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Darla Moore School of Business

The Proving Ground assists entrepreneurs in pursing their business ventures with $50,000 awarded in prize money

May 11, 2020

Six teams of USC students and alumni won more than $50,000 in total prize money for The Proving Ground pitch competition held virtually in April.

To accelerate innovative business concepts, The Proving Ground helps USC students and recent alumni begin their entrepreneurial ventures. Formatted similarly to the popular reality TV series Shark Tank, The Proving Ground’s original 53 entries this spring went through three rounds of judging by seasoned entrepreneurs, Moore School faculty members and past participants and winners of the competition. The result was two finalists for the Maxient Innovation Track featuring current undergraduate students and the Caliber Discovery Track featuring graduate students and recent alumni. The two plans which scored the highest in the Maxient Innovation Track and the Caliber Discovery Track but did not make the finals competed in the SCRA/Fluor Fan Favorite Track.

The winners chosen by the judges were parAnimo’s Jonah Rotholz and Nick Jeffcoat for the Maxient track and Sectorgen’s Raphael Tosti for the Caliber track. Ally B. Organics’ Alexis Lewis and Tiffany Neckles were voted the fan favorite. Rotholz and Jeffcoat and Tosti were awarded $17,500 in start-up money for each of their two companies; Lewis and Neckles were awarded $6,000. Runners-up for each of the tracks were In a Flash’s Preston Headden, a Moore School junior majoring in entrepreneurship who won $5,000; Demeter’s Munir Tawfique, a 2015 management science alumnus who also won $5,000; and Kiddiewallet’s BinBin Weng, an MBA student, and Xianshan Qu, a computer science Ph.D. candidate, who won $3,000.

Founded by information science senior Rotholz and advertising senior Jeffcoat, parAnimo aims to pare down customer costs for purchasing solar panels for their homes by providing a more efficient process for narrowing prospective buyers.

Rotholz said he and Jeffcoat’s process of pitching parAnimo to The Proving Ground judges in the various rounds was more valuable than any experience they have had in the classroom. Rotholz said learning happens when “students are organized into multi-disciplinary teams, creating real solutions for real people in the real world.”

While their initial focus has been building a customer base for solar panel installation, parAnimo’s long-term goals include applying their concepts to other businesses like real estate or consumer financial products.

“In a nutshell, we’ll be using [The Proving Ground] money to acquire new sources of consumer data and buy physical server hardware. Until this point, we’ve been running all the computation for parAnimo on our personal laptops and the process has been very ‘hands on,’” Rotholz said. “Now that we have real seed capital, we’ll be able to streamline all our processes and run them 24/7. These are essentially our next steps: refine parAnimo and share it with more people.”

Representing the graduate student and recent alumni track, Sectorgen’s Tosti, a 2017 international business and marketing alumnus, presented The Proving Ground pitch in the live show from Lille, France. Sectorgen is a company that plans to decrease lead times and parts pricing for the power generation industry by offering an online marketplace and digital tool-suite to vendors and buyers.

“The Caliber Discovery Track is extremely competitive every year with incredible business ideas, so to have successful entrepreneurs [and judges] like [Maxient’s] Candice and Aaron Hark and longtime [Caliber Collision’s] CEO Steve Grimshaw single out Sectorgen as their first pick is truly an honor,” Tosti said. “It really is incredible that USC offers a platform and experience like this to both students and alumni to follow their entrepreneurial dreams.”

Tosti and his Sectorgen partners were initially planning to use the competition prize money to travel to conventions to demonstrate their platform for prospective clients, but the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed their marketing online for the time being, so they are investing in LinkedIn and Google ads to share the benefits of Sectorgen.

“However, once we have reliable data and a strong position in the gas turbine industry, we want to tackle other industries within the power generation market as well,” Tosti said. “Other industries like wind and steam turbines suffer the same lack of digitalization in the buying and selling of spare parts. At Sectorgen, our goal is to become the go-to spare parts marketplace for the power generation industry.”

Fan favorite winner Ally B. Organics won by 59.8 percent of the real-time vote during the live online competition.

Ally B. Organics, which was presented by president and CEO Alexis R. Lewis and marketing manager and spokesperson Tiffany Neckles, is a holistic health and beauty company intended to aid in natural hair, skin, diet and hormonal balance with products that contain six or less ingredients, said Lewis, a junior majoring in chemical engineering.

“In the near future, depending on how the pandemic plays out, Ally B. Organics will be seeking our certification to sell organic products,” said Neckles, a management and marketing senior. “Hopefully, this will lead to us being able to sell skin care products very soon!”

For the runners-up, Headden’s In a Flash idea is a photography expedited service that allows users to choose their photographer while the company will edit and process photos for a faster turnaround for customers and less hassle for the photographers. Tawfique’s Demeter is a mass-screening farming tool using drones and computer vision to determine which crops and plants are diseased to further prevent its spread to surrounding areas. Weng and Qu’s Kiddiewallet promotes financial literacy through an engaging application that educates children about money through interactive gaming.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.