‘SHARK’-INVESTED: UNLV innovators face ‘Shark Tank’ judges at Global Gaming Expo

We can only hope their self-esteem wore protective helmets and body armor.

Now, now — with that said, we don’t mean to be Negative Nellies, OK?

After all, this was a fun and funny Shark Tank-style competition in the heart of the Strip, lending a business confab a glamorous sheen. And we can pay hometown props to a Las Vegas competitor who emerged victorious — HUZZAH! — walking off with a $10,000 prize. (We’ll get to that). Plus, we can applaud a national contest lineup of sharp entrepreneurial minds dominated by UNLV biz-thinkers.

All was well that ended well inside the Sands Expo and Convention Center at the sprawling, annual Global Gaming Expo, aka G2E.

Not, however, before the inflicting of some verbal carnage by a TV master of acidic repartee, who even made this opening sound ominous:

“We’re feeling frisky. Who’s first? Come on down.”

That was Shark Tank shark Kevin O’Leary, one of three guest judges, inviting — i.e., daring — entrepreneurial finalists to lay bare their business dreams via pitches for original gaming/hospitality products at the expo’s inaugural “Innovation Incubator” event recently.

Unsurprisingly, particularly to Shark Tank fans, this was also Kevin O’Leary:

 “I don’t want to be negative.  I’m just saying, do I crush you like cockroaches now or do I wait 10 minutes?”

 “It’s an idea, and maybe not a good one.”

 “I’m going to predict that things are not going to go well for you.”

“What are you clapping for? That was horrific.”

Fear not: Mr. Not-So-Warm-and-Fuzzy grew fuzzier and warmer at the contest — as did his fellow biz-wiz brains passing judgment: Shark Tank co-star Daymond John, and The Pink Ceiling CEO Cindy Eckert.

Once the presentations were exhausted and the barbed bon mots had been hurled, it was Bill Hengler — a UNLV architectural student back in the 1990s, and founder/CEO of Las Vegas-based DoorPRO Doorstop — who nabbed the oversized check and a free booth at next year’s G2E convention.

“My wife wants to go to Bora Bora,” says Hengler when asked how he plans to spend his 10-grand windfall. “But I told her no. It’s going right back into the company.”

Formerly a Las Vegas hotel valet and bellman, Hengler brainstormed his product in his garage, creating his innovative doorstop that attaches to door hinges, rather than a traditional floor doorstop that’s wedged underneath. Largely marketed to resorts by a company he launched in 2010, it’s promoted by Hengler as a way for housekeeping, bellmen, room service porters and other hospitality workers to avoid bending down “40 or 50 times a day.”

Product benefits he cited include reducing workers’ back injuries; preventing property damage caused by makeshift doorstops, such as guests’ luggage or food trays that could also present tripping hazards; and allowing more eye-to-eye interaction with hotel personnel to provide a more professional customer experience.

In a Las Vegas-centric contest with competitors culled from a nationwide pool of entrants, Hengler had to match innovator wits with imposing rivals before a live audience:

Brittney Martino, an MBA student at UNLV, pitched her Shield Card Shoe, a casino table game security device that addresses card-marking;  UNLV /MBA graduate Wayman Wittman and student Daniel Vargas laid out their Window Magic, which integrates “organic light-emitting diode” displays with conventional models to enhance how guests enjoy a resort’s technology; and Tracy Hankin, whose Atlanta-based Inside Injuries company combines sports medicine and statistical modeling to predict the impact of injuries on players, providing data to consumers, bookmakers and the gaming industry.

“I was nervous, but I thought the idea was well-received,” says Martino, who gave a poised and informative presentation that intrigued the judges, who asked numerous follow-up questions about her card-marking prevention product. “I got great feedback and I think this has given me the validation to go forward with the idea.”

Her cheering section concurred. “I’m very proud of her,” says Dan Sahl, associate director of the UNLV Center for Gaming Innovation, who worked on the project with Martino. “That is a high-intensity, high-pressure thing on a stage, and people like Kevin O’Leary, they find holes and try to trip you up. But I think the judges liked her and that’s a big part of success in this industry — convincing people you’ve got a solution to a problem and communicating it well.”

Overall, UNLV made itself a kind of King Kong presence in this first-time G2E event. “We were proud that 50 percent of the submissions in the ‘Incubator’ were from UNLV students. That shows the impact our innovation projects are having,” says Katherine Jackson, associate director of the UNLV International Gaming Institute. “We’ve seen great success and we want to bring new creativity into the industry.”

Though his product was arguably the least sexy of those presented, Hengler was an engaging promoter of his doorstop, his pitch sprinkled with individual asides to the judges and a lighthearted approach that nonetheless hit all his major selling points.

“Did anyone call for a bellman?” he asked as he walked onstage, launching into how his firsthand experience led to the lightbulb-over-his-head moment of product creation. In one amusing anecdote, he relayed a story one resort exec told him about how housekeepers were using toilet paper rolls to keep hotel room doors open while they worked.

“It’s a big issue in these hotels and I don’t think people understand that, especially the Sharks. But the people in the crowd did,” Hengler says post-contest, adding that his clients include MGM Resorts and the Venetian Hotel-Casino, as well as schools and military housing. Sales so far: around 200,000 units.

That was the competition clincher.

“Now you’re talking!” Daymond John exclaimed on stage, rising out of his chair to fist-bump Hengler. “This isn’t as stupid as I thought. It’s great!”

Enthusiasm extended to O’Leary, albeit with his typical … aplomb. “I thought this was an absolute piece of (fill in the blank), but I was wrong,” he said. “This guy’s got revenue, so he’s top of the heap. Sales trumps everything. Bill, you’re the real deal.”

With that, the winner swam away with the prize, leaving the Sharks with a full belly of entrepreneurial food for thought.

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October 22-28

by Steve Bornfeld/Las Vegas Newswire

by Steve Bornfeld/Las Vegas Newswire