By Tom Still

Inside-WIMADISON, Wis. – I sat down the other day next to a familiar-looking fellow who, like me, was attending a real-estate seminar produced by business magazine InBusiness. I quickly figured out that table-mate Joe Carpenter, an accountant in his full-time life, was among the “Diligent Dozen” finalists in our 2015 edition of the Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

His young company, built around a personal finance app called CountAbout, is not only alive and well – but recently paid back an angel investor he met through the contest.

Encounters such as that are a constant reminder that startups in Wisconsin come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and sectors, and while everyone wishes there were more young companies, there are processes and programs to help steer them in a strong direction.

Launched in 2004 by the Wisconsin Technology Council with help from sponsors such as what is today the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., finalists in the 2024 contest ranged from potentially life-saving devices and apps to agricultural equipment to a software-based creative writing program for children to innovations in the food and beverage world.

Independent judges recruited by the Tech Council heard June 5 pitches from finalists in four categories – Advanced Manufacturing, Business Services, Information Technology and Life Sciences – and winners were announced the next day based on judges’ scores and other contest background.

CranioSure, a Madison-based company that has designed a mobile app to screen infant head shapes to detect risk of craniosyntosis – accurately and early enough to help avoid surgeries – won the Life Sciences category and the grand prize.

Created by a team that included craniofacial plastic surgeons and others, the CranioSure app can detect the premature fusion of infant skull bones. If craniosynostosis is not identified by a pediatrician within four months, co-founder Dr. Daniel Cho explained, it is twice as likely that a late referral would require open surgery. That’s grueling for infants and parents alike.

The app’s algorithm can spot abnormalities with more specificity and sensitivity than physical exams. Once fully developed, the app will become available to pediatricians, parents and others.

Advanced Manufacturing was topped by Spraycision, a Madison firm that has developed an agricultural sensor system used in orchard spray applications. It retrofits to conventional sprayers and automatically selects tree canopies for treatment versus open space by using LiDAR technology. It can reduce chemical cost and use as well as cutting use of water and fuel. The company’s first unit was sold a few weeks ago to a 20,000-acre almond farm in California.

Rockhopper Ice Collective of Pewaukee took the Business Services class with its plan to allow businesses to serve multiple types of ice from a single machine – from flakes to cubes, and from pebbles to custom – thus catering to consumer preferences. By leveraging the Rockhopper platform, brands can better satisfy ice-savvy customers and drive profit through more drink sales. It was also the contest’s “Bright New Idea” winner.

Hailing from Dodgeville, Scriptive won the Information Technology category with its “WriteStories” platform for elementary-age children. For use in classrooms and home, “WriteStories” allows children to choose a picture book from a curated online library and see its illustrations with the former story text removed. Children then write their own creative story to match the pictures and share the resulting eBook with friends, teachers and family.

The history of the contest has shown that companies who make the top 25 are much more likely to survive five years or more than the others in the universe of startups, perhaps because they are coached in stages along the way by people who know technology, business and investing.

Wisconsin isn’t the biggest startup hub in the United States by any means, but as speakers at the real-estate seminar noted, such companies in the technology space continue to drive growth in markets such as Dane County and sometimes beyond.

“Beyond” needs to become much more vibrant. The recent creation of a $100-million public-private fund by WEDC may be among the answers, as investing in rural and other under-served communities is one goal of the new Wisconsin Investment Fund. Good startup ideas can arise anywhere – but they only flourish if there’s support around them.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at