In 2005, Dan Mallin and Scott Litman, co-founders of Minneapolis social enterprise agency Magnet 360, had some extra time on their hands between jobs. They wanted to make the most of it.
As seasoned entrepreneurs, they were all too familiar with the challenges of turning business ideas into realities. And that’s what inspired them to start the Minnesota Cup new venture competition.
Now in its eighth year, the Minnesota Cup gives aspiring entrepreneurs the chance to test breakthrough ideas and win cash prizes. Along the way, experts from a variety of industries help entrants flesh out (or scrap) their business plans.
Learning through success and failure
Since its inception, the cup seemed to strike a chord, attracting thousands of participants and a number of big-name partners, including the University of Minnesota.
Already, the cup has made significant strides toward its goal of boosting the state’s economy. The total prize money has increased from $50,000 at the outset to $200,000 this year.
The contest divisions include bioscience and health IT, clean tech and renewable energy, high tech, and social entrepreneurship, as well as general and student categories. The process unfolds over several months, and participants learn if their ideas are viable.
Even if the ideas don’t work, Mallin says it’s a win because the entrepreneur can move onto something more promising.
Ultimately, the Minnesota Cup encourages risk-taking — something that Mallin says Minnesotans haven’t always been receptive to. While many noteworthy startups originated here, too many have left the state. Mallin believes this has to do with the fact that startups aren’t supported if they fail.
By contrast, in California’s Silicon Valley, there’s a greater understanding that “the experiences [an entrepreneur] gets from losing are richer than those that come from succeeding,” Mallin says. And sometimes it’s just a matter of luck.
Bringing focus to the startup community
Over the years, the cup has brought to the fore a wide variety of ideas that have massive appeal. This includes everything from life-saving medical devices to high-powered, energy-efficient products and web-based tools for planning a trip or even one’s funeral.
The 2011 grand-prize winner, from U of M alumna Marie Johnson and her company AUM Cardiovascular, was a stethoscope-like device that can help detect coronary artery disease. Last year’s division winners included Supreme Energy Products’ Energy Max panel and installation system, Anser Innovation’s PetChatz interactive pet-owner device, and Naiku’s student assessment software, to name just a few.
The list and variety of Minnesota Cup winners is as varied as the industries they represent. As a testimony to their impact beyond the contest, finalists from 2009-2011 have gone on to raise $45 million in capital, create jobs and broker numerous business partnerships and distribution agreements.
Ultimately, says Mallin, “Minnesota Cup gets the ideas out of entrepreneurs’ minds, houses and garages and into companies that are driving sales each day.”
This year’s competition launched March 26 and participants have until May 18 to submit their ideas.
Post by Anna Pratt, a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist