Every year in the United States, 1.2 million immigrants take their first step toward citizenship and file for a Green Card. The process, though, can be very confusing.

Sam Stoddard found this out the hard way, and decided to invent an easier process. Stoddard is the brain behind SimpleCitizen, the startup student company out of Brigham Young University that won the $40,000 grand prize at Saturday’s Utah Entrepreneur Challenge at the University of Utah. SimpleCitizen is an online service, similar to TurboTax, that walks users through the Green Card application process.

About a year ago, Stoddard married Ally Yoon, who is originally from South Korea. Shortly after their wedding, they started the process of getting a Green Card for Yoon. They found there were basically two options: Do it themselves, or pay a lawyer a lot of money to do it for them.

Stoddard was halfway through his master’s degree in accounting and figured he was familiar enough with government forms to do it on his own. He researched the process and worked on it for two months. In confusion and frustration, he gave up and turned to Google for help.

“I assumed that if TurboTax can condense mountains of tax law into a few easy questions, something similar must exist for Green Cards,” Stoddard said. After hours of searching, he realized his assumption was wrong. There were no online services to aid him in the process.

After six months of work, and $500 spent on a lawyer who just glanced at the packet and commended them for a job well done, Stoddard realized the whole process was so much harder than it needed to be.

“Ally isn't a criminal; she hasn't snuck into the country on a boat. In fact, she’s lived here for the past seven years,” Stoddard said. “I thought there had to be a better way.”

Thus, with the help of his nephew, Brady Stoddard, a company was born. They created an online service that asks users questions about themselves, then populates the Green Card application fields with those answers.

“Winning the $40,000 is critical to helping us reach our first milestone of launching our website by this summer,” said Sam Stoddard. “We hope the launch will bring immigrant communities together and help make the American dream more accessible to those who want to live in the United States.”

SimpleCitizen was just one of 20 innovative startup companies competing at the Utah Entrepreneur Challenge, with business ideas ranging from medical devices and aluminum skateboard decks to hydroponic farming and child-safety devices.

KiLife Tech, another BYU entry, won more than $10,000 in awards, including best presentation, best video, best speed pitch and best product. KiLife builds a wearable device for children that allows parents to track them in crowded places through a smartphone.

Align Skate Decks, invented by a team out of Utah State University, also garnered more than $6,000 in awards for their invention of an aluminum skate deck that is more durable than its wooden counterpart.

“It is so fun to see the broad range of exciting ideas,” said Dane Money, the co-chair of the Utah Entrepreneur Series and a business student at the University of Utah. “Student entrepreneurs have a contagious excitement.”

Sam Stoddard agreed.

"The UEC was a fantastic opportunity and learning experience. Being recognized like this out of such an amazing group of entrepreneurs and teams was a real honor,” he said. “The best part of being an entrepreneur is surrounding yourself with incredibly passionate and smart people. Brady and I have felt very lucky to be a part of the incredible community of entrepreneurs in Utah.”

The University of Utah is currently ranked second in the nation for cash awarded to student entrepreneurs, according to the Princeton Review and Entrepreneur Magazine. Last year, the University of Utah provided $744,550 in prizes to student entrepreneurs.

“The prize money provided by Zions Bank and our other sponsors is critical to the development of new student businesses,” said Troy D’Ambrosio, executive director of the Lassonde Institute, a division of the David Eccles School of Business.

The Utah Entrepreneur Challenge is the final event in a student-run series of competitions called the Utah Entrepreneur Series. The series began with Innovation Tournaments in the fall, followed by Opportunity Quest competitions at universities across the state. For more information about the Utah Entrepreneur Series, go to ues.utah.edu. Learn more about student entrepreneurship at the University of Utah at lassonde.utah.edu.

Karissa Neely reports on Business & Community events, and can be reached at 801-344-2537 or kneely@heraldextra.com