Student businesses thrive in competition

Students and staff are semifinalists in a statewide contest, and the U recently got a grant to support business.

Senior Tyler Tracy takes notes during the Minnesota Cup semi-finalist workshop on Wednesday. Tracys company, GoSolar! Kids, attempts to enlighten and teach kids about solar energy.

Sam Harper

Senior Tyler Tracy takes notes during the Minnesota Cup semi-finalist workshop on Wednesday. Tracy’s company, GoSolar! Kids, attempts to enlighten and teach kids about solar energy.

by Nicholas Studenski

Last year alone, University of Minnesota students launched at least 25 businesses, bolstered by guidance and funds
from the school’s entrepreneurship courses and programs.

In the same year, University faculty and students invented and filed a record number of patents.

And as the University ramps up its efforts to incubate businesses in and out of classrooms, University students and alumni represent almost half of the semifinalists for the statewide entrepreneurship competition called the Minnesota Cup.

“There are a lot of resources available for students,” said John Stavig, director of the University’s Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship, which has been in existence for about 15 years. “We increasingly try to support students with opportunities to pursue what they’re passionate about.”

Over the next three years, a $300,000 grant received late last month from the National Science Foundation will expand some of the University’s intensive business courses and fund up to 90 micro-grants for student entrepreneurs.

Those mini-grants, about $3,000 each, will supplement the nearly $40,000 in seed grants the Holmes Center has awarded yearly — an invaluable resource for transforming teams of students into business owners, Stavig said.

“It’s a great way for students to learn while they’re in school as opposed to just studying about theoretical cases or thinking about business ideas,” he said. “[They’re] actually trying to do it.”

Carlson School of Management junior Austin White-Pentony was a semifinalist in the student division of the Minnesota Cup this year, which gives him a shot at winning up to $50,000 in seed capital.

He started his business, Tech Bank, which buys old phones, tablets and computers, after mentoring from Stavig.

White-Pentony said he’s gained the best preparation for entering the business world outside of the classroom.

“It forced me to make a business plan and put more thought into the direction we want to go,” he said.

White-Pentony, along with 70 other semifinalists, will submit his final business plan at the end of the month, before finalists are announced in August and winners chosen in September.

The Minnesota Cup’s founder, Scott Litman, said there’s a longstanding partnership between the 10-year-old competition and the Carlson School, which he said makes a “great fit” because of their overlapping goal of cultivating young entrepreneurs.

By supporting students who have start-up ideas while lacking business acumen or monetary resources, Litman said he hopes to foster an environment that retains entrepreneurs who want to establish and grow businesses in the state.

“Minnesota has an incredible history in entrepreneurship,” he said, citing local ventures like Best Buy and 3M. “Supporting entrepreneurs here gives us a better opportunity to create those next successful ventures to make a huge difference in the lives of people in Minnesota.”


Here, the Minnesota Daily takes a look at some student-created businesses that are semifinalists in the Minnesota Cup.

Penguin Feet

Bitter Midwestern winters mean snowboarding outings for recent University graduate Andrew Ellingson.

But the trip to the slopes is easier said than done when hauling around bulky gear and expensive and sometimes awkward rooftop carriers, he said.

“We’d always have to cram everything in back of my small little car,” Ellingon said

His business, Penguin Feet, sells $120 soft, removable, multi-sport roof racks, designed by Ellingson and his friends after a winter of prototyping with yoga mats and straps.

In March the company secured a loan that funded an initial run of 50 outdoor sports roof racks, which Ellingson said sold out quickly. A second batch is expected to arrive shortly, he said.

Ellingson said watching his father run his own business made him eager to start a company of his own, albeit a fledgling project that would benefit greatly from potential prize money.

“It’s always kind of just been a dream of mine,” he said, “It’s been an awesome experience, and I’ve learned a lot.”


Finagling the price of textbooks each semester can be both a headache-inducing and costly process for some University students.

So Carlson junior Nathan Shrader, in partnership with the Minnesota Student Association, created U-SWAP, a free website that helps students buy and sell used textbooks online.

After frustrations with the prices the University’s bookstore offered him to buy back textbooks, Shrader said he came up with the idea for a service in which users can search for textbooks by title and class number and compare prices to Amazon’s and the campus bookstore’s.

Shrader describes U-SWAP as “Craigslist meets college,” and he said it will develop more areas for postings, including a section for listings of housing subleases set to launch this fall. The hope is that eventually, students will be able to browse listings in categories like ridesharing and dating, he said.

“Our goal is to save students time and money in each and every way we can,” Schrader said.

Round Table Hops

Civil engineering senior Erin Kayser is putting her background in sustainability to get bees buzzing and beer hopping.

She and her friends and business partners — three of whom attended the University — established Round Table Hops earlier this year, where she will help keep 20,000 bees pollinating the farm’s crops.

“We’re really a culmination of good friends looking to change the way hops are grown,” Kayser said.

The company’s first greenhouse in Forest Lake, Minn., is currently under construction, she said, and it will be one of just a few Midwest farms that grow hops, a flavor agent in beer, when it opens in August and completes its first harvest in January.

The hops will be grown hydroponically to increase the plants’ yield, and on-site bees will pollenate them, Kayser said. And the geothermally heated greenhouse will allow the farm to harvest hops three times throughout the year.

Tech Bank

Tech Bank is in the business of turning cracked screens and broken keyboards into cash.

Carlson junior Austin White-Pentony and two friends with similar backgrounds in phone repair have opened four locations for the company, which gives quotes for and buys old or used smartphones, tablets and computers.

Tech Bank opened its first kiosk in the Rosedale Mall last September, and it now runs another location in the Twin Cities metro area and two in Madison, Wis. White-Pentony said he hopes to continue opening new locations this year.

After repairing the purchased gadgets, White-Pentony said the company sells them online or overseas.