Allison Hubel was sitting in her office seven years ago, pondering how to improve the process to preserve cells used to treat cancer and other illnesses, when she found inspiration looking out her window.

"I said, well, how do trees survive Minnesota winters?" said the University of Minnesota professor of mechanical engineering.

The answer is a combination of molecules that the tree expresses to keep its cell safe. Over the years, she's received more than $2 million in federal grants to test and prove her hypothesis that the same method can also be used to stabilize biological cells when they are frozen at subzero temperatures.

Her small startup, BlueCube Bio, which provides solution kits that manufacturers can use to preserve therapeutic cells, was named the grand prize winner of the Minnesota Cup on Tuesday evening. The reward: an additional $50,000.

The Minnesota Cup is the state's highest-profile competition for startups. Now in its 16th year, it's a public-private partnership that is run though the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. Division winners in nine categories, which each received $30,000, made a final pitch before a panel of judges to vie for the top prize.

Scott Litman, a co-founder of the Minnesota Cup and one of the judges, said the competition was particularly fierce this year, with the winner coming down to just two votes.

"This year more than any other the ideas and ingenuity were focused on how to change the world and improve the society around us," he said at the event, which usually attracts a live audience of hundreds of people, but which was scaled back this year and streamed online because of the pandemic.

The runner-up, which received an additional $20,000, was CounterFlow Technologies, which offers a new spraying technology that can work with thicker liquids and reduces energy and water usage.

BlueCube Bio, the grand prize winner, is very new, having just launched as a company in June and has a small staff of four people. Karen Dodson, the company's CEO, said they were surprised to receive the award since many companies enter a few times before they win.

"We're just so thrilled that everyone saw what we saw and the potential for the company," she said. "This is our first significant funding as a company. They're funds that can launch us to the next step."

She said they will likely use the winnings to hire some marketing and sales staff and to expand manufacturing. The company also is aiming to raise an additional $550,000 through a seed round by next summer.

The current process that most manufacturers use to preserve cells includes a toxic compound that can make some patients sick, Hubel said. And many cells often don't survive the process.

"These problems are so significant that about half of cell therapy companies don't preserve the cells at all," she said. "They give the cells to patients fresh. That means they can only treat a limited number of patients. It becomes hard to scale the therapy and reach as many patients who need it. It's something that really limits growth of the field."

She added that she hopes her innovation will make the therapies more potent because fewer cells die in the process and will make them more widely available to those need them. And since it's a nontoxic solution, patients shouldn't experience adverse affects.

In addition to treating cancer, BlueCube Bio's leaders say their solution can be used toward other applications such as helping patients recover from a COVID-19-related lung injury.

Right now, the company is offering its solution to manufacturers for testing and research. It is not yet being used for human use.

Since it launched during the pandemic, BlueCube Bio has been doing most of its meetings by phone or Zoom. But it plans to move into a small lab space near the University of Minnesota when it's safe to do so.

Other special award recipients Tuesday included Busy Baby, for women-led startups; Pikup, for minority-led startups; Harvest Nation, for veteran-led startups; Shrpa, for startups in Greater Minnesota; and Vonzella, which received the moonshot prize.

Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113