Innovation contest provided snapshot of Wisconsin small businesses

Wisconsin’s small-business economy is diverse. It is creative. It is under stress due to the unrelenting nature of COVID-19.

Those observations stem from the Wisconsin Technology Council’s recent involvement in the $3 million “We’re All Innovating” contest sponsored by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the results of which were announced Dec. 7 by Gov. Tony Evers. Our team helped organize the front end of the contest — functions such as outreach, collecting entries, and judging — via a platform used for years to run the statewide Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

“We’re All Innovating” was truly a statewide competition, as well as a revealing glimpse at the range, innovative spirit, and survival instincts of small business owners and operators in Wisconsin.

Qualified entries came from 1,226 for-profit businesses located in 70 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Those entries represented 68 different industry sectors as identified by standard codes. No business was larger than 50 full-time equivalent employees; most were much smaller. Most entries came from individual owners versus some other corporate entity; about half were majority-owned by women and about 15% by people from non-white backgrounds.

They competed for grants in three broad categories — health tech, business tech, and operations — organized by employee size. More than 180 judges were part of a rotation that reviewed plans, scoring each on factors that were laid out in advance for contestants to see. In the end, the 231 award winners announced by WEDC hailed from 48 of 72 counties.

The heart of the contest was tied to how each company had pivoted after COVID-19 settled into Wisconsin in the early spring of 2020. Approaches varied depending on what type of business was involved, but common threads were innovation, perseverance, and understanding how business survival touched people within and beyond their own operations. Some examples:

  • Keeping a craft brewery alive during a pandemic is hard work. It can also be fun, with the right amount of innovation. Brewery Nonic LLC was launched in 2018 in Menomonie’s Omaha Train Depot, a setting that helped its owners be more creative while keeping staff and customers safe. Brewery Nonic modified its facilities to invite musicians and “guest chefs,” some from struggling restaurants, to a setting that with a community focus. A food trailer was purchased, painted, and otherwise upgraded to safely expand outside food options. Outside heaters, wind curtains, and a fire pit were added. A written “Coronavirus Safety Plan” guides other precautions. Brewery Nonic has established a “guest kitchen” to help other members of the community learn the trade, including students from UW–Stout and Hmong and Peruvian families.
  • Before COVID-19 hit, Platteville’s Photonic Cleaning Technologies was a successful manufacturer of high-tech polymers for the photonics and aerospace industries, with sales in 75 countries. While polymers can be used to make lighter, stronger coatings for a mix of industrial products, they can also be used as a thickening agent for alcohol-based hand sanitizer. A new line of business was born. Responding to emergency requests, Photonic Cleaning began making a line of gel-based, quick-drying sanitizers that also carried the extra property of making people’s hands feel softer. Now called the “Hands So Soft” line, about 30,000 bottles have been shipped, jobs have been created, and the possibility of a product line that lives beyond COVID-19 has emerged.
  • From Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, came blue-sky innovation that helped to lead the fight against COVID-19 statewide and around the world. Working with its partners, Midwest Prototyping developed an inexpensive yet effective process for making face shields for health care professionals. Known as the “Badger Shield” due to the involvement of the UW–Madison College of Engineering, the open-source process for making the COVID-resistant shields has been produced and used about 15 million times around the world. Health care facilities, schools, and public health agencies are among the users. In the process, jobs were created from Blue Mounds to Boscobel to Sheboygan Falls in Wisconsin alone. Next steps: “Badger Shield+” is in production and so is a Personal Air Purifying Respirator Hood.

Many small businesses are struggling. Some are even being scapegoated despite their best efforts to keep people safe while keeping their own doors open. The “We’re All Innovating” contest provided literally hundreds of examples of how small businesses are a part of the COVID-19 solution, not the problem.

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