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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.

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Application Timeline

Application opens
28 September 2020
Application deadline 30 November 2020
Semi-Finalists notified 5 January 2021


Startup Challenge 2021 Timeline

Virtual Pitch Clinic January 2021
Virtual Venture Summit January 2021
SPIE.Online Startup Challenge Semi-Finals 29 January 2021
SPIE Venture Summit at Photonics West 9 March 2021
Startup Challenge Finals at Photonics West 10 March 2021


Structure of the Competition

Written Application  

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.


Based on the written application, judges select the teams who become Startup Challenge semi-finalists. These teams are invited to enter the live pitch round of the competition.

This year, selected teams will be invited to make a pitch online at a virtual semi-final round of the competition. The semi-final round will take place during the Photonics West 2021 online preview week. 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 this virtual event to see who will go on to the in-person final competition at Photonics West in March 2021.

Pitch presenters will need a computer with camera and microphone to present during the virtual semi-finals. Timing and pitch pacing is the responsibility of the presenter, and an online facilitator will indicate a cut-off.

Pitch decks will need to be provided electronically to the organizers at least 1 day ahead of the semi-finals.


The final round will occur on Wednesday, 10 March at Photonics West 2021, in the Moscone Center, San Francisco, CA. Judges will decide the top three pitches in each topical track and announce the winners at a final awards ceremony. In all rounds, the decisions of the judges are final.

Series A/B Open pitch

Teams will be selected to pitch in the Startup Challenge Finals and Venture Summit by a team of investor judges. Teams in this round are not eligible for the Startup Challenge competition, the Early Stage Travel Grants, or the monetary prizes, but will pitch during the Photonics West in-person event. Pitching to investors is the sole purpose of the event.

COVID-19 Statement

The global pandemic has impacted all aspects of planning these events and the situation is continually evolving. We intend to organize this event according to appropriate guidelines from local health officials. We will communicate major modifications to this plan to all participants.

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.

Companies must select a track based on their development stage:

  1. Pre-revenue for the pre-seed stage
  2. Below $500k in revenue from product sales for seed stage
  3. Actively raising a Series A or B round with some demonstrated market traction for the Series A/B open pitch

at the time of the written application. You will need to select the appropriate track for your team. In all cases, revenue means revenue generated from products sold, not funding acquired through investors, grants, or other support. Teams (unestablished companies) should join the pre-seed stage.

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.

Tips for the Written Application

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. Answer all questions. Make your best educated guess if you do not know or have not yet determined how to approach this aspect of the business.

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. Finals pitches will be made live and in person at Photonics West by the applicant or a team member named in the application.

Application Fee  

There is no fee to enter the competition. However, applicants selected as finalists will need to pitch in person at Photonics West. You will need a paid registration for the conference in order to attend the Venture Summit program. Each team will receive two (2) free registrations to the Venture Summit program that will be added to their badge. 


Finals 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. Semi-finals teams must be able to provide an online pitch.

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 2021 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.