Earlier this month, I traveled to Minneapolis for a “Top 10 Pitch Slam” event held as part of the Food/Ag/Beverage division of the MN Cup. The MN Cup is the largest statewide new venture competition in the country, presented by the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota and now in its 11th year. More than 10,000 participants in multiple divisions have entered since its inception.
I was there at the invitation of business leaders from 301 Inc., the emerging brand elevator at General Mills. Earlier this year, 301 Inc. executives were part of a Minnesota delegation that visited Boulder to compare notes on building strong regional sustainable food and ag ecosystems. The Minnesotans spent time with us at Naturally Boulder, an economic development organization for the natural products community in Colorado, where I serve on the board.
The MN Cup pitch slam was terrific, showcasing 10 young companies formed by Minnesota entrepreneurs in food, beverages and agriculture. They brought interesting ideas, great-tasting products and a lot of enthusiasm. (They did not, however, appear to be Minnesota Nice as I understand the term.)
My frame of reference was the annual Naturally Boulder Pitch Slam, which has attracted dozens of natural products entrepreneurs since 2006 to pitch their products before a panel of judges and a live audience, for a chance to win a prize package recently valued at about $50,000. Pitch Slam winners typically are emerging companies, and some have gone on to national success.
While three finalists already had been selected behind the scenes by MN Cup judges, the Minnesota pitch slam featured “fan favorite” voting by the audience. The top audience choice was Rise Bagel Co., founded by two sisters who offer artisan bagels made from locally grown and organic ingredients, sold at local farmers markets and pop-up locations.
While I like a good bagel as much as the next guy, my favorite from an innovation standpoint was Round Table Hops, growing fresh, local hops indoors year-round for craft brewers, resulting in better yields (reportedly 50 times better than traditionally grown hops) and freshness.
The winner of the MN Cup Food/Ag/Beverage division, announced this week, is Simpls, a grab-and-go natural foods store which offers the farmers market experience in a convenience store format. Their memorable elevator speech: “Imagine if 7-11 and Whole Foods had a baby.” Simpls has one location in Downtown Minneapolis currently. With $30,000 in MN Cup in prize money, expansion may be on the to-do list.
It’s encouraging to see the creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit that are driving emerging businesses in food and agriculture – here in Colorado, in the Twin Cities and across the U.S.