The eighth annual Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, a process that has helped start-up companies get up and running with the help of prizes, mentoring and access to private capital, is open for entries for the 2011 contest season.

The BPC has attracted about 1,800 entries in its first seven years, with roughly 160 finalists sharing in $1 million in cash and other in-kind prizes. The contest begins with a 250-word abstract that is filed online at no later than 5 p.m. Jan. 31, 2011.

The contest opened at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium this month and the grand prize is $50,000 in cash and services.

The contest has four categories: Advanced manufacturing, business services, information technology and life sciences. In the first stage, contestants cover four topics: Product or service description; customer definition: their needs – your solution; market description, size and sales strategy; and competition.

The contest is conducted in three written phases, culminating in oral presentations at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee in June. Mentoring is available after the first phase, and participants will be eligible to take part in an early March “boot camp.” The contest is judged by more than 70 experienced entrepreneurs, investors and service professionals.

Contestants must be 18 or older and a resident of Wisconsin to enter, although out-of-state residents may enter upon demonstrating they intend to move their business to Wisconsin. The goal of the contest is to stimulate company creation and business growth, especially in tech sectors that are a part of Wisconsin’s “knowledge-based” economy.

Four regional or collegiate contests will feed into the statewide competition. Those are the G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition at the UW-Madison, the Marquette University Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship Business Plan Contest, the Northeast Wisconsin Business Plan Contest, and the Mason Wells BizStarts Collegiate Business Plan Competition.

“It’s important to build a network of regional and college contests that can augment the Governor’s Business Plan Contest, which remains one of the premier statewide competitions for entrepreneurs working in the tech-based economy,” said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. The Tech Council produces the BPC.

Past BPC finalists have raised about $20 million in private equity. Here are the stages of the 2011 competition:

* In the “Business Concepts” phase, which is open until Monday, Jan. 31, 2010 at 5 p.m., the contest will accept IDEA Abstracts on the web site. IDEA abstracts are 250-word business concepts that will be graded on a scale of 1-10 (10 highest) by our judges. The top 50 IDEA Abstract presenters will be asked to write an Executive Summary.

* In the “Executive Summary” phase, which runs from Feb. 24 to March 14, 2011, the top 50 IDEA Abstract presenters, plus ties, post their 1,000-word summaries online for comments by the judges. Contestants may be encouraged to revise their plans based on judges’ comments. The top 20 plan summaries are selected for the final round.

* In the “Final Writing Business Plan” phase, which runs from April 8 to April 25, 2011, the top 20 Executive Summary presenters, plus ties, prepare 20-page plans for judging. Limited comments and mentoring continues.

Judges will review the plans and pick three place winners in each category to advance as the “Diligent Dozen.”The “Diligent Dozen” will present and compete in front of live judging for the grand prize at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference to be held June 7-8 in Milwaukee.

The Tech Council is the non-profit, bipartisan science and technology adviser to the governor and the Legislature. Its programs include the Wisconsin Innovation Network, the Wisconsin Angel Network, the Wisconsin Security Research Consortium and the BPC.

Sponsors for the 2010 BPC were: 5Nines/Matador Consulting; Aberdean Consulting LLC; Alliant Energy; American Transmission Co.; Associated Bank; Earth Information Technologies; Epiphany Law; Fitchburg Technology Campus; Foley & Lardner LLP; Forte Research Systems; Frontier Airlines; The Gialamas Company; The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and Journal Interactive; Kollath & Associates, CPAs; The Luminis Group, Ltd.; Madison Area Technical College; Madison Gas & Electric Co.; McAllen TECH Campus; Michael Best & Friedrich LLP; Murphy Desmond; Perkins Coie; Quarles & Brady LLP; Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren s.c.; Ruedebusch Development & Construction; Rusk Prairie Group; Smith & Gesteland LLP; State of Wisconsin Investment Board; TDS Telecom; University Research Park; Wisconsin Department of Commerce;; Wisconsin Angel Network; Wisconsin Tech College System; Wisconsin Technology Council; WTN Media; and Xcel Energy.