No students among MN Cup winners

The Minn. Cup opens admission on Monday.

Barry Lytton

No University of Minnesota student has ever won the Minnesota Cup, a yearly competition for state-based entrepreneurs that’s hosted by the Carlson School of Management.

The admission process for this year’s competition starts on Monday, and in keeping with past years’ records, students have a small chance of taking home the $50,000 grand prize. Some say students’ slim chance of winning the competition is a symptom of their inexperience and fierce competitors.

Jamie Marshall co-founded an ice cream manufacturing company, called Jonny Pops, when he was a sophomore at  St. Olaf College in 2012. His company entered the MN Cup semifinals last year where he won the student division, earning $20,000 and entrance into the competition’s final round.

Before the cup, nearly 100 grocery stores carried Jonny Pops, Marshall said.

He said student businesses in the MN Cup he competed in were primarily focused on selling items, while the upper division’s more mature businesses were often tech-based start-ups.

Marshall said because students typically only go off of what they’re taught in classes and they lack other experience, their MN Cup projects are different than their competitors. For example, he said, college taught him about the chain of supply, rather than the interworkings of a technology company.

Austin White-Pentony began Tech Bank, a company that buys, repairs and sells tech products, during his freshman year at the University.

With hopes of growing his company — which was earning just below the $1 million limit that disqualifies a business from entering the competition — White-Pentony entered MN Cup last year.

“I wasn’t expecting to be a finalist,” he said. “All of the student competition was pretty good.”

Tech Bank finished in second place — behind Jonny Pops — in the student division and garnered a $5,000 prize.

The company is no longer eligible for the MN Cup because it exceeds the revenue limit for entry, he said.

White-Pentony said businesses run by nonstudents, who are typically older and have more experience, tend to have more sophisticated models than the ones run by students.

Nate Shrader, the president of a textbook and housing exchange platform called U-Swap, said the majority of student-run companies in MN Cup are typically less developed than the professional applicants.

But some, like Tech Bank and Jonny Pops, stand out in the division.

“The other divisions are much more competitive; you’ll have 40-year-old [and] 50-year-old guys with tons of experience that are entering with a company that has already raised money and already has customers,” Shrader said.

But despite their differences, all MN Cup competitors will learn a lot in a very short time span, Shrader said.

“That’s the big benefit of the student division,” he said. “You can kind of get in the door and learn and get the exposure … without having to be as competitive.”