Business Plan Contest entries mirror what makes Wisconsin tick

When Wisconsin entrepreneurs smell opportunity, it sometimes smells like fish. Or freshly brewed beer. Or a cheese-based protein energy drink.

The diverse group of competitors in the 2012 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest offers the latest evidence that not every startup idea is required to cure cancer or turn your mobile phone into a personal concierge. Sometimes, innovation begins close to home – in the kitchens, backyards, and basements where “what if?” epiphanies so often occur.

As usual, this year’s contest features plenty of mind-stretching ideas from Wisconsin’s biotech labs and software incubators. The contest also gives a sense of place about Wisconsin, where entrepreneurs are just as likely to imagine using technology to devise a more accurate bow sight, build a cleaner snow-blower, or schedule a more efficient round of golf.

Among the 248 first-round entries in this year’s contest were 21 related to food, spanning innovations in how to grow it, harvest it, prepare it, and deliver it. There were even a couple of plans on how to better handle food waste. None of this should be surprising in a state where farm exports grew by 18% in 2011 over the previous year, and where trends such as the “locally grown” movement have taken root.

Another 15 plans were tied to sports – predominantly outdoor sports, from golfing to archery to fishing. Three plans take tech-based angles on the nation’s $42 billion fishing industry, although no one has yet figured out a way to coax fish out of the water.

Three plans envisioned brew pubs, a familiar idea, melding with social media, art, and local music in ways that can attract new customers. Call it “craft beers meet the creative class.”

The contest’s broad categories – advanced manufacturing, business services, information technology, and life sciences – haven’t changed since the BPC was launched in 2004 as the nation’s first statewide, tech-based business plan contest. But the trends within those categories have shifted over time to reflect changes in major sectors.

For example, the contest’s early years generated a number of life science entries in the diagnostics and “toolkit” arenas. That was expected: Wisconsin’s biotech industry continues to be known for producing analytics and products for other researchers. It’s the modern equivalent of selling picks and shovels to California gold miners in 1849.

Over time, however, the life sciences category attracted more ideas for drug discovery and medical devices as the state’s health sciences economy matured. Of late, it has also featured more ideas from research universities in Milwaukee, where medical research consortia are beginning to produce young companies.

Energy generation and management and other “cleantech” ideas were barely on the list in the contest’s first few years, but they’re a recurring theme today as society struggles to better manage its use of energy, water, and other resources. Those entries, from renewable energy systems to conservation techniques, tend to be spread over all four major categories.

Wisconsin is still a leading manufacturing state. Many ideas in the advanced manufacturing category reflect the fact that tomorrow’s manufactured products may be created or improved with the help of technology. From papermaking to wheelchairs, from power electronics to advances in micro-tool cutting performance, the list includes entries that could transform how things are made.

Sometimes overlooked in Wisconsin’s prominence in agriculture, manufacturing, and life sciences is an emerging strength: software, Internet applications, and mobile technologies. Some of those ideas include virtual network infrastructure management for small businesses; software that can help improve health-care costs or quality; and ways for students, businesses, parents, and consumers to manage information.

Some ideas make you wonder why someone else didn’t do it first, such as smart phone apps to help shoppers match clothes on the spot, to a variety of educational gaming programs that will help kids learn in ways that entertain without over-stimulating.

This year’s plans were entered by entrepreneurs from 81 of Wisconsin’s largest cities and smallest communities. Also, a handful of ideas came from entrepreneurs outside Wisconsin who have signaled they want to move or expand here, which is a testimony to the state’s growing entrepreneurial reputation.

The contest will soon be narrowed to about 50 entries, and winners will be announced in June at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee. If past is precursor, the two-dozen or so finalists will be more likely to survive (77% for all finalists from 2004 through 2011 are still in business), raise more private investment dollars (52% of past finalists have done so), and more quickly add jobs.

Best of all, most of these entrepreneurs look a lot like the state that helped shape them. They’re foodies, golfers, anglers, and more – and, most important, they’re innovators in an economy that sorely needs them.

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