Arts students pitch business ideas in a friendlier shark tank

Kevin Fredrick (left), Matthew McKay and and Jeremy Griffith pitch their idea to take their sketch comedy production company into the world of virtual reality.
Kevin Fredrick (left), Matthew McKay and and Jeremy Griffith pitch their idea to take their sketch comedy production company into the world of virtual reality.
Priska Neely/KPCC
Kevin Fredrick (left), Matthew McKay and and Jeremy Griffith pitch their idea to take their sketch comedy production company into the world of virtual reality.
Ekta Aggarwal, an MFA student studying painting, made a pitch for her India-based, eco-friendly handbag company. Her business was one of four to make it into the summer incubator program.
Priska Neely/KPCC
Kevin Fredrick (left), Matthew McKay and and Jeremy Griffith pitch their idea to take their sketch comedy production company into the world of virtual reality.
Rita Soultanian, the director of career services at CalArts, was proud to see the students accomplish something different. "They're going to get to take those skills with them into the real world," she said.
Priska Neely/KPCC

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As an actor, Jeremy Griffith is used to being up in front of people, but one recent performance made him feel out of his depth: Standing before a five-judge panel, he had to make a business pitch.

"It’s very foreign to most of the artists who try to get involved [in business,]" Griffith said. "Information to teach artists how to do this kind of stuff is a lot scarcer than for other businesses."

Perhaps out of habit, he started his presentation with a joke: "Despite our attire this afternoon, we’re not a boyband from the 90s. We are a production company."

Griffith and fellow actors Kevin C. Fredrick and Matthew McKay are the comedians behind Tri House Films. They've been putting video and podcast content online for about six months and now they want to translate sketch comedy for the world of virtual reality (VR).

They were one of eight teams to pitch their business ideas at the Draper Competition for Creative Innovators, a new event at the California Institute of the Arts. Students and alumni presented their business ideas for a chance at a $3,500 prize and a spot in a five-week incubator program, where they'll receive a mentor, funds to cover living expenses and a work space on campus.

Though it would have been easy to call the event "Shark Tank" for artists, organizers at CalArts shied away from comparing the contest to the TV show on ABC, where cutthroat venture capitalists decide to back or embarrass business owners.

"Somebody came up with such a clever name for it: Dolphin Pool," said Rita Soultanian, director of career services at CalArts. "We wanted this to be a kinder and gentler way to learn how to do this stuff. We don’t want it to feel like – 'and now I’m getting attacked!'"

During their presentation, the Tri-House team drops in numbers about the potential market, the growth of the industry and how many networks and social media platforms are scrambling to produce VR content. 

The competition's judges – a mix of investors, brand strategists, and designers – found the concept intriguing. But venture capitalist Tracy McWilliams pressed them, "Why this direction?"

"Because the market is there and waiting," Fredrick responded. "We’re content creators and we got this new technology and all you get is 360[-degree] room tours. That’s not what we thought we were going to get." 

The judges then spent about 20 minutes probing the group with questions about their vision and giving the group suggestions on how to better shape their idea.

"We are passionate about making sure that the form and function fit together," Griffith said as the presentation wrapped up. "We would think more – hopefully during the incubator – to really hone in on specific ways that VR can augment the experience."

Over the course of the Saturday, they heard a wide-range of pitches, ranging from an India-based, eco-friendly handbag business, to an experimental design studio. Tri-House was the last to pitch and afterwards the judges left to deliberate.

The pitch competition is one of the new offerings of a recently beefed-up career services department at CalArts. Previously, students have relied on academic advisors to offer life planning and career advice. Soultanian was charged with creating a central resource for career guidance at the university.

One motivating factor for the school was a batch of data from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), which surveys arts school graduates on various topics. The 2009 report revealed that most students were dissatisfied with the amount of career advice they received. 

Survey results from 2015 show that while 71 percent of arts alumni indicated entrepreneurial skills were important to their work life, only 26 percent reported their institution helped them develop entrepreneurial skills.

"That SNAAP survey shed a lot of light onto art and design schools," said Soultanian. "A lot of us are very strong in delivering techniques and methodologies for artists, but students were really eager to gain more by way of professional skill sets and gain entrepreneurship skills." 

Last year, CalArts launched the Hybrid Incubator of Visionary Entrepreneurs, also known as the HIVE – a new initiative in the career services branch of the school. Pairing business skills with design thinking, the HIVE offers seminars to students throughout the year on the how-to’s of launching an organization, raising funds, social media marketing and more – all culminating in the pitch competition.

"I went to art school, so I’m very familiar with the critique environment," said contest judge Ryan Germick, a principal designer at Google who leads the team behind the Google Doodle. "And I’m a citizen of Silicon Valley, so to combine those worlds is really interesting."

Several arts schools, including the Rhode Island School of Design, Maryland Institute College of Art and Pratt Institute, have also developed more intensive career services programs in recent years. Germick said he's glad to see more opportunities for arts students to develop business skills before graduation.

"That was always the frustration I had in art school," said Germick, "was people would learn the craft but not learn how to say something and how to connect with an audience."

As the judges deliberated, the teams paced around nervously reflecting on presentations and hesitantly mingling with other groups. As he waited, Griffith realized he'd already taken away a useful lesson for his production company.

"They helped me frame it in a way that’s like it’s a code to crack – I didn’t think of it in that way," he said. "It’s like we need to be the ones to figure out how to make comedy work for VR."

After about 30 minutes, the judges returned and announced that four teams, including Tri-House Productions, would receive the cash prizes and incubator spots. 

The comedians were thrilled to have the chance to experiment with virtual reality technology. And Griffith squeezed in one more joke, "We're going to crack the code, like Nicholas Cage in a National Treasure movie."