Would-be entrepreneurs swarm “Shark Tank”

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There was quite a turnout at the Shedd Aquarium Thursday as 432 companies waited in line so that they could pitch their idea to try and be featured on the popular ABC reality TV series “Shark Tank.”

The show, which involves five investors hearing business ideas that they can invest in, stopped in Chicago to find the next batch of contestants for the upcoming fifth season. Companies were allowed only one minute with producers to try and sell their business, item, or even ideas.

Chicago was the third city on the six-city tour.

“We look from everything across the board,” said Casting Manager Mindy Zemrak. “The great thing about Shark Tank is that we take people who have a prototype and want to bring it to market and just don’t have the funds for five, six million dollar companies, and everything in between. We definitely have found a lot of talent in Chicago and that’s why we keep coming back.” ,

Contestants’ businesses ranged from unique, patented products to services.  Most companies said they need capital from the Sharks to further materials. However, there were also unconventional ideas such as trying to reduce student debt.

Shady Henien, 27, is medical student from the University of Iowa, and he hopes that he can get on Shark Tank as a way for private investors to establish a fund for loans that help pay for medical school. Students would then repay those investors, but at a lower interest rate than the government loans, Henien said.

“What we’re pitching today is called Student Promise,” said Henien. “It’s a huge opportunity for investors. What does it mean for students? We can save a lot. Why we’re here today is because we need money to get it off the ground.”

“I’ve gotten so many meetings with U.S. politicians – senators, congressmen – and have met with the Governor of Iowa and they all love it,” said Henien. “We’re a safer return than other types of investments.”

Henien wasn’t the only student to be in school and still be running a business. Miles Tucker, 19, is enrolled at Kent State University and hopes to break through in a major clothing market by selling athletic material that’s branded with his own designed logos.

“I need a lot of help and the Sharks can provide that expertise that can benefit my company,” said Tucker. “I’ve only sold at Kent State and I’ve sold over $4000 worth of material in just a month and a half.”

Both Henien and Tucker traveled from out of state and they were hardly alone. Jan Robertson traveled from Westchester, N.Y. and admitted to being lined up at the Shedd since 12:30 p.m. of the previous day. Robertson slept out on a park bench so that she could pitch her t-shirt that can help children read.

Other potential contestants lined up as early as 4:30 a.m. and stayed awake just so they could be seen. Producers of the show started seeing people in line at 1 p.m. The process of traveling and waiting for hours made the minute-long pitch seem over in an instant, tryouts said.

“There’s not really much time,” said Tommy Greenan, who traveled all the way from Austin, Tx. with his girlfriend to pitch his business that reinvented the pool noodle. “You want to be different and it’s just so rushed, it takes people by surprise.”

So what’s the key to breaking through and getting on the show? 

Season two contestant Aldo Orta went through the whole process again to support his friend and business partner Joel Paglione for their venture in combining jewelry with a magnetic tie. Orta, who had gotten a deal from investors Barbara Corcoran and Kevin Harrington for his jewelry line, offered some advice for his business partner. 

“You have to sell yourself before you can sell your product,” said Orta.