Chasing the dragons

Canadian executives audition to invest $200,000 in startups on national TV

This summer, CBC will produce a Canadian version of the hit British TV series Dragons' Den. A hybrid reality show/game show, Dragons' Den gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their ideas to wealthy business gurus–a.k.a. the “dragons”–on national television. Meanwhile, said dragons promise to invest at least $200,000 of their own dough in the products and inventions presented to them over the course of the series.

For entrepreneurs, getting investors on board is generally a nerve-racking process. Investors usually have the upper hand in negotiations. But on a Thursday afternoon in Toronto in early June, the tables were turned. Seated in a darkened studio on the top floor of CBC headquarters, waiting to audition for the chance to play judge over tomorrow's crop of entrepreneurs, it was the would-be dragons nervously tugging at their collars.

Hovering in the dressing room, Drake Hotel owner Jeff Stober (also founder of dot com-era darling CNC Global) said, “I can size up a business in six seconds.” But Stober, clad in casual khakis and chunky glasses, was also wary: “I'm not sure if I want to put my personality on TV.”

For his part, La Senza Corp. president Laurence Lewin expects good deals may come of the show, but says he's aware “it's about making a fun television series.” Meanwhile, Russian-Canadian steel billionaire Alex Shnaider, dressed immaculately in tailored navy suit and shiny black loafers, looked on silently with an air of vague amusement.

Once assembled, the panel of auditioning executives sprang to life. Pitched on everything from enhanced automobile bumpers to software that locates people suffering medical emergencies, they went straight into interrogation mode. Stober and Lewin were friendly; founder and president of Cargo Cosmetics Hana Zalzal was quiet, but got in a few zingers (bluntly telling one man she just didn't see the point of his windows-for-ducts invention).

But it was Richard Sadowski, co-founder of Kernels Popcorn Ltd., currently the world's largest flavoured popcorn retailer, who stole the show. After letting one presenter go on at length, he lauded her efforts, then casually remarked that he would not be able to fund her initiative because his own company already has two patents on a similar system. As of press time, however, at least one deal pitched during the auditions was being discussed.

In the end, not all the dragons will make the cut. “It's about the chemistry between them,” says executive producer Stuart Coxe–that, and the need to include men and women, young and old, with a variety of expertise represented on the panel. So far, only Teresa Cascioli, of Lakeport Brewing fame, and Kevin O'Leary, software impresario turned ROBTv host, made it on from an earlier audition.

Dragons' Den has had two successful seasons in England, and is preparing for another. But when it was exported to Australia, the show ran just one season and has yet to be renewed. “Canada has hugely creative and inventive people,” says Sadowski. Here's hoping those people find their way onto the show.