Reality TV comes to Wharton’s campus
By Louis Greenstein
If you cast it, they will come. They arrived on a muggy Saturday morning in June—Wharton School students and alumni, engineering majors, even an enterprising Wharton-bound high-school senior. They came bearing samples, prototypes, gadgets and props—jars of seafood sauce, high-tech fashion, fishing gear, medical devices, wearable technology, pro-sports-fan merchandise and a bathroom mirror (more on that later). Bold and ambitious, they came to make their one-minute pitches to producers of ABC’s hit reality series Shark Tank, for a chance to face a panel of celebrity CEOs on the show and vie for their investment capital. “We try to find the best entrepreneurs,” said Shark Tank’s supervising casting producer, Scott Salyers. “Which means we go where the best entrepreneurs come from, and obviously, Wharton has produced some of the best.”
Standing Out From the Crowd
About 100 hopeful contestants comprising some 50 teams paced the floor in Huntsman Hall, clutching laptops and legal waivers, nibbling on complimentary ahi tuna and shark-fin cupcakes. Some wore suits; others opted for business casual. A few wore shorts and flip-flops, or less.
The biggest prop of the day belonged to Ron Shiflett WG82, who needed two assistants to lug a kayak into the audition. The entrepreneur and sportsman came to present his invention, which, like many of the day’s innovations, was conceived over beers with friends: Part kayak paddle, part fishing rod, the “Fishing Paddle” makes the growing sport of kayak fishing easier and safer, simplifying time in the water.
About that bathroom mirror: It’s not your standard-issue fixture, but a “smart mirror” from Perseus, a Philadelphia-based startup founded by Erik Skantze WG17, Nikhil Srivastava WG17 and Antina Lee WG17—Wharton MBA students in the entrepreneurial management program. The device works like a tablet, with apps for email, news, video and a camera, enabling users to groom themselves while checking the weather, messages, traffic or maybe a how-to makeup video. Like most of the VC pitchers, said Skantze, the trio came to talk about their product, their team and their vision. “But for Shark Tank,” he added, “we wanted to stand out from the crowd.” The trio accomplished that by wearing matching tees with backward, mirror-ready lettering that read THIS IS MY SELFIE SHIRT.
While waiting for his audition, Danish Dhamani gushed about his product, the “BACelet,” a wearable Breathalyzer bracelet currently in the beta stage. The wristband, co-developed with Wharton rising junior Anders Larson and Penn rising sophomore Max Reed (neither of whom could make the auditions), uses a next-generation electrochemical fuel cell sensor that delivers accurate measurements of blood-alcohol level as a user imbibes. Put the BACelet on, start your drinking, and watch as the band’s color starts to change. “Green means no sign of alcohol,” said Dhamani, a teetotaler and Drexel University engineering major, describing how he reverse-engineered a traditional Breathalyzer after watching his friends get drunk. “If you drink too much,” he explained, “you black out and don’t have a good time. Yellow indicates small traces, or that you’re buzzed. Orange is tipsy. And red? No more. Colors have an emotional appeal.”
The audition room was off-limits to the press, but joining two Shark Tank producers on the panel inside was Laura Huang, an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at Wharton who was enthusiastic about the presentations. Noting that a few contestants were former students of hers, she said the ideas on parade were similar to what she sees in her classes, perhaps turned up a notch: “The producers wanted a sense of personality. Shark Tank is looking for things that are good for TV, but they want an element of authenticity. It’s similar to what investors who aren’t on Shark Tank are looking for.”
Beer, Bras and Beta Testing
The conference hall outside the audition room was alive with nervous energy as presenters rehearsed their pitches and stretched. Adding to the pressure for Wharton rising freshman Andrew Howard and his high-school classmate, Jason Wei: Immediately after their pitch, the two had to race back to northern Virginia so they wouldn’t miss their prom. From relationship recovery advice (Renee Mazer W85) to a startup called “Your Breast Self” (Marissa Hastings W12) that sells intimate apparel for small-chested women, the auditions showcased the Wharton community’s range and ingenuity.
Some of the contestants’ concepts are in development; some are in beta, while others are on the market and looking to increase their share. Wharton MBA student Shashwata Narain and Engineering and Applied Science graduate student Alexander David presented their company, Fermento, which has developed a microfluidic fabrication technology that speeds up the beer-making process. Major brewers are currently using Fermento, winner of Penn Engineering’s 2015–16 Y-Prize.
Romario Wallace heard about the event through a tip from a Wharton insider—his mother, Lucille Wallace WEV98. The Villanova University engineering grad, veteran and married father signed up to pitch his product, Accrue, an app that helps create savings plans. With one venture capitalist secured and the app currently in development, Wallace, who hopes a Shark Tank deal will enable him to build a working model, described the audition as “great fun” and “the elevator pitch of all elevator pitches.”
Most contestants walked out of the event feeling good about the process. According to Salyers, their success is about much more than a sound business plan. “The biggest mistake an entrepreneur makes when pitching for Shark Tank is relying on numbers and their product and not so much on who they are as an entrepreneur,” he said. “The sharks invest in the person just as much as they do the business.”
The producers told contestants they’d find out if they were moving on to the next stage of auditions in two weeks. After that, said Salyers, come “numerous steps, including background checks, business checks, video submissions, more paperwork— all of which can last several months.” Which of the contestants will move on and which—if any—ultimately wind up on TV is strictly confidential until the show airs. Asked to assess Wharton’s Shark Tank auditions overall, Salyers said, “We were very impressed with the pitches we saw and hope to see some of them on the show.”
After his pitch, BACelet’s Dhamani, sporting a wide-brimmed baseball cap and outsized glasses, was optimistic. “When you get smiles from the judges,” he said, “it’s the most relieving feeling.”
Published as “Shark Attack” in the Fall 2016 issue of Wharton Magazine.