At the annual Cupid’s Cup business contest, high production value and a last-minute twist

John Lewandowski was already named the winner of the ninth annual Cupid’s Cup, a mantle that comes with $75,000, when the judges added a twist: Under Armour chief executive Kevin Plank would add another $25,000 to the pot in exchange for an equity stake in the company.

Lewandowski took the extra dough.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology student’s company, Disease Diagnostic Group, has created a medical device to rapidly and accurately detect malaria. He also won $5,000 as the audience favorite.

Compology, a company that uses a sensor and software to alert waste management companies when a large commercial trash receptacle needs to be emptied, took home the second-place prize and a check for $20,000.

The 11th-hour offer merely added to the over-the-top production value of Friday’s event. A DJ blasted hits from Chris Brown, Daft Punk and David Guetta as yellow-and-black hypnotic spirals circled the auditorium.

The panel of judges who selected the winners included celebrity entrepreneur Russell Simmons, as well as SoulCycle founders Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, and MapMyFitness creator Robin Thurston.

Under Armour and the University of Maryland are jockeying to make Cupid’s Cup more than just a business competition. They aim to build the contest into a brand that attracts thousands of applicants and enough attendees to fill College Park’s football stadium.

“We said the goal was for this thing to be held in Comcast Center. And I said you’re crazy, we’re going hold this thing in Byrd some day,” Plank said in an interview. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t have that.”

The six finalists who also presented Friday included:

Encore Alert, which informs brands when they should respond to chatter on social media.

Kohana, a company developing a bra that allows mothers to discreetly pump breast milk while going about daily activities

Million Dollar Scholar, which matches students with scholarship opportunities and helps them to create strong applications

Wheel Shield, the maker of a device that fits onto longboard and skateboard wheels to make them safer

The effort to grow Cupid’s Cup into a national event comes at a time when attention on entrepreneurship is high. From legislation on Capitol Hill to prime-time reality shows, a fixation on self-made businesses has taken hold nationally.

But entrepreneurship is more grit than glam. Organizers tried to emphasize that point with a video showing the past eight Cupid’s Cup winners. Four of them are still in business, two have sold their business and two have closed their doors.

For example, Earth Starter, last year’s winner, is no longer selling its product, a kit with seeds and a mat that shows novice gardeners how to plant a successful vegetable garden.

“Not everyone can do this. Not everyone is meant to do this. So why are we doing this? We’re crazy,” Earth Starter co-founder Phil Weiner said in the video. “We want to make change. We want to do something special. We all want to be successful.”

steven.overly@washpost.com

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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