By Tom Still

MADISON – The annual Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest has always been a canary in a high-tech coal mine, chirping out alerts about the kinds of businesses emerging in the state’s economic sectors.

This year’s contest, in which the pool of entries has been trimmed to under 50 contestants, is no exception to the rule. The list of semi-finalists reflects efforts to solve market and social problems, big and small, while also signaling the increasing diversity of Wisconsin’s economy.

The survivors are a microcosm of Wisconsin innovation, with finalists pushing the envelope in traditional sectors – manufacturing and agriculture – as well as information technology, health care, transportation, public safety and more. Here are some examples:

Two plans address innovation in battery technology, an area in which Wisconsin has core industry and academic expertise. Two others capture the rise in drone technologies, which can be put to work across many business fields in Wisconsin – from farming to real estate, and from insurance to product delivery.

Public safety is addressed by plans to help firefighters safely navigate their way out of burning structures; to rapidly deploy housing “pods” for use in disaster or refugee settings; to provide an improved non-lethal weapon for use by law enforcement officers; and to quickly erect a new system of flood barriers.

Some plans use information technology to attack old problems in new ways. Those include business plans to simulate “additive manufacturing” processes such as 3D printing; to streamline connections between suppliers and manufacturers; to help seniors sign up for Medicare; to divert organic material from the waste stream; to onboard employees into an organization; and to exchange contact information in business and social settings.

Other plans with a software or IT foundation relate to photo and image archiving, physical training, soil testing and trucking industry efficiency.

The chronic shortage of speech therapists in schools and other settings is addressed by a plan to bring “teletherapy” to hard-to-reach or underserved places.

Did you know crickets can be a source of protein for people? A plan for a more nutritious “cricket powder” jumps out for those who didn’t have that common insect on their menus.

Also competing in the semi-final round are plans tied to medical breakthroughs, such as treating or diagnosing cardiac arrhythmia, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, heparin reactions, opiate addictions, strokes and a specific leukemia. Products to better target tumors, to store certain bio-samples at room temperature and to improve foods for tube-fed patients are also part of the mix.

The 14th annual contest began in late January with entrants from scores of communities across Wisconsin, further evidence that entrepreneurs with good ideas can hail from anywhere. The list was narrowed by independent judges in late February to about 50 semi-finalists and will be culled again before the “Diligent Dozen” present live June 6 at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference.

What makes the semi-finalists’ business plans special? For starters, each competitor has identified a problem or inefficiency someplace in the marketplace and come up with a solution that can make money for them and any investors or partners they attract along the way.

Their plans often stand out because they reflect larger market or even societal trends – and because they have built a credible team or know what talent gaps must be plugged. Entrepreneurism is rarely an individual sport.

While that may challenge the popular image of the lone-wolf entrepreneur, the reality is that most startups involve multiple people who bring different strengths to the enterprise – vision, technical depth, company building skills, or the ability to market and sell to customers. While one entrepreneur may take the lead role, he or she rarely stands alone.

Wisconsin is sometimes dinged for its lack of business startups, and the Governor’s Business Plan Contest is among resources committed to producing more. The real prize for most entrants doesn’t come at the end of the competition – but with the nudge it provides in turning plans into reality.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which produces the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest (  He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.