New entrepreneurs face off in "kinder, gentler" take on "Shark Tank"

They won't get torn to shreds by Kevin "Mr. Wonderful" O'Leary or Mark Cuban, but that doesn't mean it won't feel like "sink or swim" for local entrepreneurs set to pitch their business ventures at the New Enterprise Forum's (NEF) Pitch Pit: Fall Colors event this Thursday at Ann Arbor SPARK Central.

Modifying the format of the long-running reality TV show "Shark Tank," three contestants will pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges for a $100 cash prize, plus any additional funds donated by audience members that night. NEF, an Ann Arbor-based entrepreneurial services organization, has hosted "Pitch Pit" competitions several times a year since 2013.

Organizer and NEF vice president Stefan Sysko says the event is meant to be a fun way to support entrepreneurs at all levels by giving them a chance to present to a relevant audience and get feedback from experienced judges.

Contestants are usually either referred to the competition or they apply online. Sysko says the main criterion is pretty simple: "An early-stage company with a scalable idea."

"We want to provide a forum in which we can support and encourage entrepreneurs who are at that difficult early stage," he says.

This week's program features three very different companies, including a line of horror/Halloween-themed products meant to encourage STEM-based learning, and a new approach to veterinary wound care.

Judges will include Romy Kochan of Gingras Global, Robb Lippitt of Secret Sauce Capital, and Paul Nucci from Eastern Michigan University's Center for Advancing Social Enterprise.

Sysko says the judges will bring a "kindler, gentler" approach to judging than "Shark Tank"'s panel, as well as years of experience with startups, venture capital, and social entrepreneurship support.

"We look for experienced, knowledgeable folks who can give not only critiques of pitches, but also solid advice and suggestions on improving participants’ pitches and business models," he says.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.