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Ideas to Action: MN Cup

If you read my first blog post (Compost Me!), you learned that I discovered my “moment of obligation” in the midst of coaching students at the University of Minnesota to find their own.

Helping students move from loosely defined ideas to practical progress and action was part of my day-to-day work at the Toaster Innovation Hub - a collaborative space at the UMN dedicated to student innovation and entrepreneurship. One of the opportunities I would often encourage students to explore was the MN Cup.

I remember leaving my class the fall before last joking to my co-instructor… “what if I submitted a proposal to the MN Cup to bring Natural Organic Reduction to MN?”

I did! And since that back of the napkin proposal, I have gone on to...

  • Compete as a 2023 MN Cup Finalist!

  • Secure a FINNOVATION Fellowship

  • Travel to WA to connect with current providers and visit operating facilities

  • Launch prototyping efforts through partnerships at the UMN, and

  • Find myself working collaboratively with cross-sector partners to usher in a sustainable approach to body disposition in Minnesota... even the Star Tribune is on board!

In short, the MN Cup process catapulted me from idea to action. I am thinking I’ll run it back this year and you should apply too!

Read on to learn about MN Cup, some general takeaways for those considering applying this year, and how it impacted my personal venture Live On Minnesota.


Pitching at the 2023 Energy / Clean Tech / Water Division Showcase at the XCELab

Ideas to Action

I had championed this statewide entrepreneurship competition among students for years as a great next step for vetting your product, service, or business idea. Get your thoughts out of your head, on paper, and, ultimately, in front of an audience. So I did.

For some context, the MN Cup is an annual competition that reaches emerging entrepreneurs from across the state and connects them with tools, resources, and the support to launch and accelerate the development of their new ventures. They have given over $5 million in cash prizes, supported over 20,000 entrepreneurs in MN, and sparked over $1 billion in capital raised by top MN Cup Founders.

Back to the story… As a former grant writer, the proposal was a light lift. The true challenge, and ultimate value of the MN Cup experience, was learning how to effectively communicate a novel concept to a new, and in my case unsuspecting, audience.

Believe it or not, the MN Cup does not have a division dedicated to death and dying. It was safe to assume that my audience(s) throughout the process would have NO idea they were about to sit in on a pitch regarding what to do with dead bodies let alone my efforts to transform them into nutrient rich compost.

The kicker? They only gave us 60 seconds for our first pitch… you can see a refined version of that one minute pitch here.

Much to my surprise, I went on to earn a spot as a semi-finalist, then finalist in the Energy / Clean Tech / Water division shaping and refining my initial concept along the way and moving closer to something more tangible.

The process played a critical role in getting me to where I am today. Here are my major takeaways...

  1. Do it! Just do it! Get out of your head, draft up your concept (don’t overthink it), and see where it lands. At best, you’ll walk away with $25,000 or more in non-dilutive funding to move your concept forward. At worst, you’ll get some targeted feedback from an experienced group of folks in or around your respective industry. Apply Already!

  2. Connections over Cash While it would have been great to walk away with a big check, the connections made throughout the process were critical to the growth and development of Live On Minnesota. I was directly connected to mentors that helped shape my pitch, business plan, and overall approach. Beyond mentors, being surrounded by a network of fellow entrepreneurs taking a similar leap had a tremendous impact. Connect and collaborate, the cash will come!

  3. Empowered by the pivot Your idea is great but it is likely not THEE idea. Go into the Cup knowing that you will receive feedback, your concept poked and prodded, celebrated and wholeheartedly denied. You want it all. Take notes, ask questions, engage more folks, get more feedback, ask more questions, take more notes, iterate and improve. If you’re pitching the same exact thing at the end of the Cup as you did day one, you’re not making progress. Lean into the feedback, the more the merrier, and be empowered by the pivot!

In addition to general takeaways from the MN Cup, I walked away with some key learnings through the required customer discovery and pitch / presenting that have informed my approach since.

  1. The Importance of Championing Choice In an era when we can curate every aspect of our lives with the touch of a smartphone, Minnesotans are often stunned to learn that you can count the actual choices for body disposition on one hand. The overwhelming majority of us, despite having more choice than most folks in the States, will choose 1 of 2 options: conventional burial or cremation (roughly 30% / 70% respectively). Even if composting is not for you, should we not have this sustainable option as a choice?

  2. Environmental Impact Matters The death care industry gets a bad wrap for a variety of reasons but one that seems to be particularly sticky at the moment is the environmental impact of current practices. Whether it is the use of raw materials (e.g. steel, concrete, wood, etc.) or the carbon emissions associated with cremation, current practices are not particularly green. Folks are passionate about this. 64% of people are demonstrating an interest in green options and, in the same way they navigate the grocery store, are willing to pay to have a lighter footprint.  

  3. Wait, what is NOR? Human Composting? Green Burial? As demands for green alternatives increase, so do our options. Great! But what the heck do they all mean… What exactly is Natural Organic Reduction? Human composting? Terramation (still confused? Check the first post)? What is the difference between that and green burial? Conservation green burial? What about flameless or water cremation (wait, that’s a thing?!)? The average consumer has a lot to learn about death and dying beyond simply understanding Natural Organic Reduction. This was evident throughout the MN Cup process and demonstrated the success of this venture would rely as much on consumer education and awareness as it would a well designed product and service. Thus... a blog!


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