The Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development has for the past five years held an annual showcase event where entrepreneurs who have graduated from its Top Gun startup accelerator program pitch their business to a panel of experts and live audience. The entrepreneurs’ sole reward has been feedback from experts and validation from potential customers.

Next year, however, one entrepreneur will walk away with a $10,000 prize to help grow their business.

Top Gun cupcakes for graduates of Maine’s Top Gun business incubator

A photo posted by Whit (@whit_richardson) on

Don Gooding, executive director of MCED, told me the news during a break last week while attending PopTech, an annual technology conference held in Camden.

“It’s a sign of the increased maturity of the entrepreneurial ecosystem that we’re able to start adding features like this that are available in other similar kind of programs,” Gooding said. “It’s 10,000 reasons to love Top Gun.”

In addition to the cash prize, Great Works Internet in Biddeford will also contribute a business services package good for one year.

Blackstone Accelerates Growth, a three-year, $3 million initiative of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation to grow entrepreneurship in Maine, provided the funding for the new award.

Jess Knox, Blackstone’s statewide innovation hub coordinator, said the award helps address one problem many bootstrapping entrepreneurs face — access to capital.

“I think we’ve seen in the years the program has been going some incredible entrepreneurs participate, but as we continue to identify best practices and innovative elements to grow the program, one of those things is an injection of capital, no matter how small,” Knox said. “As we continue to focus on this idea of growing companies, an award of $10,000 is the next step in that effort.”

MCED has been a major recipient of Blackstone funds. Gooding estimates his organization has received $450,000 over the last three years, which has been used to expand the Top Gun program from a local effort to train a dozen entrepreneurs in the Portland area to where it now trains 30 entrepreneurs a year in Portland and Bangor (MCED is adding Rockland as a third location in 2015). Blackstone funds also helped create Top Gun Prep, an online version of the accelerator course, has reached another 200 budding entrepreneurs.

The plan, Gooding said, is to make the $10,000 award an annual occurrence, whether that funding comes from Blackstone or elsewhere. Blackstone’s three-year effort will end next June, but Knox said there are ongoing discussions about the program’s future in Maine.

“We are excited about the progress so far and the partners are in conversations with the charitable foundation about how we could work together in the future,” he said.

If you want to enroll in Top Gun, the application deadline to get into next year’s class is Nov. 18, 2014. The showcase event will be held in June 2015.

For more information, visit MCED’s website.