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Spirits maker serving free start-up cash

A new grants program by Johnnie Walker is giving entrepreneurs a shot at free money in a climate where funding for start-ups remains tight.

A new grants program is giving entrepreneurs a shot at some free money amid a climate where funding for start-ups, especially for technology companies, remains tight.

Scotch whisky maker Johnnie Walker's Keep Walking Fund will award a total of $500,000 in grants to entrepreneurs, organizations and individuals in September.

The fund plans to give up to $100,000 per grant recipient. And while that amount may be small compared with the investments companies would receive from angel investors or venture investors, entrepreneurs will not have to give up any equity in their companies.

But a plan of attack and a compelling pitch by the entrepreneurs are still required. Applicants must submit their proposals to by June 30.

"Supporting pioneers is part of the heritage of John Walker," said Michael Stoner, a senior vice president of Johnnie Walker, which is owned by Guinness/UDV. "With this fund, Johnnie Walker is walking the walk. We're looking for (grant proposals) that inspire people to pursue their dreams."

The foundation, which is making the grants available to entrepreneurs from all fields, is one of the few that is allowing for-profit businesses to throw their hats in the ring.

"It's difficult to find grant money for start-ups," said Matthew Orlando, vice president of National Grants Conferences, a grants research and advisory service. "Private foundations offer some blanket grants, but most foundations are looking for specific uses."

The fund, meanwhile, outlined several criteria for its applicants. Companies, individuals and organizations need to show the viability of their idea, the overall quality of the plan and the potential for its success.

Applicants also need to demonstrate the potential to meet objectives including changing an industry, creating an innovative product or service, inspiring or fulfilling a dream, or having a large impact on a community.

The fund's directors will select up to a dozen semifinalists, who will present pitches on their proposals and field questions from the board of directors.