May 24, 2018

Century College Entrepreneurial Competition Inspires Innovation

On April 19, during Century College’s Transforming Lives for 50 Years Soiree, Century College announced the winners of this year’s annual Muskie Tank challenge.

Based on the ABC show “Shark Tank” with a Minnesotan twist, “Muskie Tank” awards scholarships to aspiring entrepreneurs based on their innovative new ideas and their business plans.

In an unprecedented event, two grand-prize winners were declared. Century College students Charles Georgi of Stillwater and Kyle Trepanier of Oakdale each received a scholarship for $5,000 dollars – enough for a full ride at Century College.

Trepanier’s winning project was a versatile organization kit, while Georgi presented a Christmas-themed product. Both winners’ prototypes were prepared using Century College’s Fab Lab.

“Each project had so many good positive points to them that the judges could not decide,” said Jim Mishek, founder of Muskie Tank. “So we decided to break the rules and give out two prizes.”

Partial winners Fahimeh Ghorbani of Maplewood, Kent Reuckert of Mahtomedi, Pheng Vang of St. Paul, Jennifer Schultz of Lindstrom, and Laura Jones of Brooklyn Park took home scholarship checks for $1,000 dollars.

One of the two grand-prize winners will also be granted automatic entry as a semifinalist into the MN Cup, a statewide start-up competition hosted by Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

A Brief History of Muskie Tank

While watching the MN Cup award ceremony in 2011, Mishek wondered how he could bring a similar program to Century College. That’s when the idea for Muskie Tank was born.

“I started it as a way to demonstrate what innovation really is,” says Mishek. “It’s not a lightning bolt from the sky – it’s incremental things.”

Mishek, along with faculty Scott Simenson, Tim Grebner, and former Shark Tank winner Moshe Weiss, collaborated to bring Muskie Tank to Century College.

Century College students met the challenge with gusto, utilizing 3D printed prototypes, in-depth business plans, and detailed presentations. Judges throughout the years have been nothing short of impressed.

“I practiced saying ‘I just don’t see a market for your product and for that reason, I’m out,’” wrote former Muskie Tank judge Carter Johnson in the White Bear Press in 2016. “But I was never able to use it. The presentations were solid, the students were passionate, and they were prepared.”

A Lasting Impact

Since its inception, Muskie Tank has made a tremendous impact on Century College students.

“I hear from students years later who tell me how much Muskie Tank meant to them,” said Mishek. “They learned about putting a plan together, and they learned about the passion and energy it takes to see your plan through.”

It’s fair to say that participants have taken the lessons learned from Muskie Tank to heart. Many students have been inspired by the program to make their projects a reality.

Pheng Vang is just one example of a student who strived to bring his innovation to the market. As a result of his efforts, Vang won a $70,000 dollar grant from the St. Cloud Incubator program to develop his idea. Another 2018 participant, Shawn Powell, is planning to launch a non-profit organization this year.

“Muskie Tank gave me a portal to start my endeavor,” said Powell.

The students weren’t the only ones casting their lines into the Muskie Tank. Faculty and staff were eager to help students bring their ideas to fruition.

“I’m more impressed every year by the tremendous faculty and staff that Century College has,” said Mishek. “They want to make a difference in the students’ lives, they want them to excel, and they want to push things forward. Just an amazing group of people.”

The Future of Muskie Tank

Now that Muskie Tank has captured the imaginations of students, Century College faculty member Kavi Turnball – a business teacher – and marketing faculty member Lynn Smaagaard have been working to spread the word about the program.  

Turnball and Smaagaard presented at a conference for the National Association of Community College Education (NACCE). Since it was the last day of the conference, Turnball and Smaagaard didn’t expect a big turnout – but when they arrived, they were surprised to find a standing-room only crowd.

“There were people from Canada and from all over the United States,” said Turnbull. “People wondered, ‘how are you doing this at a community college?’ They figured this was something you could only do at a big university.”

Turnball and Smaagaard have been more than happy to provide a framework, or “tackle box,” for other community colleges to implement their own version of Muskie Tank.

“A lot of colleges were looking to do a competition similar to Muskie Tank,” said Smaagaard,
“but we were very far ahead.”

To Mishek, that didn’t come as a surprise.

“The people I’ve gotten to know at Century College espouse innovation,” said Mishek. “They’re really forward-thinking people.”