Strategies for Hosting a Successful Shark Tank Competition at Your Conference
Holding a pitch competition can be a great way to not only highlight new innovations but also create a session that encourages thoughtful participation. To ensure success, associations should create a clear judging rubric and routinely improve the experience.
Although the American Gastroenterological Association held a during its annual Tech Summit for the last 10 years, the group decided to turn the session into a proper competition in 2019.
The set up remained the same: Innovators presented their work to a panel of judges—a.k.a. “the sharks”—and received feedback before one winner was selected.
The major change was that the winning innovator went on to represent AGA in a larger shark tank competition held during Digestive Disease Week, AGA’s annual meeting cosponsored with three other societies, the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD), the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy (ASGE), and the Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract (SSAT).
At the DDW shark tank competition, each sponsoring society selects a representative innovator to pitch their best scientific innovation to four judges who are also selected by each society. The winner receives a trophy and complimentary registration for next year’s meeting.
Though the competition is still relatively new, it’s already become a highlight of both meetings.
“By offering entrepreneurs a unique platform to pitch their ideas, a shark tank session can help boost innovation at an annual meeting. It helps create a space for discussions around novel concepts that can encourage a culture of innovation,” said Jamie Klopfer, manager of program operations at AGA, who oversees the DDW shark tank session.
Here’s a look at how AGA has structured its shark tank competition to increase creativity and innovation among participants and attendees.
Develop Clear Judging Criteria
To turn the longstanding session into a competition, AGA needed to create guidelines for the judges to allow them to review pitches fairly.
AGA’s rubric is based on a five-point scale, which is shared with both presenters and judges. The rubric includes the following criteria: significance of the problem being addressed, novel approach to a gastroenterological issue, impact of the proposed approach or solution, pathway to commercialization, funding criteria, effectiveness of presentation skills, and quality of response to sharks’ questions.
The goal of this is to elevate innovation and allow attendees to gain exposure to new and transformative ideas.
“We don’t just want innovators to come in with just an idea or pitch,” said Sherri-Gae Scott, AGA’s manager of innovation and key opinion leader engagement, who runs the Tech Summit shark tank session. “We’re looking for people who have an idea already in the pipeline and want to use the competition as an opportunity to move it forward and think about commercialization and how the idea can really make an impact.”
Improve Member Experience
For many presenters, the shark tank competition at AGA’s tech summit is the first time they’ve ever done a public pitch.
To support the finalists, an AGA member who is experienced in innovation and business development conducts mock pitch sessions for them. During these sessions, the facilitator provides general feedback, including how to improve content and overall presentation skills. Advice is also given based on what certain judges will look for.
AGA has also worked to make attendee involvement a larger part of the competition at both the Tech Summit and DDW. In 2023, the association introduced an online polling system where attendees could vote for their favorite presentations and built in additional time for audience Q&A.
“This increases the connection between the presenters and the audience so they can learn from one another,” Klopfer said. “We hope the interactivity will spark innovation discussions within the audience and offer ideas they can bring into their own work.”
During the shark tank session at the Tech Summit, AGA often invites past winners to share updates on their research. According to Scott, having past winners share their progress not only encourages the current finalists who are waiting for the judges’ ruling but also inspires audience members to consider participating in the future.
“We want to show participants and attendees the power of not only engaging with AGA but also the power of a pitch competition,” she said.