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WEDC to award $3 million to small businesses with COVID-19 innovations
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COVID-19 | WEDC INNOVATION CONTEST

WEDC to award $3 million to small businesses with COVID-19 innovations

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A small business contest through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. will award a total of $3 million to companies with innovations that address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly 200 small businesses could receive funding through the We’re All Innovating contest, which is funded through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

WEDC’s intent for the contest is to reward the creative ways companies are responding to the pandemic and to help offset the costs of the pandemic’s disruption on business.

WEDC wants to show entrepreneurs and future entrepreneurs that Wisconsin will support them, WEDC Secretary Missy Hughes said in an interview. She noted that many recent college graduates and current college students grew up watching the economy crash in the 2008 recession and are now watching the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s hard to take a risk in that moment. It’s hard to think, ‘Oh, I want to start my own business,’” Hughes said. “We want to show them that the state supports their innovation. The state supports them going out on their own, and we’ve got their back.”

Judges for the contest will select winners in these categories:

  • Technology innovation to address COVID-19 impacts on health.
  • Technology innovation to address COVID-19 impacts on business.
  • Service and business operation innovations to respond to COVID-19 disruption.

The top prize for each category will be $68,000.

“We want to make sure that we have enough awards to cover all the different work that’s happening,” Hughes said. “We anticipate that we will see a wide variety of different types of innovation.”

Businesses with 50 or fewer employees can apply for the contest by 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, at wisconsininnovates.com. Grants will be announced by Dec. 15.

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Hughes encourages business owners to take a look at how they have modified business practices or what products they’ve developed since the pandemic began and apply to the contest. Many business owners don’t think of themselves as innovators or realize they have an innovative company, she said.

“What I really want is for people to realize that the work that they’re doing is part of the solution,” Hughes said. “They can enter the competition and share what they’ve learned, and we can all be better for it.”

Entries will be scored on the ability of the innovation to address the impact of COVID-19, progress made on the innovation and work yet to be completed, quality of the business and implementation plans, viability of the innovation, impact of the innovation on rural or ethnically diverse communities, need for grant support and more.

WEDC is partnering with the Wisconsin Technology Council to select judges from a variety of industries and from around the state. The Tech Council already has an infrastructure for judging awards from its own competitions, such as the Governor’s Business Plan contest.

Award recipients will be required to submit performance reports three months after receiving the grants and 12 months after.

The contest is another step for WEDC to help businesses through the economic upheaval of the pandemic. WEDC distributed more than $65 million in CARES Act funding to 26,000 businesses this summer.

WEDC proposes broadband upgrades, training incentives in report on COVID's impact

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.

“We’re trying to get the momentum of the economy rolling again as much as we can,” Hughes said.

Despite the pandemic’s continued effect on the state and the country, including a sharp increase in confirmed cases in Wisconsin, Hughes said she and business owners are still optimistic about the state’s economic recovery and its ability to bounce back.

“They have gotten punched in the gut two or three times,” Hughes said of small businesses. “And they still say, ‘We’re going to be OK.’”

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