By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – Over the course of 18 years, finalists in the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest have earned $2.5 million in cash and service prizes – valuable items such as office space, accounting help and legal advice. When asked, however, those same finalists talk first about the intangibles of taking part in the contest. Here are three voices from 2021:

“The Governor’s Business Plan Contest was one of the best programs in which we have participated,” said Karen Renee of Burlington-based eCourt Reporters Inc. “The (company) continues to benefit greatly with our improved business plan and the guidance from many connections through the process. We highly recommend that entrepreneurs in the state of Wisconsin take part for significant growth in a new business!”

“As a woman over 50, I was always curious about how far I could go in the competition,” said Laura Gallagher of Madison-based Mathetria Press. “I became a finalist, in the top three, in the business services category. Whatever stage or age you’re at, I encourage you to show up and do the work. The rewards are there for those who dare!”

“Participating in the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest was a pivotal point of growth for our company,” said Christian Timm of Fond du Lac’s SmartWell. “It challenged us to think outside the box, honing our ideas into compelling value propositions. The (contest) is an absolute must for every entrepreneur truly serious about growing their business.”

For other entrepreneurs like Renee, Gallagher or Timm, the door is wide open to take part in this year’s contest managed by the Wisconsin Technology Council. The free, online entry process is open through 5 p.m. Jan. 31 at

It doesn’t take much to get started. In their first-round entries, contestants will submit a 250-word (about 2,000 characters) idea abstract online. Contestants will also find business plan templates, startup information, networking contacts and technical resources from a mix of state and national resources on the website.

The contest is broad enough in scope to capture most plans. The four contest categories are Advanced Manufacturing, Business Services, Information Technology and Life Sciences.

Those first 250 words due Jan. 31 may not sound like much of a hurdle, but it requires contestants to condense their ideas into four themes: What is your core product or service? Who are your potential customers; what problems do they have and how will your product or service solve them? How do you define the broader market and your sales strategy? Who are your actual and potential competitors?

Contestants who advance will expand their plan in stages, with those moving on to Phase 2 writing a 1,000-word executive summary. About 80 volunteer judges drawn from the finance and investment, sales, marketing, research, and technology sectors across Wisconsin will score the entries throughout and provide feedback on submissions.

Skilled mentors are on hand, as well, from the start. The contest’s major sponsors include the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

New this year: The third round of the contest will accept narrated “pitch decks” from those finalists who advance beyond the written executive summary round.  Contestants in Phase 3 will get a free six-month license to use the AirDeck Inc. platform to build their pitches. The fourth and final round takes place at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in June.

Wisconsin residents 18 years old and older are eligible to enter, as are teams from Wisconsin-based businesses and organizations. Businesses or teams from outside the state are also eligible to compete if they demonstrate intent to base or expand their business in Wisconsin. The online rules define limits on how much money has been raised prior to entry and from what sources.

Since its inception in 2004, more than 4,300 entries have been received from 320 distinct communities. Past finalists have launched companies that raised $300 million in angel, venture, grants, and venture debt over time – all the while creating jobs and economic value for Wisconsin. In two separate surveys over time, 77% of finalists reported they are still in business.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, and perhaps because of it, entrepreneurs in Wisconsin have responded with innovative ideas to move their companies forward. The 2022 edition of the Governor’s Business Plan Contest is a chance to tap into the expertise and connections of people who can help your business grow.

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