Cupid's Cup contest lets Maryland start-ups compete for funding

Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank among event's judges

May 07, 2010|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

The five start-up companies that competed for thousands of dollars in prize money Friday at the University of Maryland, College Park couldn't have been more different.

But as the founders gave their sales pitches to a panel of judges and an audience of students and potential investors, they all had one thing in common: They had to impress Kevin Plank, founder and chief executive of Under Armour Inc., and a judge and key sponsor of the Cupid's Cup business competition.

"We want big ideas. We want transformation," Plank said. "This is not a business plan competition. This is a business competition. You need revenues to compete."

There was Crooked Monkey, a funky T-shirt maker looking to target mass retailers, while Delta Produce is trying to revolutionize the distribution of fresh produce in the Washington metro area.

Magaram Engineering sees opportunity in the rollout of next-generation cellular networks, while 207 Lobster is delivering fresh Maine lobster to restaurant tables in the Washington area in less than two days. And Social Growth Technologies provides technology for online games to make money.

The companies were vying for the chance to be named winner of the fifth year of the Cupid's Cup Business Competition — a contest held by the University of Maryland's Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship. Kevin Plank donated $22,500 of his own money for cash prizes — part of his broader effort to support innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, his alma mater.

Start-up competitions have been common in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas during the recession, as entrepreneurs are motivated to start new ventures while more established competitors might be hurting.

The contest is named after Plank's first business, a rose-delivery company he operated from his dorm room while he was a student at College Park.

That business never broke even, Plank told the crowd. But his next venture, Under Armour, has charged into the hyper-competitive world of athletic apparel, footwear and accessories. Under Armour has grown from $17,000 in sales in 1996 to $856 million last year.

Under Armour, he said, has not yet built its "defining product" — and that's what drives the company to try to innovate with new products. In the meantime, Plank emphasized to the young entrepreneurs the importance of building a team of colleagues and constant communication among your employees.

"The most important quality is the ability to attract and build a great team," Plank said.

Each of the companies that made their pitches to the judges, who included other top Under Armour executives and leaders of other local companies, is pulling in revenue. Micha Weinblatt of Crooked Monkey said his company has been selling T-shirts since 2006. His shirts are sold at Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, Forever 21 and other retailers. "We believe now is the time to invest heavily in our future," Weinblatt said. (Weinblatt's pitch was a crowd favorite. He ended up winning a $2,500 "people's choice" award.)

Kosta Dionisopoulos and Christos Marafatsos, best friends since early childhood, started Delta Produce and have reached $1.8 million in sales in less than a year of operation. The pair is focused on delivering fresh produce to restaurants, hotels, country clubs and other businesses in the metro Washington area. They also offer free social marketing services to their customers, helping them set up Facebook pages.

"It's a perfect time for a new company, a young company, to come into the market and make something new," Marafatsos told the judges.

Brett Magaram of Magaram Engineering offers engineering field inspection services to the wireless industry. With telecommunications infrastructure expected to grow quickly over the next decade, Magaram intends to capitalize on wireless companies' needs in completing work quickly across the United States.

Nick Olson and Alex Harris, co-owners of 207 Lobster, are drawing on Olson's experience as a lobsterman in Maine to deliver fresh seafood to Washington-area restaurants. The lobsters are plucked from the Maine coast and shipped to Maryland restaurants in less than 36 hours.

"Our lobsters never see a lobster holding tank," Harris said.

But the company that captured the imaginations of Plank and the other judges was Social Growth Technologies. Co-founder Paul Capriolo, a 2006 University of Maryland alumnus, is on his third start-up with Social Growth. He's generating sales and striking deals with major Facebook application developers. His company helps Facebook developers generate revenue from the virtual currency they may use in online games. "On Facebook, there's over 1 billion users of virtual currency applications," Capriolo said.

For his six-minute pitch that captivated the judges, Capriolo's company won $15,000. Plank was impressed that Capriolo included Under Armour as a sample company that could benefit from Social Growth's technology.

"He did a great job of positioning us as a potential client," Plank said.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

http://twitter.com/gussent

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