As the first-place winner of UpPrize, BNY Mellon’s Social Innovation Challenge, Conversant Labs has continued its mission of creating an equal experience for both non-sighted users of technology and consumers at large.
If smartphone apps could talk, what would they say? That’s the question Chris Maury asked himself four years ago when he founded Conversant Labs. Learning that he was losing his own sight, Maury set out to improve the way smartphone apps are developed for the visually impaired and address an unnoticed gap in application development. The challenge was significant – there are over 300 classes and protocols to create visual apps for iOS; there are fewer than 10 to manage audio-based applications. However, with support from BNY Mellon and other investors, Conversant has created a new developer framework for designing speech-enabled applications.
In July 2015, Conversant was named the first-place winner of UpPrize, a $1 million social innovation challenge that was a unique collaboration between BNY Mellon, the BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania and The Forbes Funds. UpPrize’s mission is to encourage impact investing in southwestern Pennsylvania, linking the private sector with Pittsburgh region nonprofits to identify breakthrough innovations that address critical needs and also produce meaningful and measurable financial benefits. Conversant received a $200,000 investment and $200,000 in grants. It also received two months of personalized support during the competition, including $10,000 in seed grants.
The funding Conversant received has allowed it to double the size of the company and focus on getting its programming platform – SayKit SDK – into the market. In the short term, Conversant is pursuing direct social impact programs such as developing digital applications for the blind and visually impaired. However, these activities also feed into the growth of technology that can be deployed commercially. “In order for us to have a sustainable impact, we need to have a sustainable business,” says Maury.
Conversant’s commitment to driving impact through a commercially successful business illustrates BNY Mellon’s approach to social finance – investment activities that generate financial returns and include positive social and environmental impact. Social finance, whether in the form of impact investments, development finance, socially responsible investing or environmental finance – offers investors an opportunity to protect and grow financial assets in the face of significant challenges, as well as to support solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.
Conversant’s UpPrize experience has led it to build out ways to measure the social side of its business in order to attract additional, impact-minded investors. Along with measurement, investors have shown an ongoing focus on due diligence. “Regardless of the type of investor, the business and its growth are the most important factors,” says Maury. “Fortunately, our business growth feeds into our ability to create social impact.”
“It’s critically important to reinforce the use and further sophistication of existing measurement frameworks for impact investments,” says Anna Kearney, director of social finance at BNY Mellon. “Through our work with Conversant, we are helping to establish track records, nonfinancial metrics and valuations that can generate investor confidence and, ultimately, encourage growth in the sector. Our intention is that the seed capital provided through UpPrize helps to prime the pump for more traditional venture capital funding for impact-driven companies like Conversant.”
Conversant’s continued work in Pittsburgh also reflects the necessity of engaging multiple stakeholders from investors to academic institutions to nonprofit organizations. “Pittsburgh is one of the best cities for our work,” says Maury. “While it may be easier to raise money in San Francisco, the academic and technological resources here are incredible. Some of the biggest advancements in voice-enabled technology have come out of Carnegie Mellon University. By being here, we have unique access to experts who know this technology.”
"Conversant is taking an innovative and thoughtful approach to solving some of the most important social issues in the Pittsburgh community," said Kenya Boswell, president, BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania. "We are proud that our support and investment can help Conversant continue its mission as it partners with local institutions to deliver even stronger social and financial returns."
Since UpPrize, Conversant has launched several new initiatives including working with a prominent cultural institution to create an interactive audio tour and developing voice control for a news service designed for the visually impaired.
“The recognition we received from UpPrize helped open the door for other opportunities – press exposure, funding from the Pittsburgh community,” says Maury. “We wouldn’t be here without it.”