After having taken a hiatus in 2020 because of the pandemic, the East Grand Forks/Grand Forks Chamber hosted its annual Shark Tank event at the Empire Arts Center, on Wednesday, May 5.
The evening brought out a group of people who were brave enough to give a fast pitch to a panel of four local “sharks,” long-time business owners in the community, who followed up with questions and feedback. For Barry Wilfahrt, the Chamber’s president, it’s the continuation of a fun idea meant to encourage people to start their own businesses, that dates back to 2015.
“It's really about innovation and entrepreneurship,” Wilfahrt said. “It's really to encourage people to think of new products, new ways of doing things.”
The program got off the ground six years ago, when Wilfahrt was watching Shark Tank on TV with his wife Kristi, who thought of holding a local version of the event. Wilfahrt took the idea to the Chamber, and has been an annual event ever since.
“We were watching the show one time and she said ‘you know you guys are always promoting starting new businesses and entrepreneurship and innovation. Why doesn't the Chamber hold the Shark Tank, that'd be kind of fun,’” Wilfahrt said.
The show, which debuted in 2009, pits entrepreneurs against a panel of billionaire investors, with whom they seek to make a deal. In Grand Forks, contestants, many of them beyond the idea phase with early stage startup businesses, don’t make deals with the sharks. They simply pitch their idea, answer a few questions and get some honest feedback.
More than 60 people attended Wednesday’s event to watch 10 entrepreneurs walk on stage, under a spotlight and to the same cheesy walk-up music from the television program. Contestants pitched ideas ranging from an audit service of maintenance records for private aircraft, to an open late daycare for parents working late shifts to a girls hassle-free vacation service.
This year’s panel of sharks included Matt Winjum, co-owner of Rhombus Pizza and Brewery; Kay Derry, owner of Northern Roots Boutique; Tommy Kenville, owner of iSight RPV Services and T-Global, Inc. and Rachel Gornowicz, owner of Countrywide Sanitation.
The short presentations mostly consisted of people walking across the main stage of the Empire Arts Center and delivering their pitch, but one presenter, Michael Fridolfs, site director for Northrop Grumman near Grand Forks Air Force Base, took an approach one might find on the TV show.
Fridolfs and his wife, both wearing winter boots, walked across the stage in winter parkas with their hoods up. They couple were pitching a large idea, that of building an indoor Caribbean-style adventure park. The Fridolfs relocated to Grand Forks from San Diego, and Michael Fridolfs commented that it “gets a little cold here.”
Shortly into their presentation, Fridolfs said “Why wear this all year round, when you can wear this all year round?” and they threw their coats to the ground to reveal summer-style clothing.
Fridolfs said his idea was for a large-scale installation, nearly as large as the Alerus Center, and the panel of sharks advised him to seek out a casino or hotel to partner with. Winjum urged him to look into Columbia Mall as a possible location.
“Just make sure there’s tequila and Tiki huts,” said Gornowicz.
Taking first place that night and $750 in prize money and a nine-month membership to the 701 Co-working space downtown, was Brenden Swanson, head of coaches at Fenworks, an e-sports company. The company is looking to offer their services as an elective course for middle and high school students. The company has already made some partnerships with Minnesota schools.
In second place was Logan Rainey, with the company JetCheck, the audit business to ensure privately-owned aircraft receive regular maintenance. Rainey received $500 in prize money, and a six-month membership.
Coming in third was Michael Fridolfs, with his family-oriented Caribbean-style theme park. Fridolfs received $250, and a six-month membership.