What is the timeline for The Proving Ground?

The Proving Ground kicks off October 30, 2017, and the finals, the Shark Tank like pitch competition, will be held March 29, 2018. Here are some important dates to be aware of:



October 30, 2017 The Proving Ground officially launches
February 28, 2018 Deadline for submission
March 1, 2018 - March 4, 2018 First round of judging
March 5, 2018 - March 14, 2018 Second round of judging
March 20, 2018 Information session for finalists and practice presentations
TBD Dress rehearsal
March 29, 2018 Finalists pitch competition and awards ceremony
W.W. Hootie Johnson Performance Hall
Darla Moore School of Business

What are the categories for The Proving Ground?

The Proving Ground competition will have three categories:

  • The Avenir Discovery category
  • The Maxient Innovation category
  • The SCRA Fan Favorite category

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 that creates 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 2012). This category is supported by Avenir, a management consulting 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 SCRA Fan Favorite. On the evening of the pitch competition, there will be two finalists 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.

In each category, prizes will be awarded to the winner and the runner-up.

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 (seasoned entrepreneurs, faculty, past Proving Ground winners) will review each teams' submission to narrow the field down to the top five in each category.
  • Round 2: A second set of experts will review each of the five remaining plans in each category. 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 March 29, 2018 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 2012).
  • 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 submit your business plan and all required information by February 28, 2018.

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,

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, Director of the Faber Entrepreneurship Center, at or 803.777.7015.