Would-be entrepreneurs compete for $200,000 in Minnesota Cup competition

Murphy News Service

University of Minnesota

School of Journalism and 

Mass Communication

A statewide competition that seeks entrepreneurs with industry-changing ideas is underway through May 18.

The Minnesota Cup, which launched its eighth annual contest March 26, looks for entrepreneurs of all experience levels to submit their proposals with the hope of bringing their ideas to fruition. The Cup awards $200,000 annually to winners.

Scott Litman, 45, co-founder of the Minnesota Cup thought up the idea when he participated in a similar competition for Apple Inc. in 1988 called Project 2000, in which student groups were asked to design the computer for the year 2000. 

Litman’s idea placed third and he traveled to California with the top five finalists to compete for the grand prize. A student group from the University of Illinois won the grand prize, but Litman came away with an experience he would never forget.

“I met people both locally, investors, business leaders and the like,” Litman said, “And I met people from Silicon Valley and Apple computers.”  

Thanks to the competition, Litman said, he was already established upon graduation from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities because he had made important connections and developed a reputation as being credible or “had the perception that I was credible.”

With his own experience in mind, Litman wanted to give the next generation of entrepreneurs a similar opportunity.

“The opportunity to present their ideas, meet people, earn some credibility so that investors or potential business partners would say, ‘This is a good thing.’” 

Litman proposed the idea to his partner and friend, Dan Mallin, and brought the idea to the local level. Litman said within a month, he and Mallin were able to get the governor, Wells Fargo & Co. and the University of Minnesota as partners, and after three months held a press conference to kick off the first Minnesota Cup in 2005.

The Cup has grown since its inception. In its first year, Litman said only one “general” category existed. Now there are six, including a “student” category, along with sections for “social entrepreneurship,” “high tech,” “biosciences/health” and “clean technology.” UnitedHealth Group, Proto Labs signed up this year to join other sponsors Carlson, General Mills and the Fredrikson & Byron law firm. Former WCCO anchorman Don Shelby joined the review and Grand Prize divisions, tasked with picking the winners.

Another member of the review committee is Sam Richter, 44, a best-selling author of sales-training books, CEO of SBR Worldwide and chief managing advisor at ActiFi.

Richter has been a review board member since the first Minnesota Cup.

“The opportunity to help Minnesotan entrepreneurs is such a wonderful opportunity to help jump-start their business,” Richter said. “It allows them to present their business plan to some fairly experienced entrepreneurs and get feedback.  It’s been an honor to be involved.”

Richter said that what makes the Minnesota Cup so successful is getting the entrepreneurs to get their ideas on paper and “in front of other people that can help them build their business” as well as the education and mentorship experienced from the competition.

“The one thing that is certain,” Richter said, “is no great business has ever been built alone and the opportunity to meet with others who can share their failures, share their successes and provide mentorship and guidance, I think, is really what makes the Minnesota Cup such a great program.”

Richter said the progression of the quality of ideas has gotten better over the years.

“Now fast forward, I can’t wait to see this year’s.  Last year, it was so hard because every plan was an outstanding one.”

Richter said he looks for ideas that have “the ability to change an industry.”

“There are lots of great ideas. There are very few breakthrough ideas. Those ideas that really have the opportunity to change the way things are done,” Richter said.

Dr. Marie Johnson was the 2011 grand prize winner with her hand-held device that scans for the risk of coronary heart disease.

The deadline to enter is May 18 at 11:59 p.m.  

Litman said there is no cost to enter and that “the information provided [by entrants] is highly secured and they always retain their intellectual property.” The Minnesota Cup retains the right to share competitors’ ideas only with review board members who are judging the ideas.

“To somebody who is not sure if they should participate, there is a bit of ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained‘,” Litman said.  “You’ve got to get out there and start doing it and part of getting out there and doing it is making sure that your idea is well documented enough and being able to share it with the appropriate people and, in this case, the Minnesota Cup.”

Linda Yang is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.