Back in 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin grabbed the attention of Andy Bechtolsheim, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems (NASDAQ:JAVA), who invested $100,000 in the pair's upstart company, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG). Such early-stage venture-capital investments are a hallmark of the U.S. economy, but they can also pack a lot of risk, and it's usually pretty tough to learn about their opportunities at all.

That might be changing, though. A new promotion called "You Be the VC," lets you help determine the next big ideas in the business world.

The mastermind behind the idea is Mark Modzelewski, who operates Bang Ventures. He's accepting business plans through his website, and he's assembled a group of experts to sift through the candidates. The top 20 finalists will submit video pitches, and anybody can place a vote for the top three.

"Some people think that the idea is kind of crazy," Modzelewski said in an interview with the Fool. "What does the average person know about venture? Well, maybe a lot. Consider that [venture capitalists] have invested in such bad deals as Webvan and Pets.com."

The wining companies will get at least $100,000, as well as value-add services from business-advisory firm Deloitte & Touche, law firm Foley & Lardner, and others. Modzelewski sees it as a big victory for the companies and the venture-capital firms alike. "It's tough to get early-stage money as well as high-caliber services," he said. And normally, he added, "it's not economical for VC firms, which have hundreds of millions [of dollars], to spend time on these kinds of plays."

Other companies are launching similar contests of their own. For example, Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) recently announced a $100,000 contest for developers of its Web services. And Facebook has reserved $10 million for similar development efforts, in which developers can apply for grants between $25,000 and $250,000.

If contests like this can help entrepreneurs, all the better. Just imagine if companies such as Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) never had access to seed capital. If venture capitalists don't think it's worth helping early-stage companies, others seem ready to step in and fill the void -- and perhaps pick up some attractive investment opportunities along the way.

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Fool contributor Tom Taulli, author of The Complete M&A Handbook, does not own shares of companies mentioned in this article. He is currently ranked 5,691 out of more than 65,000 participants in Motley Fool CAPS.