Startup ideas win bigger prizes in The Proving Ground 2013

The Proving Ground -- the University of South Carolina’s startup competition for students – is back for 2013 and bigger than ever, this year boasting more than $50,000 in cash prizes and startup support.

The entrepreneurial challenge, open to undergraduate and graduate students in all areas of study at the university’s eight campuses, has become one of the top collegiate business plan competitions in the country for its prizes and startup support.

Greg Hilton, director of CETi, the university’s startup center, said student interest in last year’s competition surged.

"We saw an incredible response from students all across USC last year with close to 50 submissions from three campuses. We had teams from all disciplines including chemistry, engineering, business and the social sciences,” Hilton said. “What's more impressive though was the quality of the startup concepts. Like no other time, we're seeing a surging entrepreneurial culture at USC where students are seeing problems and finding innovative ways to solve them. It gets us very fired up.”

Students have until Oct. 18 to submit their business concept. After that, The Proving Ground becomes a three-round, points-based competition that culminates with nine finalists making their big pitch Nov. 19 in a live event before judges and an audience.

In addition to bigger prizes, this year’s competition features more resources to help students prepare their big ideas for a startup. On a new website students will find details on sessions to get more information and meet entrepreneur mentors, the application process and Live Plan, free business plan software from Palo Alto Software available to registered participants. Students also are encouraged to connect through The Proving Ground's Twitter and Facebook.

The Proving Ground prizes will include:

  • $15,000 SCRA Technology Ventures Prize for the best innovative technology idea for the marketplace;

  • $15,000 Fluor Innovation Prize for the most innovative approach to a business concept; and

  • $15,000 Maxient Social Impact Prize for the business plan best able to contribute or solve a social or environmental challenge.

Dean Kress, associate director of the Faber Entrepreneurship Center in USC’s Darla Moore School of Business, credits sponsor support in large part for the competition’s growth.

“The support from our sponsors has been phenomenal! We literally will be awarding over 10 times as much prize money this year than we did in our first year, 2010,” Kress said. “I think our sponsors recognize the entrepreneurial potential of the University of South Carolina and they want to stimulate that movement and be a part of it. We owe them so much.”

Winners from last year’s Proving Ground included Watsi, a nonprofit venture that helps people defray the expense of low-cost medical treatments for people living in poverty; Huddle HR, which provides Web and mobile technology tools to help small business handle human resource challenges; and myBuddy, an Internet language resource to connect students with foreign language tutors.

Howard Glenn, a member of the Watsi team, said winning a Proving Ground prize led to other opportunities for the startup. It was the first nonprofit to join the prestigious Silicon Valley startup accelerator, Y Combinator, which caught the attention of national media.

“The Proving Ground helped us to really understand and refine our organization’s value proposition in both text – business plans and executive summaries – and verbal formats, such as elevator pitches and ‘shark tank’ environments with tough questioning,” Glenn said.

As of June, Watsi had processed more than 3,700 donations, totaling more than $200,000 in medical treatments for more than 250 patients in 13 countries.

Bill Kirkland, executive director for USC’s Office of Economic Engagement, said The Proving Ground is an excellent example of how the university is fostering a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurism across campus with resources to help students harness their passions and take startup ideas from concept to marketplace.

"We've been working hard over the past 24 months to build an ecosystem of support for entrepreneurship at all levels, including helping students explore and develop their passion for entrepreneurship. USC is becoming one of the most approachable entrepreneurial resources in the state, and our aim is to help entrepreneurs at every level be successful," he said.

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