After nine seasons on ABC, “Shark Tank” finally visited Pittsburgh this week for an open casting call at Rivers Casino. Long lines of entrepreneurs waited their turn, hoping to get on TV and get funding for their businesses.
It’s a long shot. In each season, only 90 to 100 people — out of 40,000 applicants — get to pitch to the sharks. But for those who do and get funded, it’s often life-changing.
Excitement permeated the room as participants were ushered from one area to the next, first in a line to get wristbands to indicate their session with the casting crew; then upstairs into the holding tank. There, Supervising Casting Producer, Mindy Zemrak, took five minutes to explain how she and her four-member casting crew would interact with each participant during their one-minute pitch.
As they filed upstairs, most participants were carrying small props, products or poster boards — portable versions of what you’d see on the “Shark Tank” television show. A few with larger props had to take the elevator up to the holding room.
“This is an ongoing vetting process until you get cut,” Zemrak announced. “We might fly you to LA, and you still might not get in front of the sharks; and if you do, your segment may still not air.”
While the participants were stoked to be there, many were not aware of local opportunities to obtain funding through the early investor and economic development network in Pittsburgh.
Neil Cameron from Celios brought his product that mimics the human lung to “take everything that kills you out of the air.” When I asked if he has received or even asked for funding from local resources such as Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse or Innovation Works, he was unfamiliar with these organizations. Yet he has raised $1.6 million from friends and family before joining the line of hopefuls in Pittsburgh to pitch on “Shark Tank.”
“Shark Tank brings entrepreneurship into everyone’s living room,” Terri Glueck of Innovation Works told me after the event. “It turns the entrepreneur into a hero and raises the profile of entrepreneurship and its journey.”
Some of the participants needed to journey to Pittsburgh to pitch. Maureen Lehman came from nearby Cleveland to pitch her business, Spoon Blossoms. Carlos Segarra Jr. flew in from Oakland, California to pitch his sharable water bottles concept that is less prone to share germs than standard water bottles.
So why did it take 10 years for “Shark Tank” to hold its first casting call in Pittsburgh? Zenrak didn’t answer directly — but said Pittsburgh is one of the show’s top 25 markets. She also said that the response has been good for this casting call, with the number of people getting wristbands in the same 300-400 range as they get in bigger cities, like Dallas.
Once the casting crew collects the information and makes their notes about the people who they interview at the Casino, Zemrak’s staff turns the decision making over to the producers from “Shark Tank,” ABC and Sony — a group of about a dozen people — to make the cuts. Those who make it will hear from the producers. Those who don’t hear within three weeks will not receive any communications.
That’s when it’s good to be an entrepreneur in Pittsburgh with a good idea — because we have plenty of places to turn for investor dollars. “The universities and the legal people around town all know where to send budding entrepreneurs,” added Glueck, “Whether it’s to a local investor or others in the local economic development network.”