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MN Cup semifinalists include more than 10 companies with CSE ties

CSE alumni, faculty, and students are involved in startups ranging from clean energy tech to augmented reality apps

July 25, 2022

Update: BKB Floral Foam, Inc., Carbon Origins, and Refr Sports were all named winners of their respective divisions and MN Cup finalists.

A projector technology that can make online meetings more immersive, a new kind of compact electric vehicle, and a compostable foam for growing flowers are just a few of the innovations that have made it to the semifinal round of the 2022 Minnesota Cup, an annual entrepreneurship contest hosted by the University of Minnesota Twin Cities Carlson School of Management. 

Mirage, Opus Motorcar Co, and BKB Floral Foam, Inc. are three of more than 10 companies involving University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering (CSE) alumni, faculty, or students that were named MN Cup semifinalists this year. 

CSE often has a strong showing at the Minnesota Cup since the competition’s inception in 2005. Two CSE alumni won the competition that first year. Another alumna won in 2011. In 2020, two startups based on research from CSE faculty garnered the top and runner-up prizes. In 2021, four out of the nine division winners were CSE alumni. 

“We’re very proud of how our CSE faculty, students, and alumni are able to take their high impact ideas from the lab to the marketplace,” said University of Minnesota CSE Dean Andrew Alleyne. “These startup companies are the engine that drives Minnesota’s tech economy.”

This year, the CSE semifinalists span four categories (Energy/Cleantech/Water, High Tech, Impact Venture, and Student).

CSE computer science graduate student James Yang is the founder and CEO of Mirage, a company that uses a combination of small, portable cameras, projectors and augmented reality to make video calls feel more immersive. 

“The idea was born out of the pandemic because of the disconnection and disengagement that we all felt,” Yang said. “Although this company is completely separate from my school activities, being in a graduate program introduced me to many groundbreaking technologies and their applications, inspiring me to come up with an idea that could help utilize some of these technologies.”

For CSE alumnus Tom Skahen (B.S. AEM ‘20), inspiration came from elsewhere. After discovering small, Chinese electric vehicles called “Peasant Cars,” Skahen and his father, Sean, decided to start Opus Motorcar Co, a company dedicated to bringing these low-cost, compact electric vehicles to the United States. Using these cars as a starting point, the pair are developing their own version for local purposes.

“We want to develop the ‘Anti-Tesla,’" Skahen explained. “It's a simple vehicle, just for use in town, which can take care of 90% of people's trips off the interstate. It is affordable, technically transparent, and can be worked on with some basic knowhow, a laptop, and a wrench set.”

A few of the semifinalist companies are also based on technology that originated in University labs. 

BKB Floral Foam, Inc., for example, is working to commercialize sustainable, compostable floral foam—or foam blocks for stabilizing and growing plants—these would replace current foams that are typically made using fossil fuels. The technology was developed by researchers in the University of Minnesota’s NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers.

In addition to Mirage, Opus Motorcar Co, and BKB Floral Foam, other 2022 MN Cup semifinalists with CSE ties include Carba; Vortex, LLC; Detect Auto; Raise a Hood, Inc.; Wi Yone Plastik; CreateMPLS; Carbon Origins; Solar Informatics; FarmGrid; and Refr Sports.

Throughout the summer, the semifinalists will compete to be the winners of their respective divisions. The division winners, or finalists, will then go on to pitch their ideas to judges in September in the hopes of winning the MN Cup.

See the full list of MN Cup semifinalists.

Story by Olivia Hultgren

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