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    Healthcare innovators vie for top prize at Walleye Tank

The house was full for the March 15 Walleye Tank competition - Photo courtesy of Jeff Newman

On March 15, in an auditorium packed with colleagues, students and supporters, 13 innovators gathered on the University of Minnesota campus for the 2024 Walleye Tank Spring Opener.

With adrenaline-fueled pitches, the contestants took the stage, aiming to capture the attention of a panel of judges and secure funding for their innovations. From a care coordination platform to a self-inflating vest for protection from falls, a diverse array of products left the audience both inspired and intrigued. Who would reel in the ultimate catch?

The Walleye Tank is Minnesota's premier life-science pitch competition. Held twice every year, it provides a platform for entrepreneurs at all stages of invention to gain support and connections to propel their projects forward. The event is co-organized by Mayo Clinic's Office of Entrepreneurship and the University of Minnesota's Venture Center.

Dr. Nathan Wiedenman, director of Mayo's Office of Entrepreneurship, delivers remarks at the Walleye Tank. - Photo courtesy of Jeff Newman

Dr. Nathan Wiedenman, director of Mayo's Office of Entrepreneurship, delivered remarks, as did leaders of biotech organizations and the university's Carlson School of Management.

"I have the privilege of leading a fantastic team at Mayo through the Office of Entrepreneurship and the Office of Translation to Practice," said Dr. Wiedenman. "We are constantly seeing new technologies, and we help marry these new ideas and innovations with the resources they need to move forward. We love being part of events like this where exactly that is happening — not just in the form of checks, but in the connections that are being made." 

Dr. Maarten Rotman, education program manager for the Mayo Clinic Office of Entrepreneurship, was instrumental in planning the event alongside University of Minnesota staff and preparing contestants to deliver their pitches. Dr. Ron Thacker, entrepreneurial education program coordinator for the Office of Entrepreneurship, and Maria Ploessl, University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, served as co-masters of ceremonies.

Watch the 2024 Walleye Tank Spring Opener:

Pitching for the top prize

At the Walleye Tank competition, each team has 120 seconds to pitch its project, followed by four minutes of questions from the "walleyes" — a panel of judges who decide which projects are the worthiest of investment. Among these experts in life science and business, representing Mayo Clinic was Dr. Kien T. Nguyen from the Department of Business Development.

How do you anticipate getting to market? How do you differentiate yourself from the competition? Who are your customers, and how will you reach them?

Each competitor fielded tough questions, navigating the waters as they tried to hook the judges' interest. Participants competed in two categories: Junior Anglers — entrepreneurs in the early stages of business development; and Mid-Level Reelers — incorporated companies in the early stages of fundraising.

Following the pitches, the auditorium buzzed with activity as attendees and participants mingled while the judges deliberated to select the top projects in the competition.

Meet the winning projects

The winners of the 2024 Walleye Tank Spring Opener were announced and honored with iconic Walleye Tank trophies and oversized checks. Here are the winning companies:

Junior Anglers:

Winner: $4,000 award

  • Empower Independence Co: Simply Shower
    Simply Shower provides a magnetic system with gripped sleeves and a wall board to enhance accessibility, self-care, energy conservation, independence and safety for people with reduced mobility.

Runners-up: $1,000 award

  • Vertex Medical Solutions: Vertex 360 Platform
    Vertex is a digital health startup developing a trauma-informed, social care coordination platform to address health-related social needs of vulnerable patient populations.
  • Emergense
    The Emergense diagnostics test integrates a vast array of variables and data points to predict prostate cancer recurrence and aggressiveness.

Mid-Level Reelers

Winner: $10,000 award

  • Objective Biotechnology
    Objective Biotechnology is commercializing research laboratory equipment, such as an automated microinjector, developed at the University of Minnesota.

Runner-up: $4,000 award

  • Davenport SAF-T Systems: SAF-T VEST
    The SAF-T VEST, a smart technology designed for older adults, will detect a fall in real time and inflate airbags, protecting fracture-prone areas of the body.

An honorary award was presented to Dr. Rena Hale, Office of Entrepreneurship, for her outstanding contributions to the Walleye Tank. Dr. Hale served as a Walleye Tank co-organizer from 2020 to 2023 and played a pivotal role in building and growing the event.