Startup contest announces winner

The MN Cup competition helps entrepreneurs meet investors and get feedback.

Former Apple engineer Matt Ronge accepts his trophy after winning the grand prize of $50,000 for his start-up company Astropad. The MN Cup Final Awards Ceremony was held at McNamara Alumni Center on Wednesday.

Image by Melissa Scharf

Former Apple engineer Matt Ronge accepts his trophy after winning the grand prize of $50,000 for his start-up company Astropad. The MN Cup Final Awards Ceremony was held at McNamara Alumni Center on Wednesday.

by Nick Wicker

Investors and business people filled McNamara Alumni Center Wednesday evening for the Minnesota Cup final awards event, where one of seven businesses — some started by University alumni — walked away with the grand prize of $50,000. 
MN Cup is a Carlson School of Management startup business competition, where entrepreneurs present business ideas to judges. Though contestants enter for a chance to win cash for their ventures, experts and MN Cup founders say networking with investors at the competition can be more lucrative for owners than the grand prize. 
This year’s winner, software company Astropad, took home $50,000 Wednesday in addition to their $30,000 win at the High Tech contest division in August.
“This is a huge honor,” co-founder Matt Ronge said. “We’ve really learned a lot.”
Astropad co-founder Giovanni Donelli said he met Ronge while working for Apple in 2007. Their company, launched in 2013, allows iPad and iPhone users to draw graphics with a stylus on their portable Apple device and transfer their creations through an app to a Macbook in real-time. 
Astropad plans to use the prize money to hire an engineer to develop a new version of their app, the owners said. 
On top of the grand prize, a smaller prize of $1,000 was awarded to the business the audience chose with a live online poll on Wednesday.
That award went to Elise Maxwell, a second-year MBA student at the Carlson school. She founded Ova Woman, a website specially tailored to sell women’s intimate care products online.
Gina Blayney, president and CEO of Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest, Inc., announced to the audience at the MN Cup event Wednesday that the contest would feature a special “youth” category for participants 18 years old and younger in coming years.
The competition started with 1,300 contestants before three rounds of judging narrowed the pool to the seven division winners, who presented Wednesday, said John Stavig, program director at the Carlson School’s Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship. 
Stavig said the competition and similar events around the country are becoming more popular because of people’s increasing natural curiosity for inventions and new ideas.
MN Cup in particular is able to give business owners advantages over their competition by allowing them to meet investors and mentors at the events, Stavig said.
He said one such group, the Gopher Angels, regularly invests thousands of dollars in startups they find impressive, regardless of whether that business won prize money; although, winners are often top prospects.
MN Cup founder Dan Mallin said the biggest contributor to businesses’ success is name recognition, which he said was even more important than prize money.
Four of this year’s division winning businesses were started by Carlson school graduates, Stavig said, and many business students are aware of the competition. Some classes even attend the event and observe as part of their courses.
Toby Nord, professional director of Carlson Ventures Enterprise, said even though he is not involved with running MN Cup, many of his former students have succeeded in the competition after graduating.
He said competitions like MN Cup are growing, partially because of the large chunk of prize money, but also because businesses are drawn to the connections they can make at events.
Over the competition’s 11 years of annual events, more than 10,000 businesses have participated, and finalists have raked in collectively more than $1 million, Nord said.
Mallin said popular culture has also brought interest to events like this, calling it the “Shark Tank Phenomenon” in reference to the ABC show where startups pitch ideas to venture capitalists.
“[Participants] definitely have an advantage because they have … an opportunity to organize their thoughts and start getting critical feedback on some of the really fundamental assumptions, including fatal flaws,” Nord said.
Some of the most helpful feedback contestants receive is that their ideas aren’t good, Nord said. In that case, he said it is beneficial for the business owners to spend no more time, money and effort on the idea.
Nord said that as the competition has grown in size, the competition has become fiercer because there is a bigger pool of good ideas to select from. 
He said it’s not just the business owners receiving prizes and becoming more connected who benefit from events like these.
“Events like the Minnesota Cup are helping to create a really strong network of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial support,” Nord said.