Former 'Apprentice' Judge Enlisted For Microsoft SMB Contest

Microsoft on Tuesday kicked off its IdeaWins competition, a reality TV-influenced contest to find the best new small-business idea in America, as judged by a panel that includes former "Apprentice" arbitrator Carolyn Kepcher.

Open to U.S. residents "of good moral character," the competition invites wannabe entrepreneurs to pitch an innovative consumer product that can be sold online and through a retail storefront. Entries will be judged on originality, marketing plans, feasibility and public appeal.

Submissions are due by Jan. 31, after which Microsoft's judges will select four finalists. Winners will receive $100,000 in startup capital, a year's lease for a New York City storefront and a package of Microsoft software and services support.

Intended to publicize Microsoft's Office Accounting 2007 software and new Office Live hosted SMB services, the IdeaWins contest is sprinkled with Hollywood glitz. In addition to Kepcher -- a former Trump Organization employee who gained famed helping Donald Trump fire "Apprentice" aspirants, before getting the axe herself a few months ago -- the judging panel will include maternity clothes designer Liz Lange and Microsoft executive Chris Capossela, who heads Microsoft's Office business.

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Finalists will be asked to submit short videos touting their fantasy products, which Microsoft plans to post online. Viewers will be asked to cast votes for their favorite of the finalists, "American Idol"-style, but Microsoft is going more for the veneer of democracy than the reality: Public votes will account for just four of the 104 points that finalists can earn.

Microsoft launched its contest in Times Square in New York. Over the next two months, it will tour the country to accept entries live at events in Las Vegas, Denver, Chicago and Atlanta. Competitors also can enter online at Microsoft's Web site.