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Business plan finalists offer peek into entrepreneurial future

Milwaukee, Wis. - In the first two years of the Governor's Business Plan Contest, the Grand Prize has gone to a young company on the cutting edge of its respective industry. This year's field of 27 finalists should produce a Grand Prize winner that continues the trend begun by start ups like Mithridion, Inc., the 2005 winner, and BioSystem Development and NovaScan, who tied for first in 2004.

As is the custom, the winner will be announced on the first day of the annual Wisconsin Entrepreneur's Conference, which is being held June 8 and 9 at the Hyatt Regency in Milwaukee. The conference will bring together entrepreneurs from across Wisconsin for nearly two days of business content, but those with the most promising business plans will be featured as well.

Two of the finalists, U.S. Trail Maps of Wausau, entered in the Information Technology category, and Pragmatic Construction of Milwaukee, competing in the Business Services category, offer a glimpse into the state's entrepreneurial creativity.

Happier trails

For years, recreational enthusiasts have compared the process of finding detailed outdoor recreation information and trail maps with scaling Mount Everest. Such maps, which accommodate trip planning, were something that required time and diligence to acquire, even from the more user-friendly convention and visitors bureaus.
U.S. Trail Maps has not only developed, and is continuing to develop, an off highway mapping system for consumers, it is using the wonders of computer software to enable pre-planning, hotel reservations, and trail segment length estimation.

Partners Eric Antonson, Dean Forss, and Mark Voss all have dabbled in business, but the flurry of innovative software developed during the past five years did not escape their notice. "It was being utilized by civil engineers," Antonson said, "but not in a way to take advantage of the GPS culture and on-board navigation technologies."

That is starting to change, thanks to software developers like Forss. With U.S. Trail Maps, he is building customized software that adds layer after layer of information. One layer brings up all Wisconsin state forests, another adds city and county parks, and still another adds the locations of popular campgrounds.

Antonson compares it to the old transparency projectors used in schools, only completely customized, map viewer and all.

The key financing piece for U.S. Trail Maps was a $350,000 Small Business Administration loan, which has enabled the partners to roll out their proof of concept. The company is pursuing equity financing for subsequent steps, which may include going from boxed software available at snowmobile dealerships and retail outlets like Gander Mountain to a version that can be downloaded from its Website.

While the company's primary focus is recreation rich Wisconsin, its long-range plan includes developing regional and national software products that enable a broader audience to map out adventure. The company has compiled data on All-Terrain Vehicle and snowmobile trails that could be digitized and ready to roll out for the summer of 2007.

"There are Websites that allow for user forums, but there is not one single source that has an all-inclusive data set, either state-based or regional," Antonson said. "That's what we're working toward."

Home, green home

People who are inspired by progressive business ventures have to be rooting for Pragmatic Construction, especially if they are philosophically passionate about environmental protection.

The founders of the company certainly are. The idea for this residential building company sprang from a 2005 campfire conversation involving Juli Kaufmann, Steve Servais, and Nikolai Usack. At the time, they were attending the annual Midwest Renewable Energy Fair, and openly wondering why the fair only attracted fringe elements when so many of its concepts were becoming mainstream.

Pragmatic Construction thus was born to advance one of those increasingly mainstream concepts, sustainable development. In this case, the founders are pursuing green building practices within the urban environment, particularly Milwaukee's urban environment. Prominent builders like Verdian Homes have introduced the concept in Madison, but Milwaukee, where it could be part of urban renewal, has been slower to adopt it.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, Kaufmann believes that most residential builders will have no choice, as homebuyers become more discerning. Some competitors, who she characterizes as "green veneer companies," have started to tap into green appeal with products like bamboo flooring, but they still have not completely committed themselves to a fully integrated approach.

That approach brings together a total reliance on green building concepts like recycled wood and tile and autoclaved aerated concrete, a structural building component that Pragmatic Construction eventually hopes to manufacture closer to home. It also incorporates energy-efficient processes like geothermal heating and cooling and radiant heat piped through tubing under the floor.

Some of the construction costs are a little higher than conventional building methods, but Kaufmann believes green homes make up the difference over time in energy savings and healthier environments.

Most of those elements are on display for a still skeptical public at prototype homes in Milwaukee's River West and Walker's Point neighborhoods, and public tours will be conducted to provide first-hand testimonials. "We embrace it," Kaufmann said, "but we have to talk more about the value proposition we bring to the homebuyer."

Previous business plan profiles

Brown Deer start-up wants to serve up foreign film through broadband box

Online Kiosks founder Mike Strand uses contest to screen new business plan

UW-Madison spinoff Pedrus finds more to business planning than good science

Vector Surgical hopes to turn frustration into faster surgeries

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