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10 top start-up competitions to check out

Monday, 16 July 2012 | By Oliver Milman

feature-bus-thumbThe world of start-up finance used to be fairly simple – you’d go to friends and family, your bank manager or, if you were lucky, a business angel.


Increasingly, however, start-ups are using competitions as a way to scoop up much-needed funds in the crucial formative stage.


Tax app finder goCatch – run by two young Sydney entrepreneurs – managed to amass a handy $500,000 from, in part, success in pitch competitions. The venture continued its winning streak in a Microsoft-backed competition last week.


Competitions don’t just provide funds of course – they can offer even more valuable intangibles, such as mentoring, networking or even just a first-hand lesson on how you should pitch your business to potential investors or clients.


So which competitions should you be applying to? We have picked out 10 of the best from around the world. To check out each competition, click on the tabs below.



1. The Million Pound Startup




Billed as a cross between X Factor and Dragon’s Den, The Million Pound Startup competition is the latest initiative aimed at capturing the best ideas of would-be entrepreneurs.


The UK-based competition is open to any enterprise in the world, as long as they have under £1 million ($1.522 million) in revenue and have an idea, product or business that’s less than 10 years old.


The winning start-up will get £1 million in investment, with organisers promising that they will help propel the business to £100 million revenue.


The catch? You’ll have to relocate to London in order to claim your prize.


Kam Star, founder of the event, told The Guardian: "This is the X Factor approach – just as they see that £1m record contract being dangled by Simon Cowell and get inspired by that, we want people to get something on paper and move forward."


2. Marshall International Case Competition




It may be less cash-drenched than The Million Pound Startup competition, but this Californian event is a great way to test the rigour of your business plan if you’re still a student.


The University of Southern California competition requires teams from premier business schools to solve a real problem using simulated business conditions to formulate workable, action-oriented recommendations.


The teams are mentored by academic advisors, including alumni from previous case competitions, who coach them so they can learn from their experience.


Judges at this year’s iteration included representatives from PricewaterhouseCoopers, Google, Warner Bros, Universal Pictures, Boeing and Ernst & Young.


To demonstrate that you have a genuine chance, this year’s competition was won by four business students from Queensland University of Technology.


3. Startmate




While prize money is regularly thrown at promising start-ups in the US, it’s traditionally been rather thin on the ground in Australia.


Happily, the situation has improved markedly in just the last 18 months, with a wave of new initiatives.


Startmate has staked a claim as the premier competition for tech start-ups, offering a decent chunk in initial funding – $25,000 each in return for a 7.5% stake – and ongoing mentoring from some of the leading lights of Australia’s tech scene.


After each of the five chosen start-ups in last year’s inaugural competition got funding – with one, Grabble, even being snapped up by US retail giant Walmart – Startmate returned this year with an expanded program, picking eight lucky participants earlier this year.


The eight winners selected for the inaugural Startmate have been taken to Silicon Valley to see how they do it stateside.


“Each one of these start-ups has incredibly talented technical founders and they are keen to build businesses that are the best in the world,” Startmate co-founder Niki Scevak told StartupSmart.


“They don’t just want to adopt a US trend, such as Groupon, to Australia. They are ambitious and they want to be on the world stage.”


“I’ve been positively surprised by the quality of applicants at every step.”


4. Global StartCamp




IBM deserves a tip of the hat for its support of start-ups. Not only has it committed $US150 million to the Startup America project in an attempt to unearth the top entrepreneurial talent in the US, it has also backed a global odyssey to find start-ups that can build a “smarter planet.”


The StartCamp scheme – a networking and mentoring initiative that aims to link promising start-ups with investors and other help – held 17 different events around the world in 2010 and 2011 and will be landing in Australia for the first time this year.


2012 will also see the introduction of ‘KickStarts’ – one or two day events with a similar structure to SmartCamp events from previous years, enabling start-ups to receive mentoring from world-class advisors.


Selected finalists from the KickStart events will have the opportunity to advance to the four SmartCamp regional events.


This travelling start-up jamboree will be arriving in Sydney on September 6.


5. MassChallenge




Challenging IBM for the title of the ‘world’s biggest start-up competition’ is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with its MassChallenge competition.


Start-ups from across the world can apply to MassChallenge, which invites 125 selected finalists to Boston. The top dozen companies split $1 million in funding, as well as receive free business tools and mentorship.


The competition’s website says: “MassChallenge is the largest-ever start up accelerator and competition, and the first to support high-impact, early-stage entrepreneurs with no strings attached.”


Start-ups are able to access a four-month accelerator program and $10 million “in kind” support. Best of all, it’s open to any venture around the world, with no equity given up in return for taking part.


The 236 start-ups supported in the 2010 and 2011 Accelerators have already raised over $250 million in outside funding and created 2,150 new jobs.


6. Women 2.0




Women 2.0, founded by Shaherose Charania and Angie Chang, is a US-based global network and social platform for aspiring and current female founders of technology ventures.


The Women 2.0 PITCH Startup Competition, held annually since 2007, is a global competition open to early-stage ventures operating in the tech scene.


To be eligible, companies must have a female in the founding team and a technologist, which could be an engineer, scientist, mathematician or biologist.


The venture must be in beta, which means a prototype is in existence or the product is already on the market, and cannot have raised or received more than $1 million in funding.


Applications are reviewed by online judges before finalists compete at a conference. The winning team is paired with a leading venture capital firm.


7. Startup Bus




Operating at an even greater breakneck speed than the likes of Startup Weekend, the Startup Bus competition requires teams of strangers to band together to come up with a business concept and launch a website in just 48 hours.


The teams have to do this while travelling on a fleet of WiFi enabled buses heading to Austin, Texas for the SXSW Festival.


The team behind TripMedi, a joint Startup Bus winner at last year’s SXSW, was headed by an Australian lawyer, Roland Dillon.


There was no Aussie winner this year but three tech innovators from Down Under - Bart Jellema, Scott Cowley and Ivan Vanderbyl – did come up with a new technology, dubbed Year In Print, to help social network users preserve their digital lives.


Get lucky and be pitched together with a talented team and you can get your winning idea off the ground in this rather unlikely travelling setting.


8. We Media PitchIt Challenge




The beauty of some US-based start-up competitions is that, if you win, you don’t have to give up any equity in return for seed funding.


One such competition is the We Media PitchIt Challenge, aimed at innovative media and tech start-ups. Two winners are handed $25,000 each, without relinquishing any stake in their businesses.


The down side – if you can call it that – is that should you be shortlisted, you have to travel to New York to pitch your idea. The good news is that the competition is actively searching for Aussie entrants.


Last year, Andrew Nachison, founder and MD of We Media, told StartupSmart that he’d “love to see some strong entries from Australia.”


9. SXSW Accelerator




The novelty element of the Startup Bus competition may have grabbed it the media headlines, but the most worthwhile start-up competition at SXSW could well be its Accelerator program, held with Microsoft Biz Spark.


This year, eight budding entrepreneurs emerged from the field as winners after demonstrating their products to a panel of judges that included Christine Herron, director of Intel Capital, and, bizarrely, large-panted 1990s rapping sensation MC Hammer.


Microsoft hasn’t been slack in taking the concept to Australia – last week, Microsoft named Sydney-based app goCatch as the best start-up in the Asia Pacific region.


10. Enterprize Business Plan Competition




The number of entrepreneurial courses delivered by Australian universities is steadily rising and, with them, various start-up groups and competitions have emerged.


Melbourne University group Student Entrepreneurs has created the Melbourne University Entrepreneurs’ Challenge, which provides prizes of up to $5,000 for students with a winning business plan.


There’s also the University of Sydney’s Genesis Entrepreneurship Competition, which awards prizes in two categories via a one-page proposal.


However, the real standout is the University of Queensland’s Enterprize Business Plan Competition. Not only does the winning team get $100,000 to commercialise their idea, the competition is open to business plans from student and non-student alike.