The moment Bonnie Greenwood donned her Playboy bunny ears, she thought she’d made a terrible mistake: The buttoned-up business crowd was deathly silent.

Then the 56-year-old, 5-foot 6-inch blond realized the audience couldn’t see her.

She moved closer to the podium.

“And all the sudden, the whole place went up in laughter,” said Greenwood, owner of Transitions Inc. in Verona.

Relieved, Greenwood knew she had accomplished a key objective for presenters in the Elevator Pitch Olympics: Get people’s attention.

The laughter prevented her from finishing in the allotted time. But Greenwood, who presented on Halloween, still made enough of an impression to be among the four highest-scoring entrepreneurs making 90-second pitches.

Greenwood and 24 other Wisconsin entrepreneurs told their companies’ stories to eight financier / judges and an audience of about 150 people at the event, which takes its name from the amount of time that they have to make their pitch – about as long as an elevator ride.

The pitches were part of the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, which drew nearly three dozen investors from Wisconsin, Minnesota, California and Illinois to Madison’s Monona Terrace Community and Conference Center.

The pitches tested the entrepreneurs’ ability to summarize their companies quickly, but they also showed the diversity and number of eager, young companies in the state trying to capture any advantage they can get, said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which sponsored the event.

Participants ranged from Ancient Wood LLC, a LaPointe company that salvages 10,000-year-old wood from New Zealand, to a range of start-ups in energy, life sciences and other areas.

Along with Greenwood, whose company helps seniors move to retirement facilities, the other three top-ranking presenters were: Hirak Basu of Colby Pharmaceuticals, Madison; Erik Bergman of Luminary Biosciences, Elm Grove; and Anthony Escarcega of Ratio Drug Delivery, Madison.

Participants were evaluated in two categories: whether the judges would be interested in having a first meeting with them, and whether the judges would read beyond the first page of their business plan if it landed on their desk.

Basu, an associate scientist at the University of Wisconsin Comprehensive Cancer Center, was the only presenter in the two-year existence of the Elevator Pitch contest to get a perfect score in either category. All of the judges who saw his presentation said they’d want to read beyond the first page of Basu’s business plan, Still said.

The event had its share of veterans. Greenwood’s Transitions is a 10-year-old company that wants to raise funds to expand. Escarcega says Ratio already has received funding from an angel investor in Indiana.

But there were many more like Luminary, which started in April with technology developed at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and were getting their first taste of how to give investors what they want.

Bergman, Luminary’s chief executive officer, said he got a lot of constructive feedback in his first-ever pitch for the company.

The judges “acknowledged the challenge of articulating in 90 seconds something that’s going to hook a potential investor and gave tips on how to address major areas – like who the potential customers are and the estimated payoff,” Bergman said.

A lot of rookie presenters make the mistake of dwelling on their technology, rather than making sure they identify the problem they hope to solve, how their product will do it better than competitors and the size of the market, Still said.

“So many presentations in traditional venture conference settings have too much technology and not enough about the market,” he said.

The high scorers all clarified their potential markets, he said.

But when all you’ve got is 90 seconds to tell your story, it doesn’t hurt to have a hook like Greenwood’s headgear, either, said Trevor D’Souza, a judge for the event and managing director at Mason Wells, a Milwaukee private equity firm.

“When she walked up with the bunny ears, I wrote a (highest score of) five and put my hand up right away,” D’Souza said.

Elevator Olympians
Four state companies got the highest scores for their 90-second presentations in the Elevator Pitch Olympics:

Presenter: Hirak Basu
Business: Colby is developing patent-protected, anti-oxidant drugs to prevent and stop the spread of prostate cancer and other diseases. Two of the company’s drugs are having a significant impact on tumor development and progression in animals, company representatives say.
What judges liked: The company has big opportunities in an under-served market.

Presenter: Erik Bergman
Business: Luminary is developing a novel device that non-invasively delivers near infrared light energy deep into the body to work as a therapeutic for neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, and eventually cardiovascular disease and cancer.
What judges liked: The company has a novel twist on a technology that’s already in use, and its product would be non-invasive.

RATIO INC., Madison
Presenter: Anthony Escarcega
Business: Ratio is developing a method for delivering large molecule drugs, such as insulin, growth hormone or many of the antibody drugs used to treat cancer. The first product it is aiming to introduce is a patch with a gel that expands to push a tiny needle into the skin.
What judges liked: The company has a less invasive technology for a potentially big market.

Presenter: Bonnie Greenwood
Business: Offers personalized moving management services to senior citizens and others. Transitions does everything from switching phone service to moving furniture and selling items that are no longer needed.
What judges liked: The company’s demographics-driven market opportunities and, of course, Greenwood’s Playboy bunny ears.