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Cupid’s Cup Hits the Target

Startups Celebrated at Plank’s Business Competition

By Liam Farrell

Cupid's Cup

In hindsight, it wasn’t surprising that an event dedicated to the pursuit of entrepreneurial success ended with some haggling, even if the “deal” in question was actually a prize.

John Lewandowski, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was given a choice on April 4 after winning the ninth annual Cupid’s Cup Business Competition: Take $75,000 with no strings attached, or accept a $100,000 investment from Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank ’96 that, if profitable, would produce proceeds to fund future rounds of the competition and help other budding businesspeople.

Lewandowski, the founder of Disease Diagnostic Group (DDG), had just wowed the panel of five judges with a handheld device that diagnoses malaria in a minute with one drop of blood, a much cheaper, faster and hopefully lifesaving alternative to conventional tests.

He would accept the equity stake, he said, “with potentially scratching off the one, and making it a two.”

“You don’t negotiate on my show!” Plank replied, laughing.

Russell Simmons

Ultimately, with an assist from judge Russell Simmons of Def Jam Recordings fame, Lewandowski walked away with $75,000 in prize money, a $25,000 investment from Plank and an additional $5,000 for being voted the favorite of the audience that packed the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. The equity stake, whose details are yet to be hashed out, will be held by Plank’s Cupid’s Cup Foundation.

“He has a brilliant idea,” Simmons said.

While DDG won the competition, Cupid’s Cup—which culled a field of 130 applications down to six finalists—celebrated students and recent college graduates nationwide who start businesses in spite of the hard work and uncertain rewards.

Before the official program, a showcase convened exhibitions of UMD and regional startups. Amidst the glad-handing, freebies and blizzard of business cards being exchanged, the next big thing effortlessly went from being an app that finds the price and layout of any home you photograph to a website that sells your old phones and a tank top promising to properly show off the muscles of gym rats.

Cupid's Cup

“It’s so important today to celebrate the idea of being an entrepreneur,” Plank said. “Why not you? Find a way, get it done, get in the game.”

Plank, of course, is best known for starting Under Armour as a Maryland football player, but the competition takes its name from a Valentine’s Day flower delivery business he ran as an undergraduate. By his senior year, he sold almost 1,200 dozen roses while taking orders over seven phone lines and helped fund his nascent apparel products.

This year’s finalists included two Terps. Jason Gates ’11 placed second and won $20,000 for Compology, which uses sensors to track how full Dumpsters are and save waste companies money by avoiding unnecessary pickups. Placing third was Wheel Shields, the brainchild of undergraduate Chase Kaczmarek, which produces longboard and skateboard hubcaps designed to prevent accidental braking and allow new tricks.

“Entrepreneurship and longboarding are everything,” Kaczmarek told the judges. “I can’t sleep because of this company.”

Plank offered a note of caution, however, as a video looking back at previous Cupid’s Cup winners didn’t shy away from their mixed successes. For example, the video introduced the founders of last year’s winner, gardening kit-maker Earth Starter, as being in litigation with each other.

“(Business) is an extremely human thing,” Plank said. “It’s not always roses. Sometimes your business works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.