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SPIE Startup Challenge 2016

The SPIE Startup Challenge for photonics technology is held annually at the Photonics West conference in San Francisco. This competitive event invites new entrepreneurs to pitch their light-based technology business plan to a team of business development experts and venture capitalists. Applicants selected to pitch at Photonics West are invited to attend an entrepreneur boot camp for training, networking, and refining their business plan. The best pitch presenters receive cash prizes and are provided support to attend additional entrepreneurship training to continue refining ideas and make further contacts with experts.

More information about the competition - like complete prize package information, judging, and training can be found at http://spie.org/startup



The Startup Challenge uses the iStart.org competition management and application system from the Kauffman Foundation. You will need to create an account with iStart to apply to the Startup Challenge - click on the orange Log in/Register button in the upper left. Once your account is completed, you can access the Start Challenge application. For a preview of the application, please see: http://spie.org/Documents/Events/StartupChallenge/StartupChallengeApp2016.pdf

Written applications submitted outside of the iStart system will not be accepted.


  • Written Applications Open - 5 October, 2015
  • Written Applications Close - 20 November, 2015
  • Semi-Finalists Notified - 5 January, 2016
  • Pitch Clinic at Photonics West - 15 February, 2016
  • Semi-Finalists pitch and Finalists selected - 16 February, 2016
  • Startup Challenge Finals and Winners selected - 17 February, 2016

Eligibility: Participants must have an optics or photonics technology or application that they wish to publicly present as the basis for a viable new business. Established companies must be pre-revenue at the time of the written application. Pre-revenue in this case means revenue generated from products sold, not funding acquired through investors, grants, or other support. The focus is on new businesses and potential startups. Therefore, companies that have already sold products are ineligible to enter the competition. Students, post-docs, professors and other first-time business starters are encouraged to apply. The Startup Challenge accepts applications from the worldwide community of entrepreneurs.

Training: The Startup Challenge is more than a simple pitch competition, but an entry point into the community of photonics business development. Numerous experts and mentors attend the competition training to volunteer their time in support of new business ventures. Semi-Finalists in the Startup Challenge will be invited to attend a full day of training on Monday, 15 February 2016 at Photonics West. This training will include 1) business plans: from beginnings to exits 2) pitching and 3) customer interviews. A networking lunch and additional industry programming will serve to introduce you to the right people to help solve your business formation questions. Representatives from IP Law, finance, marketing, partnerships, and capital funding are looking forward to learning about your plan and answering your questions about creating a successful venture.

UPDATE: Semi-finalists get additional training opportunity with NSF iCorps instructors and may qualify for iCorps funding.

Structure of the Competition: All applicants will have their written application evaluated by a team of expert judges. Judges will select approximately 20 semi-final pitches that will enter the live pitch round of the competition from the initial pool of applicants. 

The semi-final round will take place at Photonics West on Tuesday afternoon (16 February, 2016) and is structured exactly like the final round, but will not have a large audience. A panel of judges, different from the initial pool, will select the top 6 presenters from Tuesday who will go on to the final competition on Wednesday afternoon (17 February). 

The final round will occur in public, with judges deciding the top 3 pitches and announcing the winners shortly after the last presenter has finished. The decisions of the judges are final.

Pitch Rules: Oral pitches for both rounds of the Startup Challenge can be no longer than FIVE (5) MINUTES each. You may use a maximum of FIVE (5) SLIDES. Extra time and additional materials are not allowed. Pitches must be made live and in person at Photonics West by the applicant or a team member named in the application.

Participation in the competition means that you agree to have your startup presentation evaluated publicly. Furthermore you allow SPIE to use your name, likeness, and the information provided in the Startup pitch to promote your product and this competition, in print and electronic communication means.

Application Fee: There is no fee to enter the competition. However, applicants selected as semi-finalists will need to pitch in person at Photonics West. You will need to register for the conference - a free "Exhibit-only" badge is sufficient - and make arrangements to travel to San Francisco.

Travel: The Startup Challenge does not provide travel support to attend Photonics West

A note on disclosure: The written application to participate in the Startup Challenge will be read by a team of evaluators who have been asked to keep the contents of the application confidential, however, no formal guarantee of confidentiality will be provided or implied. The oral presentations required in February 2016 to participate in the Startup Challenge do constitute disclosure.

Additional QuestionsIf you have questions about eligibility, participation, expectations, sponsorship, or anything related to the Startup Challenge, please contact the program administrator: Dirk Fabian (dirkf@spie.org) or by phone (+1 360 685 5474) - this is a US West Coast timezone.

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