By Tom Still
MADISON – Ben Hobbins didn’t win the statewide Governor’s Business Plan Contest in 2007, the year IronClad Soft Bait Brands competed with about 280 other entries. But like the patient fisherman he is, Hobbins refined his plan and kept casting his line in the water.

In the June edition of Popular Science, readers can see Hobbins – dressed in full angler garb, teeth clinched around one of his own lures – pictured among the magazine’s ”Top 10 Inventions for 2009.”

IronClad makes fishing lures that are eco-friendly yet stronger than conventional lures, due to a micromesh construction that’s somewhat like rebar in concrete. The IronClad lures can help resolve the problem of conventional fishing lures that break off lines and are left to decompose on the bottom of lakes, rivers and streams.

“Ben Hobbins didn’t set out to clean up his local lakes, but his IronClad baits do exactly that,” the magazine wrote. “The Wisconsin inventor’s idea… solves a serious, if little-known environmental problem.”

The story of Waunakee-based IronClad Soft Bait Brands demonstrates how a business plan need not win a contest’s top prize in order to put a company on the right track. In the sixth year of the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, there are many other examples of companies that have emerged well after the judging was over.

SoloGear, a Madison company that developed the FlameDisk as a handy alternative to charcoal grills, didn’t advance in the contest with its original plan but is now selling in major retail and grocery stores. U.S. Trailmaps finished second in the contest’s information technology category in 2006 and is now marketing its interactive maps of recreational trails through major GPS providers. Nerites, which finished third in the life sciences category in 2004, is still attracting investors and was honored by Nature magazine in 2007 for having one of the year’s Top 100 scientific developments.

While the top prize winners have enjoyed their share of success, too, the history of the contest suggests plans early in their development can blossom later.

The contest’s Class of 2009 may likely follow the same path. The process began in January with 326 entries and was judged by 71 experts. Contest winners will be selected this week at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee, and they will share in more than $200,000 in cash and in-kind prizes from 33 sponsors.

But the real work – and rewards – for many finalists and semi-finalists will continue long after the competition is over.

Past Grand Prize winners that are making progress include NovaScan (2004), Mithridion (2005), Vector Surgical (2007) and Graphene Solutions (2008). Mithridion is developing dementia drugs and acquired a Cleveland company about a year ago. Vector Surgical is selling its surgical products nationwide. Graphene Solutions is still a relatively new company, but its co-founder credits the contest with helping it advance.

“Every aspect of the BPC, from the phased way the plans are developed to the help we got along the way and the contacts we made before and after, were crucial to our success,” said UW-Platteville professor Jim Hamilton.

Wisconsin lags other states in creating start-up companies, and the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest is only one of many strategies for helping entrepreneurs accelerate from a crawl to a run. But it’s a strategy that has worked for scores of companies over time – including many that didn’t win the Grand Prize.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.