What are the categories for The Proving Ground?

The 2016 Proving Ground competition will have the Avenir Discovery category and the Maxient Innovation category, and as well as the SCRA Fan Favorite category, in which the winner will be determined by the audience at the finals of the competition. In each category, prizes will be awarded to the winner and the runner-up.

In both the Avenir Discovery and the Maxient Innovation categories, the concepts submitted may be for any business and any industry, ideally addressing an unmet need or solving an existing problem. Do you have an idea for a new app? Do you have an innovative restaurant or retail concept? Do you have a new way to deliver a recognized service? Do you have a product or service to create a market that does not exist today? Any and all of these ideas would be applicable to the Maxient Innovation category or the Avenir Discovery category. The differentiation between these two categories is based on who is eligible to enter.

Avenir Discovery

The Avenir Discovery category is open to University of South Carolina students, undergraduate or graduate, and alumni who graduated in the last five years (since May 2011). This category is supported by Avenir, a consulting and interim management firm specializing in entrepreneurship and new business mentoring.

Maxient Innovation

Entrants in this category must be undergraduate students at the University of South Carolina. Any team that enters must be composed completely of USC undergraduate students. This category is supported by Maxient, creators of Conduct Manager, the number one software used by university conduct offices.

SCRA Fan Favorite

The last category is the Fan Favorite. On the evening of the pitch competition, there will be two finalists in each of the Maxient Innovation, and Avenir Discovery categories. Those finalists will have been determined by judges who reviewed all the plans submitted. The two highest scoring plans which do not make the finals of the first two categories will face off, make their pitches, and the winner will be determined by the audience. This category is supported by South Carolina Research Authority an organization dedicated to enriching and enhancing South Carolina's innovation economy.

What are the awards in each category?

In the Maxient Innovation and the Avenir Discovery categories, the winner will receive $17,500 and the runner-up will receive $5,000. In the SCRA Fan Favorite category, the winner will receive $5,000 and the runner-up will receive $2,500.

Is The Proving Ground looking for any specific types of business ventures?

No. We're looking for any business concept that is innovative, has commercial viability, and has the potential to scale. No idea is too big or small. That said, we encourage teams to pursue ideas that will change the way people live.

What is the review and judging process like?

All submissions must survive a three round elimination process to make it to the prize money:

  • Round 1: A team of experts will review each teams' executive summary to narrow the field down to the top five submissions in each category.
  • Round 2: Seasoned entrepreneurs and business faculty review each business plan and provides a score of up to 100 points. The top two teams for each category proceed.
  • Round 3: Live Pitch Competition & Awards Ceremony. This is a winner take all, Shark Tank style event where finalists pitch their concept in real time to a panel of judges and live audience. This will be held at 6:00 p.m. on November 17 in the W.W Hootie Johnson Performance Hall in the Darla Moore School of Business.

What are the criteria being used to judge submissions?

All submissions will be subject to the following evaluation criteria throughout each round:

  1. Does the product or service solve a real problem for someone? Does the submission demonstrate a clear market need?
  2. Is the target market clearly understood and is it an attractive market? Does the target market want the solution and is willing to pay for it?
  3. Does the entrant (or entrants, in the case of a team), demonstrate a distinctive competence? Does the team provide something novel/special/unique that gives it a competitive advantage?
  4. Does the submission demonstrate how the venture will make money? Is that well-presented in the financial statements?
  5. Would this concept be of interest to an outside investor, e.g., an angel investor?
  6. Can the team effectively develop this company? Team refers not only to actual entrants, but any outside resources, advisors, etc.

Who is eligible to enter?

Here's what you need to know to be eligible.

  • The Avenir Discovery category is open to University of South Carolina students, graduate or undergraduate, and alumni who graduated in the last five years (since May 2011).
  • The Maxient Innovation category is open to undergraduate students at the University of South Carolina. Any team that enters must be composed completely of USC undergraduate students.

Other eligibility rules are:

  • Proposed ventures must be pre-revenue (i.e., not making money)
  • Proposed ventures cannot have raised outside capital (angel, venture capital, or other institutional funds).
  • Students from ALL University of South Carolina campuses may enter.
  • No students who have won one of the major prizes in prior years may enter the competition.
  • All submissions must be entered through the Startup Compete system. Information about what is required in the submission is provided on the Startup Compete site.
  • Entering teams may be composed of one to four members.
  • Individuals or teams may only enter one category
  • All decisions regarding eligibility will be made by the competition committee and those decisions are final.

How do I register my team?

Teams must register through the Startup Compete system before they can submit their documents. The site provides a step-by-step guide for registering and submitting your business plan. You will receive an e-mail confirmation with a link to verify the account. You must register and submit your business plan and all required information by October 28.

Important Dates

September 12 The Proving Ground 2016 officially launches
September 21, 7:00 p.m. Proving Ground information session and idea evaluation,
Service and Leadership Center, the Russell House,
September 28, 7:00 p.m. Proving Ground information session and idea evaluation,
Room 129, Moore School of Business
October 28 Deadline for registration
October 28, 5:00pm Deadline for submission
October 30 - November 3 First round of judging
November 4 - November 10 Second round of judging
November 14 Information session for finalists (required)
November 15 Dress rehearsal (required)
November 17 Finalists pitch competition and awards ceremony
W.W. Hootie Johnson Performance Hall
Darla Moore School of Business

What documents are required to fully submit my venture for consideration?

Each team is required to submit the following:

  • A business plan (document must be typed, 1.5 line spacing, 12 point font, with 1 inch margins). The plan must contain an executive summary that is no longer than two pages. This is very important because the executive summary is evaluated in the first round of judging. The main body of the business plan can be no longer than 15 pages. The plan may contain no more than five pages of supplemental information, e.g., financial statements. It should also include a cover page with the name of the business. The plan should be in Microsoft Word.
  • In addition, teams must provide contact information and answer several questions (e.g., How did you learn about The Proving Ground?) in the application process.

Where do I go to find assistance for creating my business plan?

As an applicant of The Proving Ground, you will have access to LivePlan, Palo Alto Software's award-winning business plan software, for a greatly reduced price. Click here to access the program.

If you do not wish to use LivePlan, there are numerous sources on the internet about writing a business plan. One you might find helpful can be found at the Small Business Administration website,

We will also host information and "idea evaluation" sessions where successful entrepreneurs will interact with Proving Ground applicants (and potential Proving Ground applicants) to provide feedback about the business concepts being entered. One took place on September 21 and and the next is on Septmeber 28 at 7:00 p.m. in room 129 of the Darla Moore School of Business.

In addition, the Small Business Development Center, an organization whose mission is to advance South Carolina's economic development by helping entrepreneurs grow successful businesses, is available to all Proving Ground applicants for consultation and advice. With 17 offices in the state, the SBDC is reach of everyone in South Carolina. To reach the Columbia office, dial (803) 777-5118. For contact information for other offices, go to the SBDC web site.

How do I submit my business plan and documents?

Teams MUST submit their ventures through the Startup Compete system and be a registered team before they can submit.

What if I have other questions?

Contact Dean Kress, Associate Director of the Faber Entrepreneurship Center, at or 803.777.7015.