MADISON — The first Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest in 2004 ended in a tie … a statistical, down-to-the-hundredths-place tie.

Tom Still

Still

The judges scratched their heads and declared co-winners, a verdict vindicated by time as the deadline for entering the 15th annual contest nears.

One co-winner of the inaugural contest, BioSystem Development of Madison, was acquired in 2011 by Agilent. Founder Scott Fulton is now working on another young lab-tech company, Cellara LLC.

The other co-winner, Novascan LLC of Milwaukee, began with a device to detect cancer electrically and pivoted by building a device to help perform Mohs surgery for skin cancer. A clinical trial will take place this year and investors are optimistic.

The honor roll of companies (current or acquired) that gained traction through the Governor’s Business Plan Contest didn’t stop with that unlikely tie. Over time, more than 3,500 plans from more than 300 Wisconsin communities have been entered in the contest.

Finalists have included companies such as RevolutionEHR, Vector Surgical, Nerites, Elucent Medical, Fishidy, Lynx Biosciences, Hyde, bluDiagnostics, Strategic Fishing Systems, Optametra, Platypus Technologies, Reza Band, RoWheels, MobCraft Beer, Sector67 and BadgerBites.

Known today as Eat Street, the founders of BadgerBites recently crashed the Forbes “30 under 30” list.

Some lunar-sized craters were left by promising finalists, too, but that’s not unusual in the world of emerging companies. A more striking fact is that past BPC finalists have enjoyed a high survival rate, especially compared to the U.S. startup mortality rate overall. Collectively, past contestants have raised at least $200 million in angel and venture capital and venture debt – all while creating jobs and economic value in Wisconsin.

As the 15th version of the contest heads toward a Jan. 31 deadline at www.govsbizplancontest.com, it’s time for another edition of entrants to make their bids for success.

The contest links up-and-coming entrepreneurs with a statewide network of community resources, expert advice and mentoring, management talent and possible sources of capital.

Two workshops are scheduled for people who would like to learn more about entering:

  • Noon Jan. 11 at the Tech Council Innovation Network meeting at the UW-Milwaukee Accelerator in Wauwatosa. Click here to register.
  • 6 p.m. Jan. 17 at the Industrious co-working space, 25 W. Main St., Madison. Click here to register.

Contest categories are Advanced Manufacturing, Business Services, Information Technology and Life Sciences. For their initial entries, contestants will submit a 250-word (about 2,000 characters) idea abstract that will be reviewed by members of an 85-person judging panel.

Wisconsin residents 18 years old and older are eligible, as are teams from state-based businesses and organizations. Businesses or teams from outside the state are also eligible if they demonstrate intent to base their business in Wisconsin. Entrepreneurs may also enter multiple ideas; companies or individuals that have raised less than $25,000 in private equity for their plans in a current form may enter.

A dozen top contestants will present at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in June.

It’s free to enter and the contest is conducted in stages, which means people can walk before they run. A March 1 seminar for the semi-finalists will be held in Waukesha to provide help with taking a business plan to the next stage.

What about those entrepreneurs who believe they don’t really need a business plan to get started? After all, they argue, building a “Minimum Viable Product” may test the market as well as anything. That’s true, but even experts who like lean startups find merit in writing a plan. Business plans help startups and even older businesses make their mistakes on paper versus real life. Plans help to set goals and serve as a platform for action, even if such plans change before the ink is dry.

For a growing list of emerging companies in Wisconsin, it all started with an idea and a plan. Take your idea from cocktail-napkin notes to reality. Resolve to start your new year by entering the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

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