Many of us associate the hub of today’s startup scene with downtown or the near-east side. For west siders, startup central is University Research Park, where Exact Sciences is perhaps the most familiar occupant.
Long before Exact Sciences took up residence in the sprawling 260-acre campus that’s home to some 120 tenants, the Wisconsin Technology Council, established in 2001, hung its shingle on the other side of URP to begin its wonky policy work under the leadership of former Wisconsin State Journal associate editor Tom Still.
I check in regularly with Still to download his big picture of the tech sector’s climate and culture. We cover industry trends in higher education, technology transfer, the politics of stem cell research, angel and venture capital, investor deal flow and whatever else is rattling around in his giant brain. I think of him as the dean of the state’s tech community, and appreciate his thoughtful and pragmatic perspective.
While it’s easy to get googly-eyed over the latest local app or tool, Still plays the long game. He talks strategy versus tactics, such as “reinforcing the message that most economic growth begins at home.” Homegrown businesses, he says, are “more likely to stay, mirror the culture, have an indigenous feel about products, services and corporate culture, and attract local investors.” And, naturally, he’s optimistic about tech.
“I think when people talk about the startup culture in Wisconsin not being as strong as it could be, that may be true in some sectors, but in the tech sector there’s a stronger structure in place and more examples of collaboration that have really helped foster progress,” he says. “We have a much better company survivability rate because of the support system here.”
On a recent visit to Still’s office, he was busy poring over the list of 50 Wisconsin startups that made the first cut of the annual Governor’s Business Plan Contest—a major support system for tech entrepreneurs. The finalists got there by submitting a 250-word elevator pitch to a panel of 100 judges.
The contestants fall into four industry categories: advanced manufacturing, business services, information technology and life sciences. As Still looked through the list of promising business ideas, he rattled off a voting app, software for faith-based charities, school crowdfunding, digital sales tracking and building efficiency as examples of the diversity of this pool.
Round two of the BPC requires a 1,000-word executive summary, and the 25 companies that advance to round three produce a 15- to 20-page business plan. The competition heats up as the top three finalists in each category—known as “The Diligent Dozen”—pitch their plans in front of judges and a crowd of 300 at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference. If you’ve never attended a pitch contest, you should!
Last year’s BPC grand prize went to a Madison-based life sciences business called bluDiagnostics. The prize money is helping CEO Katie Brenner and her team manufacture a thermometer-like fertility test that sends instant results through an app to a woman and, if she chooses, her physician. This is revolutionary stuff for women in their childbearing years.
I was curious about previous winners and the impact the contest has had on their business, so I contacted Scott Fulton, now a serial entrepreneur after having successfully grown and sold the company that won the first BPC in 2004. Fulton’s now CEO of Cellara, which is developing a software platform for stem cell culture labs—and he’s hard at work on the product. A Madison transplant, Fulton said the BPC was “incredibly helpful,” exposing him to the entrepreneurial community and helping him learn how to pitch to investors. According to the Tech Council, BPC finalists have collectively raised $200 million in angel, venture, grants and venture debt (a type of financing for startups without positive cash flow or assets to put up as collateral).
Check out judges’ scores and feedback from the first three rounds of this year’s BPC, plus links to the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference—June 7 and 8 at Monona Terrace—at govsbizplancontest.com.