The Proving Ground returns, prize money soars beyond $80,000

September 8, 2014

COLUMBIA, SC – Startup spirit is soaring at the University of South Carolina, as is the prize money for The Proving Ground, its startup competition. Finalists in the 2014 competition will vie for $83,000 in cash prizes and startup support.

Held each fall, the Proving Ground is among the top collegiate business plan competitions in the U.S. for prizes and startup support, up from $50,000 last year. The competition was launched in 2010 with a total prize package of $3,000.

As a result of the growing interest and additional sponsor support, The Proving Ground 2014 competition will feature new categories, including ones in which faculty, staff and recent alumni (graduates since 2009) can compete as well as undergraduate and graduate students from the university’s eight campuses. Judges will look for ideas – big or small – that are innovative and scalable and that have commercial viability.

“The excitement about The Proving Ground has been remarkable, and we want to involve the entire Carolina community,” says Dean Kress, director of The Proving Ground and associate director of the Faber Entrepreneurship Center at the university’s Darla Moore School of Business. “The quality of startup ideas continues to improve, and the final event has drawn standing room-only crowds who come for the ‘Shark Tank’ fast-paced pitching and the peppering of questions by judges. There’s a lot at stake and the atmosphere is electrifying.”

Participants have until Oct. 17 to submit their business concept. After that, The Proving Ground becomes a three-round, points-based competition that culminates with eight finalists making their big pitch Nov. 18 in a live event before judges and an audience.

The Proving Ground 2014 categories and prizes are as follows:

▪ $20,000 Fluor Innovation Prize for the most innovative business concept that addresses an unmet need or solves an existing problem. Undergraduate students are eligible.

▪ $20,000 Maxient Social Impact Prize for the business plan best able to contribute or solve a social or environmental challenge. Faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students and recent alumni are eligible.

▪ $20,000 Avenir Discovery Prize for the most innovative business concept that addresses an unmet need or solves an existing problem. Faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students and recent alumni are eligible.

▪ $3,000 SCRA Technology Ventures Fan Favorite Prize chosen by the audience.

The winners also 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 Maxient 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. And each year more resources have been made available to help participants prepare their startup ideas, including online, at workshop sessions with entrepreneurs and with Live Plan, business plan software made available for free from sponsor Palo Alto Software.

The 2014 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 has become the embodiment of the student entrepreneurial spirit that is abounding at the university.

“The Proving Ground has done a great job instilling a sense of entrepreneurship and risk-taking among our students. By creating an environment where students can turn their ideas into workable concepts, The Proving Ground is fostering the next generation of business and community leaders,” Kirkland says.


The Proving Ground 2014 partners

Platinum sponsors


Avenir, LLC



Gold sponsors

SCRA Technology Ventures

BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina


Silver sponsors

USC/Columbia Technology Incubator

Palo Alto Software