Santa Cruz Tech Beat


Perfect Your Pitch, Gain Exposure, and Compete for Prizes at the 12th Annual Startup Challenge Monterey Bay

By Sara Isenberg
Founder, Publisher, Editor-in-Chief, Santa Cruz Tech Beat

February 24, 2021 — Marina, CA

Whether you own a new business, run a non-profit, or are a student with a business plan, the 12th Annual Startup Challenge Monterey Bay is back to challenge new entrepreneurs who want to perfect their pitch, gain exposure, and compete for prizes.

Previous Startup Challenges have hosted a collective 840 entrants who have won over $400K in prizes and have raised more than $35M in funding. This year’s event has openings across their Venture, Social Venture, Main Street, and Student divisions. (Space is limited, so enter by March 8, 2021 at 11:59PM.)

I connected with Mary Jo Zenk, one of the main organizers of the Startup Challenge, to learn more about this year’s event. Zenk is a Program Manager at the Institute for Innovation & Economic Development (iiED) in the College of Business at CSUMB.

Santa Cruz Tech Beat (SCTB): Please tell us… what is Startup Challenge Monterey Bay?

Mary Jo Zenk (MJZ): The Startup Challenge is the premier competitive startup competition for new businesses across Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Benito counties. Our goal is to provide a platform for visibility, connections and funding to local entrepreneurs and offer them the tools they need to succeed in the marketplace.

SCTB: How has the pandemic affected Startup Challenge Monterey Bay? How is this year different from last year?

MJZ: We are in our second year of working with pandemic restrictions, so we really have it dialed in this year. Last year, the Startup Challenge team had to quickly pivot and adapt the program into an online format within three weeks, and we were really proud of the results. The Qualifying Round and Final Round programs were successfully hosted online through Zoom.

This year, participants will compete on our new, online event platform, The platform will feature the finalist companies and broadcast the final pitch sessions (aka the Otter Tank) and announcement of winners. We welcome the public to save the date to see the Final Pitches online on May 7, 2021.

SCTB: How do new businesses benefit from participating in the Startup Challenge?

MJZ: The Startup Challenge provides a great educational and networking experience for everyone involved. While finalists can win cash prizes, as well as advancement and mentorship opportunities, the Challenge provides all participants with coaching, exposure, networking, and access to funding opportunities.

After attending workshops to develop their business pitch, participants get the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a panel of business experts and receive valuable, real life feedback. Participants also learn how to analyze their business and perfect their business plan.

One of the greatest benefits of the Challenge is the exposure to the community for business development and funding, as well as getting on the fast track to other business resources and programs. Finalists are awarded mentoring and advanced workshops and compete for funding.

SCTB: What are the qualifications to enter the Startup Challenge?

MJZ: Applicant businesses must be in operation for less than two years and be based in Monterey, San Benito, or Santa Cruz counties. Businesses in the idea stage may apply as long as they have a developed business plan. Students from middle to graduate school may enter the student division.

SCTB: What kinds of businesses can compete in the Challenge?

MJZ: The Challenge is open to a diverse range of new businesses, from tech startups to social justice nonprofits. This year we are accepting applicants in Venture, Social Venture, Main Street, and Student divisions. 

Businesses intended to scale and provide venture-investor level returns are invited to apply to the Venture division. Both for profit and non-profit businesses with a significant social mission can apply to the Social Venture division. Small businesses and sole proprietorships may apply to our Main Street Division.

SCTB: Ok, let’s go back in time. What is this history of Startup Challenge Monterey Bay?

MJZ: The Startup Challenge began in 2010 as the Monterey Bay Regional Business Plan Competition, and was created by the Marina Tech Cluster, a business incubator located at the MBEST Center in Marina.

When the Marina Tech Cluster closed in 2013, the Challenge moved to its current home at the Institute for Innovation & Economic Development (iiED) in the College of Business at CSUMB.

SCTB: How has Startup Challenge Monterey Bay impacted the Monterey Bay Business Community?

MJZ: Over the past 11 years, the Challenge has provided a launch pad for a variety of businesses across the Central Coast. Since 2010, over 840 businesses have entered the Challenge. In 2020, a record 132 businesses entered the Challenge, and 26 advanced to the Final Round.

All previous Venture division winners continue to do business, and have raised collectively more than $35,000,000 in funding. Two of the earlier winners, Yoderm (now Apostrophe) (2012) and HeavyConnect (2016), were accepted into 500 Startups, a world-renowned Silicon Valley accelerator.

Main Street winners have launched successful businesses include Nece’s Gluten Free Baked Goods in Monterey, Luma Yoga in Santa Cruz, New Bohemian Beer in Santa Cruz, Open Ground Studios in Seaside, and the Carmel Honey Company in Carmel, and many others.

Find out more and enter the challenge at


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