Brigham and Women’s Researchers Swim With a Shark

Eight innovators entered a Shark Tank-style competition at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Four winners left with $50,000.

Kevin O'Leary (center) with the four winners. Photo provided.

Kevin O’Leary (center) with the four winners. Photo by Carly Gillis.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital hosted a competition inspired by ABC’s hit show Shark Tank, except this event wasn’t about businesses such as Wicked Good Cupcakes or Morning Head—it was about medical innovation.

Eight scientists bravely pitched their ideas before a panel of “sharks” (aka judges) for the chance to win $50,000 for their research projects. And in the end, four walked away as winners.

Although this competition’s judges weren’t the usual panel of investors that we see on the show, one familiar face was present: Kevin O’Leary, also known as Mr. Wonderful, a Boston resident who lives on Marlborough Street.

Kevin O'Leary delivers his opening remarks. Photo by Stephanie Cohn.

Kevin O’Leary delivers his opening remarks. Photo by Stephanie Cohn.

O’Leary arrived fashionably late (he blamed it on traffic, which in boston is a no-brainer), and he opened the competition with some remarks on his favorite subject— business. “My bet is the team that can articulate their opportunity in a way that everyone can understand is going to win,” he said. “You may think that it’s not fair, but that’s how the world works.”

He also talked about the cold reality of running a good business, emphasizing points that “everyone’s replaceable” and “business is war,” as he introduced the eight contestants. With a devious smile, O’Leary warned, “You have five minutes, don’t screw up.” Each contestant followed his advice, which made the sharks’ decision a particularly difficult one.

Each scientist had to be clear, concise, and articulate their complex scientific projects within a five-minute time frame. Then they were given another five minutes to answer the sharks’ questions. While O’Leary left the tough medical questions to the experts, he made sure to throw in his business expertise during this Q&A period. He even asked one contestant if he had a patent on a molecular glue.

The Panel of Sharks (Front Row) Listen as contestant Christopher French Answers Questions.

The Panel of “Sharks” (Front Two Rows) Listen as contestant Christopher French Answers Questions. Photo by Stephanie Cohn

Among the four winners was Tracy Young-Pearse, who is researching the question of why Alzheimer’s affects the memory and cognitive parts of the brain but not the mobility parts. “The difficulty was really transforming a highly scientific concept into something that everyone can understand,” Young-Pearse said.

Aditi Hazra was another winner. She is working on creating more personalized treatments for DCIS, a non invasive form of breast cancer. In her pitch, Hazra explained that due to “one size fits all treatments,” patients with this cancer are often over-treated, thus causing further medical issues.

The Sharks (front two rows) and the contestants (back row), Photo by Carly Gillis.

The Sharks (front two rows) and the contestants (back row), Photo by Carly Gillis.

“I knew I’d be swimming in the Shark Tank, so I was careful not to cut myself shaving this morning,” Benjamin Humphreys said as he opened his pitch. Humphreys proposed new therapies for treating dangerous post-surgery fibrosis, which is scarring that can lead to organ failure. “It’s exciting to be part of something where we have to go out of our normal boundaries and realize that you need to get your point across in 90 seconds.”

Another winner, Jeffrey Karp, is working on a way to control the bacteria in a person’s stomach to treat inflammatory bowel syndrome. The method, he said in his presentation, may also have the potential to control human weight as well, a point that O’Leary expressed quite a bit of interest in.

Although there was no negotiating equity or telling contestants that they should just quit, this competition held true to the central theme of Shark Tank, which is investing in America’s future. Through this event, BWH added a little extra entertainment to science by making medical innovation interesting to anyone, and it accomplished this without flashy displays, dramatic music, or fighting sharks.