COLUMBIA — The Proving Ground — the University of South Carolina’s popular startup competition — is back for its fifth season and with a record $89,000 in prize money and startup support.
The Proving Ground is among the top collegiate business plan competitions in the U.S. for prizes and startup support, growing each year in prizes, level of competition and audience attendance. Since its launch in 2010, the total package has grown from $3,000 to $89,000.
Dean Kress, associate director of the Faber Entrepreneurship Center at the university’s Darla Moore School of Business, has directed the competition since its founding. He attributes its success and profile of the event to sponsors who believe in fostering entrepreneurship.
“There’s no question — the support of our sponsors has been phenomenal,” Kress says. “Candice and Aaron Hark at Maxient, Nancy Grden of Avenir — all of whom are alumni — have been driving forces for The Proving Ground. And, the whole team at Fluor has helped us get to our current levels of awards. We are happy to have the support of a new sponsor, Grow Financial, which not only is supporting our second place prizes but is providing a free business account for our winners.”
The 2015 competition is open to students and recent alumni (graduates since 2010) from the university’s eight campuses, with three major categories as well as a fan favorite. As a result of the growing interest and additional sponsor support, this year The Proving Ground will include prizes for second place winners.
Participants have until Oct. 23 to submit their business concept. Judges will look for ideas — big or small — that are innovative and scalable and that have commercial viability. To help participants craft their pitches, two general information sessions will take place Sept. 14 and Sept. 21 with a preliminary idea evaluation session set for Sept. 28. Complete details are available on The Proving Ground website.
“We are providing more support for our entrants, including access to LivePlan, a cloud-based business plan software, support from the Small Business Development Center, and an ‘idea evaluation’ session that will give entrants and potential entrants the opportunity to bounce their ideas off experienced entrepreneurs to get their feedback,” Kress says.
After the Oct. 23 deadline, The Proving Ground becomes a three-round, points-based competition that culminates with eight finalists making their big pitch Nov. 17 in a live event before judges and an audience. Each year the competition has outgrown its space. This year’s finale will take place in the 500-seat W.W. Hootie Johnson Performance Hall at the Moore School with participants sharing the stage with judges much like the popular ABC-TV show “Shark Tank.”
The Proving Ground 2015 categories and prizes are as follows:
▪ $20,000 Maxient Innovation Prize for the most innovative business concept that addresses an unmet need or solves an existing problem. Undergraduate students are eligible. Second place is $2,500.
▪ $20,000 Avenir Discovery Prize for the most innovative business concept that addresses an unmet need or solves an existing problem. Graduate and undergraduate students and recent alumni are eligible. Second place is $2,500.
▪ $17,500 Fluor Social Impact Prize for the business plan best able to contribute or solve a social or environmental challenge. Graduate and undergraduate students and recent alumni are eligible. Second place is $2,500.
▪ $3,000 SCRA Technology Ventures Fan Favorite Prize chosen by the audience. Second place is $1,000.
All of the winners will be awarded an affiliate membership in the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator, with support services valued at $5,000 each.
Kress says judges will look for the following when evaluating business concepts:
• a product or service that solves a problem;
• a clearly defined market of potential clients who would be willing to pay for the product or service;
• a clear advantage over competitors;
• demonstrate capacity for the team to bring the product or service to market;
• show how the venture will be profitable; and
• in the Fluor Social Impact category, how the venture will address a social and/or environmental problem.
Each year The Proving Ground has attracted students from a greater variety of disciplines, ranging from business, engineering and the sciences to media arts and the social sciences.
The competition’s real impact is in the entrepreneurs it has produced. Some have launched businesses straight out of the competition while others pursued different opportunities than the concept they entered.
“Marty Bauer, the winner of our first competition in 2010, has launched RidePost, a national ride-sharing service, and he’s a key principal in Iron Yard Accelerator in the Upstate,” Kress says. “Jocelyn Pearson entered the competition in 2012 with a concept for an application for use by personal trainers. Deciding that the market was too crowded, she instead founded The Scholarship System, with a mission to help every student fund their college expenses. And, two of our winners from last year – Tradeversity and Project Opera Camp – hit the market and are doing great!”
The 2015 competition is presented by the university’s Faber Entrepreneurship Center and the Office of Economic Engagement and EngenuitySC.
Bill Kirkland, executive director of the Office of Economic Engagement, says The Proving Ground reflects a student entrepreneurial spirit that is abounding at the university.
“The Proving Ground is a great way for students to get experience pitching their ideas as workable concept. It has done a fabulous job fostering a spirit of entrepreneurship and boldness among students, characteristics that will serve them well in the business world and beyond,” Kirkland says.
The Proving Ground 2015 partners
SCRA Technology Ventures
USC/Columbia Technology Incubator
Palo Alto Software