Logo: University of Southern California

MEPC Heats Up

Seven teams advance to the finals in this $110,000 business plan competition for USC Viterbi students and their collaborators.
By: Marc Ballon
March 20, 2014 —

ComfortCorrect CEO John Pham during the MEPC presentation.
USC Viterbi School of Engineering senior Reese Mozer hopes to revolutionize the way farmers monitor and care for their crops.

Standing before a panel of judges during the March 11 semifinal round of the fifth annual Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition, he shared his vision.

Whereas farmers currently often use manned aircraft or satellites to identify nutrient deficiencies, insect infestation and disease in their fields, Mozer and his American Robotics Inc. team members believe they have come up with a less costly and more effective solution. American Robotics has developed Ceres I, an unmanned aerial vehicle that produces high-resolution, geo-referenced images at a fraction of the price of existing methods. Such cost savings, Mozer said, would allow farmers to increase surveillance and detect problems earlier, thus increasing crop yields.

“Unmanned aerial vehicles are the wave of the future,” he said, “and American Robotics plans to lead the way.”

Mozer’s pitch resonated with judges. American Robotics was one of seven burgeoning startups chosen to advance to the MEPC finals, which will take place April 11. The winning teams will be announced April 23 at the annual Viterbi Awards.

Thirty teams initially entered the business plan competition, which was whittled down to 15 semifinalists and then the finalists. Over six months, teams perfect their plan and work with mentors on every aspect of their business ranging from product development to marketing to finance.

“MEPC plays an important role in teaching our engineers how to take their innovative ideas out of the university and into the marketplace,” said USC Viterbi Professor Peter Beerel, who oversees the MEPC event. “We help them become founders of the next generation-set of companies that will help move our economy forward and solve some of the very difficult challenges our nation faces.”

Past MEPC winners include Abtum Inc., which is developing a programmable, integrated wide-band transceiver chip; ClariTrac, which recently won a $200,000 small business grant and wants to improve ultrasound-guided breast biopsies by attaching a tiny light to the end of a biopsy needle. Last year’s winner, Second Spectrum, analyzes Big Data for insights into sport performance.

American Robotics faces some tough competition in vying for this year’s $50,000 grand prize and five other awards totaling $60,000 in cash and services.

During the March 11 semifinal, for instance, the presentation of ComfortCorrect CEO John Pham so excited one of the judges that he thrust a business card into his hand. “Call me,” the judge said.

ComfortCorrect claims to offer a superior option for orthodontic treatment because of its groundbreaking programmable memory wire technology, developed by its team of engineers and dentists that includes USC Viterbi professors Behrokh Khoshnevis and Yong Chen and USC Ostrow School of Dentistry professor Hongsheng Tong.

“ComfortCorrect will deliver the effectiveness of conventional braces, the aesthetics of behind-the-teeth braces, the comfort and ease of use of Invisalign, all at an affordable price,” according to the company’s business plan.

The startup has already distinguished itself. In 2012, ComfortCorrect won a $100,000 USC Ideas Empowered Program Grant from the USC Stevens Center for Innovation. A year later, it won $125,000 from the USC Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program, along with $25,000 from the Alfred E. Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering.

ComfortCorrect’s Pham said he felt great pride in making it to the MEPC finals, which, he said, features a number of innovative teams.

“I’m very excited,” said Pham, a USC Ostrow School of Dentistry resident. “This is more validation that we’re on to something special.”

The other MEPC finalists include the following:

InDepth, which has invented a “stud-finder” for arteries that allows doctors to place central lines safely and rapidly during critical care of neonatal patients.

Pelvice, which has a patent pending medical device that the company says will revolutionize the standard of care for acute pelvic trauma recovery and for people with chronic pelvic conditions.

Solid Dreams, a 3-D printer manufacturer with a patented technology that can allow metals, plastics and ceramics to be printed with very little effort.

TalentTrail, which provides a matching service for on-campus recruiters and student job seekers.

VisionFab Technologies, a 3-D printing company providing fast high-resolution printing at a relatively low cost.

Said Fariborz Maseeh, who started MEPC with a $1 million endowment, “This competition has surpassed my expectations.”