Trio of ventures win big in The Proving Ground
By Peggy Binette, email@example.com, 803-777-7704
It couldn’t have been easy for her to walk down the aisle of that bus in rural Watsi, Costa Rica, begging strangers for money to pay for her son’s medical treatment. That act, one of a mother’s love, inspired a business idea that was one of three winners Tuesday night in The Proving Ground, the University of South Carolina’s entrepreneurial challenge for students.
International MBA student Howard Glenn presented Watsi -- a nonprofit venture that tells the stories of people living in poverty who need low-cost medical treatment. Watsi provides a way for people to help pay for those treatments. He pitched his team’s concept in a five-minute format before a panel of judges and capacity crowd at the Darla Moore School of Business.
Glenn and his team, which included fellow IMBA students Hall Todd, Caroline Osborne and Thad Ball, won the Maxient Social Impact Prize and $5,000.
“It feels awesome,” Glenn said. “It is really rewarding after a year and half of work with teammates who are living across the country. Our next step is more investments. A year from now I see us meeting all of our investment goals and having a full team and changing the nonprofit industry.”
Glenn’s project was one of three winning ideas pitched in the fast-paced “Shark Tank”-style competition. Technology to help small businesses handle human resource challenges and an Internet resource to connect Korea students with native English-speaking tutors were also among the winning ideas.
Professional MBA student Sean Rankin’s idea, called Huddle HR, won the $15,000 SCRA Technology prize. His concept is to provide web and mobile technology tools to help the growing number of small business owners easily and simply manage tasks such as employee reviews and time sheets.
“We want to go after the fortune 5 million, not the Fortune 500,” Rankin said. “If you’ve ever had to fill out an employee review or time sheet, you know the absolute agony of it and that most business software is terrible. We knew we could do better and develop software for small businesses that is pleasant to use and at a fair price.”
Rankin said the real pressure for him wasn’t Tuesday’s finale pitch competition but the deadline for submitting business plan entries. On Oct. 21 he submitted his plan and saw the birth of his daughter.
The winner of the Innovista Innovation Prize and $10,000 was a four-member team of first-year IMBA students for the concept myBuddy. Ryan Nielson, Hunter Moore, Jamie Weneck and Sylvia Lee made their case for the market appeal of an Internet language resource to connect students with tutors via Skype that would be funded by teacher subscriptions, e-books and a percent of tutoring fees.
“It’s a concept that I developed in 2007 and furthered as a team project for the IMBA program. It just exploded after that,” Nielsen said. “We’ll use the money for market testing in Korea and for developing software.”
Moore says, more immediately, the team has a paper due for their IMBA class. Lee and Weneck said a bigger test for the group will be this spring when they will be working on myBuddy while doing international internships in China, France, Italy and Spain.
Other business ideas pitched were concepts for creating antimicrobial paints for medical facilities using nanotechnology, a bicycle sharing program for college campuses, technology for photo studio management and a company that builds portable kitchens that offset carbon credits to reforest areas such as the Andes.
The competition, now in its third year, experienced great change this fall with a re-launch that included a new name, a five-minute pitch format for the finale and an increase of prizes and startup support that vaulted from $3,000 to $40,000. The startup support includes space and resources at the USC Columbia Technology Incubator, guidance from the USC Office of Technology Commercialization and mentoring from the Center for Technology Innovation (CETi) and the USC Faber Entrepreneurship Center.
The impact of those changes weren’t lost on Josh Hackler, who served as a judge for a second year.
“As the competition grows, more talent will come out. We saw that tonight,” said Hackler, a Moore School graduate and founder of the highly successful wine venture Spanish Vines. “The concepts and categories were executed well, and the caliber was outstanding. The execution of the business plans was very much a positive. The teams came with proven concepts that are working.”
Student judge Chase Mizzell said “It was great to see so many passionate students wanting to take ideas to market.”
Courtney Morrow, a sophomore accounting major from Erwin, Tenn., attended the competition out of curiosity and left inspired. “These are super intelligent and super impressive students. The student who presented the Photographer’s Source idea was so prepared.”
And, that’s exactly what Dean Kress, associate director of the Moore School’s Faber Entrepreneurship Center, and Greg Hilton, executive director at the Center for Entrepreneurial and Technological Innovation (CETi) wanted to hear.
“I am blown away by the quality of these teams. They came to compete, and the room was jam packed with 175 people,” Hilton said. “We have some real scalable business concepts that came out of this.”
Kress, who has taught many of the students in the competition and who organized the competition along with Hilton and Innovista’s Lauren Edwards, was thrilled by the student participation and audience support.
“The response to The Proving Ground has been fantastic!” Kress said. “The students were great and showcased the tremendous amount of entrepreneurial talent at our university.”
Dirk Brown who joined the Faber Center as its director in 2011 said the students “nailed it” and the caliber of this year’s entrants “set a higher bar for our aspirations moving forward.”
2012 Proving Ground final participants
A company that makes antimicrobial paints and coatings for the health industry to combat infection. Graduate students Kristen Miller, Irmo, S.C.; Lei Wang, Hubei, China; and Anand Viswanath, Chennai, India.
A Columbia-based software startup developing web and mobile products to help small business effectively manage its workforce. Professional MBA student Sean Rankin, Aiken, S.C.
A network of shared bicycles located on college campuses that students can access for a small membership fee. Senior business students Steven Kviklys, Marietta, Ga; Brett Bethune, Orangeburg, S.C.; and Chris King, Greenville.
The Photographer Source
A cloud-based business management tool that helps photographers run their business from anywhere in the world. IMBA graduate student Rachel Browne, Lexington, S.C.
An internet-based language resource that connects Korean students with qualified native English-speaking tutors via Skype. IMBA graduate students Ryan Nielsen, Logan, Utah; Hunter Moore, Manning, S.C.; Jamie Weneck, Spartanburg, S.C.; and Syliva Lee, Fairfax, Va.
A nonprofit organization that connects helps people fund low-cost medical care for people in need around the world. IMBA graduate students Howard Glenn, Greensboro, N.C.; Hall Todd, Spartanburg, S.C.; Caroline Osborne, Augusta, Ga; and Thad Ball, Honaker, Va.
Cooking with Carbon Credits
A company that sells carbon offsets that result from the construction of new kitchens and reforested plots of land in remote places such as the Andes. IMBA student Michael Kondrath, Indianapolis. Kondrath, currently in Brazil, will compete via Skype.
The Proving Ground judges
Bill Kirkland, executive director of USC Columbia Technology Incubator and co-founder of 52 Apps
Josh Hackler, USC alumnus and founder of Spanish Vines
Aaron and Candice Hark, founders of Maxient Technologies
Chase Mizzell, student body vice president
Doreen Sullivan, founder of Post No Bills
The Proving Ground partners
The Faber Entrepreneurship Center was established in 1997 following a gift to the Darla Moore School of Business from Tim and Karen Faber, two University of South Carolina graduates and successful entrepreneurs – people with the ideas, the vision and the perseverance to launch the new businesses that form South Carolina’s economic bedrock. Its primary mission is to promote and support student entrepreneurship.
Innovista is a strategic economic development effort that is connecting the University of South Carolina and university-spawned innovations with entrepreneurs, businesses and stakeholders. Innovista’s purpose is to attract, create and grow technology-intensive, knowledge-based companies, resulting in higher paying jobs and substantial economic growth in the Midlands region. Innovista supports the continued renaissance of downtown Columbia as well as the continued growth of USC as a nationally recognized, comprehensive research university.
CETi, the Center for Entrepreneurial and Technological Innovation, is the University of South Carolina’s launchpad for early stage startups. CETi finds, educates, connects and accelerates early stage technology and innovation-based startups centered around the University of South Carolina and Columbia’s entrepreneurial community. CETi is an Innovista Partners Initiative, powered by the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator.
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