By Tom Still

MADISON – Everyone knows a contest comes with prizes, and the third annual Governor’s Business Plan Contest is no exception. This year’s winners, who will emerge from a pool of 188 entries by late spring, will share in nearly $150,000 in cash and in-kind prizes.

As the 2004 and 2005 contests have shown, however, the most valuable prizes may not come directly from the contest kitty – but from the exposure and experience related to writing a market-ready business plan.

This year’s pool of entries was submitted by 144 individuals in 58 Wisconsin communities, totals that reflect the continuing appeal of a technology-based contest aimed at entrepreneurs. The 2006 contestants are split among four categories – advanced manufacturing, business services, information technology and life sciences, with IT emerging as this year’s largest category in terms of entries.

Round one of judging by 46 independent experts will soon reduce the field to about 50 semi-finalists, a second round will narrow the field to about two-dozen finalists, and a third round will produce first-, second- and third-place winners in each of the four tech categories. The four category winners will then square off for the grand prize, which will be announced at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, June 8-9, in Milwaukee.

Only for the short term are the contestants competing among themselves. Ultimately, they are all competing against other ideas and business plans in the marketplace. Some past contestants are already proving themselves winners in that larger game.

  • Mithridion Inc., a Madison-based drug development company focusing on Alzheimer’s disease, announced this month it has received the first portion of an anticipated $1.6 million round of financing.  The remainder of the funding is expected over the next few months.  Mithridion, the contest’s grand prize winner in 2005, will use the funds to establish laboratories, hire scientists and develop drug candidates.

  • AquaSensors LLC, a company whose products measure liquids used in industrial processes, closed a deal in December with the Silicon Pastures angel network for $360,000 in financing. AquaSensors, a three-year-old firm located in Menomonee Falls, just northwest of Milwaukee, won the Advanced Manufacturing category in the 2005 contest and finished second overall in the competition.

  • StrandVision LLC of Eau Claire continues to win competitions and attract customers for its online digital signage business plan, which was called Online-Kiosks when it won the IT category in the 2005 Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

  • Shining Brow Software, a finalist in 2004 and 2005, has captured national clients and will soon enter the United Kingdom market. Shining Brow has also sold its software to Microsoft for use in the Microsoft Office line.

  • Esker Technologies in Milwaukee is rolling out ZeroWire, which consists of digital transmitters and receivers that can eliminate the need for many wires in car, planes, boats and other vehicles. The company, which was among the finalists in the 2005 advanced manufacturing category, shipped to a California customer in January.

  • FireSite, a young Madison company set up to develop a navigational tool for firefighters, will receive a $25,000 state loan to help build a prototype. FireSite was started by UW-Madison students and a finalist in the 2005 statewide contest.

Those success stories are not isolated. A survey of the 45 finalists from 2004-2005 showed that 60 percent had received financing since participating in the contest. Of those who received financing, 54 percent were funded by angel investors; 15 percent by family and friends; and 31 percent from other sources, such as banks and SBIR grants. Seven out of 10 finalists said the contest led to an increase in public exposure for their company or idea, and more than a quarter reported the contest had already led to new customers and business partners.

Also, a quarter of the companies certified by the state Department of Commerce as “qualified new business ventures” took part in past business plan contests. Angel investors in companies on the Commerce list may be eligible to receive state tax credits. This year, the 50 contest semi-finalists will be able to post their executive summaries on the Wisconsin Angel Network’s “deal-flow pipeline” at

In a competitive world, ideas that grow into compelling business plans have more opportunity to succeed. The mortality rate for new companies is still high, but those companies that come armed with the right plan for the marketplace stand a better chance of survival.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which produces the Governor’s Business Plan Contest. For more information, visit