“Pickle” Wins the 2023 Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition

| May 9, 2023

At the 13th annual MEPC, the team’s vision for automating the brand deal pipeline for influencer marketing wins the $50,000 grand prize

Ian Brash, Nick Hensel and Devin Martin of Pickel (Photo/Courtesy of Devin Martin)

Ian Brash, Nick Hensel and Devin Martin of Pickle (Photo/Courtesy of Devin Martin)

Social media influencers have increasingly appeared in digital ads on YouTube, Twitch, TikTok and other online platforms as companies look for new ways to reach an ever-fragmenting audience. However, the brands using these influencers have a hard time getting real-time analytics on the effectiveness of a given ad campaign. At present, an influencer often gathers the data themselves and shares it with brands, a time-consuming process. On top of that, influencers have on occasion been known to fudge numbers with Photoshop to try to make them seem more popular than they actually are.

Ad agencies face a similar problem. Like brands, they have a difficult time gathering demographic, gender and other data about who has viewed posts created by the influencers they represent. Again, the agencies often must rely on data analytics supplied by influencers, sometimes little more than a phone screen shot of likes and shares.

Members of the startup Pickle believe they have come up with a solution to this and several other problems experienced by brands and ad agencies using social influencers. Pickle has developed software that automatically analyzes important data, including where users live, their gender and a breakdown of their ages. Additionally, Pickle provides an online platform that allows negotiations among influencers, brands and agencies to take place over their platform instead of email.

“We’ve created a software that automates a lot of time-consuming steps and provides more accurate and transparent data in the process,” said Nick Hensel, Pickle co-founder and a senior majoring in economics.

On Friday, April 28, that vision was good enough for Pickle to win the 13th annual Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition, or MEPC, USC Viterbi’s premier business model competition. Team members also took home the grand prize of $50,000, money that Pickle plans to use to hire software engineers to expedite the development of the their next generation of software.

“MEPC’s value lies in its ability to give students the opportunity to learn how companies operate in the real world and prepare them to go and take that next step in their entrepreneurial journey,” said Hensel, adding that Pickle also won the 2022 New Venture Seed Competition, another prominent USC business model competition.

Sixty-four teams applied to this year’s MEPC with 18 being selected for the competition, which kicked-off in December 2022. Each group received a $250 grant from USC Viterbi’s Office of Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship for customer discovery, including attending conferences and transportation.

The field was whittled down to seven finalists on April 6. Teams competed for $50,000 in cash and $50,000 in free legal and business services offered by DLA Piper: $20,000 for the MEPC champion, $15,000 for second place, $10,000 for third and $5,000 for fourth place.

“MEPC is USC Viterbi’s premier business model competition,” USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos said.

Added Ralph Lin, managing director of the Office of Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship: “The Maseeh Entrepreneurial Prize Competition serves an important role in our innovation ecosystem at USC: it provides an opportunity for our engineer-founders to work with our network of startup mentors to receive real-world feedback, develop skills critical for creating businesses and fundraising, and–perhaps most importantly—learn from their customers how to build products that address challenging problems of our day.”

MEPC was founded in 2010 thanks to a $1 million endowment from entrepreneur Fariborz Maseeh, a renowned expert in the field of micro-electro-mechanical systems who was recently elected to the National Academy of Engineering. To bring more business education to the contest, USC Viterbi partners with the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the USC Marshall School of Business.


MEPC winners
The 2023 MEPC winners include:

2nd Place: Kenko: Dedicated to transforming the physical therapy industry, Kenko’s SaaS platform connects physical therapists and patients to create a more seamless and engaging experience, ultimately improving adherence and outcomes.

3rd Place: OSEM has developed 3D nanotechnology that makes it easier and faster to create tiny particles called nanodrugs to deliver medications to specific parts of the body. This leads to better treatment with fewer side effects compared to traditional therapies.

4th Place: Thumbo: An audience engagement software for sports teams and venues, Thumbo draws large amounts of fan data by enabling all attendees to participate in event-wide contests like Trivia or Cheer through directly syncing their phones to the video-board during breaks in the action.

Other finalists include:

Novamite: A data analytics solution designed for remote sensing applications. Its cutting-edge technology uses the power of graph signal processing to seamlessly combine and enhance images from multiple satellites and terrain sources, unlocking unparalleled insights to help our customers make informed decisions.

Rhoman Aerospace: The maker of machine-vision software that lets drones fly safely and autonomously through any complex airspace.

A Eye: A consumer-facing health diagnostics platform that pairs an easily-accessible retina scan kiosk with artificial intelligence and machine learning analysis software to provide a quick, safe, non-invasive eye scan that enables early detection of diseases including diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, kidney disease, and certain cancers.

Over the past five months, the USC Viterbi student-led MEPC teams worked to perfect their business models, partnered with mentors who guided and advised them. Team members also attended sessions on topics like customer discovery, intellectual property, and pitching to investors. The workshop curriculum was based on the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (“I-Corps”) program that emphasizes the “lean startup model.”

The sessions were led by Denise McKenzie, MEPC lead instructor; Dave Eastman, director of the Viterbi Startup Garage and an MEPC instructor; and instructor Hovig Tchalian, an assistant professor of clinical entrepreneurship at USC Marshall’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial.

Whereas COVID-19 forced last year’s MEPC workshops to take place over Zoom, this year’s sessions all took place in person, greatly benefiting participants, McKenzie said. “This year was so much more dynamic,” she said. “We really engaged with the teams. And I think the students got so much more out of it.”

Eastman said the teams’ willingness to work incessantly on improving their ideas most impressed him.

“Almost all of them refined their target customer profile, and many of them pivoted to a different customer segment and different product offering to meet the new customers’ needs,” said Eastman, who has worked in investment banking, private equity and venture capital during his career.

Tchalian said the diverse background of MEPC participants, instructors and mentors enriched the competition. “MEPC provides an unusual opportunity for teams across different disciplinary areas to come together, work together, and learn from each other,” he said.

MEPC participants said the competition taught them the basics of company building.

“We learned a lot, from defining our business canvas model to honing our presentation skills – all essential skills that every entrepreneur needs to master,” said Johanna Garcia Cardona, Novamite founder and an electrical engineering Ph.D. student at USC Viterbi.  “With the guidance and tools we received, we are now better equipped to continue our entrepreneurial endeavors.”

James Croughan, head of technology at Rhoman Aerospace and a USC Viterbi Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, said he and his teammates gained invaluable insights through the workshops and their interactions with other MEPC participants. “Our products apply to logistics, information gathering, and a broad range of military uses,” he said. “MEPC helped us to determine the unique sets of requirements, costs, and deal-breakers for each of these fields.”

An illustrious history
Over the past decade, MEPC has launched several promising companies. Last year’s champion, Playbook, won with its vision of simplifying the development of augmented and virtual reality. The 2021 MEPC winner, Watershield, created a bio-inspired water barrier, made of silicone-based polymers that adhere to the skin without the use of any chemical irritants, to provide cancer patients with a more comfortable, infection-proof shower experience.

The 2020 MEPC winner, GrayMatter Robotics, uses AI to create smart and rapidly deployable robotic assistants to automate high mix manufacturing tasks, improving quality of life for industrial workers, and increasing productivity. The 2019 victor, AIRBOND, now called Apogee Composites, designs a cheaper, more efficient way to produce carbon fiber composite materials for the aviation and other industries.

AesculaTech, the 2016 runner-up, develops and manufactures a platform of temperature-responsive smart materials for use in medical devices, including the treatment of dry eye. After MEPC, AesculaTech received an invitation from Y Combinator, the famed Bay Area business incubator.

Second Spectrum, the 2013 winner, analyzes big data for insights into sports performance, such as what constitutes good defense and offense in basketball. Currently, NBA teams receive Second Spectrum optical tracking data, which powers next-generation analytics.

Veronica Falzone, co-founder of Thumbo and a USC MBA student, said she and her teammates were thrilled to participate in MEPC.

“We gained so much by being a part of a community of entrepreneurial instructors, executives, venture capitalists, as well as like-minded founders,” she said.


Published on May 9th, 2023

Last updated on May 17th, 2023

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