Startup Competitions / Accelerators to Keep the Momentum Going

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Things are bound to have their ups and downs for any entrepreneur. You might find a major flaw in your product, or fall really behind on your milestones. You might make a marketing misstep or invest your time and energy in an initiative that dead-ends. Those who can push and persevere through those challenges are the ones who will ultimately succeed, whether it’s with the product or idea they currently have or something else.

But sticking to it is about more than just grit and tenacity, and success is not just about having the smarts or personality. It’s also about having the right team, tools, resources, mentors, mindset, and funding. Or being able to identify that you don’t have those things, and knowing how to go about getting them.  

That’s why entrepreneurship accelerators, like startup competitions, incubators, and similar programs can be great experiences for newbie founders and teams. They teach you not just how to develop your idea into a successful venture, but also how to stay the course, make adjustments, and remain resilient in the face of inevitable roadblocks. Many give you the full experience of developing a business and running it in its early stages, within a very short span of time (from a few days to 3 or 4 months), while others focus more on pitching or ideation. Some require little more than a great idea to get in the door, while others want you to have a bit more of a fleshed out company to work on.  Even for more experienced founders, they provide the structure that allows you to stay motivated and on track through the inevitable ups and downs of the startup rollercoaster. 

Of course, when you’re running a business, you’re in it for the long haul, and the startup process can drag when it’s all on you to set your milestones, find your mentors, grow your team, iterate your product, and so on. But, the structure, guidance, mentorship and other resources available to participants in some of these programs can help get your mindset where it needs to be and prepare you and your team for that long journey.

Best of all, many entrepreneurship competitions and incubators are largely virtual, so you and your team can work on your business from wherever you happen to be. They usually culminate in an in-person event, like a summit or a pitch competition, which is a great way to meet other like-minded students, interact with investors, mentors, and other industry pros, and showcase your brilliant ideas to large groups. Some have prizes or offer funding and other services, allowing you to receive the advice, mentorship, and connections to continue to grow your business.  Often, these culminating events are less about the funding than they are about the advice and people.  

I’d like to take some time to feature a few of the competitions and accelerators that I think high school and college entrepreneurs could benefit from using to continue their business.  These are in addition to the LaunchX program that I run, which allows high school students to start a company either through an entrepreneurship summer program held at a top university, or through an after school club.

Catapult Incubator at Quarter Zero (formerly Catapult Ideas): This 6-week incubator aims to help teams grow their founders’ ventures. It focuses on what it calls the “5-step startup process,” which regardless of the product or company are important skills to master.

  • Customer Discovery
  • Ideation
  • Prototyping
  • Customer Acquisition & Growth
  • Pitching

It’s open to both founders who have at least a “vetted idea that can be replicated and scaled” and what the organization calls “Free Agents,” who are passionate, driven, and looking to work to build a startup, but who are not themselves visionaries. Regardless of whether someone participates as a Founder or a Free Agent, they can expect to gain many of the skills and knowledge necessary to tackle being an integral part of a startup, in just 6 weeks.

Catapult Incubator happens in 2 separate sessions during the summer and spans 3 different cities that are considered entrepreneurial hubs: Chicago, Silicon Valley and New York City. Their application deadline is rolling, but Quarter Zero strongly encourages applicants to get their submissions in early, as competition heats up the more spots get filled. I would recommend applying by January if you can.

Quarter Zero also has a shorter and faster program called Startup Bootcamp, that lasts only 10 days, with only 4 of the days being on-site. For this, the company selects 50 students from 4 US regions and gives them a crash course in entrepreneurship. This program helps students develop the right mindset, identify problems they want to solve, and join teams of likeminded go-getters. It also pairs them with a mentor pairing and gives them the opportunity to pitch their current ideas or take all of their learnings to their next big idea.

Diamond Challenge: This entrepreneurship team challenge allows high school students from all over the world to grow ideas, make connections, learn the building blocks of entrepreneurship, and pitch their business idea virtually or live. The program is run by the University of Delaware’s Horn Entrepreneurship program, with local pitch locations in a number of countries and US cities, as well as a live summit in Newark, Delaware. There are two tracks for which registrants can submit their concepts: Social Innovation and Business Concept.

Among the benefits of this challenge is that it can be (almost) entirely virtual. That opens it up to young people who may live outside the US or live far from a major city in the US. Teams can also win prizes like consultations with already successful young entrepreneurs. Plus, going through the process of pitching their ideas and and competing with other teams can help prepare them for some of the tough questions and tougher audiences they’ll encounter if they decide a life of entrepreneurship is for them. Diamond Challenge registration is free, so there’s no real risk involved.  

Technovation: This awesome program is for tech-minded girls aged 10-18. It challenges teams of 1-5 girls to identify a problem within their communities, then develop an app to solve it and a business plan for getting that app out into the hands of people who need it. Teams are supported and guided by mentors. Teams then pitch their ventures and the ten strongest go on to the global pitch event, where they receive even more exposure and an opportunity to pitch in front of an international community.

Over the course of a few months, the teams of girls work on their prototypes and their business plans, with Technovation’s curriculum taking them through the 4 stages of launching a mobile app startup: identifying a problem (Ideation), building an app (Technology), building a plan for launching the app (Entrepreneurship) and bringing the business to market (Pitch).

Technovation is one of the few girl-specific AND tech-specific competitions out there, so girls can learn from one another and have healthy competition with one another, while also bolstering each other and seeing firsthand the power they wield when they work together. It’s great for growing young girls’ business savvy, tech aptitude, and helping them build the confidence to pursue tech if they want to.

Kidbacker itself has several components, including a crowdfunding platform for teens and young twentysomethings to launch their ideas. They also have a nonprofit foundation that offers scholarships and grants to further the entrepreneurial education of people into their early 20s. Plus, they offer classes mainly focused on tech entrepreneurship, including on design, coding, and other crucial aspects.

Kidbacker also has a People’s Choice contest, where students have the chance to receive money for their venture if they do well.

Whether you’re headed for a startup competition or incubator, some key things you’ll learn about pushing through the tough spots are to always mind your milestones, ask for, accept, and integrate feedback, and bounce ideas off of and gain valuable insights from mentors and trusted advisors.

Here’s a quick table of 10 programs geared toward revving up youth entrepreneurship.

Name Type Description Benefits Location(s) Deadline
Diamond Challenge Competition Team entrepreneurship competition run by the Horn Entrepreneurship program at the University of Delaware. Teens learn about entrepreneurship while working on real business ideas. Build adaptability, learn business concepts, win awards, learn from the pros. Virtual & Local; University of Delaware (summit) 5-Jan-18
Catapult Incubator (Quarter Zero) Incubator 6-week program in which Founders and Free Agents build/join teams to help bring a Founder’s idea or startup to life. Young people learn the building blocks of business, from developing ideas to identifying customers to pitching. Learn and work the core concepts of building a business alongside other bright young startup enthusiasts. Receive mentorship from entrepreneurial pros. Silicon Valley; New York City; Chicago Rolling (the competition heats up the later it gets, so apply soon).
Technovation Competition Teams of 1-5 girls identify problems in their communities, develop business plans, and build mobile apps to solve them. They receive mentorship and learn the stages of starting a business, from ideation to pitching. Mentors and Technovation’s curriculum provide guidance and knowledge-building opportunities. Learn problem-solving, develop tech and business skills in a supported environment, collaborate with other empowered and tech-savvy girls. Prizes ranging from $500 to $1500. Virtual and Regional 1-Mar-18
Hatchpad (Kidbacker) Incubator Teen and young twentysomething students develop and launch business ideas, collaborate with one another to gain skills and hit milestones, showcase their work online to one another, get feedback, network, and have the opportunity to receive crowdfunding for their venture. They also compete for awards and recognition. Collaborating with and learning from other students, growing the startup mindset, potential funding through crowdfunding aspect of Kidbacker. Potential to win People’s Choice Student Startup Award. Virtual N/A
i.Invest National Youth Entrepreneur Business Competition Competition Teen entrepreneurs put their business plans and pitching skills to the test on a national level. Mentors and coaches help students develop strong, workable business models. One-on-one coaching & mentoring, feedback from business leaders. Up to $10,000 in prizes, potential seed funding. Virtual May 1, 2018 (Submission period begins March 1, 2018)
Paradigm Challenge Competition Students (ages 4-18) are  challenged to solve real problems (this coming year’s focus is health/wellness) using “kindness, creativity, and collaboration”. Potential prizes (range: $200-$100,000). Build critical thinking, problem-solving, social engagement skills. Virtual (awards ceremony in Los Angeles) 1-May-18
Startup High School (University of Michigan) Competition High school students use video pitches to submit their venture ideas and compete for a chance to attend a weekend entrepreneurial summit where they receive mentorship and exposure to knowledgeable professionals, and pitch their ideas live. Learn to dial in the pitching component of the startup process, gain exposure for your ideas, learn from the pros. Virtual and Ann Arbor March 5, 2018 (priority deadline: Jan 31, 2018)
Blue Ocean Entrepreneurship Competition Competition Started last year, this competition is run by and for high school students, allowing students to pitch their ideas for thousands in cash prizes Cash prizes Virtual Check online
World Series of Entreprepreneurship Competition The World Series of Entrepreneurship is a venture pitch competition series open to any high school student. Students compete for venture and college scholarship dollars, and also access mentoring and internship opportunities, setting the stage for impact far beyond this event. Venture Funding and College Scholarships up to $5 and $10k at regoinal and national levels Virtual plus citites across the US 1-Apr-18
Conrad Spirit of Innovation Competition This annual competition challenges high school student teams to use science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) innovation, as well as entrepreneurship, to create a more sustainable world for this and future generations. Semi-Finalist teams compete for the opportunity to present their product/service during the Innovation Summit at the Kennedy Space Center! Kennedy Space Center Oct-17

The 10 programs I mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg! There are hundreds of amazing accelerators, incubators, and startup competitions for people with the desire, ideas, and mindset to become entrepreneurs.

Here are more top accelerators (not just those specific to young entrepreneurs), namely Y-combinator, TechStars, and AngelPad.  If pursuing these options, make note of the tradeoffs of timing, amenities, and equity.

And here are more great startup competitions (not just specific to young entrepreneurs).  Consider making a list of the competitions, what is required, the potential benefits, and the deadlines.

Go get ‘em and good luck!

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