A Merced resident is among the 18 finalists vying for $24,000 in prizes at the 2013 San Joaquin Entrepreneur Challenge, an "American Idol"-style business plan competition.
About 50 applicants submitted their original business ideas for a chance to participate in the first round of the competition Feb. 27.
The challenge is presented by the San Joaquin Angels, an investment group that dedicates resources to businesses in the startup stages.
Mark Plovnick, San Joaquin Angels president and University of the Pacific director of economic development, said the goal is to attract promising business ideas in the Central Valley.
"The idea of the challenge is to help stimulate more entrepreneurial activity in the region," Plovnick said. "And we hope by making the prize money available that folks who have an idea might take those first steps toward starting their business by submitting an application."
Plovnick said each finalist will have two minutes to present his or her business idea to a panel of judges and a voting audience in what's called an "elevator pitch."
The audience and judges will select eight people to compete in the next two rounds March 20. The judges, who are experts from the business field, will have the opportunity to ask questions about each idea.
Overall, $24,000 in prizes is up for grabs, including $14,000 in business services, such as accounting, legal advice and marketing.
One grand prize winner will walk away with $7,000 in cash and $10,000 worth of services, while the runnerup will receive $3,000 in cash and $4,000 in services.
The prize money is what motivated John Cardenas, 53, of Merced to apply for the contest.
Feeling the pain at the gas pump is what sparked his business idea.
"The whole project is about converting vehicles so they can use alternative fuel sources," Cardenas said. "It will combat the high price of fuel and also improve the air quality in the valley."
The business is called Green Energy Alternatives, and it will convert electricity, vegetable oil, natural gas and propane fuel into alternative fuel sources for cars.
Along with his business partner, Cardenas has put together a prototype car to run on alternative fuel -- a shiny Ferrari. But winning the contest would open many more doors, Cardenas said.
The next steps include producing conversion kits for drivers to switch their cars to alternative fuel, opening a local shop and franchising the idea to be used in other automotive shops.
Win or lose, Plovnick said, the contest allows entrepreneurs to get past the first hurdle of opening their own business.
"The first step is the hardest -- getting your ideas on paper and getting a plan together. And oftentimes, if they can do that, the chances of going further are better."
Plovnick added that many of the 200 applicants from the past three years of competitions have successfully started businesses since participating in the challenge.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.