Lights flash. Suspenseful music swells. An up-and-coming entrepreneur pitches his game-changing technology that may or may not offer a solution for COVID-19 woes. A group of wealthy individuals listen closely and then offer their assessments — and possibly an investment that could give a fledgling company its big break.
“Shark Tank,” you say? No, the aspiring businessman has stepped into the Circle of Money, the panel of investors in “Unicorn Hunters,” a new — and very similar — reality TV venture associated with TransparentBusiness, the obscure software company behind a failed push to get state governments to require IT contractors to use its productivity-monitoring software as a pathway to its own dreams of a multi-billion-dollar valuation.
“Unicorn Hunters,” which does not yet have a broadcast distributor and is only available on the show’s own website, is TransparentBusiness’ latest gambit at chasing the hype around “unicorns” — startup companies that top $1 billion valuations before their initial public offerings — and a mantle the company has long chased in its own pitches to investors as it sought to enmesh itself in state governments, through both a nationwide lobbying effort and an early-pandemic plea to governors.
Those efforts brought swift and uncharacteristically vocal opposition from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, whose leaders said mandates that state IT contractors use key-logging and time-monitoring software would jeopardize CIOs’ relationships with their vendors and their abilities to comply with federal data-security regulations.
The “Unicorn Hunters” show veers away from growing TransparentBusiness’ share of the spyware market and toward other companies with dreams of making it big. And unlike “Shark Tank,” in which only hosts like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban put up their cash, “Unicorn Hunters” claims that in addition to its Circle of Money — an eclectic group that includes former boy-bander Lance Bass and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, in addition to TransparentBusiness’ top executives — viewers get a chance to invest.
“It’s about the democratization of access to wealth creation,” said Moe Vela, a former White House official who is TransparentBusiness’ chief transparency officer, and now part of the seven-member Circle of Money. “For far too long, pretty much venture capitalists and Wall Street were the only ones who had opportunities to pre-IPO opportunities.”
A sizzle reel for “Unicorn Hunters” claims that it is “the only show that can make you rich.” Vela, who was an adviser to former Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden — and spent much of 2020 pitching political reporters about Biden’s presidential run — said that while the idea for the show was conceived late last year, production started after GameStop’s stock surged in January following an effort coordinated by Reddit users.
“If you didn’t learn anything from Robinhood, Reddit and GameStop,” he said, referring to the mobile trading app that targets casual investors, “people were raising their hands saying ‘Why can’t I?’ That is a huge impetus for this show. You couldn’t have sat here and watch that and not realize people are yearning to participate.”
‘Can this make you tan?’
Despite the populist slant, fine print on the “Unicorn Hunters” website clarifies that it’s attempting to attract accredited investors, who are required by the Securities and Exchange Commission to have an annual income at least $200,000 or minimum net worth of $1 million, though Vela said some companies featured on the show may raise money through crowdfunding efforts. The show also takes pains to say that any transactions that may result from the production are between individual investors and the companies, and that it is not acting as a broker.
But the show itself aims for the razzle-dazzle familiar to competition-style reality shows. Unlike the corporate-cool set on “Shark Tank,” “Unicorn Hunters” — which Vela said was shot over the course of about a week last month on a soundstage in Santa Clarita, California — arranges its Circle of Money around a vast ring-shaped table in front of a glittering LED backdrop.
From there, though, the formula is similar: The eager business-owner steps into the center of the ring and makes his pitch. The premiere episode features PJ Piper, the founder of Far UV, a five-year-old company that manufactures ultraviolet lamps that it claims can disinfect rooms from pathogens like the novel coronavirus. The Circle of Money members ask questions. Vela and Scott Livingston, a securities broker and self-described “king of nanotechnology on Wall Street,” asks about price points. Wozniak and Rosie Rios, a former U.S. treasurer, ask about manufacturing capacity. “Can this make you tan?” Bass asks. (It cannot, Piper says.)
Wozniak was brought in by the show’s producer, Craig Plestis, who’s worked on several other game shows, like “The Masked Singer,” while Bass joined because he’s a personal friend of Vela’s. “They believe in what we’re doing,” Vela said.
Vela also resisted the “Shark Tank,” comparisons, calling his show more positive and supportive. “We don’t tear people down. It’s a very different format,” he said.
Still, “Unicorn Hunters” is very much an extension of TransparentBusiness. The company owns a majority stake in the production, and its founders, Alex Konanykhin and Silvina Moschini, are listed along with Vela as executive producers. It’s also a flashy production without a broadcaster, though Vela said there may be a syndication deal if there’s a second season.
As for TransparentBusiness’ flagship product, Vela demurred when asked, only saying that he was “thrilled with the growth.” He also said he did not remember the company’s past entanglements with NASCIO, the leaders of which met with Konanykhin and Vela in Washington amid the company’s lobbying spree.
“I don’t recall,” he said. “We’ve been so busy.”