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“Shark Tank” gives would-be entrepreneurs a practice pitch

Desmond Williams presenting to the judges

Getting to present a business proposition to a panel of venture capitalists who are pros at giving away money is a huge chance for any entrepreneur. For students at USF, a practice run at selling themselves and their budding brands gave them insights for when they eventually seek start-up funds.

Like the popular show "Shark Tank," USF's first event of the same name on Jan. 21 gave students the chance to get their business ideas in front of professionals who invest money in promising ventures. Unlike the show, this Shark Tank had the goal of mentoring students instead of funding their projects. The panel included venture capitalists and CEOs from across the nation: Kanwal Rekhi, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur from Silicon Valley; Alan Bridges, president and CEO of Got-RacK.com; Ron Laker, CEO of Next Century Studios; KC Poulin, president and CEO of critical intervention services; David Eason, CEO of Pario Solutions, Inc.; and Steve Johnson, CEO of AirHeads Trampoline Arena.

The event was put together by the new Student Innovation Incubator on USF's campus, a joint venture of the Center for Entrepreneurship and USF Connect. The Center for Entrepreneurship is part of the USF College of Business, in collaboration with the USF College of Engineering, USF Health, and the Patel School of Global Sustainability.

Michael Fountain, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship, said this event was one example of the types of services the incubator will offer to student entrepreneurs.

"This event is a perfect example of what we hoped the USF Student Innovation Incubator would be able to do – help our students take their business ideas from concept to reality," Fountain said. "The mentors who work with us, such as those on the Shark Tank panel from the Tampa CEO Council and the Indus Entrepreneurs Organization, are helping students launch and grow businesses that can survive and thrive outside of the incubator. The partnerships established with the business leaders from these and other professional organizations provide a vital bridge for student entrepreneurs from the world of academic studies to the real world of business."

"It's invaluable because you get feedback from proven practitioners," said Desmond Williams, a student in the entrepreneurship graduate program who co-founded the incubator. "That's exactly what we need. These guys are what we want to be."

Williams presented his startup, AquaMelon Water, to the judges, giving them samples of his product: flavored water extracted from watermelons. He said he was looking for a $30,000 investment to allow his company to produce 2,000 gallons per month.

The judges panel

The judges loved the water, but had some constructive criticism and questions: how many calories are in the possible coconut water competitor? What's the shelf life of this perishable product? How many gallons can be produced per day now?

Student entrepreneurs from all disciplines presented their ideas: undergraduate engineering students pitched a FindMyClass app; medical and IT students hawked a grocery store for low-income families; undergraduate economics and engineering students created a mobile textbook swap/sales app; a sustainability graduate student presented an idea for an international marketplace selling the wares of indigenous people; a graduate business student pitched an app to make school pickup time easier for parents; and an entrepreneurship student explained architectural scale study models.

Got-Rack CEO Bridges said he was thrilled to be able to give students this feedback before they start asking for real investments.

"What we're trying to do is get involved with the students at a much earlier stage," he said. "Speaking is nerve-wracking. The more you practice your presentation, the smoother it will come off."