Fourth Walleye Tank Business Pitch Competition Provides Platform For Life Science Entrepreneurs

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This past Friday, the fourth Walleye Tank- a Minnesota business pitch competition- took place on the Mayo Clinic campus, gathering together entrepreneurs, investors, educators, and community members to provide a platform for the state’s life science entrepreneurs. Two Rochester startups- Brazen and Liver Cell Therapies- walked away as divisional winners.

Life science businesses at all stages of development compete in Walleye Tank in one of four categories: Junior Angler, Midlevel Reeler, Professional, and Bait Shop. The Junior Angler student teams enter the competition through an entrepreneurial course at Mayo Clinic or via the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The rest of the competitors join “the tank” through an open submission process.

This year, startups participated from Rochester, the Twin Cities, Madison, and Jacksonville, Florida.

During the competition Junior Angler, Reeler, and Professional Division participants delivered 120 pitches to a panel of Walleyes, highly experienced local entrepreneurs and investors, to win a variety of prizes.

This year’s Walleye panel included: Wade Beavers, co-founder and CEO of DoApp; Julie Henry, Enterprise IP Contract Manager in the Department of Business Development with Mayo Clinic Ventures; John Santini, serial entrepreneur and CEO of Vergent Bioscience; Christine Beech, Executive Director of the Kabara Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota; Perry Hackett, co-founder of Recombinetics; Carla Pavone, Program Director of Minnesota Innovation Corps; and Fernando Bazan, CTO of BioTechne.

Bait Shop entrants pitched directly to entrepreneurs at the event to connect these innovators to the resources they need. Participants in this division included Collider Coworking, Rochester Rising, Rochester Area Economic Development Inc., Fredrikson & Byron, and Destination Medical Center.

Brazen and Electronic Intrathecal Guidance startups tied to win the Junior Angler division, raking in $10K toward their projects from the brand-new Mayo Clinic Office of Entrepreneurship.

Brazen, a diagnostic for detecting contact sports-related brain injury, is being developed by a team of Mayo Clinic students. Current on-field brain injury assessment techniques can be subjective and mainly detect only significant brain trauma, explained the Brazen team. Instead, this startup is developing a small, portable device that gages eye movement, a symptom known to display asymptomatic brain injury. This tool will permit rapid assessment of brain trauma and prevent further injury. The team is currently developing an algorithm to support their concept. Their first target market are high school athletes.

Electronic Intrathecal Guidance is a Jacksonville, Florida startup developing an improved method for spinal tapping. About 400K spinal taps are performed in the United States each year, which are often done blindly at the patient bedside and have a high failure rate. When a spinal tap is unsuccessful, the patient is often brought to radiology to perform the procedure under X-ray guidance, exposing the patient to radiation, disrupting workflow, and resulting in $500 in extra healthcare costs. Dr. Vivek Gupta and his team are developing a technique using electronic guidance to improve the spinal tap procedure right at the bedside, without any imaging needed. His method detects changes in impedance- monitored through a patch electrode- to guide the spinal needle through tissue and cerebrospinal fluid. The whole system costs between $5-10 to produce; Gupta estimates they will sell for $25-30, creating a $1.2M market in the United States alone.

University of Minnesota startup Nominal Impedance also participated in the Junior Angler Division.

Jacksonville-based small business Concepts by Harshman won the Reeler Division, earning assistance in business development from the Mayo Clinic Office of Entrepreneurship.

This startup, built by surgical assistant Tim Harshman, offers modern solutions to the retractor. 48M surgical procedures are performed each year, according to Harshman, all of which require the use of a retractor. This piece of equipment separates the edges of a surgical incision, providing exposure and access to internal organs, tissues, and cavities. Retractors have seen little recent innovation. The current models on the market, Harshman said, are cumbersome and uncomfortable to hold for the extended periods of time required for a surgery. Every time a surgical assistant must change hands, exposure is lost for the physician and the surgery is slightly prolonged. Harshman is developing the Harshman Handle and Harshman Retractor- which touts an improved toe designed compared to current retractors- to reduce surgical assistant fatigue, reduce retractor slips, and lengthen exposure time for physicians to make surgeries more efficient.

Startups Soundly and Thorx also participated in the Reeler Division.

Rochester startup MindTech won second place in the Professional, or incorporated company, Division, earning in-kind professional legal services from Fredrikson & Byron.

MindTech- led by local entrepreneurs Chad Attlesey, Pete Wall, and AJ Montpetit- is developing a “microscope for everyone” to help foster love of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) in children. The team aims for this “rugged microscope” to be distributed alongside iPads and Chromebooks during the school year. Highly portable, the device allows kids to discover in the classroom, at home, and outdoors. The microscope is also extremely capable; it magnifies up to 200X, is Wi-Fi enabled, and captures 1080p video.

Liver Cell Therapies was the overall grand prize winner, taking home $2K from Fredrikson & Byron as well as in-kind professional legal services, assistance from the Mayo Clinic Office of Entrepreneurship, and a three-month full membership at Collider Coworking.

Dr. Scott Nyberg, a liver transplant surgeon at Mayo Clinic, and his team at Liver Cell Therapies are developing a liver support device to address liver failure, the seventh largest cause of death in the United States. The current solution to liver failure is organ transplant, which results in a major surgery and immunosuppression for the remainder of life. Instead, Nyberg and his team are developing the Mayo Spheri-Reservoir Bio-Artificial Liver, a support device that can hold 20-30% of a patient’s liver, helping the organ survive for days or weeks. This device can serve as bridge therapy for some patients, allowing time for the liver to heal and avoiding transplant completely. The team currently has a prototype and is raising $2M in funding to build a clinical grade device. The startup also has intellectual property for creating hepatocyte spheroids- or 3D globules of liver cells- through a rocking protocol. These spheroids can be used to treat liver failure outside of the patient.

Marvel Medtech, Thrivors, and Superior Medical Editing also participated in the Professional Division.

Congratulations to all the teams that pitched at Walleye Tank. Look for the next competition to roll out in spring 2018.