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Students Go Face-to-Face with Alumni in the “Shark Tank”

8 June 2022
Pitch Competition

One by one, student teams took their turn entering the boardroom and making a final pitch before a panel of judges. Outside in the waiting room, there was a buzz of murmuring as teams rehearsed prepared questions, made final touches on their prototypes, and hammered out any uncertainties in their presentations. The whole competition looked like a scene from Shark Tank, a television program where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of potential business investors. 

Leading the event and guiding the students is Beatrice Sirakaya, assistant teaching professor of biochemistry and molecular biology. In 2020, Sirakaya was named the director of the newly established Bio-Tech cluster of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation minor, and she currently teaches BIOTC 416: Microbial Biotechnology.  

As part of this fall 2021 course, the 28 students had the opportunity to apply their knowledge of microbiology and biotechnology to the synthesis of biologically important and industrially useful products. With the aid of Suzanne Kijewski, technology licensing officer, Sirakaya was able to include alumni in the course as mentors to the students, a new addition to the course’s competition this year. 

“In the past, alumni have given lectures, but this year they met with the five student teams every two or three weeks throughout the semester and the students were really able to build a relationship,” Sirakaya said. 

A total of 18 alumni volunteered and were selected; half served as mentors and half as judges. The alumni brought expertise from their broad experiences, providing a wide array of advice for the student teams. Each of the teams focused their projects on a United Nations sustainability goal and how it could they could be addressed. Student team PHAceMasks set out to create biodegradable facemasks that would decrease the reliance on and waste of one-time-use masks, helping to address the sustainability goal of responsible consumption and production. 

“We were mentored by alumnus Kannan Seshadri, the design head at 3M, and John Patton, founder of Aerami Therapeutics,” said Aditi Dixit, a member of PHAceMasks. “They provided different perspectives and made us think critically about our product. How do we manufacture the masks? How do we expand our horizons? Will it run in the market?” 

Throughout the semester, the mentors helped to prepare the teams for three rounds of boardroom pitches. While for many this course offered a first-time exposure to presenting ideas before judges, others were practiced from previous pitch experiences and research.  

“I was diagnosed with pernicious anemia, an autoimmune disease, when I was 15 years old,” said Richard Averitt V, a member of the team PAcKit. “A lot of research suggested that our current diagnostic methods are incredibly inefficient, so I've been working on this brainchild for the last four years. Once we had this course opportunity, I started working on it a little bit more seriously, and the team has helped bring it to the stage that it's at now.” 

When asked about how the PAcKit team members came together, they noted that it began as supporting a friend with a passion and a plan. Their proposed product would be the first to diagnose the second stage of pernicious anemia. While many of the team members are graduating and moving to different places, the team is certain that the project will grow with the assistance of Penn State’s resources and alumni community. 

As the teams waited for their turn to make a final pitch to the sharks, it’s clear that they viewed the alumni as a pivotal part of the course’s experience. Students credited their mentors for guidance and helping them to put the ideas in a nonacademic context. The students also thanked the judges for pushing them to think outside of the classroom “box” and for challenging them to think analytically about their pitches. So, “Who won?” you might ask. They all did, by gaining important experiences, building relationships, and learning from each other. To learn more about how to get involved with students and their Penn State experience, please complete this Qualtrics form