The Proving Ground competition takes place March 28

Students and alumni vie for $51,000 in startup prizes

Updated March 29, 2019

Six finalists for The Proving Ground annual business startup competition pitched their ideas Thursday (March 28) in front of a live audience and panel of three judges. The finalists had five minutes to make their pitch, followed by seven minutes of questions from the judges. Finalists had to clearly define their target market, show a gap in the market or need for their product/service and prove it had investment potential.

And the winners are…

Jeremy Leake, international studies senior, and Hamilton Van Sciver, supply chain management and management science senior, took first prize in the Maxient Innovation category with their product, “SnapLites.” The interchangeable, reusable decorative accessories for traditional string lights offers the buyers the ability to customize string lights for holidays or other occasions by snapping a festive piece over the individual bulbs. They plan to launch versions of their product for every occasion, from jack-o-lanterns for Halloween to numbers for birthday parties. They emphasized how their product’s reusability would save money and cut down on waste.

The Avenir Discovery Prize was awarded to Franklin McGuire, business and law graduate student, for his business, “CivvieSupply.” McGuire wants to create a premium clothing brand based on old-school military apparel. McGuire says his brand fills a gap in the market by taking an old-school approach. McGuire has taken “CivvieSupply” to market and was able to show his product to the judges and audience.

“RunPHASE,” created by Andrew Eckstein, real estate management major senior, and Brooks Herring, a graduate student in the Arnold School of Public Health, won the SCRA/Fluor Fan Favorite Prize. “RunPHASE” is a secondary rehabilitation program for military veterans that focuses on strength and fitness in an effort to remove physical and psychological barriers that may block them from re-integrating into society. Herring, a Navy veteran, explained the need for their service through personal stories. “RunPHASE” received 75 percent of the audience vote to win. 


Students and alumni will pitch their business startup ideas to a panel of judges on March 28 in hopes of winning a piece of the $51,000 in prize money and startup support. The finale will begin at 6 p.m. in the W.W. Hootie Johnson Performance Hall at the Darla Moore School of Business and is free and open to the public.

The six finalists will compete head to head in one of three categories in a “Shark Tank” style competition with only five minutes to pitch their idea, followed by a round of questioning from the judges. The finalists were chosen based on two rounds of initial judging from a team of entrepreneurial experts.

Ian Mackintosh, speaker at this year’s competition, knows the impact of winning The Proving Ground. Mackintosh has recently had his first major manufacturing run for his company, Brevino, which won The Proving Ground in 2015.

“At the time of the competition, we only had a 3D print of the product,” Mackintosh says. “Now we have optimized the design for manufacturing, produced our first products and are beginning to sell them.”

The Maxient Innovation Prize will award $17,500 to the undergraduate students with the most innovative business concept that addresses a need or problem. The finalists are:

Natalie Davidson is a junior computer science major. Her plan, “Pointdar”, looks to provide 3D mapping, environmental and site monitoring solutions to governments and civil engineering firms. The service will allow these organizations to better plan for hazards, such as urban flooding.

Hamilton Van Sciver, senior supply chain management and management science major, and Victoria Pippen, senior marketing and management major will present “SnapLites.” “SnapLites” are interchangeable, reusable and decorative accessories that customize traditional string lighting. They aim to fill the gap in the market for Christmas light accessories and reusable, affordable party decorations.

The Avenir Discovery Prize will award $17,500 to the most innovative business concept that addresses a need or problem. The Avenir track is open to undergraduate students, graduate students and alumni from the last five years. The finalists are:

Phillip Conrad and Benjamin Davis are alumni. Conrad earned his master’s in computer science in 2018 and Davis earned his doctorate in civil engineering in 2016. They will pitch “ASSET,” which uses building vibrations and other data to prevent senior citizens from falling in their homes.

Franklin McGuire, international master’s of business administration and law student, created “CivvieSupply.” He wants to fill a gap in the clothing market by providing patriotic apparel inspired by old-school military gear.

The $4,000 SCRA/Fluor Fan Favorite Prize will be chosen by the audience at the final competition. This category consists of the two highest scoring finalists from the Maxient and Avenir categories that did not make the finals in those categories. The finalists are:

Andrew Eckstein, senior real estate and management major, and Brooks Herring, a graduate student in the Arnold School of Public Health, combined to create “RunPHASE.” “RunPHASE” is a fitness-based, secondary rehabilitation program which focuses on strength training and return-to-play therapy. It is intended to remove the physical and psychological barriers blocking disabled veterans from reintegrating into civilian society.

Johanna Esienberg graduated from South Carolina in December of 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Her pitch, “Doma,” aims to solve the problems of traveling by creating a co-living community and offering a national network of properties with no minimum stay.

The winners will be chosen based on six categories: problem, target market, financial understanding, investment potential and viability.

“Developing a business plan you have to defend is quite the challenge,” Mackintosh says. “I think there are two main areas that need continual focus, ‘who are your customers and how will you monetize your product/service?’”

The judges for this year’s competition will be Candice and Aaron Hark, founders of Maxient, and Jonathan Peterson, a former winner of The Proving Ground and co-founder of Tux on Trux.

Dean Kress, associate director of the Moore School’s Faber Entrepreneurship Center, has directed the competition for the nine years. The Proving Ground has awarded more than $300,000 in prizes, with many winners going on to successfully launch businesses and services.

“It was an invaluable opportunity,” Mackintosh says. “Without the advice and encouragement of Dean Kress, I’m not sure Brevino would have been pursued.”