Logo: University of Southern California

And Then There Were Two

The MEPC business model contest is down to the final two startups, with $50,000 at stake.
By: Marc Ballon
April 06, 2016 —

Members of the NoseKnows team include (left to right) Preetam P. Shingav, Kunal Parakh, CEO Mehdi Shams, Negar Hariri and Carlie Carpio, with USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos. (Photo: Maita Schuster)
Every year, millions of pets get lost and end up in animal shelters. An estimated 60 percent never reunite with their families; many are euthanized, a tragedy for all involved.

Unfortunately, irresponsible owners sometimes fail to tag their dogs. Even those who do aren’t guaranteed a happy outcome; wear and tear often rub out phone numbers and addresses on tags. Similarly, some owners opt not to have microchips embedded in their pets because of their invasiveness and worries about long-term health effects.

Mehdi Shams, M.S. C.E. ’13, believes there is a better way.

The USC Viterbi Ph.D. candidate in petroleum engineering heads a new startup called NoseKnows, which aims to make it far easier to recover runaway dogs and other pets.

As envisioned, pet lovers would purchase the NoseKnows app and upload a picture of their pets’ noses to the database. Because animal snouts, like human fingerprints, have unique and recognizable patterns, they are ideal for identification purposes. So if a pet went missing, nearby NoseKnows members would be asked to be on the lookout and to take pictures of any seemingly lost animal. The NoseKnows database could then quickly make a nose-based match and text the distraught owner that their pet has been found.

Shams and the NoseKnows team presented their vision at the 6th annual Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition (MEPC) finals held Monday, April 4 before a rapt audience at the Radisson Hotel near USC. The contest selected NoseKnows as one of the two teams that will compete for the $50,000 MEPC grand prize, along with $20,000 in free legal services, at the 38th annual Viterbi Awards on April 20.

“When you see all of your efforts over a long period of time get appreciated, it’s a really, really good feeling,” Mehdi said.

Judges also named Mathemagician as the other team that will vie for the MEPC grand prize. The budding business hopes to “reinvent” math education for fifth to twelfth graders by offering a touch-enabled platform that would act as a “personalized math tutor,” said CEO John Li, a USC physics doctoral student.

“Homework is hard. That’s why we don’t think any child should work alone,” he said. “We’re as good as a human tutor but without the cost.”

Mathemagician Chief Technology Officer Zizhe Ma and CEO John Li 
When completed, Mathemagician will go for $10 per month.

MEPC, founded in 2010 with a $1 million endowment from entrepreneur Fariborz Maseeh, has become one of the university’s premier business model competitions for USC Viterbi and other students, faculty and other would-be business builders.

At stake is $100,000 in prize money and legal services.

The competition has spawned several promising companies. The 2015 winner, BIRS, leverages proprietary eye-tracking software for a quick and objective concussion assessment. The 2014 victor, ComfortCorrect, makes affordable braces that incorporate programmable memory wire technology. Second Spectrum, the 2013 champion, analyzes Big Data for insights into sport performance, such as what constitutes good defense and offense in basketball. The firm counts the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics among its many NBA clients.

MEPC, along with the new Min Family Engineering Social Entrepreneurship ChallengeHTE@USC and the NSF-sponsored I-Corps Node, is part of USC Viterbi’s growing strength in high-tech entrepreneurship.

“Here at USC, we want to grow this innovative ecosystem in a place I call SCilicon Beach,” said USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos. “That’s with an SC.”

In recent years, the USC Marshall School of Business has partnered with the engineering school to bring more business education and MBA participants to the MEPC contest.

“The quality of the teams gets better and better every year,” Maseeh said.

For the second consecutive year, each participating team received $2,500 from the National Science Foundation to canvass potential customers around the country to learn their problems and how they might address them. The NSF dispensed the money to USC through an I-Corps site award.

“We are seeing more companies pivoting based on the feedback,” said Peter Beerel, MEPC program director and USC Viterbi associate professor. “Going out and talking to potential customers is really paying off.”

Over the past six months, the budding entrepreneurs attended startup workshops about customer discovery, intellectual property, writing a business summary and other topics to sharpen their entrepreneurial skills.

“The progress that these teams have made from simply being a good engineering idea to becoming a workable business model is simply incredibly,” said Greg Autry, MEPC education coordinator and a USC Marshall School professor.

Sixteen teams won spots in MEPC. Several rounds of competition whittled the field to 10, then six and now two.

Other winner’s at the April 4 MEPC event include:

Third Place
EverDry – A phone app that helps children unable to control their bladders to prevent accidents by modifying their behavior, including restroom reminders.

Fourth Place
Botkins – A low-cost, pet-like robot and interactive gaming app that blends the virtual and physical worlds in an educational, playful and socially engaging way.