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Evolving Minnesota Cup offers entrepreneurs lots more than prize money

Even more important are the opportunities for exposure, advice, networking and investment available to the competitors.

On Monday, the Minnesota Cup begins accepting applications for its ninth annual competition.

I’ve got a soft spot for the Minnesota Cup. As a Star Tribune business reporter, I covered the news conference in 2005 at which the first competition for breakthrough ideas was announced. Minnesota entrepreneurs signed up to compete in one catch-all division for $37,500 in prizes.

On Monday, the Minnesota Cup begins accepting applications for its ninth annual competition. More than 1,000 entries are expected, and they’ll compete in six divisions for $200,000 in prizes. It’s the nation’s largest statewide new-venture competition.

But money isn’t the main benefit for the competitors, said Scott Litman, managing director of the marketing agency Magnet 360 and co-founder of the competition.

Even more important are the opportunities for exposure, advice, networking and investment that open up to the competitors.

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“We’ve got fantastic involvement from the business community,” Litman said. “The participants are meeting some pretty spectacular people.”

The Cup now includes a variety of associated events: seminars, mentorships, networking opportunities, pro-bono services and other non-cash benefits.

“At the end of the day, the prize money is actually a pretty minor reward, compared to the rest of the stuff,” Litman said.

But a growing stream of finance is definitely part of the picture. In the past four years alone, new businesses competing in the Minnesota Cup have attracted more than $60 million in investment capital, Litman said: “There are a lot of businesses being impacted with $500,000, $1 million, $3 million.”

The competition’s growth has been fostered by a stable of committed sponsors. Wells Fargo, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management have all supported the competition from its inception. Other major sponsors include UnitedHealth Group, General Mills and Carlson.

Minneapolis-based OrthoCor Medical entered the competition four years in a row with its idea for a high-tech knee brace. OrthoCor won its division last year, raised several million dollars in capital and launched its product nationwide. CEO John Dinusson talks about the experience here.

Litman has personally felt the power of fostering a business idea through competition. At 24, he entered a national new-ideas competition sponsored by Apple and finished third. The experience was “a huge stepping stone” in getting his first business started, he said.

Minnesota has always punched above its weight as a business center. The Minnesota Cup is helping us keep punching.