The Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties, through the generosity of its Corporate Partners, are sponsoring the Downtown Startup Challenge.

In an effort to advance the rebirth of our downtown districts and bring people to these areas, the Challenge seeks to spur downtown economic development in the major population centers in Oneida County. The Challenge is open to individuals and/or groups that have an innovative business concept with a retail storefront for downtown Utica or downtown Rome.

Start-ups (defined for purposes of the Challenge as any business that does not currently have a retail storefront operation in downtown Utica or downtown Rome) willing to locate in the designated downtown areas of Utica or Rome are eligible to submit an application to compete for a grand prize of up to $30,000.

Competitive applications will demonstrate one or more of the following criteria:

Competitive applications will demonstrate one or more of the following criteria:

  • Commercial or retail activity resulting in a social return/impact as well as a financial return/impact
  • Partnership(s) with individuals, organizations or businesses committed to revitalization of the downtown areas
  • Innovative business concepts, practices and/or operations unlike those currently available in the downtown areas.

Refugee-owned, minority-owned and/or woman-owned businesses are strongly encouraged to apply.

To help applicants throughout the Challenge, The Community Foundation has partnered with Mohawk Valley Community College’s “thINCubator” to coach and mentor applicants. thINCubator offers accelerated programming that gives aspiring entrepreneurs the resources needed to make their vision a reality – from ideation to development to deployment.

Dream Big

What new business do you want to open in Downtown Utica or Rome?

Submit Your Biz Idea

Submit Your Business Idea by June 30th to be considered for our program.

Build Your Plan

Participate in our 8 Week Startup Bootcamp to ready your Business Plan and Pitch.


Finalists will Pitch their Ideas and Business Plans at our Finale event on October 4th.


One entrepreneur will receive up to $30,000 in funding to make their business a reality.

Get Started by Submitting Your Idea by June 30th

Before you submit, be sure to read the Rules and Regulations >




Challenge Applications Open

Entrepreneurs can submit their ideas and application to participate in the Downtown Startup Challenge.

June 30th - Intake Applications Due

Deadline to submit your application and intake form.

July 13th - Cohort Begins

Accepted participants will attend our 8-week Startup Bootcamp at the thINCubator on Thursdays from 5:30pm – 7:00pm. We’ll guide you through forming your team, determining startup costs, building your business plan and delivering your pitch.

August 31st - Cohort Ends

Upon completion of the Cohort, teams will submit their final Executive Summaries for consideration. A select number of participants will pitch for the semi-finals.

September 14th - Semi-Finals

Semi-Finalists will present their business pitches “Shark Tank Style” for a panel of judges. A select number of teams will advance to pitch in the finals for up to $30,000 in startup funding.

September 20th - Business After Hours

Challenge participants will be invited to showcase their plans and network at the Greater Utica Chamber’s Business After Hours event from 5pm-7pm.

September 22nd - Final Business Plans Due

Finalists will submit their final business plans for advance review by the judges.
Last Year's Challenge Winner: SMITH MARKET

Smith Market, the winner of last year’s downtown entrepreneurship challenge, is on track to open its doors in summer 2017. The natural food store and local market secured a location at 412 Main Street, Utica, in the former D.B. Smith & Co. building. Renovations are underway, with plans to preserve many of the structural elements that characterize the building’s industrial feel.

Co-owners Luciann Gould and Christopher Tillotson were inspired by the growing demand for a natural food store and year-round local market in the downtown community. Smith Market will offer a selection of organic and locally grown produce, flowers, chemical-free groceries, natural body care and eco-friendly household products.

“Entrepreneurs like Luciann [Gould] and Christopher [Tillotson] are an inspiration because they’ve found a way to integrate their personal passions into their careers,” said Alicia Dicks, president/CEO of The Community Foundation. “The challenge program was a new and creative way for The Community Foundation to promote economic development in our region, and it brought together dozens of local entrepreneurs with big ideas for our community. We’re confident that many of the challenge participants will be a part of Downtown Utica’s continuing transformation, adding to the vibrancy and success of our urban core.”

Follow the Challenge on Social Media

Follow the Downtown Startup Challenge by liking and following the social media profiles of The Foundation and MVCC’s thINCubator.

We’ll also be documenting the process using
#startupUtica #startupRome #DowntownStartup

Thanks To Our Corporate Partners