Moore School and USC alumni pitch their entrepreneurial ideas to win start-up money
Four budding entrepreneur teams are one step closer to launching their innovative business concepts after placing in The Proving Ground.
USC’s entrepreneurial competition is a multi-month, three-stage competition that culminates with a live-pitch event. The 2023 winners of the competition were judged by seasoned entrepreneurs; past applicants and winners of The Proving Ground; Moore School faculty; USC students and a live audience. Teams of USC undergraduate students, graduate students and recent alumni were eligible to compete for $20,000 in seed money and the chance to turn their ideas into reality.
In April, finalists pitched their concepts to a panel of seasoned entrepreneurs in a "Shark Tank"-like event for the chance to win up to $8,000 each to jumpstart producing their product or service.
First place: Copyt
Sean Powers (‘19 operations and supply chain) and Brett Nilsen (‘21 finance and management) won first place and $8,000 in the competition with their idea for Copyt — an automation tool for the $700 billion re-commerce market. Power said the tool allows “any reseller to manage their inventory and sales channels all from one place.”
“We are ecstatic to be able to continue to represent and be involved with our alma mater,” Powers said. “USC was fundamental to allowing us to create Copyt and see the success we have. We deeply appreciate being honored by USC and are excited to keep supporting our Carolina entrepreneurial community! We plan to invest our prize money back into Copyt, continuing to grow our company and become a driving force to provide support and inspiration for any other aspiring entrepreneur at USC.”
Second place: Rising Stairways
Jake Birkmaier (‘23 accounting and operations and supply chain) won second place with Rising Stairways, a company he plans to start after apprenticing at a New York staircase manufacturer. He said he learned an efficient building process making interior wooden staircases and handrails from some of the “best stair builders in the world.”
After later beginning his own company, Jake’s Stair & Rail, in Columbia, South Carolina, he realized many areas have a severe shortage of stair-building professionals, so consumers tend to spend money on inferior stairways.
Moving to Texas, Birkmaier said he hopes to leverage the techniques he learned in New York to offer stairways in Dallas that are “cheaper, faster and better than the competitors in that area.” He said he will use some of the $6,000 The Proving Ground prize money to purchase bulk specialty lumber, and the rest will be dedicated to an initial advertising campaign.
His next steps for Rising Stairways include building and launching his website, renting
a small shop in Dallas-Fort Worth and beginning to educate builders on the advantages
of prefabricated stairways.
Third place: CO2Watch
Rori Pumphrey (‘26 expected graduation mechanical engineering) and Sowmya Raghu (‘24 expected graduation Ph.D. mechanical engineering) won third place with CO2Watch.
CO2Watch follows the trends of easily tracking health metrics like cardiovascular fitness and sleep with smart watches by introducing a product that monitors respiratory health. Current technologies for determining respiratory health are expensive to the tune of $1,500+ and aren’t constructed for at-home usability, Pumphrey said. Ultimately, Pumphrey and Raghu’s CO2Watch prototype can be manufactured for around $100, and they plan to sell them for about $200.
“We intend to lead the movement toward wider accessibility of metrics for respiratory health, thus minimizing the expanding issues of mass hospitalizations for respiratory illness,” Pumphrey said.
With the $4,000 The Proving Ground prize winnings, the CO2Watch team “plans to refine their design and manufacture a fully functional prototype. Some of these funds will also be allocated towards patent-acquisition and the necessary legal fees to establish the company in South Carolina.”
Their longer-term goals mostly focus on joining the South Carolina Research Authority
(SCRA) Medical Device Alliance to aid them in the process of commercializing CO2Watch
and explore other innovative avenues within the medical device industry as a whole.
Fourth place: Emery Solutions
Husband-and-wife duo Kiera (‘20 Pharm.D., ‘20 MBA) and Cruiz Emery (USC Aiken ‘20 accounting and finance) won fourth place in The Proving Ground with their health supplement company Emery Solutions.
Emery Solutions has developed a line of three custom supplement formulations called The Solution, designed to help individuals on chronic medications. The line includes nutrient replenishment for individuals with chronic health conditions that include high blood pressure, diabetes or low blood sugar and hormone imbalances. Research shows that chronic medications can cause unwanted side effects and nutrient depletion, potentially leading to the need for additional medications. Emery Solutions “seeks to address the issue of nutrient depletion caused by chronic medications and provide individuals with a natural and effective solution to support their overall health and well-being,” Cruiz Emery said.
The Emerys said they plan to use the full $2,000 prize to hire “a marketing team to help us build brand recognition and customer awareness.”
Third-place winners of The Proving Ground competition — Co2’s Pumphrey and Raghu — will participate in the SEC Student Pitch Competition this fall.
The SEC Student Pitch Competition provides teams of SEC current students at the undergraduate or graduate level a platform to showcase their ideas for ground-breaking products and services to a panel of judges. USC hosted the 2022 SEC Student Pitch Competition with the USC team securing second place — the best showing yet for a Gamecock team in the SEC event.