Funding a startup can be challenging. You need to decide whether you plan on offering equity (and how much), where you should look for investors, and how you should pitch. This is even more challenging when you don’t even have a full-blown business yet, but just an idea.
This is where startup competitions can save the day — and your entrepreneurial dreams. Competitions provide networking opportunities, media coverage, and the opportunity to land capital and acquire valuable resources. Any person looking for capital for their business idea should seriously consider startup competitions as a viable option.
In this article, we have researched and evaluated the 15 best startup competitions available this year. Don’t miss the end of the article, where you can find all of the links to applications for pitching your idea.
What Is a Startup Competition?
Startup competitions are competitive events where entrepreneurs pitch their startup or startup idea, typically to a group of investors, coaches, or mentors, as well as the media. Winners of these types of events usually gain investment capital, networking opportunities, and often valuable business resources.
Requirements can vary for different competitions. Some competitions are open to anyone, while others have requirements such as the founder of the startup being a woman or a student. There can also be industry-specific requirements, as some competitions may only want contestants in the healthcare technology sector, for example.
One of the most popular competitions around is the SXSW Pitch Competition. Taking place this year in Austin, Texas, startup founders have the opportunity to pitch their companies in front of industry experts, venture capitalists, and the media.
From 2009-2020, 82% of participating companies received funding, with a grand total of $14.5 billion in funding for SXSW Pitch alumni. Of these 572 companies, 17% have been acquired by companies such as Google, Huffington Post, Apple, OpenTable, and Constant Contact.
Prize: Funding/seed money. Amount varies
Y Combinator is one of the best ventures for funding startups. They select startups that are in their infancy, providing them invaluable support via investor meetings, networking, and more. Every startup is vetted by an experienced group of investors and venture capitalists.
You must have at least 10% equity in the startup to be considered a founder by Y Combinator. Founders can come to interviews only if invited, or attend batch events if accepted.
Y Combinator also has a biannual event called Demo Day. This event (as of now it is virtual) allows startups the opportunity to pitch to 1,500 investors and media.
Website: Y Combinator: https://www.ycombinator.com/apply/
Y Combinator Demo Day: https://www.ycombinator.com/demoday/
If you are in the early stages of your business and need funds to get your product developed, America’s Seed Fund is a great option. The funding option offers financing for early-stage R&D and takes no equity in your company.
They regularly host a virtual question-and-answer session for startups and small businesses to learn about the program and the project pitch process.
America’s Seed Fund accepts project pitches at any time — 24/7, 365 days a year. Typically, it takes about one month to get an official response from NSF staff.
Startup World Cup is the largest competition for startups from around the world. It includes over 500 speakers, 50,000 global attendees, and 2,500 investors. This competition hosts 70+ regional events across North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia, with the finalists competing this year in the final round in San Francisco.
This is a high-level competition with a prize amount of $1,000,000 for the winners. They encourage startups in any domain, at any stage, to apply. But it is important to note that the startup must be a legal entity, not just an idea.
The Web Summit startup competition, called PITCH, showcases the startups disrupting their industries and introduces them to the world’s leading investors, companies, and media.
6. MIT $100K Pitch
Competition brings together students and researchers from MIT and across Greater Boston to launch their talent, ideas, and technology into leading companies. The competition runs a series of distinct, increasingly intensive contests: PITCH, ACCELERATE, and LAUNCH.
The one downside is that each team must have at least one currently registered MIT student. However, currently registered MIT students include all full-time and part-time undergraduates and graduate students, including doctoral candidates.
Website: Rules — MIT $100K (mit100k.org)
CodeLaunch is the seed accelerator event that pairs early-stage tech startups with professional software development teams to accelerate their trajectory toward MVP, seed funding, and beyond.
CodeLaunch is perfect for first-time founders, both technical and non-technical alike. No equity is taken by CodeLaunch, which is a nice perk. Over the life of these events, over $8.5 million in funding has been raised by CodeLaunch startups.
8. SPIE Startup Challenge
The SPIE Startup Challenge is held annually at Photonics West. This competitive event invites new entrepreneurs to pitch their light-based technology business plan to a team of business development experts and investors. The focus is on new businesses and potential startups. Students, post-docs, professors, and other first-time business starters are encouraged to apply.
The most recent competition was only accepting startups in two categories: healthcare and deep tech companies (scientific or engineering innovation, not software apps).
The Hello Tomorrow Global Challenge is a competition designed for science and deep tech entrepreneurs. Track winners will get customized coaching sessions by experts and personal introductions with relevant investors, potential partners, and clients.
In order to be eligible to apply, the startups must meet the following criteria:
• In the early stage of development or the beginning of their commercialization phase (up to Series A)
• Based on new technology, a scientific discovery, or a complex engineering process
• Addressing an industrial, societal, or environmental unmet need, or creating a new market
• Composed of a team of at least two people
• Not a subsidiary or spin-off of an existing company
Prize: Grand prize: €100K ($108,000); 2nd place: €30K ($32,500); 3rd place: €20K ($21,700)
Founders Live hosts live events for founders across 100 cities worldwide and reports adding two new cities every month. These events attempt to create virtual and physical spaces for people to gather, learn, celebrate, and explore entrepreneurship.
The good news about Founders Live is that these events happen monthly, so there are many opportunities to pitch your startup. The event creators have not outlined requirements startups must meet before pitching, so it doesn’t hurt to sign up if you’re interested.
Next Founders accelerates the growth of Canada’s most promising entrepreneurs by providing mentorship, access to capital, and entrepreneurial education.
They offer flexible programs, offering à la carte education from some of North America’s top minds that you can opt into based on your individual needs.
If you have a startup that is able to relocate and will help create jobs, the Arch Grants Global Startup Competition is a good opportunity to access capital without losing equity. Arch Grants companies receive $75,000 and access to an ecosystem of resources and support to help grow their business.
Arch Grants Companies have five obligations they must agree to in order to receive the grant:
1. Locate or relocate the business with significant operations or headquarters in the city of St. Louis for at least one year.
2. Commit at least 51% of the full-time founding team or one full-time founder and 51% of full-time staff to St. Louis for the year-long program.
3. Establish operation in the city of St. Louis or secure membership to a co-working space in the city of St. Louis during the year-long commitment.
4. Dedicate approximately 12 hours of service to Arch Grants and 12 hours of service to St. Louis per quarter.
5. Provide Arch Grants with data regarding jobs created, revenue generated, and follow-on capital attracted. Arch Grants collects this information biannually as long as the business is in operation.
Grant size: $75,000
The Cartier Women’s Initiative is an annual international entrepreneurship program that aims to support women entrepreneurs. Founded in 2006, the program is open to women-run and women-owned businesses from any country and sector that aim to have a strong and sustainable social and/or environmental impact.
Prize: 1st place: $100,000 grant; 2nd place: $60,000 grant; 3rd place: $30,000 grant
14. Edelman Award — INFORMS
The Edelman competition showcases the six best advanced-analytics and operations-research projects of the year. This competition recognizes and rewards outstanding examples of operations research, management science, and advanced analytics.
You don’t need to be a startup founder in order to apply for the competition. You may still be eligible if you are a consultant or even a department head.
This competition is a national elevator pitch competition where top collegiate founders showcase business ideas to accomplished entrepreneurs and investors. U.Pitch contestants must be currently enrolled as a college student or have graduated from an undergraduate or graduate program within the past six months.
Businesses and ideas from all industries are welcome to apply, but contestants must have started a company or simply have an idea to start a company (must be a for-profit venture and headquartered in the United States). Businesses must not have raised more than $1M in capital and cannot be cannabis-related.
Prize (pool): $10,000
Where Can I Pitch My Idea?
Here are the application pages where you can pitch your idea to the above startup competitions. Good luck!
7. Apply to CodeLaunch — Applications closed for 2022, but events page will update for next event