Welcome to the Deep End

By Denise Ruttan

sharktank692Mike Garcia has a vision—a vision that surfaced from personal experience.

About 16 years ago, Garcia and his brothers came down with head lice. His parents tried everything to heal their sons. After some months, his parents decided to tackle the problem on their own. They invented a type of scissors to remove eggs and a shampoo product. Out of frustration and innovation, a company was born.

But the business fell by the wayside in the face of Garcia’s dad’s declining health. Despite the challenges, his son, a 28-year-old Oregon State University graduate with a degree in entrepreneurship, aims to resurrect the family business with his own startup, Lice IQ. He took his chances at Shark Tank, an event hosted Dec. 9 at Corvallis Sports Park by the Willamette Innovators Network, an organization that provides resources for startups. In this event, entrepreneurs such as Garcia pitch a panel of business leaders in the vein of the popular TV show. The judges are John Turner, Joe Maruschak, and Mark Lieberman.

The prize for winning the favor of this panel is not exactly Mark Cuban-sized—$250 and admission into OSU’s Advantage Accelerator. But the competition for it is fierce. For Garcia, it’s not as much about the prize.

“Hopefully I will get a little more experience with presentations and pitches,” Garcia said. “I’ve only been doing this a couple of months now so it’s all super fresh. I’m also hoping to meet up with other people and network. It seems like a really good group of people here.”

In front of a bar overlooking an indoor soccer arena, a small stage provides the setting for the competition. Portland Timbers banners line the wall behind posters for OSU and the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network. Despite the competitive aspects, the crowd is friendly—largely fellow entrepreneurs quaffing beer and making connections.

After networking, it’s time for the entrepreneurs to take the stage. Garcia finds his way to the microphone. He stands up there nervously, shifting from foot to foot. He starts with his story—so many families have suffered from head lice. He flashes through slides of statistics about the problem of head lice. His PowerPoint details the possibilities for market share—contracts with schools and government agencies and day cares.

But ultimately, none of the three judges bite. They express concerns about the lack of patents on the products and they don’t think the business is developed enough. But they’re inspired by Garcia’s passion.

Entrepreneurship is not without similar risks.

For Garcia and the four other entrepreneurs, this five-minute pitch is the first public presentation of their companies.

Other entrepreneurs included Jesse Johns, coming all the way from Central Texas with an idea for modular nuclear batteries; Kate Gallagher, whose startup Wisdom Media aims to produce online courses on yoga and mindfulness; and Daniel Shafer, who has a line of natural skin care products.

The winner of the grand prize was Brad Attiq’s company Pure Living, a social network geared toward mothers interested in healthy living and natural products. He gets an oversized check and shakes the hand of the judges.

For Maruschak, judging Shark Tank was a rewarding experience.

“I’ve been successful in my own startup so now it’s time to give back to people starting out,” he said. “Without mentors helping you along, you’re not going to succeed. I have a responsibility to give back.” 

The next event of the Willamette Innovators Network is the Willamette Startup Weekend, set for Feb. 6 to Feb. 8 at OSU. For more information about WIN, visit www.willametteinnovators.com.