What started as a minor annoyance while stationed in Iraq led to a million-dollar idea for Robert Patton.

Faced with the country's hot climate and a lack of air conditioning, Patton, who is from Colorado Springs, Colorado, said his gear made it unbearable, particularly his pants.

"I was so uncomfortable that I just had an epiphany that there's got to be a better pair of underwear," he said.

So in 2008, Patton developed Sheath Underwear, which features a pouch to prevent skin-on-skin contact, allowing its wearer to stay cooler and dryer. The underwear soon expanded to women and made $1 million in its first year after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Patton was just one of hundreds of entrepreneurs who brought their products to Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday to audition for the TV series "Shark Tank," which features entrepreneurs proposing concepts to a panel of investors, who can then choose to buy part of the company. The show has run on ABC for 10 seasons, and now is holding auditions for its 11th.

Saturday's event was organized by the Engler Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and although none of the show's "sharks" were present in Lincoln, five casting producers involved with the show heard the propositions. They will take notes from the auditions back to Los Angeles, where the show's producers will decide who to pick for the series.

Brennan Costello, chief business relations officer for the Engler Program, which helps entrepreneurs in the Midwest, said the program originally wanted to bring casting producer Mindy Zemrak to judge one of its student competitions.

But Zemrak could only come if it was a casting call, so Costello proposed the idea of holding an audition for "Shark Tank" in Lincoln. He said Zemrak, who has worked with the show since its first season, was skeptical at first, mostly because the auditions are typically held in bigger cities such as Dallas and Miami.

"They don’t really come to markets like Lincoln," he said. "So, my first job was convincing her that we had entrepreneurs in the Heartland, because the casting call’s never been to Nebraska, and then convincing her that Engler could pull it off."

After getting Zemrak's approval, the Engler Program started planning the event, which was its biggest project yet.

About 300 people signed up for auditions. After gathering in the lobby at the arena, the entrepreneurs were led individually into a small room, where they met with one of the five casting producers. They were given one minute to make their pitch, with a short questioning period after their presentation.

If a participant is selected, they will be notified in two to three weeks before flying out to L.A. to film the show in June and September. Although about 30,000 people audition across the country, only about 90 make the cut, Zemrak said.

Patton, who projects about $2 million in sales this year for Sheath Underwear, said he hopes to sell 20% of his company to an investor for $200,000 if he's selected.

"We're actually doing it successfully without the sharks, but we could do a lot better," he said.

Patton had originally auditioned for the show in 2013 with a basic prototype of his underwear. But this time, he said he felt much more prepared.

"The product is better, my presentation is better, I'm more confident in myself," Patton said. "I've been on TV, I've made videos now, whereas before, I was just like a deer in the headlights."

Other entrepreneurs brought a wide range of products, including one Nebraska woman's potato salad. Tory McVicker of Alliance brought her grandmother's 100-year-old recipe.

"The first thing you're going to notice is that our potatoes are shredded instead of cubed, which is not going to leave you that big, bland taste of potato. And it's going to be a very sweet and tangy sauce that's on it," she said. "It's not the vinegar type that you normally see."

The dish has been produced and sold to local delis, and McVicker said that made her realize how popular the potato salad could be.

"That’s what we'd like to expand on, is where we can get it to and how to break that barrier to get it more places," she said.

While some presenters focused on food for people, other proposals included food for animals. Haley Russell and Laura Colagrande's Chippin dog treats are made with cricket protein.

"From a nutritional perspective, it's a really healthy snack that adds protein variety to your dog," Colagrande said. "It's really good for a dog's coat and their digestive system."

The snack also comes with a low environmental cost, as crickets require much less water to provide the same amount of protein as other sources such as poultry or beef, Russell and Colagrande said.

Russell said the idea came after she adopted a sustainable lifestyle and was trying to find a good treat for her dog, Wren.

"This kind of frustration and problem around being able to find food that was both natural, delicious and sustainable was something that I wasn't just feeling, but it was something that a lot of people were feeling," Russell said.

The two were roommates at the University of Pennsylvania when they decided to go into business together. Russell, who is from Washington, D.C., and Colagrande, who is from Los Angeles, decided to meet halfway for the audition.

During the audition process, the two brought Batman, a Boston terrier, to demonstrate how tasty the snacks are.

Colagrande said she felt that the participants formed a "collaborative community" during Saturday's auditions and didn't feel any harsh competitiveness.

"Everyone had an entirely differently business, an entirely different background," Russell said. "And that in and of itself was cool for us, coming from two different coasts."

Costello said while some people may not associate Nebraska with entrepreneurship, he saw dedication from everybody who decided to audition for "Shark Tank."

"We get this is a reality TV show, but it's a chance to really celebrate and encourage entrepreneurship," he said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7241 or cspilinek@journalstar.com.


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