Innovation contest may confirm ‘legend’ of small business adaptability

One of the oft-repeated generalizations about small business owners is their universal adaptability to change. Legend would have you believe that economic Darwinism is bred into every small business owner, making them genetically wired to come back from any adversity.

If only it was true. Small businesses fail all the time. It’s not often because owners lack tenacity or a willingness to pivot, but they are nonetheless overcome by competition, troubles finding good workers, unseen regulations, bad locations, their own management woes, and more.

These days, the “more” is the COVID-19 pandemic.

Owners of traditionally customer-facing businesses — restaurants, taverns, retail stores, and personal care businesses — have found themselves with far fewer customers to physically face. The same goes for other sectors, even for many young firms in the tech-based economy, where surveys have shown pessimism about surviving three or six months from now if conditions don’t improve.

The “We’re All Innovating” contest sponsored by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and produced with the help of the Wisconsin Technology Council is an attempt to improve those conditions by tapping into the legend — and the reality — of small business adaptability.

Facing a short deadline to creatively invest $3 million in federal CARES Act money, leaders in WEDC asked whether a platform used by the Tech Council since 2004, the Governor’s Business Plan Contest, could itself be adapted to accommodate a competitive process for distributing grants to innovative small businesses.

The answer was “yes” and the We’re All Innovating Contest was born with a focus on three size categories of for-profit businesses: Five or fewer full-time equivalent employers, six to 20 FTEs, and 21 to 50 FTEs. The sectors of competition were defined as technology innovation to address COVID-19 impacts on health; technology innovation to address COVID-19 impacts on businesses; and service and business operation innovations to respond to COVID-19 disruption.

The contest was launched Sept. 29 at wisconsininnovates.com with an application deadline of 11:59 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 18. With $3 million in prizes to be split among roughly 200 winners, the response has been strong around the state from small businesses that believe they have done things to adapt. Businesses in about 80 North American Industry Classification Systems (NAICS) codes may qualify, assuming the meet other upfront criteria listed through the application portal.

Independent judges, many of whom are veterans of the Governor’s Business Plan Contest, will decide which entries show the most innovation, the most progress to date and the most promise. The process will conclude by mid-December, when awards must be made to the winners.

Sam Rikkers, the deputy secretary of WEDC, said he views the contest as another way to assist small businesses during the COVID-19 epidemic, including those that may be just starting out.

“We knew that if we didn’t tend to the pipeline of new business development, of startups, of new ideas, that if and when … we came out on the other side of this, and we haven’t nurtured that pipeline, we would have done ourselves a disservice,” Rikkers said.

The contest is not the only effort by WEDC to disperse federal CARES Act dollars. The agency distributed more than $65 million in CARES funding to 26,000 businesses this summer in the form of $2,500 grants. It also provided $2.5 million to businesses owned by people of color in the Ethnic Minority Emergency Grant program and $5 million to the state’s smallest businesses through the Small Business 20/20 program.

No every small business owner is so adaptable that he or she can overcome any obstacle. With some timely help, however, many can improve their own odds.

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