Startups competition comes down to the final two

An app for pet lovers and a personalized math tutor platform will vie for the grand prize at this month’s Viterbi Awards

April 11, 2016 Marc Ballon

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 Sham M.S. ’13 believes there’s a better way.

The PhD candidate in petroleum engineering at the USC Viterbi School of 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, uploading 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.

Going for the grand prize

Shams and the NoseKnows team presented their vision at the sixth annual Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition (MEPC) finals held April 4 near USC. The contest selected NoseKnows as one of the two teams that will compete for the $50,000 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 to vie for the grand prize. The budding business hopes to “reinvent” math education for students in grades 5-12 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.”

When completed, Mathemagician will go for $10 per month.

Top business model

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.

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.

The quality of the teams gets better and better every year.

Fariborz Maseeh

MEPC, along with the new Min Family Engineering Social Entrepreneurship ChallengeHTE@USC and the National Science Foundation-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 C. Yortsos.

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.