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Feature

Dan Mallin and Scott Litman

U alums Dan Mallin (left) and Scott Litman are the brains behind The Minnesota Cup, a statewide competition to encourage new product and service inventions.

Harvesting new business ideas

By Pauline Oo

From eNews, April 21, 2005

In 1987, Scott Litman entered a contest that sought ideas from college students on the future of computing. The University of Minnesota history major placed third out of more than 2,000 entries nationwide for his prediction that the year 2000 would bring a rise in personal digital assistants, portability in computing, and the Internet as a vehicle for commerce.

Today, almost two decades later, Litman credits the contest for opening the doors to his success as an entrepreneur. Litman is cofounder of Imaginet, one of the first companies in the Midwest to use Web technologies for brand marketing.

"The result for me [of finishing as a finalist] was that I met some people both nationally and locally who could help me get things moving when I wanted to start a business 18 months out of the University," says Litman. "Now, [The Minnesota Cup] is my way to 'pay it forward.'" Together with U alum Dan Mallin, his Imaginet cofounder, Litman created The Minnesota Cup--a statewide competition to seek new product and service ideas. Governor Tim Pawlenty launched the contest, sponsored by the U, on March 9.

So far, Litman and Mallin have received almost 400 entries for the competition. The contest ends Friday, May 6. Litman says the entries have been "really diverse--everything from farmers who have ideas for a new crop strain to stay-at-home moms with ideas for products that make it easier to care for their kids."

The winner of the Minnesota Cup will receive $25,000, along with free public relations, and legal, research, and management support services. Second- and third-place winners will earn $5,000 and $2,500, respectively. David and Carolyn Cleveland will present the cash awards at the end of August. The couple have been long-time University of Minnesota supporters and donors. Carolyn Cleveland is a 1968 U graduate.

"The $25,000 is great draw, but for somebody who really wants to get [a business] started, the bigger value is actually the opportunity to get in front of the review board [of judges]," says Litman. "This is a group of people who make things happen in this community. They will not just be judging but thinking, 'Wow, this is somebody who's going to be a future star, and I want to help hook them up or invest in them.'"

Entrants will participate in two rounds of competition before the judges select five finalists to give oral presentations. The entries will be judged on originality, viability, and the quality of presentation.

The judges are Litman; Mallin; David Cleveland, cofounder of Riverside Bank; Skip Gage, chairman and CEO of Gage Marketing Group; Sima Griffith, managing partner of Aethlon Capital; Tom Gegax, former chairman and CEO of Tires Plus; Michael Gorman, managing director of Split Rock Partners; Fred Haberman, founder and CEO of Haberman and Associates; Doug Johnson, director of the U's Office of Business Development; Matt Kramer, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development; Jay Novak, editor and publisher of Twin Cities Business Monthly; and Thom Sandberg, founder of The Kenyon Consortium.

"A lot of people have wondered if this competition is for them," adds Litman. "If you've got that great idea and you're thinking, 'I could start a business around this,' then this competition is for you. Our hope for this competition is that we'll turn around a few years from now and see many of the finalists with successful businesses, and that their participation in this competition was a catalyst for that [success]."

For more information and to submit your business ideas online, see breakthroughideas.umn.edu.

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