A year ago at this time, Katie Brenner was wondering if she should take the plunge and enter the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest with her team’s idea for a saliva-based fertility test.

Just last week, Brenner and her young company – bluDiagnostics – confirmed it has raised $600,000 in seed financing, an amount that could climb to about $800,000 pending a final closing within a few weeks.

Not a bad result for someone who was initially unsure whether a laboratory innovation could lead to a potentially successful business.

Read this commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here

“It took a lot of convincing for us to take the risk to enter,” said Brenner, who added that reluctance faded as the team realized engaging in the five-month-long contest was a collaborative and systematic way to “make (bluDiagnostics) really a business and not just an idea.”

The story of bluDiagnostics is not unique in the 12-year history of the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, which is steaming toward a Jan. 31 entry deadline at www.govsizplancontest.com. Other companies that have reached the final contest rounds over time have raised about $200 million collectively from angel and venture capitalists or from merit-based grants.

The success stories include Vector Surgical, RevolutionEHR, Fishidy, Rowheels, My Health Direct, MobCraft Beer, TAI Diagnostics and other young companies that may have entered the contest at varying levels of organization – or none at all – and emerged with a plan that caught the eye of potential partners, customers and investors.

“I think the Governor’s Business Plan Contest really launched us. The win in that competition was a result of assistance and mentorship from people across Wisconsin… the accumulation of a lot of help. Since then, we have gotten incredible attention. That win sent us on a course to succeed,” Brenner said.

The contest will again offer more than $100,000 in cash and service prizes, courtesy of its sponsors, but many past contestants say the real “prize” is the plan-writing process itself.  Here are reasons to enter:

  • You can walk before you run. The first phase entry is about 250 words (or 2,000 characters with spaces) spread among four criteria – product or service description; customer definition; market description, size and sales strategy; and competition. There’s no need to submit financials right away.
  • The four contest categories are deliberately broad – advanced manufacturing, business services, information technology and life sciences. It’s rare that an entry cannot find a logical home.
  • Entrepreneurs may enter multiple ideas, so long as each idea is separate and distinct. It is free to enter.
  • All entries are accepted through govsbizplancontest.com. The second and third stages of the contest also take place through that website, culminating in a 15- to 20-page plan. Up to 12 finalists will present live at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, June 7-8.
  • Your chances of winning are a lot better than Powerball. If past contests are any indicator, roughly one in 14 entrants will reach the top 25.
  • Contestants meet some interesting people. The 50 semi-finalists are invited to attend a half-day “boot camp” in Waukesha, where they’ll meet mentors, potential investors, successful entrepreneurs and others with startup experience.
  • The judges and mentors offer years of valuable experience. About 90 judges drawn from the finance, sales, marketing, research and technology sectors across Wisconsin will score the entries and provide feedback. About 35 of those judges are investors. The mentoring corps will include members of SCORE and the Center for Technology Commercialization.
  • Your idea will get some valuable exposure. Semi-finalists may post their executive summaries on the Wisconsin Angel Network web site for secured review by accredited investors. Also, leaders in Wisconsin’s business press may see news value in your story.
  • Finally, and most important, many past winners have been successful. About three-quarters of finalists over the history of the contest report they’re still in business and attracting investors, partners and customers.

Since its inception in 2004, more than 3,100 entries have been received – including about 355 from the city of Milwaukee and another 660 from southeast Wisconsin’s M-7 region. About $2 million in cash and services (such as legal, accounting, office space and marketing) have been awarded. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. is among the major prize sponsors.

Brenner and bluDiagnostics shared in prizes, but she says the real value lies in the ability to learn from others while building the plan.

“What sets it apart is the mentoring associated it… As you go through the process of applying, the people involved in the competition nurture you along and help you prepare for the next step,” Brenner said. “I never felt competitive with other companies in the competition. I felt we were in it together,”

Wisconsin is often dinged for its lack of business startups, and the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest is among resources committed to producing more. Resolve to start your new year by entering.