Students make splash at Minn. Cup

Contestants were entrepreneurs and students from across the state.

Katherine Lymn

When Chris Zweber heard his buddies complain that their girlfriends forgot to take their birth control pills, the entrepreneurial studies student thought hard and found a solution. Zweber added an alarm to the pill case to remind birth control users to take their dosage. This idea has brought Zweber, a recent University of Minnesota graduate, to the semifinal round of the annual Minnesota Cup business ideas competition, which announced 48 semifinalists last week. The selection reflects both the geographical broadening and high University involvement in the contest. Of eight student semi-finalists, five are University of Minnesota students, whose ideas range from eco-friendly pond clarifiers to innovative file storage software. âÄúA big focus I like to have is taking products that are already widely adopted and making them a little better,âÄù Zweber said of his idea. The product would include both an alarm and an âÄúinconspicuousâÄù case for the pills, he said. While Zweber has not yet made a prototype, his idea alone was enough to propel him to the semifinals of the competition. The next step for all semifinalists is to draft a 20-page business plan for their ideas. The geographic distribution of the semifinalists makes this yearâÄôs contest unique. âÄúWeâÄôre starting to reach out more broadly across the state,âÄù said John Stavig, an organizer of the event and the professional director of the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship. Over the years, the competition has developed a reputation of producing successful businesses, competition director Matt Hilker said. Winners in each division âÄî which will be chosen Sept. 1 âÄî receive $5,000. A single overall winner, chosen Sept. 13, receives an additional $20,000, Stavig said. The Cup partnered with the Arrowhead Growth Alliance, an economic growth organization for northeastern Minnesota, to co-host the competition for the first time this year. The partnership, media coverage and exposure it created led to five semifinalists being chosen from the northeastern region, Hilker said. âÄúA couple years ago, we may not even have had five entrants from up there,âÄù he said. While he said money raised is just one type of benchmark of success, Hilker spoke proudly of the $8 million that has been raised by last yearâÄôs winners already. âÄúItâÄôs kind of prestigious in the state of Minnesota,âÄù said biochemistry senior Ben Schurhamer. âÄúIf you get into that network âĦ your chances of having your business ventures funded increases greatly.âÄù SchurhamerâÄôs semifinalist entry is a product that uses barley straw to clean small bodies of water like ponds. He said itâÄôs an eco-friendly alternative to the chemicals larger companies use. Participation in the Cup has risen every year, from 600 entrants in its first year in 2005 to more than 1,100 this year, Stavig said. Job creation is a benefit of the competition as a whole, as companies use their prize money to grow and hire more employees, sometimes students, Hilker said. âÄúThe exposure they get from the program helps [businesses] develop, and as they develop, theyâÄôre going to need more people to do the work,âÄù he said. Since the startups still tend to lack capital, they often turn to students for cheaper employees, Hilker said. Recent computer engineering graduate Owen Imholte said the competition is a portal to turn his hobby into a business. His entry, Juxtapose, is software that tests different file storage formats to find the one with the highest quality for any given file. âÄú[The competition] gives you a deadline and forces you to be hectic towards that,âÄù he said.