Don’t Call It ‘Shark Tank’: Competing for Capital on ‘The Pitch’

Fans of “The Pitch” podcast from Gimlet Media, a digital media company and podcast network, are familiar with its spiel to win over listeners: It’s where “real entrepreneurs pitch to real investors — for real money.” Just don’t call it the “Shark Tank” for podcast listeners.

Silicon Valley venture capitalist and philanthropist Jillian Manus, a regular judge on “The Pitch,” which Fortune recently called “the best business podcast on startup life,” has said that she instead aspires for it to be “the antithesis” of “Shark Tank,” the hit ABC TV show where high-profile investors such as Mark Cuban hear startup pitches and choose whether or not to invest. Living up to its name, “Shark Tank” investors put entrepreneurs in the hot seat and are sometimes downright disrespectful to the show’s expectant entrepreneurs.

“The Pitch” approaches the startup capital-raising game with a kinder and more instructional approach, often bringing listeners a behind-the-scenes look at a new startup pitch each week, along with follow-up episodes that provide updates on entrepreneurs’ experiences after their big moment in the investor spotlight.

The latest episode of “The Pitch” that dropped on Dec. 12 features a “Philly Pitch-off” that took place at Wharton’s Huntsman Hall two weeks earlier. Three promising Philadelphia startups — including one led by a University of Pennsylvania undergrad — pitched their business ideas in front of judges Manus and investor Phil Nadel of Forefront Venture Partners. Audience members got a firsthand look at what goes into VC funding. Manus readied the crowd for the impending pitches by saying, “In any investor meeting, the first question we ask ourselves when someone pitches to us is … do we know 1,000 people who would use this product, or do we know three companies where this product would either advance their brand or solve their problem?”

The event, which took place in front of a live audience, combined Penn-Wharton pride (Nadel is a 1988 Wharton grad, his son recently graduated from Penn, and Manus’s niece is a Wharton undergrad) with entrepreneurial spirit and investor insight — all against a backdrop of Philadelphia’s burgeoning business-incubator landscape.

“Rezzio helps students become career-ready through a skills-development platform.” –Jessica Sarkisian

“The ecosystem here at Penn and more broadly in Philadelphia is a really exciting place to be working in entrepreneurship,” said Wharton management professor Ethan Mollick, who introduced the evening’s show as a member of the Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship faculty. “One fun fact is that last year Penn alumni raised more venture capital money than everybody in the nations of France and Germany put together.”

And with that, Mollick welcomed show host Josh Muccio, who got down to the business of podcasting. “Tonight, we have something really special,” Muccio said. “Entrepreneurs from Philadelphia are going to pitch to two of our investors on the show. These entrepreneurs are really early in their startup journey, so a lot is at stake here. The winner will have the chance to pitch at a future taping of the show, which means a chance at raising millions from our panel of investors on the show. Let’s get started.”

Here, in the order that they presented, are the three startup pitches. Which would you choose? Find out the winner at the end of the article.

Pitch 1: Rezzio

“I want everyone in the room to think of a time when you were an undergraduate, whether that’s today or 20 years ago,” said Jessica Sarkisian, a 2015 graduate of Drexel University and CEO and founder of Rezzio, an online platform that helps students meet their career goals through skills identification and pathway creation. “You had a plan, right? It was to graduate from the university or take a job, do a gap year or start your own business. Who’s helping you with that plan? Today, career-service departments’ national average is one career adviser managing 3,000 students. They are unable to give personal advice to every student that they manage.”

“Rezzio helps students become career-ready through a skills-development platform. The way it works: the student signs onto Rezzio. They set their goals as to what they want to do — go into the Army, start their own company, go into corporate America — and we tell them what they need to do in order to accomplish that goal, whether that’s internships, finding a mentor or whatever. Rezzio supports the student through the process and helps the career-service adviser manage the surplus of students they have.”

Pitch 2: Swirl

“Employee turnover is a $160-billion problem,” noted Munir Pathak, a Philadelphia-based entrepreneur who is founder and CEO of Swirl, an app that helps employees diversify their personal networks and is currently distributed through Slack, a cloud-based collaboration hub for companies. “CEOs are grappling with this. They realize they need to successfully attract and retain diverse talent in order to compete in today’s market. Diverse and inclusive organizations are two times more likely to meet or exceed their financial targets, six times more likely to be innovative and agile, and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes.”

“How does a company become more inclusive? The answer lies in relationships between people. That’s where Swirl comes in. Swirl companies build inclusive culture to improve recruitment, retention, innovation and financial performance. Companies who use Swirl grow inclusion by helping their employees build relationships across differences with their colleagues.”

“With the Swirl app, each employee creates their profile by answering questions about their identity and their interests, and Swirl matches and introduces them to a new colleague every other week based on their similarities and their differences. With our content and coaching, each employee becomes better at building relationships naturally over time. By building their personal network with the Swirl app, they’re able to develop a new sense of community and belonging at work.”

“Swirl companies build inclusive culture to improve recruitment, retention, innovation and financial performance.” –Munir Pathak

Pitch 3: Strella Biotech

“I would like to start my pitch by asking everyone in this room a question,” said Katherine Sizov, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of Strella Biotechnology, a startup committed to optimizing the food supply chain. “How old do you think an apple in a grocery store is? An older apple in a grocery store can be eight months to a year old.”

“The reason that fruits are so old is because they’re stored for a really long time in packing facilities. A typical packing facility contains hundreds of storage rooms, and inside each storage room are millions of apples. There’s a problem with this. The packer doesn’t have any data about where his ripest produce is. And he doesn’t have this data because the volume is so large. These rooms are hermetically sealed — no oxygen in the room and the room is cold and dark.”

“So, the packer needs to make a random decision as to which room he should unpack first. Sometimes he’ll open a room and the fruit inside is under-ripe. Sometimes the fruit is too ripe. And in the worst-case scenario, the fruit inside has turned to mush and is spoiled. On a bad day, one spoiled room is $1 million worth of losses to that packer, which to me is a pretty bad day.”

“I’m a biologist student at Penn. I thought, why not use biology and technology to solve this problem? So I created Strella Biotech. We create biosensors that are installed in these storage rooms that monitor apples as they ripen. This is coupled with a user interface that allows the packer to always know where their under-ripe, maturing and ready produce is. As a result, we’re not only saving our clients money, but also reducing global food waste from the supply chain.” (You can watch a video interview with Sizov here.)

And the Winner Is …

Following their individual pitches, each entrepreneur faced Manus and Nadel for a series of questions, which provided an essential layer of information about the development milestones and goals of their businesses. They addressed everything from revenue models and the pain points they’re solving to the challenges of being a solo founder and the demand for their product in an already crowded marketplace. It also gave the judges an opportunity to share their knowledge about markets, scalability and defensibility, and to develop an edgy banter with each other, earning this episode the title “Investors Get Feisty at Our Philly Pitch-off.”

Throughout the event, Manus provided a detailed perspective on all three markets — workplace readiness, diversity and inclusion, and fruit spoilage — and asked the entrepreneurs: What keeps you up at night? Sarkisian is tossing and turning over the next phase of Rezzio. “We did our first pilot and realized the motivation of our student, and we redesigned the back end,” she said. “Our development [keeps me up] right now. Getting the next phase out to market.”

“We create biosensors that … allow the packer to always know where their under-ripe, maturing and ready produce is.” –Katherine Sizov

Swirl’s Pathak, who is keeping his eye on the competitive landscape, particularly as it applies to apps focusing on improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace, has other concerns. “What keeps me up at night is that I don’t know anyone who does exactly the same thing we are, and I’m concerned someone will,” he noted. “I want to be the first to market and get the data to prove myself.”

Manus offered some universal advice for all three entrepreneurs. “The brand narrative is the most important thing,” she stressed. “[You can be] so focused on the product, the building of the tech piece, that you’re not focused on the brand narrative, the point of view and the identity. If you can’t talk about your product, you’re not going to be able to sell it.”

After about 10 minutes of whispered, on-stage deliberation — during which entrepreneurs from the audience kept the crowd entertained by free-styling 30-second elevator pitches about their startups — Manus and Nadel announced the big winner. Top honors went to the home-campus favorite: Katherine Sizov and Strella Biotechnology will be featured on a full-length episode of “The Pitch.”

While the investors were impressed by Sizov’s biology expertise and her deep market analysis — she spent the last six months going to all the states that produce apples and speaking with every farmer that produces more than 100 apples per year to understand their challenges — they were also cautiously optimistic about her innovative sensor technology. “There’s a lot of money being thrown at this [fruit spoilage] problem from places like Germany and South Korea,” said Manus. “The fact that you found the way to do it that nobody else has found is fantastic. We’re hoping that it’s true.” Added Nadel: “I take you at your word [that] what you’ve developed is superior to those products.”

For Sizov, who enjoys the innovative freedom of her combined interests in biology and engineering entrepreneurship, participating in the event was a valuable learning experience. “It was extremely exciting,” she said. “I’ve never pitched in front of so many different people before. Typically, it’s just a couple of judges and me in a room together. I’m also extremely grateful for the opportunity it provided me. Now I’m in talks with some of the judges in regard to a future investment opportunity, and I also get a ton of exposure because ‘The Pitch’ is so well known.”

Scaling up production is a key priority for her startup; she and the members of her team are currently hand-assembling all of the company’s sensors. Sizov is hopeful that the podcast’s “real investors” with “real money” will help boost Strella Biotech to its next stage of growth.

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