Jul 23, 2015
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Qualcomm Ventures is gearing up to present its fifth QPrize, an international seed investment competition that provides wireless technology startups with their first level of funding. This year’s competition—for up to $500,000 in funding—has begun, and judges in Australia, China, Europe, India, Israel, Korea, Latin America, and North America are preparing to pore over thousands of business plans before selecting this year’s Grand Final winner on September 9.
Qualcomm Ventures was created in 2000 and is now a business unit of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. originally focused on later-stage companies. Most of the companies that were considered for funding had to have a proof of concept and ideally, a product or technology that could be evaluated but following the 2008 recession, Qualcomm’s investment arm reevaluated its role in the startup industry.
“Lo and behold, in 2009, opposite this huge financial crisis, virtually all of the financial venture capitalists—the big guys you hear about—stopped funding,” said Keith Muhart, Qualcomm Ventures’ director of marketing. “They stopped funding new companies particularly, and more or less corralled their existing portfolio companies and put them in survival mode.”
With entrepreneurs looking for new investment channels, Qualcomm Ventures QC Ventures used this opportune pullback in VC funding to reposition itself as a stable and viable investor.
“We had a sudden surge in interest from all kinds of partners, entrepreneurs, and startups that wanted us to get in at earlier stage deals,” Muhart said. “It’s a whole different skill set to manage and make a startup flourish that’s in a seed stage versus a later stage.”
QPrize was initially conceived as a one-time event, an exploratory option to see how Qualcomm Ventures would perform in seed investments and how the entrepreneurial market would perceive the corporate investor’s new identity.
The first QPrize competition was hosted in four regions that had Qualcomm investment management offices: China, India, Europe, and North America. The submission and review processes were fairly simple and are still used today. First, startups submit their business plan applications to their respective, regional Qualcomm Ventures teams.
“Unlike our normal seed and later stage investment review process, we don’t actually interview or engage with any of the QPrize applicants at the initial stage, for a number of reasons” Muhart said. “First, this is a competition, and we want to ensure everyone has equal access and opportunity to win. The large volume of submissions makes it impractical to have ongoing dialogues with individual contestants. Also, we like to review the business plans to see how well the ideas are thought out and how savvy the teams are in preparing the pitches.”
From there, each region reviews each submission based on its own review process, keeping in mind the company’s managing skills, its product’s market potential, and the proposal’s financial projections. Applications that are not technology-focused with some future connection to the evolving wireless ecosystem are normally discarded.
“We are looking for big ideas that will have a meaningful impact on a rapidly emerging and changing wireless world,” Muhart said.
Candidates are then whittled down to a top 50 or even top 20. Another round of evaluations is done by executives and investment managers until up to eight finalists are chosen. The finalists in each region are then invited to the respective QPrize contest location and a regional winner is selected.
For the first QPrize, regional winners received $100,000 in funding each, and were brought to the U.S. to be exposed to other venture capitalists and to compete for a grand prize of an additional $150,000.
The review process is more or less the same as QPrize enters its fifth competition, but several aspects have changed. Australia, Israel, Korea, and Latin America have been added to the original four regions, with Australia’s competition hosted in conjunction with OzAPP, a local wireless and software technology contest. Regional winners now receive $250,000 in funding and the grand prize winner receives an additional $250,000, bringing Qualcomm Ventures’ investment total to more than $2 million.
After hosting the first QPrize Grand Final event at a public venue with hundreds of spectators in the Bay Area, Qualcomm Ventures realized that that might not have been ideal. Because their submitted business plans were first evaluated at face value, the international startups never met the Qualcomm team. The entrepreneurs were excited to answer questions from the judging panel, but many were wary of sharing their concepts in the presence of a crowd.
“These companies are so young and so worried. Most of them don’t have patents to protect them,” Muhart said. “Anything they disclose, particularly in the Bay Area, someone could pick up and take off with it.”
This year, the finals will be held at Qualcomm Ventures’ tenth annual CEO Summit, where portfolio company CEOs meet with venture capitalists and other industry players Qualcomm has relationships with. Evaluations will be done in a private boardroom setting on September 8, and the grand prize winner will be announced on September 9.
For many regional and grand prize winners, participating in QPrize has helped boost their startups significantly. Take Divide, which developed software that allows users to compartmentalize their work and personal lives in two interfaces that are completely separate on a single device. Named Enterproid when it first applied for QPrize, it was one of the first companies that recognized the emerging “bring your own device to work” movement. As the Grand Prize winner of QPrize 2011, it was later acquired by Google in 2014.
iOnRoad, an Israeli company dedicated to alerting drivers of potential collisions in real-time, also achieved much success. The augmented driving mobile application was acquired by Harmon Industries less than 45 days after winning the 2012 QPrize Grand Finals, becoming one of Qualcomm Ventures’ fastest exits.
Muhart is proud of QPrize’s success rate—of the competition’s past 25 regional winners, 17 seed companies made it to a Series A round of funding, the first significant round of venture capital financing for a startup.
“I don’t think people will believe it when they see it,” he said. “It’s very unusual for this level of seed companies to survive.”