Rochester's First Biotech Business Pitch Competition, Walleye Tank, Returns for an Ice Fishing Edition this December

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Technology transfer, the process of bringing a technology or product to market within academia, poses a significant and intimidating barrier to the scientific researcher. Launching a startup around that technology is also uncharted water to most scientists.

Dr. Stephen Ekker, Mayo Clinic Professor and CoFounder of InSciEd Out Foundation and Lifengine Technologies, wants to help Mayo Clinic researchers surmount these hurdles. This spring, he launched his class within Mayo Clinic to teach entrepreneurship and biotech business development. The class culminated in a biotech focused business pitch competition, called Walleye Tank, which ended up being a completely sold-out, packed house endeavor.

Dr. Ekker’s first class ran for twelve weeks and had fifteen total students. The main goal: to have the students develop a successful business pitch by the end of the course.

“So we started on day one. I was like, this is the pitch. You’re going to be pitching to the class June 23rd. And then for the rest of the class, we’re going to figure out how.”

What exactly does Dr. Ekker think are critical components of a good business pitch? Enthusiasm. Honesty. And validation of the business hypothesis.

A good pitch also tries to sell something that’s a bit risky. “You worked on trying to convince people that your idea is worth the risk. What you’re doing is not removing risk,” he explained. If a pitch involved something of zero risk, it didn’t pass for Walleye Tank; the idea just wasn’t big enough.

During Dr. Ekker’s class, students met in teams to develop and grow their potential business ideas. Some of these ideas died off, leaving behind the strongest concepts.

On the final day, the students delivered their pitches to the class and were graded by two Rochester biotech entrepreneurs. The highest three pitches were entered into the Walleye Tank as “Junior Anglers”. Two of these three top startup concepts were completely developed within the class.

The Walleye Tank competition itself had two groups of competitors, Dr. Ekker’s “Junior Anglers” and the “Professionals”, some more established biotech entrepreneurs. Each startup was given two minutes to pitch their concept, followed by three minutes of questioning by the “Walleyes”, some very seasoned entrepreneurs and business developers.

Dr. Ekker especially loved that the “Junior Anglers” reached this stage in only twelve weeks.

“Because I keep being told that it takes forever to do this stuff. If you’re focused and you’ve got the right environment, it doesn’t take twelve weeks,” he said.

He believes that both his course and Walleye Tank are critical to Mayo Clinic right now.

“Mayo is super smart people. …We have tons and tons of inventors. We have very few entrepreneurs. And I would argue that we don’t even have a minimum nucleation of people that know the difference, let alone are entrepreneurs.”

Dr. Ekker sees a large educational problem within Mayo Clinic. People don’t understand that an invention is not a product and an inventor is not an entrepreneur.

His major goal with his class was to develop a core competency in business development and entrepreneurship which he felt was lacking.

“My expectation was if I had fifteen people who knew what a business canvas was and knew what a customer interview was and could be thoughtful about the difference between an invention and a product, the class was successful. That was my bar. …Whether there would be a business product out of the class, no idea. And I have no idea if it’s replicable.”

Dr. Ekker’s drive to form Walleye Tank stems back to his time at the University of Minnesota. In 2000, he helped to build the first of a recent generation of biotech companies. However, people questioned why the company was being created in Minnesota, where there were no perceived resources and infrastructure and a weak University technology transfer program.

Since that time, he knew there had been a number of biotech success stories, which “succeeded in spite of the University of Minnesota.”  He was also told that there was no need to hold a business pitch competition at Mayo Clinic.

His major goals with Walleye Tank were to show that we do have a critical mass of biotech entrepreneurs in Minnesota who are running companies well beyond the idea stage, despite the systems around these entrepreneurs.

He anticipated that Walleye Tank would spread some of the business development lessons taught in his class to the audience. He hopes that this information will help to weed out weaker invention disclosures from ever getting to Mayo Clinic Ventures, the arm of Mayo Clinic that commercializes Mayo-developed inventions.

“I’m hoping that we actually make Mayo Clinic Ventures’ job easier. My goal is not to make anybody’s job harder. I do believe in the idea that it takes a village to raise a startup.”

Dr. Ekker made a strong push to have Walleye Tank take place during normal work hours instead of in the evening; the pitch competition was held at 2pm on a Friday.

“I actually think if Mayo Clinic wants entrepreneurship to be successful, it’s going to have to be a part of people’s day jobs. It can’t just be evening and after hours.”

Plans for the next class and Walleye Tank are already laid and will likely include a collaboration with the University of Minnesota. The next Walleye Tank, the ice-fishing edition, will take place December 16th at Mayo Clinic.