RENO, Nev. – The judges included Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison instead of billionaire investor Mark Cuban, and they took a lighter touch with nervous contestants, but organizers hope a Nevada business pitch competition styled after "Shark Tank" helps give promising entrepreneurs the same kind of boost as the hit reality TV show.
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Ten entrepreneurs made the hard sell to Hutchison and a panel of business leaders Tuesday during the Governor's Conference on Business, fielding skeptical questions about their marketing plans and adding a touch of bravado to their two-minute pitches before the buzzer cut them off.
"We are Coalition Snow and we make women's skis and snowboards that don't suck," Jen Gurecki said triumphantly, holding a pair of aqua-colored skis decked in a whimsical print. "Our gear isn't short and soft. It isn't watered down."
Gurecki's company, run by women, is geared toward a set of intermediate and advanced female skiiers that she said is underserved by the competition. She said Coalition Snow is making a concerted effort to expand outside of the Sierras to deal with its biggest business challenge — a lack of snow.
"We can't limit ourselves to a region that's being so significantly impacted by climate change," she said.
State officials focused on businesses that are in their first year of operation, and narrowed a field of 23 contenders down to 10 — seven from northern Nevada and three from southern Nevada. The top finishers, who were scheduled to be announced the same day at a luncheon, would win their share of $16,000 in cash and IT services from sponsors AT&T and IQ Technology Solutions.
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Entrepreneurs also mingled with potential benefactors after their presentation — something organizers hope to implement as a formal part of the competition in the future.
"We would like to do an event that is just people pitching businesses to investors," said Bruce Breslow, director of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry. "We need to grow into that."
Companies in the lineup included BootRoxx, which sells bedazzled covers to freshen up a cowboy boots, and Crowded Reality, a crowdfunding platform for reality TV and talk shows. The entrepreneur behind Dragonfly Energy, which develops lithium ion battery packs and plans to sell them for hundreds of dollars less than the competition, laid out an ambitious five-year plan for his company.
"Hello, Tesla," said founder Denis Phares. "We can make their cells cheaper than Panasonic."
Hutchison said the competition not only gives entrepreneurs exposure to potential investors, but helps them refine their pitch and their business concepts.
"I was very impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit, the innovative technologies they were pitching," Hutchison said. "It makes me feel like Nevada's got a bright future with these kinds of minds and these kinds of businesses in the state."