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Business plan contest finalists reflect state's economic character

Imagine a company that sells a wireless protection system for boats and recreational vehicles. Think about a firm that sells "off-highway" mapping software for use by hikers, campers and sportsmen. Consider a company that produces a new type of milking system that is healthier for cows, which, in turn, is better for farmers.

If those ideas cry out "Wisconsin" to you, welcome to the third annual Governor's Business Plan Contest.

Twenty-seven finalists from 14 Wisconsin communities are entering the home stretch in a competition for prizes, recognition and a chance to turn their ideas into money-making realities. From a base of 200 entries, these contestants are the survivors in a tech-based, statewide contest that will culminate June 8 at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Conference in Milwaukee.

While it may lack the glitter of "American Idol" or the on-air tension of "The Apprentice," the finalists in the Business Plan Contest are facing competitors every bit as determined as those who square off on a televised reality show. They're also dealing with judges who can be as hard-nosed as "Idol's" Simon Cowell or Donald Trump of "Apprentice."

The finalists in the 2006 contest are grouped in four broad categories: Advanced Manufacturing, Business Services, Information Technology and Life Sciences. Those are loose "clusters" of existing high-growth sectors in the Wisconsin economy, and they're used in the contest to tease out a mix of tech-based ideas.
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A review of the surviving plans - summaries of which will be posted at www.wisconsintechnologycouncil.com - reveals a distinctive Wisconsin flavor. There are eight plans that have something to do with human health, four that deal with agriculture or the food industry, four tied to manufacturing or business services, three linked to the recreational and tourism industry, three to producing energy or environmentally friendly products, three related to consumer or business security, and two tied to education.

Short of a plan to build a robotic Brett Favre and keep him in a Green Bay Packers uniform for another 20 years, that's pretty much a slice of Wisconsin.

The contest began in late January with 250-word summaries that served as "elevator pitches," brief descriptions of why a new idea or technology could become a profitable business. The next stage saw a smaller group of contestants write 1,000-word executive summaries. That narrowed the field again. Last week, the 27 finalists submitted 20-page business plans, and judging will continue through May by 49 judges whose backgrounds include technology, research, business start-ups, finance and more.

All plans must include eight elements: an executive summary, product and service description, customer definition, market size, sales and marketing strategy, management team, financial highlights, capital requested and planned use of funds.

At least 12 contestants will share in more than $100,000 in cash prizes and in-kind prizes (such as legal and accounting help, web site design and consulting services) worth another $50,000.

The real value of the contest, however, extends beyond the prizes. A survey of 45 finalists from the first two years of the contest showed 60 percent were able to attract financing for their ideas, and many others reported new customers, business partners and other "open doors" created by the exposure. The contestants also benefit from online mentoring and comments by the judges.

Last year's two place winners were Mithridion, a Madison firm that is developing an Alzheimer's disease drug, and AquaSensors, a firm that produces a "plug-and-play" device to measure the safety and effectiveness of liquids used in manufacturing settings. Those two firms alone have announced more than $2 million in private equity financing since the end of the 2005 contest.

Real companies are emerging from the Governor's Business Plan Contest, and the ideas in the 2006 version reflect the indigenous spirit of a state that is rediscovering its entrepreneurial roots. Stay tuned for the winners in June: The list may not contain a glamorous "American Idol," but it may include a friend or neighbor with a great idea.

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

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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