childhood education, energy efficiency, pollution, food access and countless other challenges.

But we shouldn’t celebrate yet. With all of this positive movement, there remains a stark contrast among many regional nonprofits where demand often surpasses their capacity.

The promise of reinvention through innovation has become imperative. The Chronicle of Philanthropy notes in its March 2015 article, “Tech’s Power for Good,” that nonprofits need to “develop the [new] tools, which requires expertise … often in short supply at nonprofits.”

In The Forbes Funds’ work with hundreds of nonprofits in Southwestern Pennsylvania, we see this same trend where the overwhelming demands and tight budgets limit investment of time, talent or capital in the kinds of innovation needed to effectively carry out their mission.

The Forbes Funds continues to expand our efforts to help bridge these gaps of innovation, capital and culture. With this in mind, we proudly partnered with BNY Mellon to design and launch UpPrize, the region’s first impact-investing fund combined with a social innovation challenge.

With 150 nonprofits participating in the design of UpPrize, and 111 for-profit companies applying during the first application window, we’ve been encouraged by the local demand to work across sectors to advance a shared mission.

Perhaps the most defining aspects of Pittsburgh’s modern economy are rooted in our entrepreneurs and charitable organizations, but what if our brightest future lies where those two groups overlap?

After all, if we led the world in innovation and investment, yet never improved the lives of our neighbors in need, would we celebrate?


Matt Zieger is a vice president at The Forbes Funds, which has worked for more than 30 years as an extension of the philanthropic community and a supporting organization of the Pittsburgh Foundation to build the capacity of Pittsburgh’s nonprofit sector.