Michigan launches “world’s largest” startup competition

September 2, 2010

The proliferation of startup incubator or accelerator programs has made it tough for most to stand out among the crowd. So the way the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition chose to do it, is by offering what it claims is the “world’s largest” cash award – $500,000 – to the winning business pitch.

The only condition is that the winner has to set up shop in Michigan.

“Seventy years ago we were Silicon Valley,” said David Egner, executive director of the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan, which provided $750,000 – in the form of a grant – of the more than $1 million in prize money for the competition. “That DNA is still here and we need to re-highlight the activities that are already happening and the things we need to do in Michigan to return it to its innovative roots.”

The contest is the collaborative efforts of four of the state’s biggest incubator programs: Ann Arbor Spark, Automation Alley, Macomb-OU INCubator and TechTown. The competition will be accepting proposals from startups around the globe through October 6 and will award the grand prize on December 12th. There is also a secondary competition just for students with concepts for longer-term business viability, which runs through October 22.

The competition defines “startups” as seed stage innovation-based companies that have not raised more than $1 million in funding, don’t exceed $1 million in annual revenue, address a market size of at least $500 million and who have the ability to get to $20 million in annual revenue in the next five years.

Egner hopes that by stipulating these stricter parameters the AMIC contest will ultimately produce a winner with more upside than traditional incubator programs that are solely tied to a university. To illustrate, Egner pointed to some Kauffman Foundation research that showed independent accelerator programs that have a broader scope “have greater success than those that are typically only connected to a business school.”

Egner said those pitch competitions are usually limited to that institution’s students.

“I could be majoring in Russian language and have a great idea – shouldn’t I have an opportunity to, as a career path, be an entrepreneur,” he said.

The finalists, who must survive three separate judging rounds, will all have to make live five-minute “elevator pitches,” said Egner, adding the panel of judges has not been finalized. In addition to the grand prize, $150,000 will be awarded to the runner up and another nine awards of $25,000 will be collected by the each of the industry “sector” winners.

Egner said the creation of such a large and far-reaching competition is to kickstart Michigan’s struggling economy and steer it in a new more forward-looking direction.

“We’ve been a victim of 70 years of our own success,” Egner said about Michigan’s reliance on the Big 3 automakers and the move to find the next generation of entrepreneurs – mostly millennials – that won’t be sucked up by the auto industry. “They’re a group that I think will embrace entrepreneurial behavior that we’ve somewhat lost over the last 70 years.”

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