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SPIE Startup Challenge 2018

Welcome to the 8th Annual SPIE Startup Challenge.

The SPIE Startup Challenge for photonics technology is held 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



The Startup Challenge uses the competition management and application system from the Global Entrepreneurship Network. You will need to create an account with 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:

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


  • Written Applications Open - 15 September, 2017
  • Written Applications Close - 13 November, 2017
  • Semi-Finalists Notified - 28 December, 2017
  • Pitch Clinic at Photonics West - 29 January, 2018
  • Semi-Finalists pitch and Finalists selected - 30 January, 2018
  • Startup Challenge Finals and Winners selected - 31 January, 2018

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, 29 January 2018 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. The written application for the Startup Challenge is extensive and requires an investment of time to complete. Each answer will be saved automatically when you move on to the next question and you can return to previous questions and the application itself at any time. Incomplete applications will not be evaluated. Based on the written application, 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 (30 January, 2018) and has the same format and rules as the final round. Pitches are organized into topical tracks. A panel of judges, different from the initial evaluation group, will select the top 6 presenters from Tuesday who will go on to the final competition on Wednesday afternoon (1 February). 

The final round will occur at the Moscone Center, 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. 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 January 2018 to participate in the Startup Challenge do constitute disclosure. Participants should avoid the release of proprietary information, trade secrets, information subject to export control, or ITAR.

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

Earlier Event: October 27
SPIE-Hillenkamp Fellowship
Later Event: November 27
Photodynamic Therapy Symposium 2017