Competitions, Grants & Other Funding Sources
If you’re interested in getting more funding and exposure beyond traditional seed rounds, here are some opportunities:
The annual Big Launch Challenge is a chance for startups to pitch for $15,000 in cash prizes, as well as additional capital opportunities. The event is hosted by The Launch Place, an investor based in Danville, Virginia. The organization has expanded its presence in the Triangle market with an RTP office and several local startups in its portfolio. In a decade of hosting the competition, The Launch Place has awarded $189,000 to 19 companies (as of 2023). Winners sometimes attract later investments from The Launch Place.
Black Girl Ventures opened a Durham chapter in 2020. The organization provides funding, mentoring and coaching, crowdfunding and community connections to women-founded tech startups.
Every year, the Council for Entrepreneurial Development’s Venture Connect conference brings together over 1,000 local and regional entrepreneurs, in-state and out-of-state VCs, and other investors and stakeholders. The event features a much-anticipated pitch competition, in which high-growth startups present their products/services to gain visibility among investors, other entrepreneurs, corporate executives, potential customers and talent. The program eyes scaling companies in the tech, biotech, agtech, food innovation and consumer packaged goods markets. As of 2022, Venture Connect’s 6,700 alumni companies had raised about $6 billion in funding.
RIoT and the City of Raleigh partnered in 2023 to host the Connected Triangle+ Reverse Pitch Contest. Startups pitch products/services across three topics: Transportation, sustainability and digital equity. Municipal leaders, technical experts and investors pick the most promising solution. The winner gets accepted into the RIoT Accelerator Program and an opportunity to run a local pilot project.
DIG SOUTH, an organization serving tech startups across the South, hosts an annual pitch competition at its flagship DIG SOUTH Tech Summit. In the Wild Pitch event, early- and growth-stage startups present their pitch to a panel of judges and a live audience for a chance to win prizes and potentially attract future investors and partners.
Organized by Virginia-based nonprofit Springboard Enterprises, the Dolphin Tank series provides an opportunity for women entrepreneurs to pitch their products/services and receive constructive feedback from investors and subject matter experts. The national pitch event expanded to the Triangle in 2022, with a program focused on agricultural technology.
Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) hosts the Launch Pad program for Duke MBA students with innovative ideas. The program includes a $10,000 grant, coaching from CASE staff and the program’s global network of impact enterprise leaders.
Administered by Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE), the annual Fred Morgan Kirby Prize for Scaling Social Impact awards $100,000 in unrestricted funds to nonprofit and for-profit organizations working on social impact projects. The program launched in 2020 with support from the F.M. Kirby Foundation, a fund endowed by five-and-dime store entrepreneur Fred Morgan Kirby. The award targets enterprises that can present strong evidence of their impact over the last three years, along with a plan to scale further over the next three to five years.
As part of its Cyber Policy Program, Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy hosts a Cyber Pitch Competition for students with business ideas in the fields of cybersecurity, data protection, privacy and online safety. Selected individuals or teams will pitch their venture to investment experts for a chance to win $25,000 and other prizes. Winners will also receive a grant from Paladin Capital, an investment firm headquartered in Washington, DC.
Duke Incubation Fund awards funding to idea-stage projects with commercial potential. At least one member of the startup team must be from Duke University.
The Duke Institute for Health Innovation (DIHI) offers an annual funding cycle to support innovative projects from faculty, staff, trainees and students of Duke University and the Duke University Health System. With thematic solicitations for proposals offered on a yearly basis, the program targets projects that aim to address critical issues encountered by care providers and patients.
Duke University’s MEDx initiative offers a range of funding opportunities for students and faculty members with solutions to medical challenges.
In this program, teams of undergraduate students from Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering (or BME) will build out medical device concepts proposed by Duke University Medical Center physicians, nurses and other clinical professionals. This program is useful for clinicians who want to build an innovative medical device but lack the time or resources to design a prototype on their own.
Duke MEDx’s High-Risk, High-Impact Challenge provides seed funding—up to three awards ranging from $25,000 to $50,000—to early career researchers for interdisciplinary projects tackling human health issues. This program specifically targets “high-risk, high-impact” projects that are unlikely to receive funding through traditional agencies without preliminary data.
Three student teams compete in three rounds for a year-long entrepreneurship competition that leads to an accelerator program.
Durham SOUP is an opportunity for local early-stage entrepreneurs to pitch their innovative businesses and projects. There are only two rules: Ideas must incorporate the Durham community and the presenters can’t use technology to pitch. The winner receives all of the proceeds from the event.
A week-long startup program focused on building and funding local startups led by black founders. It’s typically held in conjunction with the annual Black Wall Street Homecoming, a multi-day event that celebrates the entrepreneurship and innovation sourced from Durham’s diverse, multicultural communities.
The Launch Place‘s IdeaFest is an annual competition where 20 finalists pitch their startup idea to judges and a live audience. The top three competitors will be awarded $5,000 for first place, $3,000 for second place and $2,000 for third place. Winners of the competition are eligible to receive 25 hours of free business consulting from The Launch Place.
Innovate Durham, a program launched by the City of Durham, offers innovators the facilities, tools and government resources they need to create technology-driven solutions to community challenges.
Through its Launch Microgrant Fund, local startup accelerator Launch Chapel Hill provides $1,000 in equity-free funding to companies that have graduated from its program. The Launch Microgrant launched in November 2020.
LaunchBio, a national life sciences organization, hosts an annual pitch competition for promising biotech startups in the West, South and Northeast regions of the U.S. Entrepreneurs present their pitch to a panel of investors for a chance to win cash prizes, consulting and patent services, and other opportunities. To be eligible, early-stage startups must be developing new therapeutic or life science-related products, platforms or digital health technologies, with fewer than 10 employees and $12 million or less in funding. Durham startup IMMvention Therapeutix made it to the final round of the inaugural Big Pitch event in 2020.
Run by Meredith College’s School of Business and Entrepreneurship Program, the annual Meredith (Social) Entrepreneurship Challenge is an opportunity for students with business/nonprofit ideas to compete for a $2,000 cash prize. As of 2021, the program has awarded more than $30,000 since its launch in 2017, featuring 122 student participants and over 20 women judges and mentors.
NC IDEA’s Black Entrepreneurship Council ECOSYSTEM Grant program provides funding (up to $500,000 per recipient) for 501(c)(3) and for-profit organizations that assist Black entrepreneurs in starting and growing their businesses. More TechWire coverage here.
NC IDEA’s ECOSYSTEM grant program supports non-profit and for-profit organizations that are using innovative methods to boost North Carolina’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, particularly for underrepresented entrepreneurs.
NC IDEA’s MICRO grant program offers funding of up to $10,000 for early-stage companies seeking to validate and further develop their ideas. Recipients will also receive mentorship from NC IDEA and access to its network.
Through its SEED program, the NC IDEA Foundation offers grants to a handful of select startups twice per year. Each company receives up to $50,000 in non-dilutive funding, along with mentorship and guidance.
eGames, first introduced in 2009, is an annual pitch competition serving NC State student-led ventures. The program divides student pitches into a “think” category (idea-stage ventures) and a “do” category (startups that already have a product and customers). Every year, eGames grants about $100,000 to the winning companies.
A separate track of the competition, the Daugherty Endowment Track, targets established startups that have licensed NC State intellectual property in the past three years. This component generally awards about $50,000 to the winning teams each year.
At NC State University’s annual Make-A-Thon competition, student teams are tasked with creating the best solution to a sustainability challenge. At the end of the weekend, they’ll pitch their ideas to local judges for a chance to win up to $2,000 in prize money. This is a good opportunity for beginner student-entrepreneurs who have an idea for a product but haven’t created a prototype yet.
NC State University’s Miller Fellowship is a funding program that helps newly-graduated alumni pursue their ventures full-time. Entrepreneurs get a $750 monthly stipend, business development support and mentorship from the NC State Entrepreneurship team. The program aims to capture recent grads in that short window between finishing college and deciding whether to jump into a full-time job or take a risk in growing a startup.
The Miller Fellowship launched in 2014 and became endowed in 2017. It is named after Thomas Kenan Miller, senior vice provost for entrepreneurship at NC State University.
Run by NC State University’s Office of Research Commercialization, the Sweat Equity Challenge is an app idea competition for undergraduate and graduate students and faculty/staff, who will receive customer/market feedback to validate their ideas, develop a prototype, launch a startup and begin looking for funding to help take their business to the next level.
Wolf Den is a popular pitch competition that’s held every year during NC State University’s Global Entrepreneurship Week. A handful of student teams present their business ventures to a panel of judges and a live audience for a chance to win cash prizes.
UNC Chapel Hill’s North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute (NC TraCS) offers two research funding programs for projects focused on developing new health therapies, diagnostics or devices:
TraCS $2K supports researchers as they move forward with innovative studies and research projects.
TraCS $5K–$50K provides one-year research grants of up to $25,000, requiring 50% matching funds by campus departments or partner institutions. The program supports new research projects as they capture preliminary data before seeking future funding.
NEXT Venture Pitch is a popular pitch event for entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, angel investors and business leaders across the Carolinas. Held in Greenville, South Carolina, the half-day pitch competition is an opportunity for startups in the southeast to refine their pitch and gain attention from new investors.
Administered by the North Carolina Department of Commerce, this state program offers grant-matching to NC-based startups that have received Phase I awards from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) or Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) federal programs. It also reimburses businesses for a portion of the costs of preparing and submitting SBIR or STTR proposals. Since 2006, One NC grants have supported more than 340 companies (as of November 2022). Read more TechWire coverage here.
Duke University and North Carolina Central University invite student entrepreneurs and recent alumni to showcase their businesses at Pitch: A Competition for Black Student-Founders. Participating entrepreneurs will present their startups and receive expert feedback from investors. Prize money will be awarded.
Held during the AdvanSE Life Sciences Conference every year, PitchRounds invites life science companies across the Southeast to present their solutions in biopharma, digital health, diagnostics, medical devices and agricultural biotechnology. Since its inception, the 500 companies selected to participate in PitchRounds have raised $7.6 billion in 790 funding transactions, with 70 subsequent IPOs and M&A events, according to the conference website (as of April 2022).
The Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster‘s annual Cleantech Innovation Awards launched in 2019 to celebrate the top individuals, organizations and projects driving the clean energy technology sector in the Triangle. The award categories span areas such as entrepreneurship, research, equity and diversity, talent development, and impact across transportation, energy, water and local government.
Introduced in 2021, the RIoT Your Reality Challenge is a new competition from RIoT, a local Internet of Things-focused organization. The program calls on entrepreneurs and innovators to create tech-enabled solutions to civic challenges from the City of Raleigh and the Town of Cary. The winner gets a cash prize and a spot in the next RIoT Accelerator Program cohort.
Start-Up Stadium is a Shark Tank-style pitch event that launched in 2019 as a feature of the annual BIO Impact Ag and Environment Conference. Early-stage biotechnology startups present five-minute pitches to a panel of experienced investors across the agricultural and environmental industries. Participants will get feedback and potential funding to help take their ventures to the next level. The program targets entrepreneurs who have raised less than $10 million and are focused on food/farm innovations, sustainable fuels, and bio-based manufacturing. The 2023 event will be held in Raleigh.
UNC Chapel Hill’s Carolina Challenge is a venture competition that provides students the opportunity to win seed funding for early-stage ideas. Every year, the program distributes over $25,000 to promising entrepreneurs so they can move to the next level of launching their business or social ventures.
UNC Carolina Challenge Summer Immersion
In 2021, UNC’s Entrepreneurship Center launched the Carolina Challenge Summer Immersion program, providing networking, workshops, coaching and up to $2,000 (per team) to help student entrepreneurs to continue their journey of building their ventures.
UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Health Innovation offers pilot funding opportunities for UNC Health and UNC School of Medicine faculty and staff innovations. Since 2013, the center’s Innovation Pilot Awards program has awarded more than $1.28 million to 28 teams.
UNC Chapel Hill’s Eshelman Institute for Innovation offers grant funding to staff/faculty, students and postdocs who are developing innovations in science, medicine, healthcare delivery or healthcare education. You can check out some of the projects that have been awarded funding in the past here.
Innovate Carolina’s Dreamers-Who-Do Award program provides funding to support UNC-Chapel Hill student entrepreneurs as they enter the proof-of-concept process. Average awards range from $100 to $1,000.
Venture Atlanta is one of the Southeast’s premier startup conferences, featuring a pitch program targeting tech-enabled, seed- to growth-stage startups looking to raise funds over the next 1.5 years. North Carolina-based companies regularly headline the annual pitch event, with nearly three dozen local startups in its alumni network as of mid-2023. The conference launched in 2007 and now draws over 1,300 attendees and 350 investment funds per year. Its events have catalyzed $7.5 billion in investments and over $17 billion in exits.
UNC Chapel Hill’s 1789 Student Venture Fund provides small, targeted funding to help undergraduate and graduate students get their commercial and social startups off the ground.
COVID-19 Funding, Assistance & Resources
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, startups may be in need of immediate funding to keep their businesses afloat in an economic downturn. Here’s a list of COVID-specific funding sources:
- Paycheck Protection Program (PPP): The U.S. Small Business Administration provides PPP loans to help companies keep their workforce employed during the pandemic. Borrowers may be eligible for loan forgiveness.
- Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program (EIDL) offers up to $2 million in loans to small businesses and other entities impacted by the pandemic. Under this, there are two targeted advance programs offered to businesses in low-income communities.
- The Targeted EIDL Advance program provides $10,000 for businesses in low-income communities with 300 or fewer employees and experiencing revenue reductions greater than 30%.
- The Supplemental Targeted Advance program provides an additional $5,000 for businesses in low-income communities with 10 or fewer employees and experiencing revenue losses of 50% or more.
- SBA Restaurant Revitalization Fund: Offers $28.6 billion in grants to assist restaurants and bars with pandemic-related revenue losses (up to $10 million per business and $5 million per location). Of that total, $5 billion will be set aside for businesses with 2019 gross receipts of less than $500,000.
- SBA COVID-19 Funding Options: A list of nationwide relief programs for small businesses.
- SBA Debt Relief: SBA will pay principal, interest and fees on certain loans.
- SBA Express Bridge Loans: Up to $25,000; fast turnaround.
- SBA Shuttered Venue Operators Program: Owners/operators of live venues, theatres, performing arts centers, museums and more eligible entities can apply to receive grants equal to 45% of their gross earned income up to $10 million.
- Main Street Lending Program (from the Federal Reserve): Five-year loans of $100,000 to $300 million.
- Business Recovery Grant Program: Eligible businesses in North Carolina can receive grant funds to cover pandemic losses of at least 20%. The program consists of a hospitality grant for arts, entertainment and recreation businesses, as well as food service and accommodation businesses. A reimbursement grant of up to $500,000 is also available for other businesses.
- Job Retention Grant (JRG): Grants of up to $250,000 for businesses and nonprofits in North Carolina. (More TechWire coverage here.)
- NC COVID-19 Rapid Recovery Loan: Loans of up to $250,000 with no payments and .25% interest for 18 months. Available for qualifying NC small businesses and family farms.
- NC Mortgage, Utility and Rent Relief (MURR) Program (from the NC Department of Commerce): Relief funds of up to $20,000 per qualifying business location. Designed to offset fixed costs like rent, mortgage interests and utility bills.
- Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA): For independent contractors and self-employed individuals. (See NC Department of Commerce tip sheet.)
- RETOOLNC Grant Program: This program provides grants to certified Historically Underutilized Businesses (HUBs) and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) firms in North Carolina that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Funds are provided at $10,000 base.
- Truist Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIFund)
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Assistance for Farming Businesses (+ USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program)
- NC Humanities’ American Rescue Plan provides two grant programs offering $5,000 to $20,000 for programming/projects and operating support at North Carolina nonprofit or governmental organizations experiencing hardships due to the pandemic.
- Oak City Biz Labs is the City of Raleigh’s COVID-19 relief program, delivering technical assistance to local small businesses.
- Apex Small Business Emergency Loan Program
- CARES Revolving Loan Fund: From United Durham Incorporated’s Community Development Corporation, this program offers loans up to $50,000 to eligible businesses located in Durham County. The loan program is supported by a CARES Act Recovery Assistance grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
- Chapel Hill SafeCommerce Grant: The Town of Chapel Hill and the Chamber For a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro are offering grant funds for small businesses that need personal protective equipment for their employees and/or customers. The maximum grant award per applicant is $2,000.
- Duke-Durham Fund: Grants for small businesses, nonprofits and community organizations.
- Durham Artist Relief Fund: Relief for performers and visual artists.
- Durham Arts Council Recovery Fund: Funding for individual artists and arts organizations, venues and businesses.
- Durham Recovery Fund: The Carolina Small Business Development Fund is offering loans and grants to Durham-based small businesses impacted by COVID-19:
- Durham Grant Program (offered by CSBDF in partnership with Duke University): Available to businesses with $500,000 or less in revenue; must have 25 or fewer employees.
- Durham Loan Program (offered by CSBDF in partnership with the City of Durham): Available to businesses with $500,000 to $2 million in revenue; must have 25 or fewer employees.
- Fuquay-Varina Angel Fund: Grants of up to $3,000
- Holly Springs Chamber Foundation Angel Fund: Holly Springs-based small businesses may apply for grants up to $3,000. You don’t have to be a Chamber member to apply.
- NC CARES for the Arts Grants: Through the CARES Act, $9.4 million was designated to provide direct aid to North Carolina arts councils and arts organizations to mitigate business disruptions caused by COVID-19. Funds will be distributed on a per-capita basis to counties with a population of less than 1 million. See the list of participating counties here.
- NC Healthcare Foundation COVID-19 Fill the Gap Response Fund
- Orange County Arts Support Fund
- Orange County Emergency Small Business Funding Program: Grants of up to $5,000; loans up to $20,000.
- Town of Carborro Small Business & Non-Profit Emergency Fund
- Wake Forward (through Wake County and the NC Rural Economic Development Center): $5 million in total to support small businesses, including sole proprietors. Applicants can receive support for two months of lost revenue, capped at $50,000.
- Carolina Community Impact: Low-interest loans for small businesses.
- Institute of Economic Development Small Diverse Business Emergency Relief Fund: Grants of up to $1,000 for small minority-owned or women-owned businesses in NC. Loans administered by the Women’s Business Center of NC.
- NC Artist Relief Fund: Grants for local artists to cover losses from gig cancellations.
- NC IDEA Partners in Purpose (donation campaign).
- NC Restaurant Workers Relief Fund
- Annuity Freedom Grants: Three programs available for artists, Black or minority business owners and women business owners. All are a combination of marketing + micro-grant. While there is not currently a cap on the number of monthly marketing grantees, there is currently one $100 micro-grant each month per program. Marketing assistance will continue indefinitely. No fees are required of applicants.
- Citizens Minority-Owned Small Business Grants: Aims to serve businesses that are at least 51% minority-owned and bank with Citizens.
- Comcast RISE: Provides support and resource services to Black-owned small businesses that have been hit hard by the economic impact of the pandemic.
- DVI Funding Financial Bridge Loans: Up to $10,000 for individuals.
- Facebook Small Business Grants Program: $100 million in cash grants and ad credits.
- GoFundMe Small Business Relief Fund: Micro-grants to small businesses.
- Google Small Business Funding & Support: $800 million in grants and ad credits.
- Hello Alice COVID-19 Business for All Emergency Grant: $10,000 emergency grants for small business owners.
- Honeycomb Crowdfunded Small Business Relief Loan: $10,000 to $50,000 in working capital (multiple options).
- James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund: For restaurants, bars and other independent food and beverage operations.
- LISC Rural Relief Small Business Grants: Provides funding to small businesses in rural communities with populations of 50,000 or less.
- Lowe’s-LISC Small Business Relief Grants: Grants for businesses that have been impacted by COVID-19; focus on historically underserved communities that lack access to capital. (More coverage here.)
- Mainvest Main Street Initiative: $2,000 loans for brick-and-mortar businesses that launch a capital raise on Mainvest.
- Opportunity Fund Assistance for Small Business Owners Affected by COVID-19
- Red Backpack Fund: 1,000 grants of $5,000/each to female entrepreneurs.
- U.S. Chamber of Commerce Save Small Business Fund: $5,000 grants to small employers.
- Salesforce Small Business Grants: For businesses with $250,000 to $2 million in revenue.
- Southern Smoke Emergency Relief Fund: For owners and employees of restaurants and bars.
- Local Initiatives Support Corporation Verizon Small Business Recovery Fund: Grants of up to $10,000.
- Southern Opportunity And Resilience (SOAR) Fund provides low-interest loans of up to $100,000 to small businesses and nonprofits in 15 states across the southeast, including North Carolina. To qualify, small businesses must be experiencing pandemic-related economic disruption and have 50 or fewer full-time equivalent employees and annual revenues of less than $5 million.