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Darla Moore School of Business

  • SEC Student Pitch Competition winners from left to right: UofSC’s Stephan Voelk, Max Wile and Parth Vashi; University of Georgia’s Spencer Parker; Vanderbilt’s Adam Jace and Max Mona

Pitching innovation

SEC, USC entrepreneurial competitions celebrate ingenuity and creativity

The University of South Carolina invited budding entrepreneurs from across the Southeastern Conference to share their innovative and original ideas with the SEC Student Pitch Competition this week in a “Shark Tank”-style competition. USC also had their best ever showing in the competition with their student team winning second place.

Students at the undergraduate and graduate levels showcased their entrepreneurial ideas for groundbreaking products and services to a panel of judges, including SEC alumni, who primarily work in the business sector. The 2022 event is the first time USC has hosted the SEC Student Pitch Competition, and it was the first in-person competition since 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the 2022 SEC Student Pitch Competition, 12 Southeastern Conference universities competed in a preliminary round of pitches. Judges selected three teams for the final round.

SEC Student Pitch Competition results

Vanderbilt’s team, Master of Finance candidates Adam Jace, ’22, and Max Mona, ’22, won first place and $5,000 to help them develop their idea for ESG Impact. A business-to-business software as a service web application, ESG Impact assesses, educates and integrates environmental, social and governance best practices in private markets.

The South Carolina team included Max Wile, ’23, a finance and international business student; Stephan Voelk, ‘23, an economics and operations and supply chain student; and Parth Vashi, ’23, a public health and business administration minor student. Winning second place and $3,000 to help them develop their idea, Wile, Voelk and Vashi promoted Spuradix, a carbohydrate and menthol oral rinse that activates brain circuits responsible for feeling more energetic and less fatigued to improve athletes’ performance.

“Spuradix’s mission is to help athletes worldwide fulfill their potential and exceed personal expectations,” Vashi said. “We plan to become the vanguard of revolutionary athletics products.”

For the SEC Student Pitch Competition, a University of Georgia entrepreneur, MBA candidate Spencer Parker, ’22, won third place and $1,500 for his Green Design Technology product, which designs and builds residential-scale hydropower solutions that economically convert homes on active waterways to renewable electricity.

USC’s The Proving Ground entrepreneurial competition

Hosted two weeks before the SEC Student Pitch Competition, USC’s own entrepreneurial contest The Proving Ground awarded $40,000 in total seed money to their four winners, who were comprised of USC undergraduates, graduate students and recent alumni who presented their concepts to a panel of seasoned entrepreneurs in two categories.

Entrants in the Maxient Innovation Category must be current undergraduate students at South Carolina. The Caliber Discovery Category is open to USC students, undergraduate or graduate, and alumni who graduated in the past 5 years. In both categories, the concepts submitted may be for any business within any industry, ideally addressing an unmet need or solving an existing problem.

The first round of entries was judged and narrowed to five competitors for each category, and the judges in the second round narrowed the category pools to two competitors each for the final round.

The Proving Ground — Maxient Innovation Category

For the Maxient Innovation Category, Crescent Moon Vans won first place and $15,000 to develop their product. Also for the Maxient category, SEC competition runner up Spuradix won second place and $7,500 to develop their product.

Crescent Moon Vans was created by Matthew Alburn, ’22, who is majoring in accounting and international business. Crescent Moon Vans is a custom conversion business that transforms mobile spaces such as commercial vans, buses and trailers into vehicles that meet clients needs. The company focuses on two main product offerings: custom camper vans built on a per-order basis and a small fleet of rental vans.

“The goal of this company is to prove to the public that anyone can enjoy the freedom of taking their hobbies wherever they go,” Alburn said. “In addition to our traditional camper-van models, our personalized services will allow us to custom renovate our clients’ mobile spaces into whatever they desire. Some ideas include designing the perfect tailgating vehicle to target the SEC game day crowds and custom mobile office spaces for those who want to work while they travel.”

Crescent Moon Vans strives to offer the public affordable prices to customize their vehicles; they will create demand outside of the niche, expensive markets where companies currently operate, Alburn said.

“When I was first introduced to the “Vanlife” industry, it was through viral social media posts of wealthy, attractive young people showing off their vans in scenic vistas,” he said. “’Vanlife’ was an aesthetic and a lifestyle to brag about and could only be afforded by the wealthy. In the years since, I have seen the market shift to cater those everyday people who want to enjoy the freedom and versatility of a camper-van, although prices are still sky-high.”

Alburn credits the knowledge he gained from the Moore School for helping him create Crescent Moon Vans. Specifically, he points to his accounting classes, international business courses and time abroad for putting him in the position he is in now.

“My managerial accounting classes have been integral to working out my projections and maintaining a tight budget,” Alburn said. “Additionally, I am very thankful for several of my international business courses as well as my time abroad for instilling a love of adventure into me.”

With the winnings from The Proving Ground, Alburn said he plans to split the money between startup costs and materials for the company’s first rental model.

By placing second in The Proving Ground and also the SEC Student Pitch Competition, Spuradix now has $10,500 to further develop and market their athletic performance supplement.

The evidence for carbohydrate rinses’ ability to improve athletes’ performance is overwhelming, Wile said.

The team reported that a 15-milliliter mouth swish of Spuradix 30 to 60 seconds boosts athletic energy and performance by 2-4 percent for 15-20 minutes. Voelk noted that 14 out of 15 studies saw performance increases, while 80 percent of studies saw performance increases greater than 2 percent.

Wile, Voelk and Vashi said they used the skills they’d acquired in their business classes to successfully construct their pitch for Spuradix.

“The development of a new product and company is a strenuous task that requires a multi-faceted approach,” Vashi said. “Gathering a cross-functional team with overlapping expertise is crucial to excelling in the business world.”

Vashi says the group plans to use their SEC competition and The Proving Ground prize money towards the research, development, marketing, manufacturing and distribution of Spuradix in its early stages. He said he also hopes this business idea will grow to inspire others in similar positions.

“We plan to expand our company beyond our three core members and have a flourishing business model that we can use to set a precedent for future Moore School students,” Vashi said.

The Proving Ground — Caliber Discovery Category

For The Proving Ground Caliber Discovery Category, Elite Support Americas won first place and $15,000 to advance their idea. Also for Caliber, Lu Learning won second place and $7,500 to advance their idea.

For the Caliber Discovery Category, Professional MBA program candidate Brian Gerschutz, ’23, placed first overall for his business concept, Elite Support Americas, a business that provides live flying civilian contract instructor pilots to military aviation organizations. Specifically, these instructors will train potential pilots to fly F-35 fighter jets for air force units in the U.S. and internationally.

Providing a company with civilian flight instructors for military units is a much-needed endeavor with the current finite number of instructors, Gershutz said.

“ESA's value innovation is the ability to organize and share a rare form of human capital — ESA provides proficient, qualified flight instructors that train F-35 pilots and actually fly the F-35 fighters,” he said. “Recognizing that worldwide pilot training demand is growing, smaller companies can provide great value to entities that need our unique niche service.”

A first-place victory in the Caliber Discovery Category was a huge milestone for ESA, according to Gerschutz. He said the cash prize will go a long way in getting the company going in its initial years.

“It was a huge boost of confidence to have experienced professionals recognize the market opportunity and appeal of my business model,” Gerschutz said. “I am very thankful for the cash prize since it will make up a considerable percentage of the first-year capital needed to get the business on its feet.”

Runner-up in the Caliber Discovery Category was Leighton Carlock,’23, Master of International Business and USC J.D. candidate, with her business idea Lu Learning. Lu Learning is a digital platform that provides U.S. law and business students the opportunity to participate in a virtual “study abroad” experience with Chinese law and business schools.

Some of the offerings this program has include an easy-to-use translation tool, language prep courses and ice breaker games for language partners. Carlock did not respond to requests for comments about Lu Learning and her experience in The Proving Ground.

Open to all current USC students and USC alumni from the past 5 years, The Proving Ground begins with 10 total teams between the two categories that are judged by seasoned entrepreneurs, faculty and past Proving Ground winners. For the second round, another panel of experts choose two teams for each category to compete in the final.

The Proving Ground is supported by Caliber Collision, America’s largest collision company, and Maxient, the software of choice for managing behavior records at universities across North America.

-James Culbertson, Marjorie Riddle Duffie

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.