Four CSE alumni among 2021 Minnesota Cup finalists

College continues its success in the statewide entrepreneurial competition

When Joe Mullenbach was an undergraduate student in the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering (CSE), he took advantage of every entrepreneurship and business elective he could fit into his schedule. As a mechanical engineering major, he knew he wanted to invent and create things.

It wasn’t until after he got his Ph.D. at the Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. that he came up with the Ahh Towel—a fast-acting cooling towel designed to help people relax. The idea came to him when he received a wet towel from the flight attendant during an exhausting, 10-hour international plane ride.

“I couldn’t believe how fantastic I suddenly felt from something so simple, and all I could think about was, ‘Why can’t I have this feeling anytime, anywhere?’” Mullenbach said. “I sketched some portable temperature changing towel ideas on a piece of paper during the flight and filed it away in my idea notebook.

Mullenbach (B.S. Mechanical Engineering ’09) now leads his own startup company, Ahh LLC, and is one of four CSE business-owner alumni named finalists in the 2021 Minnesota Cup, an annual entrepreneurship contest hosted by the University’s Carlson School of Management. Joining him are Joe Strommen (B.S. Computer Science ’05, M.S. Computer Science ’09) of 2040 Energy; Jared Sieling (M.S. Electrical Engineering ’10) of Chanl Health; and Andy Freeman (B.S. Biomedical Engineering ’01, M.S. Mechanical Engineering E ’04, Ph.D. Biomedical Engineering ’16) of Byce Canyon Design LLC.

The finalists presented their ideas to judges in early September for the chance to win their division. Both Mullenbach’s Ahh LLC (General division) and Strommen’s 2040 Energy (Energy/Clean Tech/Water division) won their respective groups, and they’ll compete on Sept. 20 for the $50,000 grand prize.

CSE alumnus Joe Strommen (right) and an artist rendering of the 2040 Energy heat pump
CSE alumnus Joe Strommen (right) and his startup, 2040 Energy, won the Energy/Clean Tech/Water division with a heat pump (left) that can replace residential gas boilers. Credit: Joe Strommen

“I was first exposed to pretty much every aspect of creating a product and launching a startup while a student at the University of Minnesota,” Mullenbach said.

“I feel like I was totally prepared from an engineering standpoint. It’s not that you know everything that you need to know, but that you have a foundation to build from, and you’ve learned how to learn.”

From medical technology to stress relief, the CSE alumni are tackling big topics. Strommen’s 2040 Energy startup, for example, has built a heat pump that can be used as a substitute for residential gas boilers, which contribute to global warming.

“Climate change is the number one threat to humankind,” Strommen said.

“It's literally on the news right now with Hurricane Ida, which was intensified by the Gulf of Mexico’s water being warmer than average. The mission of 2040 Energy is to eliminate fossil fuels from building heat.”

CSE has a rich history of students, alumni, and faculty winning honors at the Minnesota Cup since the competition’s inception in 2005. That first year, John Berger (B.S. Mechanical Engineering '84) and David Emmons (B.S. Mechanical Engineering '84) won for Arcswitch, a low-cost optical switch for rerouting information on fiber-optic networks. In 2011, biomedical engineering alumna Marie Johnson won for developing a breakthrough medical device that identifies lethal coronary blockages in less than 20 seconds. And last year, CSE faculty-led startups BlueCube Bio and CounterFlow Technologies won the grand and runner-up prizes, respectively.

As an inventor and entrepreneur, you have to believe in an idea for a long time, and spend a lot of money and time working on it before others start to catch on,” Mullenbach said. “Now that it’s happening, and I’ve come back to the MN Cup and won the General Division, it’s an incredible ‘Ahh’ moment.”

Learn more about this year’s competition finalists and division winners on the MN Cup website.

Read about last year’s MN Cup winners.

Story by Olivia Hultgren