Are you an entrepreneur based in the Utica-Rome area looking for money and support to launch your business? If so, you should know about the Downtown Startup Challenge. A chance for your to win up to $30,000 in startup funding!
Launched in 2016 and sponsored by The Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties, the Downtown Startup Challenge is a business competition for entrepreneurs with innovative ideas for businesses that they wish to open in downtown Utica or Rome. Entrepreneurs accepted into the Challenge will not only receive coaching from Mohawk Valley Community College’s thINCubator startup accelerator—some will have the chance to pitch their idea for up to $30,000 in seed funding.
How do I know if my startup is a good fit for the Downtown Startup Challenge?
According to thINCubator director Ryan Miller, startups that have been proposed for the competition have been “all over the board,” including restaurants, coffee shops, and retail—as well as media and professional services. What competitive applicants have had in common, however, is a vision for how their business will help transform downtown Utica and Rome.
While Miller acknowledges that it is helpful for applicants to have relationships with individuals, organizations or businesses that are committed to the revitalization of downtown Utica or Rome, such connections are not absolutely necessary to be successful in the competition.
Downtown Startup welcomes startup ideas at all stages of development, and is also open to different team sizes—according to Miller, some entrepreneurs apply alone, while other businesses have applied with two or three cofounders.
What does the application and selection phases of the Challenge look like?
Interested entrepreneurs have submitted their startup idea to the Community Foundation via an online form at downtownstartup.com. Each application will be reviewed and the most promising startups will be invited to join the Startup Bootcamp at the thINCubator. According to Miller, teams admitted to the thINCubator will be coached on how to write a business plan, market identification, feasibility of startup costs, and how to pitch their idea.
At the end of the Startup Bootcamp, participants will submit their business plans for consideration in the next round. A select number of teams will move on to the finals, where the winning pitch will be awarded up to $30,000.
Is the Challenge really only focused on downtown Utica and Rome?
The Challenge is centered around urban renewal in Oneida County—the Community Foundation believes that it only takes one new business to rejuvenate a block or even neighborhood. As thINCubator director Ryan Miller points out, business like The Tailor and the Cook and Utica Coffee have helped turn what was once a “pretty desolate” area of downtown Utica into somewhere with potential. As Miller puts it, “When you have [an entrepreneur] who’s doing something unique and different in an area that really had nothing, it attracts other entrepreneurs.”
If your startup is not focused on the revitalization of downtown Utica or Rome, don’t worry—you can find out about other Upstate New York startup resources by checking out UVC’s UNY Ecosystem Map. This clickable map features startups, incubators, universities and investors that are working to transform Upstate’s startup landscape.
What made the previous winner of the Challenge, Smith Market, stand out in the competition? And what are they up to now?
According to Ryan Miller, Utica’s growing downtown has been attracting residents as well as new businesses: “People who are moving to downtown [Utica] want that urban environment where they can walk—where they can live, work and play. One thing that’s missing down here,is some kind of grocery store—downtown is a bit of a food desert.”
Miller says that Smith Market, a natural food store and local market based in Utica, “saw the trend of people wanting to move downtown, particularly this district, and saw an opportunity to fill a void that’s been in existence for quite some time.”
According to the Community Foundation, Smith Market has been hard at work developing relationships with potential vendors as well as renovating their Bagg Square location in preparation for their opening this summer.