How Do You Choose Whom To Fund?

By Millicent Pitts WG’91, CEO of The Ocean Exchange

I have the privilege of being Executive Director of a nonprofit whose sole mission is to help advance the adoption of solutions related to sustainability. We execute our mission, in part, by the award of two $100,000 grants to early stage companies with working prototypes. (Intrigued?  Go to People often ask me what our voting delegates and sponsors—who represent business, capital markets, NGOs, governments, and academia—look for in these early stage companies.

Previous winner of the Ocean Exchange Gulfstream Navigator Award: Liquid Robotics instruments the ocean with fleets of networked, wave-powered ocean robots, solving critical problems for our defense, oil & gas, commercial, and science customers. Wave Gliders are transforming ocean observation, making data collection and monitoring easier, safer, and more cost-effective. This is a Wave Glider SV3 during beta testing in Hawaii.

I suspect that every organization like mine gets this question. And if others are like us, there’s no straightforward answer—rather, the process can be distilled down into a list of questions that we ask about each project. Here they are:

Why should I care? 

Our delegates and sponsors want to know that an innovation can have BIG impact and truly move the needle.  The definition of big impact varies but it might be something like saving lives;  improving ocean fisheries that feed the world; reducing energy costs, water usage, emissions/waste; providing fresh water where there is little; etc. A true innovation will have an impact that makes me care.

Can they do it?  

Does the business plan make a convincing argument about go-to-market, protecting intellectual property, and understanding the competition? Above all, do they have a qualified, passionate team to execute that plan?

Is it scalable?

We see many small innovations that are difficult to imagine on a global scale. Our delegates want to help solve the world’s problems and believe the solutions are out there, yet invisible or constrained. Solving the world’s problems requires thinking big, and understanding how impactful solutions can be scaled across geography and markets, while respecting local cultures.

And then here are a couple of things we aren’t looking for:

Clever gizmos

We are not an engineering contest so the greatest gizmo doesn’t necessarily get the funding.

Flawless business plan

We are not strictly a business plan contest either—frequently a flawed business plan can be fixed, unlike a lack of transformational innovation.

Pitts photo smBio: Millicent Wallace Pitts is a thirty year operating executive in process industries at Atlantic Richfield, Rohm & Haas, Ferro, Engelhard/BASF, and a university incubator company.  She has an MBA from The Wharton School, is a Registered Mediator in the State of Georgia, and has completed two marathons, one triathlon, and one century bike ride with Team-in-Training of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.