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Google’s Global Impact Challenge Will Award $3M To 4 UK Social Entrepreneurs, With Tim Berners-Lee And Richard Branson Among The Judges

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Google, the world’s largest search engine and one of the most powerful tech companies around, is now using its muscle to search for something new: social entrepreneurs. Today, the company is announcing the Global Impact Challenge, a new prize that will award £2 million ($3 million) between four non-profit startups based in the UK that are using technology for social good in areas like education, economic development, health, environment and community service. Judges for the award include Tim Berners-Lee, Richard Branson, and we the people via a public vote. If successful, the prize could serve as a template for future social enterprise competitions in other countries.

“Today we’re starting the hunt in the UK, but we also know that nonprofits all over the world are using techy approaches to develop new solutions in their sector,” writes Jacquelline Fuller, director of Google Giving, in a blog post. “Who knows, the Global Impact Challenge might head your way next.”

Applications for the award open today, with the deadline April 17. A Google team will make the first cut down to 10 finalists in May, at which point the public will vote for favorites, also being given a chance to make donations directly to each shortlisted project. Then, in June, Berners-Lee, Branson, Fuller and the other judges — Jilly Forster (social campaigns PR supremo) and Matt Brittin (Google’s VP for Northern and Central Europe) — will cast their votes for three winners, with the fourth coming from the public vote. Each winner will get £500,000; each of the 10 finalists will also each be getting 10 Chromebooks — a generous contribution for a startup non-profit.

“The Web’s contribution to economic progress has been much celebrated, but I believe that we are only scratching the surface of its potential to solve social and political problems,” said Berners-Lee in a statement. “On behalf of the World Wide Web Foundation, I’m delighted to join Google in this exciting and innovative initiative.”

The final four winners will also receive assistance from Google to get their projects off the ground. This could run from mentoring through to technical assistance — and potentially more, since some Googlers could even get involved as part of their GoogleServe program, which encourages all employees to give up 20 hours of the year to volunteer projects.

The Global Impact Challenge is an extension of the Global Impact Awards, $23 million award that Google gave out in December among seven non-profits using technology to solve world problems like clean water (charity:water) and endangered species (Consortium for the Barcode of Life).

A Google spokesperson says that the difference between that round of awards and this newest Global Impact Challenge is that the latter features a competitive element, with the prize open to any non-profit in the UK that chooses to apply. On the other hand, with the earlier grants, “there was no entry criteria, rather, [the] grants [were] awarded to exceptional orgs doing amazing things with tech.”

Or, as Brittin notes in a statement: “Over the years Google has sought to support great organisations that are using innovation and technology to improve the lives of millions around the world. With this new Challenge, non-profits will have the chance to make their own pitch for why they deserve the money.”

The spokesperson told TechCrunch that Google does not have any specific plans to extend the open competition model to other countries right now, “But would love to be able to roll the Challenge out if possible.”

As with Microsoft’s recent Windows 8 Apps for Social Good contest — outcome still TBA — Google’s initiative is a nice way of leveraging some of its profile, and a sliver of its profits, for something that’s been under-represented.

Yes, there have been a growing number of startups cropping up around the concept of social entrepreneurship — the socially-minded crowdfunding platform Rally.org being one example — and larger organizations like the Mozilla Foundation proving that non-profit does not have to equal weak. But on balance, these days, when you hear the phrase “social startup” you think more of Facebook, Twitter and social media than you do of charity and good causes.

For Google, this also comes at a time when the company is being scrutinized in Europe in a less flattering light.

Google has been embroiled in a three-year antitrust investigation by EU regulators over its search products, with opponents continuing to put on the heat for Google to change practices, while regulators have pushed back final decisions to August of this year. Google could be liable up to $5 billion in fines if it does not settle with regulators.