Startup competitions can be that one opportunity that could launch your dream into reality, but contrary to popular belief, one does not need to win the competition to reap the benefits of participating in one.
Each competition in Oklahoma offers cash prizes for winners, but also a chance for resource development, networking, mentorship and more. In Oklahoma, startup competitions range from collegiate business plan contests, student-centric pitch competitions to professional level events.
Ready to make your mark in Oklahoma? We’ve listed the top (and most inclusive) startup and pitch competitions in Oklahoma.
I2E LOVE’S CUP
The Love’s Cup (formerly the Donald W. Reynolds Governor’s Cup) is a statewide collegiate business plan competition “that simulates the real-world process of researching a market, writing a business plan and making a presentation to potential investors.”
The competition is through i2E, a nationally-recognized organization in Oklahoma that has provided business expertise and funding to nearly 680 of Oklahoma’s emerging small businesses. With more than $50 million of investment capital under management, i2E focuses on startups looking for their first round of capital to established businesses seeking funding to expand their markets or products.
In the 13 year history of the Love’s Cup/Governor’s Cup, almost 2,000 college students have participated and more than $1.7 million in cash has been awarded, along with $110,000 in scholarships and $250,000 in fellowships. The challenge has also created more than 700 innovative ideas from 35 state campuses, and more than 35 of those plans have gone on to become clients of i2E.
The competition is split into three categories:
- The High Growth Division of the Love’s Cup invites students from Oklahoma higher education to write a business plan around a high growth concept in one of five categories of healthcare, information technology/communications; manufacturing, material science, transportation; energy and environmental; or student generated design. Teams write the plan and pitch the concept to win a share of the $114,000 in scholarships and cash. The top two teams in the graduate and undergraduate divisions go on to compete for $118,000 in cash prizes at the Tri-State Competition.
- The Small Business Division is open to non-research campuses, two-year colleges and private regional universities. Teams compete for $40,000 in cash prizes and scholarships by writing business plans around any business concept, such as a high growth opportunity or more traditional small business opportunities, provided the approach to the business concept is innovative and/or unique. In other words, the approach to the business needs to be original or demonstrate strategic creativity, versus a simple replication of an existing proven business model.
- The Tri-State Award collegiate business plan competitions for Arkansas, Nevada and Oklahoma award a total cash pool of $118,000 for the first- and second-place winners in the undergraduate and graduate divisions in each competition.
A conversation with Stacey Brandhorst, Venture Advisor & Director of Venture Assessment:
Regarding the elevator pitches, sometimes they struggle to include every tidbit of information about their company. The elevator pitch isn’t meant to tell the entire story, but rather it is 90 seconds to pique interest of the investors and get them to ask for a deck, exec summary, or a meeting.
Regarding the business plan portion, many companies don’t realize the importance of a proven product/market fit. I love asking, “So you said that XYZ customer would benefit from this, how many of them did you actually talk to? What are their budgets? How often do they buy? How are they solving the problem now?” Those kinds of questions elevate the conversation out of demographic data from the internet to actual customer feedback.
Q: What do judges look for at the Love’s Cup competition?
First and foremost we’re looking for a new solution to a market problem. It’s also great to see a well-rounded team, validated customer segment, realistic milestones, and a well thought out path for execution.
Q: Your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs entering the competition.
The judges at the Love’s Cup competition are actual investors, so I love to tell teams to try to anticipate the hard-hitting questions by creating “safety slides” that sit at the end of a presentation. If the question comes up, you look especially prepared.
TULSA STARTUP SERIES
Launched by Tulsa Community College and the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, the Tulsa’s StartUp Series competition helps entrepreneurs by delivering resources and mentoring opportunities to entrepreneurs. With more than 85 percent of Tulsa’s revenue coming from small businesses, the Tulsa StartUp Series offers mentoring, but also competitions to benefit entrepreneurs.
The multiple entry points to the competition makes for a shorter timeline and provides greater accessibility for a larger number of startups. The competition also includes networking and access to Tulsa’s entrepreneurship resources, including LTFF’s Cultivate918, 36°North and i2E.
The Tulsa StartUp Series offers five pitch competitions per year that are separated by business segment, including tech/apps, K-12 education, physical products, food and retail and a Wild Card Round. Each segment has separate submission dates. All the competitions culminate with Demo Day competition. Each competitor uploads a 60-second video at www.tulsastartupseries.com and judges choose five finalists to advance to a live pitch round at 36°North.
Each live pitch winner receives $2,500 to test or advance their business, a three-month membership to 36°North, a spot in the Venture Assessment Program at i2E and a mentor who meets with the business owner weekly for at least three months.
The five Pitch Series winners also get the opportunity to compete at Demo Day, where the winner receives $15,000, a year-long membership to 36°North and a dedicated mentor.
The competition began in 2007 as the Tulsa Entrepreneurial Spirit Award by former Mayor Kathy Taylor. The competition later adapted to the Tulsa Community College StartUp Cup Powered by the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation and has generated more than 2,300 full-time, part-time and contract jobs and a total economic impact for Tulsa of more than $57.7 million.
A conversation with Meredith Peebles, COO for the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation
The judges are looking for an entrepreneur to clearly articulate their product or service, the problem their product is solving for, who their target customer is and how they will generate revenue. As this is a pitch competition, the judges are looking for an articulate and well communicated presentation as well.
Q: What are some of the most common mistakes that you see?
It’s challenging, especially early stage, to have market validation for your product. The ability to do so greatly improves the narrative about the need for the product or service to solve for the problem identified. Participants also frequently struggle to present within the time constraints identified. Practicing out loud or in front of others will make a big difference in your ability to successfully communicate your message efficiently!
Q: What is the number one thing most entrepreneurs can do to improve their chances?
As the judges are looking to learn a lot of information about your business in a sixty-second video or five-minute live pitch, perfecting that brief elevator pitch greatly increases the likelihood of success in this competition.
PONCA CITY PITCH OFF
Ponca City began their pitch competition through the Ponca City Development Authority (PCDA) two years ago. The first year focused on business concepts, and five business concepts were pitched.
In 2017, PCDA advertised the Pitch Off as a business plan competition with a $5,000 incentive package. The judges evaluate business plan content, clear communication of the business plan, effective use of the prize money, probability of successful launch, community impact and job creation. Winners earn a $2,000 check; $1,000 for equipment, training or advertising; a year of free rent at the Pioneer Technology Business Incubator; and a year membership to the Ponca City Chamber of Commerce.
A conversation with Katherine Long, small business and information coordinator for the Ponca City Economic Development:
In the first year’s content pitch, we had three who submitted, and to varying degrees, it came down to practice, practice, practice. It came down to being able to answer the questions. We have three bankers on the panel, and in the last year’s business plan competition, the highest scorers were those who could anticipate and answer those questions.
Q: What is your biggest advice to those entering the competition?
You have five minutes to pitch, and the judges have five minutes to ask questions, but the judges have had the business plans for weeks to look over. The best pitches hit the highlights, but also anticipate the questions the judges will have. The best pitch answers the questions before the judges ask them.
Q: What types of businesses have won in the competition so far?
We just completed our second year. The first year concept competition winner was a cupcake maker. She had a good product, a recognizable product and a tasty product. The second year, the highest scoring business plan came from a father/daughter team who had invented a gate closure system. They had spent three years perfecting it, so they were at the perfect point to pitch. They are now part of our manufacturing incubator.
SOONER LAUNCH PAD
The Sooner Launch Pad through the University of Oklahoma also offers a chance to win seed funding. The program allows small teams of student entrepreneurs looking to start or expand a business. Teams receive mentoring, training, dinners and workspace for the eight week summer program as well as $10,000 in seed funding to accelerate the launch of their entrepreneurial ventures.
Applications for the seed funding are conducted in two stages. First, a panel of judges selected from investors and mentors will review submissions. Select groups are entered in the second round of applications, which includes a more detailed presentation about the proposal. Based on the judging, three to four teams are chosen.
accelerateOSU is an off-campus business incubator in Stillwater that hosts more than 60 student teams from various disciplines who come together to grow and develop their business idea. As the main hub for the Institute of New Venture Creation, accelerateOSU offers an extensive list of services, spaces and programs to serve student startup needs.
The accelerateOSU Business Plan Competition is open to OSU students and student-created, managed and owned ventures. In the competition, all students are given expert feedback and the opportunity to win cash prizes to fund their venture.
The university also hosts a Pitch and Poster Competition. Students create a poster and a pitch before writing a business plan to take to judges, who then provide feedback on the new business idea or product. Cash prizes are given to the top three ideas.
Other funding opportunities through accelerateOSU are:
OSU Seed Fund: Evergreen fund managed by the OSU foundation that provides $2,000-$25,000 in seed funding to early stage businesses working on early product development with no equity stake.
OSU Angel Group: Formalized group of angel investors interested in funding different kinds of companies from Oklahoma State University.
Cowboy Technologies: Formalized group of angel investors, comprised of alumni and friends of Oklahoma State University that funds early stage technology companies.