Got a great business or invention idea but not a lot of capital? Not to worry; the good news is that there are many federal, state and crowdfunding sites to help you out. There are also many contests looking for innovators just like you. The best part about all these sites is that they give you free money, not loans, in order to get started. You just can’t beat free money.

Federal and State Grants

The feds offer over 1,000 grants on their website, which takes some time to work through and get the hang of. There is also the more user-friendly aggregator site, Federal Grants, which provides streamlined information divided up into different business categories and owner demographics (e.g., women, minorities). The site also gives you directions on how to qualify for and apply for federal grants as well as what to do once you’re approved. The U.S. Small Business Administration also aggregates and provides information about federal and state government grants; you can use the SBA Loans and Grants Tool to help you find money.

If your business or invention idea involves the commercialization of technology, then you definitely need to check out the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer programs. These programs award money to small businesses that engage in R&D and/or high tech applications.


Many business schools offer business plan writing contests; for example, in MIT’s Business Plan Competition, semi-finalists present a 20-page business report and the winner gets $100,000. University of Wisconsin’s business school offers several business plan competitions; in fact, Chris Meyer of Sector67 (whom ITT interviewed) launched his hacker space after winning several UW business plan competitions.

If you’re not affiliated with a business school, that’s OK too. Lots of companies and foundations offer business plan, elevator pitch and other contests; BizPlanCompetitions is an online directory that lists over 400 business plan competitions offered by corporations and foundations. Ben Franklin Technology Partners offers a $50,000 prize to companies that submit the best business plan, while the Business Owners’ Idea Cafe offers a $1,000 cash prize to any business that simply submits an innovative solution to an everyday problem.


Sites like Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Peerbacker and GoFundMe enable you to pre-sell your finished product or service to your backers and raise capital quickly. You must raise your desired amount or the money goes back to your backers; in other words, if you raise only $800 of your desired $1,200 goal, you will not get that $800. Also, because your invention or business idea is made public, there is the risk that someone may try to copy it. As a result, some crowdfunders obtain provisional patents on their ideas before revealing them on a crowdfunding site. Compared to regular patents, provisional patents are fairly cheap and easy to file, and they give your idea one year of legal “identity” before expiring.

Showcasing your idea well on a crowdfunding site is essential to getting pledges (i.e., money) from backers. Think rich media presentations, with lots of audio and video files and maybe even some cartoons added in for good measure. The more you can show to your backers, the more likely you’ll get them excited about your project- and that means more pledges coming in.

Regional/City Grants

Many small towns and communities are acutely aware of the need to help develop local businesses and most have EDPs, or economic development plans (enabled by economic development committees) that make room for business grants. These grants may not be big- think $2,000- but they can get you going on your business idea, especially if all you need is a few tools or software programs and can perform most of your work at home.

Keep in mind that, because these grants are created from taxpayer money, there will probably be some requirement for you to go before a city council and report on your progress (or lack thereof). To find out if your local town has an EDP, just go to the city’s website and search on EDP. Click here for an example of an EDP.


Unlike the angels that you might be thinking of, these angels are more earthbound and loaded with investment cash. They can be located through various directories such as Gust and Go4Funding. The average angel investment is $600,000, so an angel is typically intended for a business that is already up and running but needs help with a new product idea.

While angels don’t necessarily give you cash completely strings-free, they can wait years, if not decades, before asking for some kind of dividend on their investment. Another great thing about angel investors is that they don’t try to micromanage you or your business like venture capitalists. However, you will need to show a return on the investment amount at some point in time. Angels may also steer you towards selling your business, which frees up business profits (i.e., their payback).

What You Need to Provide

A plan: Most federal and state grant programs require in-depth proposals that outline every aspect of your business idea and organization. Therefore, you need to create a business plan.

A prototype: Business and invention contests assign major points to contestants that provide a working prototype. Because building a prototype takes money, you may first need to raise some capital using a crowdfunding site before submitting a contest application.

An employee: If you can argue that your business or invention idea will create at least one extra job (not counting your own, of course), you’re going to be much more likely to secure funding.

An LLC: To prove that you are a serious businessperson, you will need to incorporate your business. The easiest way to do this is to incorporate as an LLC.

A partner: It’s not an absolute necessity, but having someone else also invested in your business or invention idea gives you better credibility, which in turn increases your likelihood of getting money.

Join the Discussion

  • Scott

    I invented a machine that allows the living and dead to verbally communicate with each other clearly. It is a prototype that I’ve shown to a few who signed a disclosure agreement. It even scares the most seasoned paranormal investigator. I have been told that its worth millions by invention help company’s. Unfortunately they always mention a cost of around $30,000 to get it to market. I’m on SSI for a crushed spine and only live month to month on $717. So I just cannot get a loan and the grant competition is fierce with specific rules and regulations, Nun of which pertains to my invention. I’m not looking for charity and I want off SSI (supporting my self). I’m looking for serious investors interested in this invention with out the tricky fine print and claims on the net. The investor will make a 25% interest on the work done with this product anyway, so why the need for $30,000 or even an investor for that matter if that amount is also needed? Any Suggestions?

  • Jakes

    Hi I’m from South Africa and patented my idee, only problem that I have now is to get financed to be able to start putting my dream into reality, if there is any one that can help me either by becoming a partner or investing into my patent or if there is any recommendations that I can look up for that matter I would highly appreciate that

  • Henry Morgan
    Henry Morgan

    This is an absolutely superb resource for innovators Halina – well done.
    Will be sending more than a few people in this direction,
    Thanks for your hard work, it’s appreciated.

  • Moses Evans
    Moses Evans

    I have a few invention ideas one that I am already workn with through an invention company. But there is one I also want to start but want to take another route and have an investor back the invention any answers or suggestions?

  • Mary Mccrary
    Mary Mccrary

    I meant to say I had an idea and talked to a Company Davison and they’re all ready to go she’s going to talk to me tomorrow about it in 2000 to take it to her company I can’t borrow it because I’m allowed to put it I can’t afford it because I thought it was very low income and barely barely make it I don’t have anybody here I can borrow it from any help I can get would be great my email is Kathy McCreary 323 at message

    • Mike

      Google Davison online you will be surprised

    • April Williamson
      April Williamson

      Have you heard or found any help? I have a great idea that I submitted to Davison as well but I’m broke & can’t afford to get things started. If you have any suggestions I would greatly appreciate it & if I find any help I’ll let you know. Thanks

  • Mary Mccrary
    Mary Mccrary

    I had talked to the company and talk to somebody about an idea I had a panic attack treat that cleans your teeth and eliminate hairballs names and throwing up attracted to them. I’ve already talked with the girl I can’t get a loan I can afford it because I’ve been with no disability. That is great she’s going to call me tomorrow

  • Sabriga

    I’m keeping this as a resource, too. Now I have info to share when friends come up with creative ideas that just need a little help to get off the ground.

  • Lori Mauger
    Lori Mauger

    How many times have I thought to myself, “I have this great idea, but no money to launch it.” Thanks to your great info, the resources are a click away! Now I just have to come up with some more great ideas….

  • Katie

    I love the idea of crowdfunding. I’ve supported several projects through Kickstarter that I really wanted to see materialize, and a few of them did. Most of them offered me some kind of small perk in exchange for my support, which was a good incentive.

    • Julius

      For those you have supported that is really generous of you. Katie i have a business project that is coming up and i need a little help. It would be my honour if you gave me a change to talk to you more about it

  • chris

    What a great resource! I have bookmarked this article to refer to when I need some financing. Thanks for the comprehensive list of resources!

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