MN Cup Grand Prize Goes to Carba
The Carba team (Linda Hofflander and Andrew Jones) flanked by Dan Mallin (left) and Jim Campbell. MN Cup

MN Cup Grand Prize Goes to Carba

Minnesota’s largest startup competition presented its top award to the Minneapolis-based developer of a reactor that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“Has everyone heard about climate change?” 

That’s how entrepreneur and scientist Andrew Jones started the pitch that resulted in a grand prize win at the MN Cup startup competition grand finale Monday night for his Minneapolis-based carbon dioxide removal solutions startup, Carba. Jones and his co-founder, University of Minnesota chemical engineering professor Paul Dauenhauer, were selected out of nine finalists to be awarded a $50,000 non-dilutive cash prize.

Founded in 2021, Carba is creating a scalable solution to remove CO2 from the atmosphere by converting plant waste into solid carbon. Human activities have raised the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content by 50% in less than 200 years, which is linked to the warming of the planet and climate change, according to NASA.

The Carba plan is to use reactors to convert plant waste/biomass into solid carbon, which can be stored safely underground in unused pits and mines for thousands of years. In essence, reverse coal mining.

“I think a few years ago, this would have been much more difficult and it shows the momentum of the whole industry,” said Jones in reaction to the MN Cup win. “People are recognizing that [climate change] is real. It’s not some make-believe story that all the scientists are telling us. I love to have that validation that people are listening to the science and actually seeing this as a real market.”

The Carba team plans to move fast, with construction on its first commercial site in Burnsville set to begin later this year. Work is also underway to scale its proof-of-concept reactor to a full-size commercial-grade reactor by early next year (pivoting from one-ton conversion per day to 45-ton). Meanwhile, the startup plans to continue research and development to improve its reactor and hire more employees.

For Jones, the MN Cup competition win hits close to home, as he attended the University of Minnesota as a first-year chemical engineering student in 2005. “The University of Minnesota really catapulted me in this journey,” he said.

This was the 19th year for MN Cup, the largest statewide startup competition in the country. More than 3,000 startups entered the competition this year and at Monday’s event at McNamara Alumni Center, the runners-up and division winners each got the chance to take the stage and pitch their ideas, which range from hiring software to robotic snow removal. This year, more than $400,000 was awarded in all. The runner-up prize went to REMastered Sleep, an Eagan startup that uses specially designed water bottles and straws to improve sleep health. Founder and CEO Anders Olmanson, featured on the TCB’s 2022 Tech 20 list, focused the design on the benefits of tongue training to help improve airway accessibility.

MN Cup associate director Kailin Oliver highlighted 2023 milestones for the startup competition. Of the record 3,052 participating entrepreneurs, 43% were women and 38% were BIPOC. Another record stat: 31% of this year’s applicants hail from Greater MN, reaching 67 counties.

The competition also had its youngest entrepreneur ever compete this year, an 8-year-old Adam Ghariani with Chickpeazie, a startup focusing on allergy-friendly snacks. (He didn’t attend the grand finale event–it was a school night.)

“As we look back over the past 19 years, it’s just amazing to see the number of entrepreneurs involved and the collective efforts of hundreds of volunteers, mentors, judges, and sponsors,” said MN Cup co-founder, Dan Mallin. “All these companies are at critical stages in their entrepreneurial journey, and we get to help them.”