Contest seeks new business ideas

The Minnesota Cup Contest encourages students to submit business proposals.

by Elena Rozwadowski

Some people just have a mind for business.

“If you’re one of them, you know it,” said Dan Mallin, co-founder of the Minnesota Cup Contest.

This year the second-annual contest, hosted by the University, will search for the state’s most original entrepreneurs and give them a chance to jump-start their business ideas with a $25,000 first prize.

“We want to find a business that hasn’t broken through yet,” said Scott Litman, Mallin’s 12-year business partner and co-founder of the contest.

Litman said they saw a wide variety of business ideas last year, everything from dry cleaners to medical suppliers.

The first round of the competition was launched April 3 and goes through May 26. In this round, contestants make their initial business proposals by answering four questions, each in less than 500 words.

In round two, from June 20 to July 28, 30 semifinalists write a more detailed proposal, complete with marketing plans, sales projections and graphics to illustrate their ideas.

About one month later five finalists are chosen to give oral presentations on their work. In fall a winner is chosen.

While the process of writing and presenting the proposal is detailed, it is not the most important part of the Minnesota Cup.

“Too often business competitions become technical exercises in writing a business plan,” Mallin said. “The focus here is on the idea.”

New to the competition this year is a student prize of $5,000. College students throughout the state with less than five years of professional experience who enter the competition and are not chosen as a finalist still can win the student prize.

“There’s no reason that a student shouldn’t have the same tools,” Litman said. “Some of the most successful businesses in history were founded by people in the (25 and younger) category.”

The Carlson School of Management, which was involved in the Minnesota Cup last year, has been working to get students involved from different colleges across campus.

“A lot of the best ideas come from science and technology areas of the campus,” said John Stavig, the professional director at the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Carlson School.

Stavig said he pushed for the student prize because it is such a good opportunity for up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

“(The Minnesota Cup) makes it easy to think through the process of launching a business,” Stavig said.

Stavig said there was a “handful” of students who submitted ideas to the competition last year, and one group that made it to the semifinal round.

“They really got a lot out of it,” he said.

With the May deadline, Stavig said he has not yet seen any student entries, but he expects anywhere from 50 to 100, from students who have small businesses and from those with ideas submitted as classwork.

Last year’s winners, Institute of Technology alumni John Berger and David Emmons, took the top prize with Arcswitch, an invention that makes communication on fiber-optic networks more efficient.

“The process helped us refine the business plan,” Emmons said.

He said the competition was a good learning experience and that the most valuable part of it was the third-party input.

Emmons said he encourages students to submit their ideas.

“The people you get exposed to and the things you learn along the way are more valuable than the $5,000 prize,” he said.