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Second Annual Shark Tank Event is Smooth Sailing for Students

May 1, 2023

Students participating in the Institute’s Life Science Innovation Course cap their experience with a final business pitch.

Over a cup of coffee several years ago, Dr. David Zuzga, Associate Dean of Biomedical Studies, and Heather Steinman, Senior VP of Business Development had an idea: what if they could encourage students to think about potential business applications of life sciences discoveries? What if they could get them to think like entrepreneurs, and pitch a business idea that takes a life science discovery from bench to bedside?

That initial idea led to the development of The Wistar Institute Shark Tank event, modeled after the ABC hit series of the same name, where entrepreneurs make business pitches to a panel of venture capitalists who determine whether the idea is worth an investment.

Now in its second year at Wistar, the Shark Tank event encourages Wistar predoctoral students, Wistar postdocs, interns, and undergraduate students from Cheyney University and La Salle University to apply Wistar technology to a plausible business concept. Students must think through everything from science and technology concepts to competitive and intellectual property issues to bring the idea to fruition.

During the April 24 event, 28 students comprising six total teams pitched their ideas to a panel of three judges from the life sciences sector. Barbara Schilberg, former CEO of BioAdvance; Nicholas Siciliano, CEO, viTToria biotherapeutics; and Brian DeHaven, Chief Program Director, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, engaged each team with questions and feedback following the presentations.

Ethan Daguisan, a Cheney student and member of the M.E.S.H. Solutions team, feels the experience gave him exposure to concepts that he may not have received in the classroom. “Understanding how biotechnology works was something that I never went into before,” he explained. “I actually got to learn a lot in terms of the business aspect as well as the scientific aspect. It definitely [affected] my perspective on what I want to do at this school.”

Dr. Zuzga said the success of the event has been encouraging and they’re working on ways to expand it to even more students. “We’re trying to understand how we can offer an effective course for students at multiple institutions,” he explained. “When we examined the impact of students on their self-efficacy, attitudes towards science, and attitudes toward careers in science, we found it had … as large or greater impacts than summer undergraduate mentored research, which is the gold standard.”

In the end, Cheney’s M.E.S.H. Solutions, which presented a predictor for COVID severity based on gut permeability, walked away with the top prize for the undergraduate teams and the People’s Choice award, and Exoma, with a treatment for late-stage melanoma, took the prize for the Wistar teams.

Dr. Steven Hughes, Cheney Professor and team mentor, feels the long-term benefits might not be realized immediately, but in the long term it will propel the students to great heights. “Right now they don’t understand how big a part they’re going to play in five years, but I am excited for what they’re going to become.”