Amazon announced today its fifth annual Amazon Web Services Start-up Challenge for entrepreneurs using AWS. This year the contest has been expanded globally and will reward 15 regional semifinalists, five each from the Americas, Asia Pacific and Europe/Middle East/Africa. This time Amazon has teamed with, a global entrepreneurship network and contest platform to help administer the contest. Past finalists of the AWS Start-up Challenge include (in 2007), cloud-computing email productivity service Sonian Corp. (2008) and Yieldex.

AWS and other cloud providers like RackSpace have been pivotal in the next-generation explosion of web and mobile applications that have changed the dynamic of the current era of technology disruption. Amazon’s ease-of-use and elastic pricing model has lowered the bar for startups looking to experiment with their products and scale quickly. By opening the contest to a worldwide audience this year, Amazon has set its sights not just on the Silicon Valley crowd but also on disruptive developer hotbeds across the globe.

One of the purposes of Amazon’s contest is not just to find new startups using AWS, but also as a way to keep its nose on the ground floor of innovation. The current tech giants not only want to grow their own product offerings but also find the next Google or Twitter in the rough, especially those that are already using the company’s existing infrastructure. Imagine if Apple had invested in Google in 1998 (which could have easily happened) and the two companies grew within each other over the past 13 years. Of course, no one can tell what kind of course each would have taken (maybe AdWords is never created and Google just becomes an interesting algorithm in the footnotes of history) but the thought is intriguing to the more successful companies like Amazon as well as angel investors and venture capitalists.

Sonian is an interesting example. Its goal is to archive electronic communications, files and unstructured content to create actionable intelligence (decision making through data analysis). After a couple of false starts, Sonian and CTO Greg Arnette were able to employ AWS in a cost-effective way that makes Sonian an interesting archiving engine and example of the powers of the cloud. Arnette frequents speaking engagements to help to explain businesses how to institute a cloud strategy and what the pitfalls will be with any cloud infrastructure, especially a third-party one such as AWS.

Each of the 15 finalists will receive $2,500 in AWS credits and six finalists will be awarded a $10,000 package including credits and a trip to Palo Alto, Calif. for the final round of judging. The winner will receive $50,000 in cash and $50,000 in AWS credits. Entrants must have made $10 million with their product but also not have accepted more than $10 million in venture funding. This way Amazon can whittle down potential winners or acquisitions by those that have had a degree of success but are also still in early-stage funding rounds, hence ripe to be integrated into Amazon, should the company choose.

dan rowinski