NC IDEA, the not-for-profit organization connected to Durham-based venture capital firm Idea Fund Partners, opens the application for its spring startup grant cycle today. Entrepreneurs at any stage, in any industry, can apply for a program that not only awards up to $50K in grant money, but also comes with help, in the form of advice, connections, and mentoring.

NC IDEA has been in the American Underground startup hub in downtown Durham for about a year now, and has also adopted the services of its incubator also housed therein, Groundwork Labs, providing what amounts to a true accelerator program without all the ownership. NC IDEA exists solely to make sure that the North Carolina startup ecosystem remains strong, and they’ll select up to six companies from across the state to boost up.

I’ve written before about the sheer awesomeness of this program, but it bears repeating, as its one of the few in the nation, and certainly the only one of its kind and of its magnitude, that can give entrepreneurs a huge boost with very few, if any, strings attached.

By the way, I spoke to Idea Fund Partners’ Managing Partner Lister Delgado and NC IDEA’s Andrea Cook about what’s different this time around, where some of the previous winners are now, and most importantly, what you need to do to prepare and apply.

Here’s what you need to know.

More Direct, More Personal, More Positive Feedback

In some circles of the startup universe, the cry that the sky is falling keep getting louder and louder, especially for early startups at the seed stage. While there is a Series A Crunch, and while there are many more startups these days than there is funding to support them, Delgado agrees that that kind of anecdotal evidence should never keep good entrepreneurs from advancing.

“As you can imagine, the program is now fairly well developed so the lessons are less obvious with each passing cycle,” says Delgado. “I think one is that we can be much more positive with our feedback. We heard that too much numerical feedback can give the wrong impression. So we’ll look into reworking that part of the program. We’ll continue to incorporate more direct personalized feedback.”

It Isn’t Just About Raleigh/Durham

Yes, when you talk about startups in North Carolina these days, it’s become almost a foregone conclusion that you’re talking about Durham and Raleigh. I can understand the interpretation, even after digging around the rest of the state looking for entrepreneurial talent to join ExitEvent and finding a wealth of it. Delgado thinks it’s time that all the support organizations be more proactive about building pockets of entrepreneurial talent throughout the state.

“Today, one can build a company pretty much anywhere,” he says. “We do not want an entrepreneur to think that they need to move to RTP in order to win an NC IDEA grant. They do need to get advice from people that have done it before, and sometimes those people are in RTP, but they are also in Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston Salem, Wilmington, etc. Entrepreneurs should also not be afraid to seek advice from experts outside of their immediate geography. Dave [Rizzo] and Andrea have been making an effort to visit different cities to convey this message, and it has been received in a positive way.”

Never Tell Me the Odds

If you’ve got an excellent team, a great idea, and a bulletproof plan to execute, the odds for winning the grant could not be more in your favor.

According to Cook, the last cycle (Fall 2012) saw 123 applications total. Quick math: 6 out of 123 is 4.9% — find me better odds.

And echoing Delgado, she pointed out that 61% of applicants were from the Triangle, which is in line with previous cycles, but 27% were from Charlotte, which is up from the last cycle. She also noted that 46% of applicants categorized selves as “Software,” 28% were previous applicants, and that two of the five winners were previous applicants.

Success Stories

NC IDEA winners have a bunch of success stories, and Cook sent me a recent list (see links at the bottom of the article):

  • To date, over $42 million raised in equity funding by grant winners.
  • Valencell (Spring 2008), Spoonflower (Fall 2008) and Gema Touch (Spring 2012) were 3 of 6 companies featured at Walt Mossberg Thought Leaders event.
  • BoostSuite (Fall 2011) named by Inc. as top 3 “Easy SEO Tool to Improve Your Website”
  • Automated Insights (Spring 2009) named Amazon Web Services Startup Semifinalist.
  • Entogenetics (Fall 2009) entered into development partnership with well-known maker of musical instruments.
  • Argyle Social (Fall 2009) named by as top 10 “Social Media Tool You Should be Using Now”

Don’t Just Apply, Prepare

123 applications, while a small number compared to the reward involved, is still nothing to sneeze at. Furthermore, you can be sure that number will increase and that a good number of them will have been through another program — whether that be an accelerator or a class.

“I would say it is always good to do research,” Delgado says. “I know that preparing an application does not take much time, but understanding your business and researching your market as well as developing an effective and differentiated go-to-market strategy does. Well developed ideas are easy to spot during this process, and those end up doing well in the program.”

Cook adds some tips for the application itself.

“Don’t be afraid to tell us what you don’t know,” she says. “We want to see you know what you’re missing. For example, if your team is incomplete and you’re missing particular skill sets then admit it.”

“Related to the first point, we are looking for our $50,000 to make an impact. It is important to tie your use of funds back to the weak areas in your plan.”

The early application deadline for the grant is Friday, February 22nd, and the final deadline is Friday, March 8th. While there have already been two information sessions in the Triangle, an Information Webinar is scheduled for Tuesday, February 12th at 1:00, and there will be an in-person Meetup at Packard Place in Charlotte on Friday, February 15th at 12:00.