U of M Start-Up Accused of Copying Product Idea

A group of University of Minnesota students reportedly has been accused of copying an existing product idea; the local start-up's CEO, meanwhile, told the Star Tribune that his company has acted ethically.

Minneapolis-based Toepener-a start-up launched by University of Minnesota business students-has recently garnered attention for developing a door handle that attaches to the bottom of a bathroom door, allowing “germaphobes” to pull the door open with their feet.

But a report by the Star Tribune indicates that Missouri-based start-up StepNpull has called foul-accusing the students of stealing its idea.

According to the Star Tribune, U business students called the Missouri-based start-up last year to ask for assistance on a class project. StepNpull's owners provided sales and marketing data and told the students about their own product.

But a couple of months later, StepNpull's owners reportedly found out that the students had launched a competing company with a similar product.

Toepener CEO Maxwell Arndt told the Star Tribune that his business has acted ethically, save for one e-mail in which a former member of his team misrepresented himself. He told the Minneapolis newspaper that he came up with the idea for the Toepener product himself and reached out to StepNpull for research purposes.

In March, StepNpull reportedly complained about the students' actions to the U's Carlson School of Management. The school's former dean, Alison Davis-Blake, sent a letter to StepNpull and criticized some of the students' actions.

Toepener reportedly has sold 300 units so far at $50 each, and it was recently named a semi-finalist in the 2011 Minnesota Cup competition. The company reportedly received a $15,000 loan through the U that it currently is paying back, and it has agreed to donate a portion of its revenues to the university.

Read more in the Star Tribune about the dispute-as well as the timeline under which both companies launched their products-here.