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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. In this challenging year, the Startup Challenge's 11th year, the industry-judged competition will be moving to an all-online, live-pitching format.

Application Timeline

Application opens
28 September 2020
Application deadline 30 November 2020
Semifinalists notified 31 January 2021


Startup Challenge 2021 Timeline

Startup Challenge 2021 Kick-off Event
Semifinalist announcement
Startup Funding in 2021 panel discussion
2020 Startup Challenge Winners update
14 April 2021
8:30AM–10:30AM PT
Register >
Virtual Customer Discovery workshop
Mentor office hours
21 April 2021
8:00AM–10:00AM PT
Coming soon
Pitching your Company Virtually pitch clinic
Mentor office hours
28 April 2021
8:00AM–10:00AM PT
Coming soon
Seed Stage Semifinals — Deep Tech
Investor Relations panel discussion
5 May 2021
8:00AM–10:30AM PT
Coming soon
Seed Stage Semifinals — Healthcare
Prototyping and Market Strategy workshop
12 May 2021
8:00AM–10:30AM PT
Coming soon
Pre-Seed Stage Semifinals — Deep Tech
Team Formation and Development workshop
19 May 2021
8:00AM–11:00AM PT
Coming soon
Pre-Seed Stage Semifinals — Healthcare
FDA Shark Tank panel discussion
26 May 2021
8:00AM–11:00AM PT
Coming soon
SPIE Startup Challenge Finals
Welcome keynote
Finals — Deep Tech
Finals — Healthcare
Post-pitch analysis
2 June 2021
8:00AM–11:00AM PT
Coming soon
Post-Event Wrap Up workshop
Including valuation, term sheets, legal matters, and next steps for teams
9 June 2021
8:00AM–10:00AM PT
Coming soon

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 semifinalists. 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 semifinal round of the competition. The semifinal round will take place online. A representative from each semifinals team will make a five-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 virtual final competitions in June 2021.

Pitch presenters will need a computer with camera and microphone to present during the virtual semifinals. 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 one day ahead of the semifinals.


The final rounds will occur virtually, and each track will have a dedicated day of competition. 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 by a team of investor judges. Teams in this Series A/B round are not eligible for the Startup Challenge competition, the Early Stage Travel Grants, or the monetary prizes, but will pitch to investors. 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 2021, 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 for the 2021 competition will be made live, online by the applicant or a team member named in the application.

Application Fee  

There is no fee to enter the competition. As all events for the 2021 program are virtual and not associated with Photonics West as a result, there are no additional travel expenses this year.

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 May 2021 to participate in the Startup Challenge semifinals 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.