Michelle Tran Maryns, daughter of Vietnamese immigrants with a master’s degree from Harvard, and Dr. Andres Acosta, an Ecuadorian immigrant and research physician at the Mayo Clinic, come from different worlds.
They also share a passion to make the world better through their entrepreneurial ventures.
They met recently when they were honored with awards at the MN Cup startup business competition, a highlight of Twin Cities Startup Week — forums, pitches and demonstrations to nurture the next wave of small businesses.
Maryns and Acosta are gracious winners.
Maryns, 35, founder of WeSparkle.org, won $30,000 as the winner of the Cup’s Impact Ventures award and another $1,000 for the best pitch to judges and, later, several hundred in attendance at the MN Cup finals, amid a lot of good pitches.
Maryns, who was born in small-town Kansas, quit a good job in small-business development last year to invest $30,000 to start We Sparkle.
She was influenced by her mother, an entrepreneur who once owned a fabric business; a brother with whom she helped develop a small business in the San Francisco Bay Area, and her desire to invent a business that would assist female-owned hair-and-nail salons, for starters.
We Sparkle is a “conversational artificial-intelligence assistant” that functions as a phone app or on a shop’s Facebook page to schedule appointments automatically and answer routine questions for shop owners.
They often spend too much time on such tasks, instead of working with customers and employees.
“I’ve had this idea kicking around in my head for years,” Maryns said. “The problem is that women of color, including immigrants, are the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs but their revenue is not on par with their [white] peers.
Half of all female businesses are in hair, nails and personal-care services, such as child care and home health aides.
‘We’re testing this tool with several businesses and plan to launch early next year. I definitely feel encouraged. I’m getting good feedback. My family is supportive. If this tool can help small businesses increase sales or be productive in time, that’s important to me. My husband and I were caring for my [late] mother-in-law in in-home hospice two years ago. She encouraged me to do this.”
In addition to Startup Week success, Maryns was a star of last summer’s ‘‘Finnovation’’ business accelerator in Minneapolis.
She has financed We Sparkle herself, in addition to a couple contractors. She envisions hiring help next year.
Acosta, 38, earned his undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of San Francisco de Quito in his native country of Ecuador and a doctorate in physiology and pharmacology at the University of Florida before joining the Mayo Clinic.
His focus is obesity, a debilitating condition that can engender potentially fatal diseases including diabetes and heart disease. They also are expensive to treat.
Dealing with obesity is different for every patient.
Acosta is founder of Phenomix Sciences, a Mayo Clinic spinoff that uses a customized blood test to help identify the subtype of obesity and guide the most effective treatment for each patient.
His firm was a $500,000 winner of the MEDA $1 Million Challenge for Minority Entrepreneurs last week. And Phenomix was named the $35,000 prize winner of the Innovative Minority-Led Business prize at MN Cup. It picked up an additional $10,000 award in the MN Cup competition from Securian Financial.
Acosta said last week that Phenomix, which has facilities in Rochester and St. Paul, previously raised about $845,000 in seed capital, mostly from associates and family.
“This will open doors to key people in industry and to advisers and investors who will help our company,” Acosta said of the MEDA award. “This a great opportunity for people like myself, who were not raised here.”
Hundreds of entrepreneurs, financiers, technologists, consumers and others participated in Startup Week forums, competitions, demonstrations and more, including a several-day food-oriented farm-to-fork expo.
Sessions ranged from fledgling firm pitches, to how small coffee and specialty foods shops scale up their operations, to the growth in local and Native foods that “can enrich communities and create sustainable economies across the continent.”
Last week the Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship, bemoaned the fact that the rate of new-business starts has been flat for 20 years, a surprising finding amid last week’s activity.
Kauffman attributed that largely to government and financier bias toward big business.
Meanwhile, women and minorities, who disproportionately start businesses, as well as rural small shops, have trouble raising funds.
Anyone interested in seeing more entrepreneurs like Michelle Tran Maryns will want to take a look at this article on the foundation’s website: tinyurl.com/y2oto6yf.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.