By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – I could call the Governor’s Business Plan Contest a canary in the coal mine of entrepreneurship in Wisconsin, but coal mines are out of favor these days so perhaps the more apt analogy is a canary in a gold mine.
That’s certainly true for the competition’s first-round contestants, most of whom are hoping to strike gold some day with their plans for business success.
Launched in 2004 and conducted annually ever since with the help of prize sponsors, mentors and judges, the contest is a path for young companies – or simply people with ideas – to submit a brief business outline and expand its scope over the course of four months.
Many BPC finalists over time have turned their ideas into the “gold” of business success, often because they’re on the leading edge of a trend or technology that escaped the attention of others. That could be the case again with the crop of 150 or so entries submitted Jan. 31 and now under review by judges and mentors recruited by the Wisconsin Technology Council.
There are four broad categories of submission – advanced manufacturing, business services, information technology and life sciences – but a myriad of possibilities within each.
For example, about two-dozen plans spread among the four involve artificial intelligence in creative ways that stretch the imagination of people who have come to think AI is just about deep fakes images of Taylor Swift.
Workforce training and recruitment, personalized education and market analysis are among those AI plans, as are underground resource exploration, home improvement, wound management and other medical and health applications. Leave it to Wisconsin entrepreneurs to figure out ways to use AI in restaurant management, logistics, soil sensor innovation and even the analysis of honey.
I brought up those examples Feb. 7 during a public hearing of the Assembly State Affairs Committee, which is considering artificial intelligence legislation produced through the Speaker’s Task Force on Artificial Intelligence. That task force held four listening sessions statewide.
Wisconsin is one of the nation’s leading manufacturing states by per capita employment, so it’s no surprise plans in the Advanced Manufacturing category addressed innovation in battery technology, water filtration, sanitary sewer monitoring. repair of metal components, 3D metal printing and high-efficiency furnaces.
There’s even a plan for a “Pretty Good Light Armored Vehicle.” (Attention, budget-conscious Volodymyr Zelenskyy.)
Business service plans included many examples of levering technology or process innovation to make traditional businesses more efficient and profitable. Those ideas ranged from wedding dresses and formal wear to the food and beverage sector, and from human services to music and the arts.
In addition to some of the AI and workforce management platforms, the Information Technology category was a place for plans involving cybersecurity, logistics and non-GPS navigation, threat detection and aspects of health care.
Life sciences was a category that included innovation in agriculture, but mainly platforms and plans to improve medical diagnostic procedures – from traumatic brain injuries to infectious disease, and from rare infant brain conditions to various cancers.
Diversity was also reflected in where the plans originated – and from whom. While a plurality hail from Dane County, 25 of 72 counties had at least one submission and 56 cities are in the mix. More than a third of the entries are from people who self-identified as something other than white, and nearly a third are women.
Conducted in stages, the contest will conclude in early June in Milwaukee. Among the main prize sponsors is the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
At a time when almost everyone who wants a job has one, it wouldn’t be surprising if fewer people were interested in making their own jobs through a startup. But that’s why the Governor’s Business Plan Contest exists – to provide an outlet for people who want to test their own innovative market.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at email@example.com.