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Taking their shot

Samantha Montpetit-Huynh shows her abdominal wrapping product as she pitches her company Bellies Inc. during her Dragons’ Den audition.

Entering its 12th season, CBC's venerable reality show Dragons' Den is still drawing hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs and hundreds of thousands of viewers

The other day in the atrium of the CBC Broadcasting Centre, Samantha Montpetit-Huynh stepped toward a trio of TV producers and stripped off her top.

Just below her shiny black bra, her abdomen was wrapped in what seemed to be a matrix of tensor bandages. It was, she said with an assertive smile, part of the Ab System by Bellies Inc., a $137 program for pregnant and postpartum women to help combat what she called "the dreaded mummy tummy."

She had an engaged listener in Michelle MacMillan, a producer with CBC-TV's Dragons' Den who was on her very first day back from maternity leave.

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It was Day 1 of auditions for the next season of the popular reality show, in which small-business owners pitch themselves to a panel of five Canadian venture capitalists. Now in its 11th season, Dragons' Den still pulls in about 600,000 viewers an episode. If that's a fraction of its historic best ratings, it's back in the news now that Kevin O'Leary, who made for an especially sharp-tongued Dragon during his eight seasons on the show, is in the race for leader of the federal Conservative Party of Canada.

And after all these years, they're still trooping up to Studio 40 on the tenth floor of the CBC Broadcasting Centre: The hopeful and the hard-nosed, the crafty and the oblivious, their dreams and sometimes their nest eggs banking on four minutes of national airtime. Many walk away forlorn, roadkill among the bickering Dragons. "You come in, you have a lot of great things to say, but the Dragons are ultimately, like, five egomaniacs with all the money," one producer cautioned a pitcher. "So you also have to then appeal to them. You need them. So you need to go both ways."

Some do strike handshake deals, even if nothing is certain once the cameras are turned off: As the Report on Business's Tim Kiladze noted in a recent article about O'Leary, only about one-third of the on-air deals actually close.

Lawrence Crook demonstrates his touchscreen work gloves during his audition.

Still, last weekend 46 companies trooped down to CBC Headquarters to take their shot on the first of 36 days of auditions in which producers will hear an estimated 1,500 pitches over the next month and a half, from Vancouver to Fort McMurray, Alta., Windsor, Ont., Belleville, Ont., Fredricton, Halifax, Charlottetown, Montreal, Regina, Winnipeg, Niagara Falls, Ont., and many other cities.

The pitches ranged from work gloves that can be used on touchscreens to fast-food joints to handcrafted furniture to apps and a "virtual veterinary consultation" business, which seemed to especially impress one pet-owning producer.

One man brought in a hockey visor, into which a couple of hundred small holes had been drilled. "What I invented here is a non-fogging visor," he claimed. He handed it over to a producer, who breathed on it and said curtly, "Seems like it fogs up." The man nodded. "A little bit, a little bit," he acknowledged. "It can use some R&D."

Dragons’ Den producer Michelle MacMillan, centre, tries on a glove designed for use with touchscreens during auditions for the show.

Some of the wacky pitches had surprising traction. Derrick Wyss, a GO Transit bus driver from Hamilton, brought along four friends to demonstrate an invention he called Fence in a Bag, which involved telescopic poles and a long length of fabric. They unfurled the 40-foot fabric, studded with holes that looked like film sprockets along the sides to enable the fabric to be folded into a barrier of varying lengths, across a corner of the atrium as Wyss outlined its possible uses.

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"Business could use it as a banner at outdoor events. It's great for covering gaps on an existing fence, and it can help prevent kids or pets from running onto the road after their toys. It's a snow fence, a tree wrap, privacy wind-barrier and a sun shelter," he said. "Police can use it to have privacy for a murder scene. You can haul bodies from your house to the trunk of your car." The producers chuckled, and he added: "It is good to help prevent geese attacks. If they can't see you, the geese won't attack you. I did some research on that one."

Wyss had come up with the idea during a camping trip about five years ago, he said, when he saw some pets getting tangled up in ropes their owners were using to keep them on a campsite. "I said, surely there's got to be something out there. But there's nothing like it on the market."

That light-bulb moment is what keeps the hopefuls coming back to Dragons' Den.

Magician David Lee, also known as the Black Hatter, demonstrates his mind-reading skills during auditions for the next season of CBC’s Dragons’ Den.

Some, though, are happy to reinvent the tried-and-true for a new generation. A couple of tables away, a flamboyant-looking fellow in a grey fedora atop a mop of brown curls pulled out a deck of cards and launched into a Seussian-sounding sales pitch, as a mid-Atlantic accent wafted in and out of his speech. "I am a prognosticator, a prestidigitator, a magician, illusionist – and some would say delusionist, I'm quite certain they'd say. I am a miiind reader." His name was David Michael Lee, he said, and he goes by the name of the Black Hatter. (He had to wear his grey one, he said, because a bird had pooped on his black one that morning as he'd been leaving the house; he hoped it was an omen.) He was asking, he said, for $25,000 "for 50 per cent of me, as a magician, until the Dragons double their money back."

He performed a mind-reading trick and a couple of nifty card tricks that prompted Don Cook, one of the producers, to beam like a giddy child, while his colleague, Bernice Kim, was impressed, though a little cooler. They asked Lee about his business model, and he explained that he was looking for funding for a cross-country tour. "We haven't had a major famous Canadian magician since Doug Henning in the seventies and early eighties," he noted. "I have his hair."

The producers thanked him for his pitch, and, as Lee turned to leave, Kim asked whether he could tell her what she was thinking at that moment. He paused, seemed to listen to the spirits, and declared: "I will go on Dragons' Den. Thank you very much!"

Editor’s note: An earlier headline on this story incorrectly stated that Dragons’ Den is entering its 11th season. In fact, it is preparing for its 12th.
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