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SPIE Startup Challenge Schedule and Rules

The SPIE Startup Challenge is held annually at Photonics West. This competitive event invites new entrepreneurs to pitch their light-based technology business plan to a team of business development experts and investors.

Application Timeline

Application opens
25 September 2019
Application deadline 15 November 2019
Semi-Finalists notified 3 January 2020


Photonics West 2020 Timeline

Healthcare track keynote, Founders, Investors - 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM 1 February 2020
Pitch Clinic, Team management, Money and Milestones, Risk2Value 2 February 2020
Customer Discovery, Mentor Office Hours 3 February 2020
SPIE Venture Summit 4 February 2020
Semi-Finals - 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM 4 February 2020
Startup Challenge Finals + Networking Reception - 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM 5 February 2020


Structure of the Competition
All applicants will have their written application evaluated by a team of expert judges. They evaluate each application on the strength of the business case, financial case, and the trajectory of the team. Judges select the teams that advance to the next round. The applicants are divided among two topical tracks: Healthcare and Deep Tech.

The Semi-Final Round
Selected teams are invited to make a pitch in person at the semi-final round of the competition at Photonics West. The semi-final round will take place Tuesday, 4 February, at Photonics West 2020. A representative from each semi-finals team will make a 5 minute pitch to a panel of judges. Judges then select the top presenters from Tuesday who will go on to the final competition on Wednesday afternoon.

A PC computer, projector, screen, and remote slide advance are provided for presenters. Timing and pitch pacing is the responsibility of the presenter, and the room monitor will indicate a cut-off. For the finals, a confidence monitor and countdown timer will be visible to the presenter. Switching personal laptops into the system is not allowed. Pitch decks will need to be provided electronically to the organizers at least 1 day ahead of the semi-finals.

The Final Round
The final round will occur on Wednesday, 5 February at Photonics West 2020, in the Moscone Center. Judges will decide the top 3 pitches in each topical track and announce the winners at a final awards ceremony. In all rounds, the decisions of the judges are final.

Eligibility and Rules

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 either be:

  1. Pre-revenue for the pre-seed stage
  2. Below $500k in revenue from product sales for seed stage

at the time of the written application. You will need to select the appropriate track for your team. In both cases, revenue means revenue generated from products sold, not funding acquired through investors, grants, or other support. 

In 2020, we are accepting applications for:

  1. Healthcare
  2. Deep Tech - involving scientific or engineering innovation (no apps)

The focus is on new businesses and potential startups. 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.

Rules for the Pitch
Oral pitches for both rounds of the Startup Challenge can be no longer than FIVE (5) MINUTES each. Extra time is 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 a paid registration for the conference in order to attend the training program. Each team will receive two (2) free registrations to the Entrepreneurship program that will be added to their badge. These are not Technical attendee badges, but will provide access to the Entrepreneur program and Industry events.

Travel: Teams are responsible for making their own arrangements to travel to San Francisco. 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 2020 to participate in the Startup Challenge semi-finals do constitute disclosure. Participants should avoid the release of proprietary information, trade secrets, information subject to export control, or ITAR.

By participating, you agree: 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.

SPIE may document the competition with video and images of the presentations. This material will be used by SPIE to promote the Startup Challenge competition, your pitch, and entrepreneurship in photonics. If you are filmed by SPIE, you may always request a copy of the footage.

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 (dirkf@spie.org) or by phone (+1 360 685 5474) - this is a US West Coast timezone.