Congratulations to the 2014 winners of The Proving Ground

     Fluor Innovation Category              Tradeversity
     Maxient Social Impact Category     Project Opera Camp
     Avenir Discovery Category             Out of Stock Rx
     Fan Favorite Category                    Utrack

By Peggy Binette

Mike Meyers’ college backpack means more to him than simply toting textbooks and technology. For the University of South Carolina senior it’s the driving force behind a startup that earned him a $20,000 prize Tuesday (Nov. 18) in The Proving Ground, the university’s entrepreneurial competition.

“I had a few backpacks I wanted to sell,” Meyer says. “eBay was too expensive, Craigslist was too risky, and my Facebook posts got lost in news feeds. By early September, I was out of gas money. That’s when it hit me. There should be an exclusive, free, online marketplace for selling items safely that only requires an active .edu account.”

And Tradeversity was born.

Meyers, a marketing and risk and insurance major from Leesburg, Va., crafted the concept with his brother Evan, a student at Virginia Tech, and friend Alex Sands, a Wharton business student at the University of Pennsylvania. The team won a coveted spot in the USC Columbia Technology Incubator last spring in a pitch competition.

“This is surreal. It’s exciting to see people using our product to solve a problem,” says Meyers, who won The Proving Ground’s Fluor Innovation Prize and graduates in December.

Two finalists competing in other categories also won $20,000 for their business ideas.

Zachary Mercer, a pharmacy and PMBA student from Columbia, captured the Avenir Discovery Prize for his concept Out of Stock Rx. Mercer’s business creates an online marketplace for facilities that outsource medication to sell out of stock drugs to hospitals.

Mercer said there are currently 100 products on the USDA drug shortage list. Using his prize money for web development and marketing, he hopes to reach his goal of working with 200 hospitals the first year.

Kathleen McKinney and Brenton O’Hara hit a high note by winning the Maxient Social Impact Prize for their startup Project Opera Camp, a non-profit that aims at improving the lives of youth in underserved communities.

McKinney, a 2014 vocal performance graduate from Denver, Colo., and O’Hara, a graduate student in vocal performance from Pinehurst, N.C., called the after-school and summer camp program a low-cost, high-reward venture. Unlike other music programs that involve the purchase or rental of instruments, Project Opera Camp has few costs but benefits teens by building teamwork and confidence.

A team of four business and engineering majors were chosen by the audience as the winner of the $3,000 SCRA Technology Venture Fan Favorite. Their startup, called UTrack, is an online application that organizes and automatically updates class schedules, organizational meetings and community events for college students.

The UTrack team, comprising juniors Patrick Moore of York, S.C., Stefano Montali from Fort Lauderdale, Fla, and Jonathan Rice of Richmond, Va., and senior Jonathan Peterson of Charlotte, plans to use their prize money to pursue a product launch at Carolina.

Dean Kress, associate director of the Moore School’s Faber Entrepreneurship Center, says The Proving Ground has helped ignite a startup culture on campus that continues to grow.

“It’s amazing really. In five years we’ve seen this competition grow from $3,000 to $83,000 in prize money and startup support and the quality of the concepts and final presentations get better and better,” says Kress, who hopes to encourage more recent graduates to compete next year.

Iron Yard Accelerator CEO Peter Barth was a first-time judge for The Proving Ground this year.

“I was impressed. It was a strong group of companies who had good thoughts on how to tackle their business markets,” says Barth. “For those thinking about entering next year, try to start early by talking with potential customers about what they would be willing to pay for a product or service.”

Also serving as judges were Aaron and Candice Hark, founders of Maxient and the competition’s longest standing sponsor; Todd Lewis, executive director of IT-ology; and Jocelyn Paonita, a 2012 graduate and executive with Siemens, who helped Kress establish the competition in 2009.

Kress says they will be looking for more sponsors, more applicants and a bigger venue for The Proving Ground 2015. This year’s event filled the 250-seat auditorium in the Moore School. Among those attending were more than a dozen students each from the Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics in Hartsville, S.C., and Lower Richland High School as part of an STEM program with EngenuitySC.

Presenting sponsors this year include the Moore School’s Faber Entrepreneurship Center, EngenuitySC and the university’s Office of Economic Engagement. Partners included:Maxinet, Avenir, LLC and Fluor (Platinum);  SCRA Technology Ventures and BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina (Gold); and the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator, Palo Alto Software, Courtyard Marriott Columbia and Columbia Business Monthly (Silver).