“Don’t just cultivate gardens. Cultivate gardeners.” That’s the philosophy behind the entrepreneurial venture that captured the 2013 “Cupid’s Cup” from the University of Maryland’s annual business competition. (For a summary of the competition’s rules, prizes and traditions, as well as a complete list of finalists, visit www.cupidscup.com.)
The product? The “Nourishmat,” which comes with “seedballs,” an invention designed to take the guesswork out of gardening.
Instant garden: 1. Lay the mat down. 2. Put the seedballs into the mat’s labeled pre-made holes. 3. Hook up a garden hose to the mat. 4. Do other stuff such as full-time work in a completely non-agricultural sector while you wait for your garden to grow.
In a world where technology and “apps” often seem to capture the attention — not to mention the funding — of the startup gods, Nourishmat is a bit off the beaten path.
The Nourishmat package includes 19 plant types that come in the form of 82 pre-planted seedballs that don’t require digging. The seedball is a small capsule containing everything a plant needs to grow, all bundled up inside a safe shell. Seedballs consist of three things: clay, worm castings, and of course, seeds. Fungi also can be added to the seedballs to increase soil health and promote better growth conditions for the plants.
People can grow vegetables, including herbs, as well as flowers, fungi, trees and other vegetation.
The company, appropriately named “Earth Starter LLC,” was created because Phil Weiner, its founder, thinks it’s time to support products that, he said, turn consumers into producers. “Land, in the coming years, will be a luxury as development continues unnecessarily,” he said. “As a country, we have lost 30-plus millions of acres of arable land due to condos and strip malls and road development in the last decade.”
An affiliate of the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship (MCE), in Columbia, Earth Starter took home the top prize of $50,000 as winner of the competition.
‘World’s Thinnest Speaker’
When it comes to audio speakers, size does matter in this day and age. The small-but-mighty Mojo speaker merited enough attention from the Cupid’s Cup judges that it captured second prize for its creator, the sound company CoverPlay.
The Mojo, billed by its makers as the “world’s thinnest speaker,” brings loudspeaker engineering into the mobile world. From the consumer perspective, it’s about carrying a loudspeaker without much effort, since the Mojo is only 7 millimeters wide and weighs only 4 ounces.
David Marriott, part of the team that created the Mojo, said he has always had entrepreneurialism in his blood. Yes, he’s related to those Marriotts — the hotel magnates — but he chose a career in engineering, not hotel management.
“Through a number of different connections, I came across the technology we used to make this speaker. It had been developed at a university in Taiwan. I knew immediately that the technology was great, and that a product needed to be made.”
Smoothing Out Your Ride
Another Cupid’s Cup finalist, HolePatch, came up with a product that could bring countless drivers great joy: a quick, easy and cheap way to fill potholes.
The idea was inspired, in part, by an episode of the popular show “MythBusters.” Mayank Saksena, a member of the engineering team that helped create the product, said he and his colleagues watched the MythBusters hosts drive over a mixture of cornstarch and water — and the mixture stayed solid instead of splattering. The popular cornstarch-and-water science experiment is a well-known staple among middle-schoolers.
But the HolePatch team went one better, coming up with its own customized mixture. In simple terms, they put it into a bag, then stuck it in a pothole.
What was the moment of transformation from middle school science to viable business? When the team took a drive, Saksena said. “It was when we went out to the roads, ran over it, and we didn’t feel a thing. I mean, really. We didn’t feel a thing; that’s when we realized.”
Last Year’s Winner: Where Are They Now?
Let’s check in on the 2012 Cupid’s Cup winner: Reed Street Productions, operator of “Run for Your Lives,” a zombie apocalypse-themed 5K race in which participants navigate an obstacle course and rugged terrain — all while being chased by “zombies.”
You don’t think that’s fun or necessary? It doesn’t matter, because thousands of people disagree with you to the point where they’re pulling out their credit cards to enter the race.
Founder Ryan Hogan gave a rundown of his company’s latest statistics. In 2012, he offered the zombie run at 12 locations across the U.S. plus one in Canada. This year, he’ll expand to 22 markets nationwide.
Hogan gave a nod of appreciation to the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship and the Cupid’s Cup network, which, he said, “has been heavily influential in all of our decisions.”
The University of Maryland’s “Entrepreneurs in Residence” program has provided guidance and oversight to Reed Street Productions, Hogan said. “We have taken advantage of that on countless occasions.”
What’s next for this creative, zombie-loving team? “What we’ll probably do is stabilize our event in the domestic market and return to properties that met a certain threshold,” said Hogan. “Then we’re thinking of expanding into the [United Kingdom] and Australia.”
Also, Hogan said, Reed Street Productions is going to diversify its brand and portfolio. So, instead of a zombie in the closet, look for … well, you’ll have to wait. Hogan’s not saying too much. “I will say this new event will disrupt the industry.” Wait, more than the zombies? Stay alive and stay tuned.