Minnesota entrepreneurs are gaining access to invaluable resources and strong supporters thanks to the MN Cup. The annual event, which was established in 2005 and has since grown into the largest statewide startup competition in the nation, is designed to help ideas become a reality for early-stage innovators, including those aspiring to contribute to the state’s agriculture sector.
MN Cup Eligibility
Applications are accepted from late March until early May. The cost-free competition attracts a range of entrepreneurs – some with as little as an idea and others already earning as much as $1 million in annual revenue.
“We focus on that specific group of people because this stage of an entrepreneur’s journey is really daunting,” says Melissa Kjolsing, executive director of the MN Cup.
“There’s a lot to and there are a lot of unknowns, so we want to connect them to people who want to support them.”
The competition has eight divisions, including energy/clean technology/water; food/ agriculture/beverage; general, which typically includes consumer products, retail and education; high tech; life science/health IT; social entrepreneur; student, with only undergraduate and graduate students eligible to participate; and youth, which is open to students age 18 and younger.
Applications for each division are reviewed by judges who specialize in that area, and the competition is narrowed down to 10 entrepreneurs per division. Next, semi-finalists submit a 10-page business plan, a 15-slide investor presentation and a one- minute video. The top three continue to compete for the top spot in their division by giving a 12-minute presentation followed by a 12-minute question-and-answer session with their review board.
A total of $400,000 is awarded in the competition, including $30,000 to seven of the division winners and $20,000 to youth division winner. All division winners go on to compete for the grand prize, which is an additional $50,000.
Throughout the process, local experts and mentors coach competitors, who are granted exclusive access to special events.
“Mentorship is probably one of the most valued assets of the MN Cup, because these entrepreneurs are getting some objective feedback, and that is sometimes very rare,” Kjolsing says.
MN Cup Success
In 2015, SIMPLS, a grocery store founded by Ryan Rosenthal and Michael von Fange, won in the food/agriculture/beverage division, which is sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). Today, the company sells fresh, locally sourced grab-and-go foods, such as soup, salads and sandwiches, in a Minneapolis skyway. Bare Honey, a raw honey producer, was the division’s runner-up, while garlic dip-creator Gardip came in third.
That same year, RED Food – Restaurants Eat Direct Food – was a finalist in the student division. Created by St. Olaf College students Camille Morley, Malika- Naomi Dale and Katie Myhre, the company connects farmers to restaurants within a 100-mile radius of the Twin Cities.
St. Olaf students Erik Brust, Jamie Marshall and Connor Wray also found success in the MN Cup with their frozen gourmet treat company, JonnyPops, placing first in the student division in 2014. Named after Brust’s late cousin, Jonathan “Jonny” Jeffery, who helped him create the company, JonnyPops offers all-natural frozen fruit and cream pops made primarily with Minnesota dairy.
JonnyPops’ products are available in various retail locations in the Midwest as well as in southern California and Texas, and the company has plans to grow its reach in the future by working with the MDA.
“The financial prize we won in the MN Cup allowed us to expand our operation,” Brust says. “However, the most beneficial part of the competition was the network of people we were exposed to. We met tons of people who were willing to help us think through different problems, and the advice stemming from that was truly invaluable.”