Eighty-eight semifinalists from across the state will participate in the 17th MN Cup this summer. Among the companies and entrepreneurs vying to split more than $400,000 in prize money, plus opportunities for mentorship, networking and business development, are four businesses with ties to the Northland.
There were a record number of applicants for the 2021 event. The University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management coordinates the event, but applicants do not need to be affiliated with the school. According to MN Cup Director Jessica Berg, semifinalists are selected by volunteer judges looking for innovation and new ideas.
“I think across the board, MN Cup is interested in, and our judges look for, big opportunities or companies that have a big vision,” Berg said.
In order to be eligible for MN Cup, the company or founder must be in Minnesota and the company must generate less than $1 million in revenue a year. There are nine divisions participants fall into: education & training, energy/clean tech/water, food/ag/beverage, general, high tech, life science/health IT, impact ventures, student, and youth.
At the competition, participants will develop a business plan, pitch deck and one-minute video for their startup. They can also select one or two peer mentors in their field to work with.
“Those mentors can either help them with their MN Cup materials, or maybe the team selects someone because they have a really specific need for expertise or advice that they just wouldn’t be able to hire someone who could do that for them.”
Last year, the competition pivoted to a virtual format for the COVID-19 pandemic, but Berg said many participants, especially those outside of the Twin Cities metro area, enjoyed the flexibility of the virtual aspect. The majority of this year's competition will be conducted virtually again this year, but in-person networking events will be organized throughout the summer.
Hermantown’s ControlBright is one of the 88 selected finalists at this year’s MN Cup. Founder Chad Behling is looking forward to showcasing his unique addition to the market.
ControlBright provides cloud-based access for lighting controls, including Duluth’s aerial lift bridge and Enger Tower, plus Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky, and Northwestern University in Illinois. In addition, ControlBright also has a remote access portal for lighting and industrial controllers, which provides cellular-based connectivity to allow users to be on the internet without joining a retailer’s network. Clients of this service include Walmart, Walgreens, Home Depot, Google, Apple, Tesla and most major airports in the United States, Behling said.
“Our approach to connectivity and remote access is completely different to anything else that’s on the market,” he said.
Since launching in 2017, ControlBright has established a presence across North America. However, Behling said he looks forward to getting the word out about ControlBright to other entrepreneurs at MN Cup. He will get to work with well-established mentors in the technology area from the state, and he looks forward to representing the Twin Ports.
“I thought it might be a nice fit for our business,” Behling said of the MN Cup competition. “It seems like most of the startups or companies that apply are based in the metro area and being up in Duluth, I just thought it might be interesting to have someone from outside the metro area apply.”
Jim Boyd, technology and laboratory director at Iron Range Engineering in Virginia, is creating virtual reality solutions for hands-on engineering education experiences.
“You have this math and science that you learn, but then the next step is to apply it to something,” Boyd said of engineering. “There’s a lot of different ways to do this, but one of the most common ways is to use different laboratory training simulation systems and these tend to be very expensive and take up quite a bit of room in the lab.”
Boyd plans to use Tocco VR to save floor space in the lab and give more options for training — potentially 20 to 30 simulations, instead of just one or two he currently has space for.
Another convenience Tocco VR will provide is the ability to access the equipment remotely, so students can use it anywhere. It's currently in the proof of concept and prototyping stages.
Boyd participated in Minnesota State University Mankato’s Big Ideas Challenge earlier this year and was awarded first place, which granted him an automatic spot as a semifinalist in the MN Cup. Boyd said participation in these competitions is about more than just hoping to win money.
“What’s different about the Big Ideas competition and MN Cup is it’s very much a whole process that you go through over the course of several months,” Boyd said. “I think that’s really the value there. Yes, there are cash prizes you can win, but I think the real value to me is that it’s a great catalyst to help you step through these different processes that you need to step through anyway.”
New Earth Ways
Robert Matters has been developing his products for New Earth Ways for 15 years now. The waterless toilets and urinals have been designed to move society away from unsustainable flush toilets.
Matters, who lives in Aitkin County near Sturgeon Lake, hopes to introduce a global solution to lack of sanitation, especially through water. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be spread through sewage at wastewater treatment plants and contaminate water systems, including Minnesota's rivers.
Matters said once he is able to find the most efficient way to mass-produce them, New Earth Ways would be a much cheaper alternative to installing flush toilets that need to connect to sewer systems. His products drain down a chute into a tank, which kills pathogens with solar thermal heat collectors. The bins only need to be emptied every few months, to remove odorless fiber sacks containing the waste.
“It’s been one of my major life purpose pursuits,” Matters said. “It’s gotten to the point now where I’m going to need to enlist a great deal of help to see that we can meet this very critical global need.”
He hopes to find some of that help at MN Cup, where he can learn more and take advantage of the resources and support the state offers.
“Yes, it is a competition, but people work together, collaborate,” he said. “People give their experience freely. They’re not looking for a return on investment here.”
Business partners Anders Olmanson of Eagan and Gunnar Hodnefield of Grand Rapids hope to make being healthy easy with their product.
REMastered Sleep is a water bottle designed to help snoring and sleep apnea. The water bottle nozzle exercises muscles in the mouth and throat and has reduced snoring in 93% of its users.
Olmanson said they wanted to create a product that people would actually use, and so far they’ve sold more than 600 water bottles since launching in December 2020. He is looking forward to working with mentors at MN Cup to learn more about startups, since this is their first venture.
Olmansan said MN Cup has always been a goal of his and Hodefield’s, and they are excited to meet other Minnesota entrepreneurs.
“For us, we’ve always wanted to be a part of this. We applied last year but we didn’t make it in so this year we’re very excited and fortunate to make it in. It definitely shows how much hard work and how much we’ve improved our business and grown in just a year.”