TechFuel will host early-stage startups in a pitch competition, and a combination of judges and audience participation will help decide winners among finalists Oct. 14 at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Local tech startups take heed: Bexar County has its own competition like the wildly popular reality show that rewards compelling startup proposals.

TechFuel, a pitch contest funded by Bexar County and organized by Tech Bloc, issued a call Wednesday for early-stage tech startups in San Antonio and across the state to apply for a chance to win $50,000, as well as valuable recognition.

Tech Bloc, an advocacy group for the local tech sector, calls it the largest cash prize pitch competition in the greater San Antonio region.

“The purpose is to help the young fledglings find their footing, so they can continue to mature, scale, and approach serious institutional investors in the near future,” said Tech Bloc CEO David Heard.

Twenty-five applicants will be selected by Tech Bloc to make their pitch in front of a panel of judges. Those who advance in the competition’s five brackets will receive $2,500 checks.

The grand finale pitting the five bracket winners will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. Oct. 14 at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Audience participation at the event will be key. While a panel of judges picks the grand prize winner and first runner-up, the other places are awarded by audience vote. The first runner-up wins $20,000, the second runner-up receives $10,000, and $7,500 goes to the company that makes honorable mention.

The last time the finale was held in-person, during the 2019 competition, attendance at the Tobin Center was so high that latecomers had to stand along the walls.

Heard likens the event to “‘Shark Tank’ combined with the NCAA Final Four,” referring to the reality TV series and the college basketball tournament’s use of brackets.

The $100,000 pool of prize money for the competition comes from Bexar County’s Innovation Fund, a $1 million cache aimed at improving the local tech industry.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said in a prepared statement that the competition in years past has drawn statewide attention to the city’s startup community and pulled in regional participation to the area’s funding ecosystem.

The high-profile spectacle of the competition has made it a favorite among tech leaders in the city.

“It brings to the forefront what is happening and that’s huge for community building in town,” Michael Girdley, a former judge and co-founder of Codeup, said in a text message.

Rackspace co-founder Dirk Elmendorf, who is chairing the competition this year, said in a prepared statement that the contest is good medicine for the tech sector.

“I’ve often told people that we built and grew Rackspace years ago in San Antonio despite the environment for startups here, not because of it,” he said. “Tech and community leaders have been working to change that ever since, and TechFuel is the perfect example of a program aimed specifically at increasing and supporting startup creation in our city.”

The co-founder of last year’s winner, Grain4Grain, a low-carb spent barley flour company, said the $50,000 grand prize helped the company through the height of the pandemic last year. Yoni Medhin said winning also gave his venture legitimacy among investors and paved the way for a fundraising round this year to expand its facilities in San Antonio.

“It was much easier to have these conversations with investors after the competition,” he said.

While most applicants and semifinalists have been from Bexar County, some have not. The competition is open to applicants across Texas. Heard said it’s a balancing act for organizers who want to promote San Antonio’s tech sector but draw support from across the state.

“We want tech startups across Texas to talk about Bexar County, and the buy-in of our civic leadership,” Heard said. “It’s a story we want told outside of just [Loop] 1604.”

Companies that accept prize money must agree to keep some presence in Bexar County for a period.

Rectify Data, the winner of the 2019 competition, moved its headquarters to San Antonio this year from Austin after several years working between the two cities. The company uses software to automate the redaction process for sensitive documents that have to be released, such as in the case of subpoenas.

Rectify Data CEO Lisa McComb said the competition was more well-run than others she had participated in and that their win drew the attention of big corporations that were potential clients.

This year marks the fourth iteration of TechFuel, which was first held in 2016. No competition was held in 2017 or 2018. The pool of prize money was doubled in 2019, and this year adds a new benefit for the five semifinalists: free pitch coaching sessions through Geekdom’s pre-accelerator program.

Also new this year is an “after-party” for finalists that will allow them to network with potential investors. Finalists also will win a limited membership with Austin’s Capital Factory.

Companies interested in participating can submit their applications on Tech Bloc’s website. The deadline is Sept. 3.

Dirk Elmendorf is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of individual members, click here.

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.