Photo gallery from the May 15 Shark Tank. For more detailed information, please click on the photos above.

On a recent spring evening, eight research teams from across the Brigham presented in front of a panel of scientific experts, donors and trustees and invited them to explore the brain with a neurosurgeon; envision a new animal model for heart failure; imagine a day when we can transplant an eye; watch a device that can detect the cause of a drug overdose in action; discover how salamanders heal without scars; and more. During their five-minute pitches, each team made a case for why the panelists should vote for their high-risk, high-reward project to receive seed funding. After a five-minute question and answer session, each team was escorted back to the waiting area to await the panel’s ultimate decision.

Fondly known as the Shark Tank, the May 15 event was the seventh in what has become an annual tradition at the Brigham. Since 2012, more than $1 million has been distributed to BWH investigators through these awards. This year’s competition, open to the entire Brigham community, offered two $50,000 awards, sponsored by the Brigham Research Institute (BRI) and the BWH Health & Technology Subcommittee, for projects that have the potential to advance the state of the applicant’s field of choice, deliver better health care, launch new companies, save money, improve care or transform medicine. This year, for the first time, the event included a second track made possible by the generosity of the Schlager Family and support from the Brigham Digital Innovation Hub. The Schlager Family Award for Early Stage Digital Health Innovation focused on advancing digital innovation toward commercialization, offering two $25,000 awards.

But at the end of the evening, as votes were tallied, the Shark Tank’s organizers had to confer about a tie among the four projects competing in the second track. Adam Landman, chief information officer for Brigham Health, spoke with Dan Tatar, president of the ADK Group and a member of the Brigham’s Board of Overseers, who had been asked to announce the winners that evening.

“When Adam told me that there was a bit of a challenge and that all the projects in Track B had received many votes, I felt that if there was a way to help, I wanted to do it. These were all good ideas and all deserving of funding. Why not find a way to help all four move forward?” said Tatar, who pledged his support that evening and allowed all four projects to receive funding.

Engaging Donors

Tatar’s generous gift extends a legacy of giving both inspired by and enabling Shark Tanks past and present. Donors have been moved to fund projects on the spot at previous Shark Tank events or have followed up after to express their interest in supporting a project that did not win the competition. Terry McGowan, assistant vice president of institutional research in the Development Office, credits this to the engaging and unusual nature of these kinds of events.

“In most cases, when a donor makes a gift to support medical research, they have pre-selected the disease area, researcher and sometimes the specific project, but this is a different way of engaging donors,” said McGowan. “This is a unique format that gives them a taste of the innovation happening across the Brigham, lets them hear scientific experts challenge and praise a variety of projects, makes them a part of the deliberation and allows them to see, in real-time, the results when the winners are announced.”

“The Schlager Family is honored to help underwrite this creative program,” said Eric Schlager. “This unique and exciting format promotes and rewards innovation, collaboration and  out of the box thinking, all which will only enhance Brigham and Women’s mission of transforming medicine through life giving breakthroughs.”

A Legacy of Innovating

The original idea for the Brigham Shark Tank events emerged from discussions in 2010 with members of the Research Oversight Committee about how to award a pool of money to help fuel innovative ideas. These discussions resulted in the Brigham’s first “shark tank,” held in 2012 for the Translatable Technologies & Care Innovation Awards, sponsored by the BRI.

Traditionally, researchers submit written applications for grants and other funding opportunities, and a panel of scientific experts determines how to award funding behind closed doors. But these awards had researchers pitching their projects live in front of a closed-door review committee composed of BWH scientific experts and donors/friends of the Brigham from outside of the scientific community.  This format represented a major shift, both for reviewers and for applicants, and was the first of its kind at the Brigham. The addition of potential donors and experts from outside the scientific community was also a first for the Brigham research community.

“This was a big experiment for us,” said Anu Swaminathan, PhD, director for Scientific Programs and Partnerships at the BRI. “We had never done something like this before. And the external participants in particular loved it. We thought, maybe we’ve hit upon something here.”

Each year, the BRI has tweaked the format, continuing the spirit of experimentation. One memorable year, Kevin O’Leary, a Boston venture capitalist who stars in the ABC show “Shark Tank,” participated as a judge. Unlike the years prior and since, the event was open to the entire Brigham community, and attracted a standing room only crowd in Bornstein Amphitheater.

This year’s Schlager Family Awards for Early Stage Digital Health Innovation allowed the BRI and iHub to try something new. The $25,000 awards offered in this track for early stage digital health innovation ideas have the potential to have a big impact on innovation, according to Brian Mullen, PhD, innovation strategy manager for iHub.

“Targeted use of funds to quickly test an early idea has great value to advancing your idea, and can help you achieve a key milestone that will verify that your idea might have commercial potential and warrants further investment, resources and support,” said Mullen. “Ultimately, this is the start of a long journey. Targeted amounts of money are key to demonstrating what you need to be competitive for larger funding opportunities to help your idea really take off.”

Both Track A (theme-agnostic, $50K awards) and Track B/Schlager Family awards of the BWH Health & Technology Innovation Awards  will be offered once again this fall – interested BWHers can find more details here.

At the conclusion of the spring 2018 Shark Tank event, the six winning teams were elated and humbled by the support from the Brigham and its donors.

“Sessions like these that inspire innovation are part of the reason why I came to the Brigham,” said Scott Weiner, MD, MPH, of the Department of Emergency Medicine and director of the Brigham Comprehensive Opioid Response and Education (B-CORE) Program. “Our project will trial a new technology to determine causes of overdose with just a simple, non-invasive lead to the forehead, and it could not be done without this generous funding. My team is extremely grateful for the organizers and donors who made this possible.”