By Tom Still

MADISON – If you want to know where entrepreneurs smell opportunities, take a look at this year’s list of semi-finalists in the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

The 52 semi-finalists in this year’s contest, who were selected from a competitive field of 284 entries, are a microcosm of innovation trends reshaping the economy. Their ideas, which range from the deceptively simple “Why didn’t I think of that?” to complex marriages of different sciences, demonstrate that entrepreneurs have a knack for moving to where the action is in the marketplace.

The contest’s broad categories – advanced manufacturing, business services, information technology and life sciences – haven’t changed since the BPC was launched in 2004 as the nation’s first statewide, tech-based business plan contest. But the trends within those categories have shifted over time to reflect changes in major sectors.

For example, the contest’s early years generated a number of life science entries in the diagnostics and “toolkit” arenas. That was no surprise: Wisconsin’s biotech industry was known for producing analytics and products for other researchers. It’s the modern equivalent of selling picks and shovels to California gold miners in 1849.

Over time, however, the life sciences category attracted more ideas for drug discovery and medical devices as the state’s health sciences economy matured. The last two years have produced more entries involving bioproducts and uses of biotechnology outside of medicine, such as food production and handling.

Eight of this year’s semi-finalists have tech-based ideas related to food, including converting waste to energy, producing “no-cook” natural foods, processing food-grade soybeans for foreign markets, raising cool-water fish in a more sustainable way; an antimicrobial coating for metal fixtures such as door knobs; and using natural antimicrobial proteins to control pathogens that can harm plants and crops.

Energy generation and management and other “cleantech” ideas were barely on the list in the contest’s first few years but are a recurring theme today as society struggles to better manage its use of energy, water and other resources.

Spread among all four categories, about 15 cleantech ideas include: a renewable energy system for small businesses and mid-sized industries; a water-saving flow-control valve for showers and faucets; a portable lighting kit designed for the video industry; a process for the green “deconstruction” of buildings; an anaerobic digester that generates biogas from waste in one-fourth the average time; less expensive geothermal heat pumps; a capacitor for high-power applications that use nanotechnology to increase power and reduce waste; a process to recover metals from fluid waste streams; and an intelligent, programmable power strip.

Other cleantech ideas include a “solar window” that can power day-lighting and solar-heating system for indoor pools; a process to convert corn oil syrup from ethanol plants into biodiesel; a free online marketing and networking service that connects green businesses and shoppers; and a product that can restore many failed septic systems.

Wisconsin is still a leading manufacturing state, and many ideas reflect the fact that tomorrow’s manufactured products may be created or improved with the help of technology. From papermaking to wheelchairs, from snow-throwers to advances in micro-tool cutting performance, the list includes entries that could transform how things are made.

Sometimes lost in Wisconsin’s life science prominence is the fact that software, internet applications and information technology networks are an emerging strength. Some of those ideas include virtual network infrastructure management for small businesses; software that can help manage health-care costs or quality, electronic medical records; and ways for students, businesses and consumers to get – and manage – better information.

And some ideas make you wonder why someone else didn’t do it first, such as a “live” school yearbook that integrates social media; a game-based way to teach boys about history; and a device that helps bicyclists see what’s behind them without losing sight of what’s ahead.

This year’s semi-finalist plans were entered by entrepreneurs from some of Wisconsin’s largest cities and smallest communities. Also, there are a handful of ideas from entrepreneurs outside Wisconsin who have signaled they want to move or expand here, which is a testimony to the state’s growing entrepreneurial reputation.

The contest won’t end until winners are selected in June, but the semi-finalists already provide a sense of market trends that could lead to new products and processes – as well as incubators for the next generation of jobs.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which produces the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest. For a list of contest semi-finalists, visit the newsroom at