LAS CRUCES – By the time Rajaa Shindi took the stage to pitch her big idea to investors, she had already seen two other entrepreneurs sink in the Aggie Shark Tank. Could she swim?
“I’m here to introduce my passion,” she told the five sharks – successful businessmen with pockets deep enough to invest in student startups if the pitch were a winning one.
Shindi needed to convince the sharks that her software system for treating attention disorders in children not only had market potential but might change the world. Her company is BrainSTEM, she told them, and she was looking for $30,000 in exchange for a 20 percent stake.
The sharks sat in a row in a New Mexico State University auditorium, mimicking ABC’s popular “Shark Tank” show: an auto dealer with 10 new car and truck franchises in southern New Mexico, Lou Sisbarro; Royal Jones, chief executive of Mesilla Valley Transportation, one of the largest trucking companies in the Southwest; chile magnate Dino Cervantes; general contractor Mickey Clute, president of GenCon Corp.; and Andy Rice, a former Aggie and vice president of Chicago-based private equity firm The Jordan Co.
ABC’s “Shark Tank” pairs hopeful entrepreneurs with billionaire venture capitalists, giving the upstarts a chance to pitch their ideas. If one or more of the sharks bite, they’ll take a share of the company in return for a cash investment.
Programs that mimic the show and let hopeful entrepreneurs hone their pitches in front of venture capitalists or business mentors are all the rage from Albuquerque to Las Cruces.
Albuquerque opened its Epicenter earlier this year, a space offering resources, mentoring and opportunities to interact with other aspiring entrepreneurs. University of New Mexico’s freshman “Shark Tank Talk” class became so popular, attracting more than 100 students each year, that the university added a spinoff “business bootcamp.”
NMSU’s Aggie Shark Tank is the brainchild of Sisbarro – who says he loves the TV show – and the university’s Arrowhead Center for student entrepreneurs. The Shark Tank held Oct. 23 was special because there was real money on the line.
Shindi – an NMSU Ph.D. in computer science and the only woman in the Shark Tank – launched into her pitch, explaining how medication isn’t solving all the problems presented by attention deficit disorders. BrainSTEM presents a brain training program, she said, that can markedly improve a child’s ability to concentrate after a minimum of 20 sessions, 20 minutes apiece.
She tested five prototypes at a Las Cruces elementary school over two months, collected data and told the sharks the results were undeniable. Test scores improved, she said, and teachers saw a difference in the children’s ability to focus.
Each of the five entrepreneurs – NMSU students or recent graduates – had five minutes to make their case.
“That five minutes, it was very emotional for me,” said Shindi, a native of Iraq. “You have to convince them and share not just the science, you have to show the passion behind it.”
The sharks had 20 minutes to grill them.
“You aren’t making anything, right?” Sisbarro asked one entrepreneur pitching a new app.
When told by an entrepreneur that he was missing out on a big opportunity, Clute said, “The reason we are sitting here is because we’ve learned not to bite on things we don’t understand.”
The sharks were looking for a solid business proposition, but unlike the TV show, they were also there to offer advice, mentoring and connections, Sisbarro said.
One student, Jorge Banda, earned a $15,000 investment for his concept to capture heat from vehicle motors and use it to power auxiliary systems.
Jones of Mesilla Valley Transportation offered the funding in exchange for 25 percent equity. He also offered access to his fleet of 1,400 trucks for Banda to test his product.
But Shindi stole the show.
Sisbarro – who shared that his eldest son had ADD – offered her $30,000 for a 25 percent stake. Afterward, Cervantes asked Sisbarro to split the investment. Shindi won the sharks’ favorite and audience favorite, racking up an additional $3,500 in prize money.
“I think the idea touched several people’s hearts because of the concept, helping children with attention deficit disorder,” Shindi said.
“We’re just trying to give these guys the opportunity in life,” Sisbarro said. “College is wonderful. You learn a lot in books. But entrepreneurship, developing a product and getting it out there, that is real life.”
Of Shindi’s big idea, Sisbarro said he is working with her to further test the product and set up manufacturing in hopes of bringing BrainSTEM to market by next summer.
“It’s going to help a lot of young people overcome this problem,” he said. “I believe her project is going to work.”