Grants are one of the safest ways to fund a startup. Because grants are essentially free money, you won’t have to add as many loan repayments to your new small business’s budget — or hand over partial control of your small business in exchange for equity. Federal funding for startups is limited, so consider applying for private grant through corporations and nonprofits as well.
Startup grants are highly competitive, time-consuming and offer a lower amount of financing than you’d get with most small business loans or investments. Consider these grant programs as a supplement to your other startup funding. If you need funds quickly, consider taking out a personal loan from a lender like Upstart to tide you over while you apply for grants.
4 federal grants for startups
There are a few federal small business grants available to startups:
- For tech startups: SBIR and STTR grant programs
- For BIPOC entrepreneurs: MBDA grants
- For biotech startups: Start a SUD Startup Challenge
- For agriculture and rural businesses: Rural Energy for America Program grants
Federal grant programs are usually project-specific — you can’t find funding for general startup costs. If you want seed money to launch a new business, consider a private grant instead.
SBIR and STTR programs
The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs offer seed money to startups in the tech industry. These business grants are meant to fund technology innovation for the federal government, which companies can later sell for a profit. Here’s how it works.
- Amounts can range from a total of $550,000 to $1.75 million over a period of up to three years.
- Funding is rolled out in phases, which run from six months to two years each.
- The SBIR funds tech companies that carry out research and development on their own.
- The STTR is for companies that work with a nonprofit research institution.
- You must have a for-profit startup located in the US with no more than 500 employees to qualify.
Your research also must align with the federal government’s interest to qualify. This means you may not have as much control as you’d like over the first three or more years of your business.
Apply for an SBIR or STTR grant through a participating federal agency
The Small Business Administration (SBA) oversees both the SBIR and STTR. However, you’ll have to apply through one of the 11 federal agencies that participate in the program:
- Department of Agriculture
- Department of Commerce
- Department of Defense
- Department of Education
- Department of Energy
- Department of Health and Human Services
- Department of Homeland Security
- Department of Transportation
- Environmental Protection Agency
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- National Science Foundation
The application is complicated, but you can get assistance free assistance through an SBA resource partner that offers SBIR and STTR help. Go to the SBIR website to find a resource partner near you.
MBDA grants for BIPOC entrepreneurs
The Economic Development Administration’s Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) offers a revolving list of small business grants to minority-owned businesses and startups. Visit the MBDA website to view current options and apply for a grant.
Its most recent program was the Minority Colleges and Universities Grant competition. This pilot program funded entrepreneurs who were recent graduates from a historically black college or university, tribal college or university or minority-serving institution.
Start a SUD Startup Challenge
The National Institute on Drug Abuse offers grants to biotech startups involved in research and development on substance use disorders (SUDs).
- Each year, 10 startups win a $10,000 grant to conduct SUD research.
- Winners access mentorship and technical assistance from NIDA entrepreneurship experts.
- To qualify, startups must have a research idea related to SUDs.
The NIDA expects winning startups to receive enough support to successfully win an SBIR or STTR grant from the agency in the future. You can get started by downloading out a registration form available on the NIDA website. Send your completed registration form to NIDAChallenge@nih.gov.
Rural Energy for America Program grants
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers grants to cover the cost of installing and maintaining energy-efficient energy systems through the Rural Energy for America program.
- Grants range from $1,500 to $500,000 and can cover up to 25% of the cost of an eligible energy efficiency project.
- The program also offers government-guaranteed loans, which can cover up to 75% of the project cost. You must cover at least 25% of the project costs.
- You must either have a small business in an eligible rural area or earn at least 50% of your gross income from agricultural operations.
- There’s no time-in-business requirement, but it may be difficult to qualify if your business isn’t up and running.
The USDA is changing the name of the program to the OneRD Guarantee Loan Initiative as of October 1, 2021. Contact your local USDA Rural Development office to get started on the application.
7 private grants for startups
These corporations and nonprofit organizations offer business grants to startups for a variety of uses. Usually, they have fewer restrictions on how you use the funds — though they’re often smaller.
- For early-stage education startups: 4.0 Essentials Fellowship
- For financial technology (fintech) startups: Visa Everywhere Initiative
- For small startup costs: Idea Cafe Small Business Grant Program
- For women-owned businesses: WomensNet Amber Grant
- For solo entrepreneurs: National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE) growth grants
- For environmentally-minded nonprofits: Patagonia Corporate Grant program
- For small growth expenses: FedEx Support Small Business Grant Contest
4.0 Essentials Fellowship program
The 4.0 Essentials Fellowship program is for early stage entrepreneurs who want to address a problem with education in their local communities. It’s not just about funding. You can receive the following resources to help bring an idea to life.
- Grants to test out your ideas and invest in your new business.
- Coaching from former fellows.
- Training to teach you how to efficiently test and grow your startup.
- Access to a network of other educators.
Applications typically close in April and are available on the 4.0 website.
Visa Everywhere Initiative
Each year, Visa runs a global startup competition to fintech startups that specialize in payment processing, digital services and security and small business recovery.
- First place wins a $50,000 grant.
- Second place wins a $15,000 grant.
- Third place wins a $10,000 grant.
- All top three winners are eligible to also win the Audience Favorite prize of $25,000.
This competition is highly competitive — you’re competing with fintechs across the globe. But it offers exposure to potential investors and media coverage. This year, Visa has partnered with TechCrunch to livestream all regional and global finalists. You can apply on the Visa Everywhere website.
Idea Cafe Small Business Grant Program
Each year, Business Owners Idea Cafe offers one $1,000 grant to a small business startup. Past winners are mostly consumer-serving businesses, like cafes and jewelry stores — but there’s no restriction on who can apply.
You’ll need to sign up as an Idea Cafe Regular to apply, but the application is free and simple: Unlike most grant programs, you don’t even need to submit a business plan.
WomensNet Amber Grant
Each year, WomensNet offers grants to female entrepreneurs with plans to grow or start a business.
- Each month, one small business wins a grant that is at least $10,000.
- At the end of the year, one of the 12 monthly winners also wins a $25,000 Amber Grant.
- Business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs are both eligible to apply.
You don’t need a formal business plan to apply, but you’ll need to demonstrate an understanding of your market and have a concrete plan for how you will spend the money. Applications are available on the WomensNet website.
NASE Growth Grants
The National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE) offers grants to help members of this nonprofit organization cover growth expenses for a startup or established business.
- Grants are capped at $4,000 per year.
- You must join the NASE to access the application.
- For some memberships, you must be a member for 90 days before you can apply.
- Applications are open from January to March each year.
Generally, you’re restricted to using the funds for growth expenses — and you must prove that you’ve used the funds for an eligible expense.
Patagonia Corporate Grant program
Each year, Patagonia donates 1% of its yearly sales to projects by environmental organizations. This won’t offer seed money, but it can help you get started on an early project.
- Awards range from $5,000 to $20,000, depending on the program.
- Your company must be a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit or have a comparable fiscal sponsor.
- Patagonia favors grassroots projects working to protect their local environments.
Currently, applications are only available by invitation. If your organization is eligible to qualify, Patagonia will reach out to your business.
FedEx Small Business Grant Contest
FedEx runs an annual competition to offer small-dollar grants to small businesses that have been around one year old. While it won’t cover small business startup costs, it can help your startup grow.
- First place earns a $50,000 grant plus $7,500 in FedEx Office print services. Only one small business wins first place.
- Second place earns a $30,000 grant plus $5,000 in FedEx Office print services. Only one small business wins second place.
- Third place earns a $15,000 grant plus $1,000 in FedEx Office print services. FedEx awards third place to 10 small businesses.
The top 100 finalists also receive free training from Accion Opportunity Fund and access to other resources for entrepreneurs. Applications are available on the FedEx website.
Government resources for startups
The federal government mainly offers small business assistance through the Small Business Administration (SBA). While the SBA doesn’t directly offer grants, it offers a wide range of resources for startups and small businesses.
- The SBA 7(j) Management and Technical Assistance Program offers free training and help small businesses competing for federal and local government contracts in high-unemployment and low-income areas.
- The SBA 8(a) Business Development Program offers training and assistance to help socially and economically disadvantaged business owners qualify for federal contracts.
- The HUBZone Program helps businesses in historically underutilized business zones (HUBZones) to qualify for federal contracts and get HUBZone certification.
- The SBA STEP program funds state and local governments, which in turn help small businesses tap into international markets and access grants.
- The Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Federal Contacting Program helps female entrepreneurs access federal contracts and offers WOSBs certification.
Reach out your local a small business development center or another SBA resource partners for a free one-on-one session with a small business specialist. They can help you find funding opportunities and apply for a small business grant.
Where do small business owners go for funding?
While only a small percentage of those responding to Finder’s Consumer Confidence Index were small business owners, about 30% of them said they were in the market for a small business loan, with 55% saying they’d explored government-backed projects. In terms of where these people got their loans, unsuprisingly, traditional banks was the top option at 33%.
Alternatives to grants for startups
A grant likely won’t cover all of your startup costs — even if you qualify. You might want to consider these alternatives if you need funding to start a new business.
- Crowdfunding can help cover the cost of developing a new product or opening a new storefront by raising money from your community.
- Roll Over for Business Startups (ROBs) allows entrepreneurs to take advantage of a tax loophole and tap into their retirement savings to cover startup costs.
- Business loans can finance growth costs after you’ve established your new business — and it can be difficult to qualify for a low rate in the first few years.
- Personal loans are loans based on your personal finances and can cover those first few months of expenses. Usually you need excellent credit and another source of income to qualify.
Compare personal loans to fund a startup
Personal loans are a faster source of financing to startups than grants — though they aren’t cheap. Select Compare on up to four lenders to weigh APRs, credit score requirements and loan amounts available. Or, visit our guide to personal loans for startups to learn more about how this option works.