By Tom Still

MADISON – People usually enter contests to win prizes, and the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest is no exception to the rule. About $450,000 in cash and in-kind prizes have been awarded in the contest’s first three years.

But the real prize in this statewide contest is unofficial: The chance to launch a tech-based company with a splash.

Since its birth in 2004, the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest has helped entrepreneurs with technology-based ideas for products and services get those plans off the ground. Of the roughly 70 contest finalists over time, about 90 percent are still in business, adding jobs and value to the Wisconsin economy.

Those same finalists have reported $7.5 million in investments, mostly angel capital, venture capital and bank financing.

Entries for the 2007 contest, which will again feature a $50,000 top prize, are being accepted at through Jan. 31, 2007. The initial entry is only 250 words, almost an “elevator pitch” in nature, but subsequent contest rounds help entrepreneurs expand their plan to a version that bankers and investors find useful.

Managed by the Wisconsin Technology Council, the contest sprang out of conversations with Gov. Jim Doyle shortly after he was first elected in 2002. Doyle had talked about the value of a statewide business plan contest during his campaign, and it meshed with similar plans underway within the Tech Council. The result was the nation’s first technology-based business plan contest.

Some 700 entrepreneurs representing more than 100 communities have entered in three years. While not all have reached the finals, some 150 have survived until the semi-final round to receive valuable mentoring through “boot camps” and online exchanges with business experts who volunteer their time.

For most finalists, the process has been worth the investment in time needed to write a compelling plan.

“The Governor’s Business Plan Contest was a very positive and rewarding experience for our team,” said Eric Antonson of U.S. Trailmaps Inc., a Wausau firm that finished second in the 2006 contest’s information technology category. “The exposure given our small company as a director result of our participation and success in the contest has and will continue to add credibility to our organization.”

“The day we won the business plan contest was also the day we made our first sale of our new product,” added Brennan Pardee of GuestBridge, Inc., a Milwaukee-area firm that placed third in the business services category in 2006. “The contest was a great exercise for us to organize our ideas and develop suitable pricing, and it seems to have worked.”

Companies such as NovaScan (the co-winner of the 2004 grand prize), Mithridion (2005) and MatriLab (2006) have leveraged their success in the contest to attract investors and grow their businesses. For example, part of Mithridion’s prize was laboratory and office space in University Research Park – which the company has quickly filled.

There are four categories in the contest: Advanced Manufacturing, Business Services, Information Technology and Life Sciences. The contest runs in phases until late May, and culminates with presentations and awards at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference. About 40 judges from a mix of sectors – finance, sales, marketing, research and specific technologies – score each entry and provide feedback.

The contest is open to Wisconsin residents 18 years old or older who have a business idea that employs or leverages technology. That might be an e-Commerce platform, a life science application, a bio-energy process or an advanced manufacturing process or system. Plans that have already received angel or venture funding in their current form are not eligible.

Contestants need not begin the process with a fully formed plan – it’s the idea that matters most in the first round. The process that follows is that helps entrepreneurs write their plan and gain exposure to Wisconsin’s business and investment communities. Who knows? The winner of the 2007 contest could be you.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. For details on the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, visit