Business is inherently competition, so it’s no surprise that making a contest out of planning a business has caught on. Cities, townships, states, government branches, and anyone else who wants to see good ideas flourish has gotten into the game. With dozens to hundreds of competitors and high-dollar purses, many business plan competitions have emerged as innovators’ biggest hope for startup capital, as well as the prestige of winning that brings that crucial early-stage exposure. From student phenoms to aged sages, there’s something on this list for anyone with an enterprising spirit.
Although most require teams to feature at least one current or graduated native student, the competitions at these respected universities and business schools foster some of the best upcoming entrepreneurial talent in the country. Check the “Find a Team” or similar pages to recruit a qualifying partner.
- University of Texas McCombs School: Dubbed “the Super Bowl of investment competition,” this is the one that started it all. It’s invite-only, meaning participants from all over the world will have already won at least one other competition before hitting Austin.
- Harvard Business School: Look up “prestigious” in the dictionary and you’ll find a picture of Harvard’s logo. In its 15 years, dozens of this competition’s participants have gone on to successfully implement their plans.
- The Wharton School: Finalists go on to make Forbes headlines and earn superlatives like “The Next Big Thing in Tech.” Though the top three share $100,000 in prizes, the first phase of the contest is non-competitive and designed to give participants help and guidance on their ideas.
- Rice: This prestigious school claims to host the “world’s richest and largest business plan competition.” With $1.3 million in prize money, you can bet this is a highly competitive contest.
- University of Oregon: The New Venture Championship is one of the premier grad-student biz plan events in the nation. It’s a bit stricter than some on student involvement, but it should be a goal of every college entrepreneur to test your business acumen here.
- MIT: So-named for the amount the winner of the Launch Contest wins, the MIT $100K also offers substantial prize dollars in a 60-second pitch contest and the Accelerate contest, which pairs lucky teams up with expert mentors and grants them $1,000 to put their ideas into action.
- Purdue: The competition at the Burton D. Morgan Center for Entrepreneurship goes back to 1987 and has helped hundreds of Purdue students and local entrepreneurs learn what a winning business plan looks like.
- NYU Stern: This business school has a business plan contest befitting its status as one of the finest b-schools in the country. The $200K Entrepreneurs Challenge seeks the best ideas in the categories of new, social, and technology ventures.
- SEDS NewSpace: It looks like the future of space exploration (in the U.S. at least) may lie with private industry. For any entrepreneurial students interested in the field, this comp hosted by the Students for the Exploration & Development of Space is a must.
- Tufts University Gordon Institute: There’s $100K to go around between the winners of the classic and the social entrepreneurship contests, plus the nice perks of legal and other advice, in this competition by the Tufts School of Engineering.
- ACC Clean Energy Challenge: For students in the ACC and other schools in the southeast, this $100,000 competition features the best of the best from Duke, Georgia Tech, Maryland, and elsewhere.
- UC Berkeley: Berkeley’s Startup Competition is 14 years in and still producing innovators who dot the pages of Inc. Magazine and are on the forefront of American business innovation.
City and State
- NH Start Up Challenge: New Hampshire’s biggest business plan battle brings the winner $25,000, legal and accounting services, and the all-important face time with investors that all entrants get.
- COSE Business Pitch: Several media outlets reported on the finalists for this year’s contest from Ohio’s 14,000-member Council of Smaller Enterprises. Eighty entrants were narrowed down to one grand prize winner of $20,000 this year.
- New York StartUP!: Got a plan for a Big Apple business? This competish by the New York Public Library is in its fourth year and offers $30,000 in prizes.
- Wisconsin Governor’s Contest: Planning to open a company in Wisconsin is grounds for eligibility in this sizeable contest that’s doled out over $1 million since launching in 2004.
- Rhode Island: Both students and current businesspeople competed this year to win over $200,000 in prizes in industries ranging from biotech to online retail. The competition recently passed the $1 million mark for money granted to local entrepreneurs.
- Maryland Pinterest Pitch Contest: Though this was just its first year, this competition asking local businessfolk to pitch their best ideas via the popular picture-posting site made some waves and is sure to pick up steam next year.
- TowsonGlobal: Entrepreneurs in the pre-start or start-up phase in the D.C.-Baltimore area won’t want to miss this competition presented by the business incubators at Towson University in Maryland.
- The Start Something Challenge: 2012 was the first of hopefully more of these business idea contests for New Jersey’s enterprising citizens, encouraging them to send in their plans as video clips for a chance at $10,000.
- West Virginia Statewide: Participation hit its highest-ever mark this year with 11 colleges across the state competing for two $10,000 prizes in lifestyle, innovation and hospitality, and tourism. No doubt next year will see even an even greater turnout.
- MillerCoors Urban Entrepreneurs Series: The beer producer assembles CEOs, b-school deans, and business journalists to judge the entrants from all over the country competing for a grand prize of $50,000 or one of three $25,000 awards.
- Grow America Springboard: Though headquartered in Utah, this competition intends to ultimately sponsor competition between businesses in the categories of idea, start-up, and growth in 50 metro areas across America and hand out $50 million in awards annually. In other words, it’s worth keeping an eye on.
- New York Times’ Make Your Pitch: It’s unlike the others on this list, but being featured in this venerable paper’s website for your biz idea could certainly be considered prestigious and no doubt the competition is stiff.
- Black Enterprise Elevator Pitch: The popular magazine is challenging you and all its readers to actually ditch the business plan and the PowerPoint slide and perfect a two-minute business pitch for a shot at $10,000.
- Invest Maryland Challenge: Dec. 13 is the cut-off for submissions to enter your business plan in the IT, life sciences, or general categories, each with a top prize of $100,000. You’ll have to spend 51% of your winnings in Maryland, but we hear it’s beautiful there in the fall.
- MassChallenge: Last year alone, 24 countries were represented by 733 entrepreneurs at this $1 million competition and “largest-ever startup accelerator.” It’s for anyone, anywhere, in any industry, so don’t miss it.
- Venture Capital Investment Competition: Only the best grad and b-schools around the world get invited to compete in the VCIC, from Kellogg to Copenhagen. Just getting in is an honor in itself and a great learning experience for any budding businessperson.
- Women 2.0 PITCH: Whether you’re in the NYC area or overseas, the only must for this competition is being an early-stage company with at least one female founder. The deadline for the fifth annual event is passed, so start thinking about your plans for next year.
- Accelerate Michigan: Billed as the largest business plan competition in North America, Accelerate Michigan is open to businesses all over the world and regularly attracts hundreds of submissions.
- La Idea: Short for Latin American Diaspora Engagement Alliance, La Idea is a pet project of Hillary Clinton and designed to find the best business ideas for U.S.-Latin American business partnerships.
- Eureka!: Think you’ve got a world-beating business plan in your pocket? Then put it to the test with this international competition said to be the biggest one in Asia.
- Intel Global Challenge: Nothing less than changing the world is the goal of this prestigious contest at Berkeley for “the best engineers and scientists.”
- William James Foundation Sustainable Business Plan Competition: There’s still time to enter the 10th annual contest by this well-known contest that rewards entrepreneurs for socially responsible plans for doing business with cash prizes totaling $100,000 and invaluable feedback.
- i6 Green Challenge: The presidential election may affect the status of a fourth competition, but if it’s held, this multi-million dollar, nationwide contest from the Economic Development Administration will continue to be a big deal.
- Cleantech Open: Competitors in this green tech competition have turned $5 million in prize money and service support into $660 million of capital raised. Making it to even the semi-final round means national attention from the green community.
- Walmart Better Living: If you’re a college student, a genius biz plan that could benefit the environment or someone’s life could land you $20,000 in startup funds. Just a suggestion: your plan probably shouldn’t be “quit shopping at Walmart.”
- Global Social Venture: Another competition to spring from the halls of Berkeley’s b-school, the GSVC brings together the best MBA students and recent MBA grads from around the world who have a vision for a business that will positively impact the world.
- Social Impact Exchange: Any 501(c)(3) can compete in this competition hosted by Social Impact Exchange and Duke University to earn funds to take their plans for helping people to the next level.
- Dell Social Innovation Challenge: To make up for unleashing their laptops on the world (just teasing, Dell), the computer company is in its fifth year of offering up to $350,000 annually to innovators with ideas that will solve pressing world problems.