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Ypsi Township's SensiTile continues slow but steady growth

SensiTile, an Ypsilanti Township-based company that combines art and technology to create products for use in architecture and interior design, is experiencing slow and steady growth, boosted by word of mouth.

 

Founder Abhinand Lath started the company in his basement while he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, working on his master's thesis about using materials that bend and manipulate light.

 

"He made some prototypes while he was at the university, and that was the start of it all," says his wife, Vanika Lath. "He spent hours creating these prototypes and being the only person responsible for product design and gaining customer interest. It was a one-man show."

 

The company now manufactures custom architectural and design products from resin, glass, and terrazzo materials that interact with either embedded LED lights or ambient light.

 

Vanika Lath was trained as a physician but came on board her husband's company to help. She doesn't yet have an official title in her work with SensiTile and says she works on whatever needs doing at the time.

 

A few years after its founding, the company moved out of the Lath family's basement and into a rented space in Detroit, where their first big commission was designing materials for car-maker Saturn to use in a booth at the North American International Auto Show.

 

By 2008, however, the company was feeling cramped in its Detroit location and moved to its current location at 1735 Holmes in Ypsi Township.

 

The building had been foreclosed upon and was in a "sorry state," Lath says, with trees growing out of the dock. In other ways, though, it was a great find.

 

"The location is ideally suited to SensiTile's needs because we have two very distinct processes," Lath says. One process needs a very clean space, while mixing terrazzo creates a lot of dust, she says. Having a spread-out manufacturing space means the clean processes and the dusty processes can be separated.

 

Lath says that, at first, they wondered how they could use all the space they'd acquired. But today SensiTile may need to expand its footprint again, as well as adding on a few employees with a special set of skills that include both conceptual design and hands-on craftsman skills.

 

Lath says the company does very little advertising and thrives on word of mouth. This low-key strategy has resulted in a portfolio of clients from the University of Michigan to Marriott and Calvin Klein. These clients use SensiTile products in flooring, privacy screens, countertops, and more.

 

"Our fear earlier was what [would happen] if we get all this work and are unable to fulfill the orders, but we have now scaled up our processes and created efficiencies," Lath says. "We are hoping that a strategic and consistent inflow of projects will help support our next steps."

This piece is part of a series highlighting local business growth in the Ann Arbor area. It is supported by Ann Arbor SPARK.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of SensiTile.


Ann Arbor's Akadeum Life Sciences secures $1.5 million to develop microbubble technology

A recent funding round that netted almost $1.5 million will allow Ann Arbor-based bioscience company Akadeum Life Sciences to develop and market more products and double its staff.

 

The Ann Arbor company closed its latest round of financing Sept. 8, with Silicon Valley-based BioInfleXion Point Partners leading the financing round. The fund typically invests in the Bay Area, but said in a press release that the combination of the company's innovative technology and the strong team at Akadeum made the investment attractive. The core idea behind Akadeum's technology is sorting biological samples with microbubbles that target specific cells and float them to the surface to be collected.

 

Other investors include 5 Prime Ventures, the University of Michigan’s MINTS (Michigan Invests in New Technology Startups), Detroit Innovate Fund (part of Invest Detroit), and local angel investors.

 

Akadeum was founded by CEO Brandon McNaughton and CTO John Younger not long after they met by chance at a conference about seven or eight years ago. Later, when McNaughton was working at a startup and Younger was working as a professor at the University of Michigan, a mutual friend suggested they start talking with each other.

 

"We had a meeting, and I think both of us shared early on our interest in making an impact through innovation, developing something in the lab, and then putting it to work," McNaughton says.

 

They also agreed on a "lean startup" method that involved putting microbubbles in users' hands early in the development process.

 

"So we were basically doing development and marketing at the same time," says McNaughton. "For the life sciences, it's unusual to start getting early users before you're even done with development. In a lean startup, customer needs drive development, so you're not spending money or time on things they don't need."

 

Younger explains the microbubble technology that he and McNaughton have built their company on.

 

"When users have samples of cells, say from a clinical sample or from a patient, all the cells are like a big bowl of M&Ms," Younger says. "For the user, there's only one color they want, and they want to get rid of the rest. The technology lets us grab just the blue ones, or grab everything that's non-blue and throw it away so only the blue ones remain."

 

McNaughton says this latest round of funding will allow the company to launch a few products into a wider market.

 

"The last two years, we've focused on manufacturing microbubbles for cell separation, and now we need to decide what products we want to release," McNaughton says. "We're planning on releasing several of them. We're going to continue what we're doing, putting our products early on into user hands, and building the company."

 

To help with that expansion, Akadeum plans to move to a new facility at MI-HQ in Ann Arbor by the end of September and double its team from five to 10.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Akadeum.


Detroit's Veronika Scott on embracing "entrepreneur" label and what Ann Arbor can learn from Detroit

The University of Michigan (U-M) will host its annual day-long Entrepalooza symposium Friday, Sept. 22, at the Michigan League, featuring socially-minded Detroit entrepreneur Veronika Scott as keynote speaker.

 

Scott built a nonprofit called The Empowerment Plan around the idea of designing a coat specifically for the homeless and employing workers who have experienced homelessness.

 

Scott came up with the idea for a self-heated waterproof coat, which functions as a sleeping bag at night or a carrying bag during the day, while she was a student at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit.

 

"It's always, from the beginning, been the plan to hire people from shelters. That's really the most important part of our business," Scott says. "The coat is just a bandage for systemic issues with unemployment and poverty."

 

Scott says the idea is to hire formerly-homeless people to make a product they will hopefully never have to use. So far, she says every employee hired from a shelter has been able to move into permanent housing within four to six weeks of starting work at The Empowerment Plan, with zero recidivism.

 

Even though Scott was running her own business before she even graduated college, she says it has been difficult to embrace the label "entrepreneur."

 

"Growing up, nobody in my family had ever started a business," she says. "I thought entrepreneurship was something for people from the higher classes, people with wealth and connections. It took me a long time to settle into that 'entrepreneur' title."

 

Scott will address that struggle with identifying as an entrepreneur during her keynote speech. She says many women have a "side hustle" ranging from baking to doing hair, but don't see themselves as entrepreneurs.

 

"Women usually wait until they've completed something, while men will often start talking about themselves as entrepreneurs after they get the idea," she says.

 

Scott says she is deeply involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Detroit, and one thing that stands out about it is how most small business owners collaborate and help each other out. She thinks Ann Arbor and other entrepreneurial hubs could learn from that example.

 

"Everyone supports each other, because they know everyone needs to rise with the tide," Scott says. Repairing the economy in Detroit is something that needs to be done collectively, not by one person or one company, she says.

 

As a nonprofit, sometimes a funder won't make sense for The Empowerment Plan, but Scott will pass on the funder's information and connect them to other entities that are a better fit.

 

"I don't see that happening in many other cities across the U.S." she says. "It doesn't work to be isolated and protective of your network and your connections and other things you see as valuable."

 

In addition to the keynote address, Entrepalooza includes opportunities for networking and workshops on a variety of topics led by members of the U-M and local entrepreneurial community, including representatives from Ann Arbor SPARK, Grand Circus Coding Bootcamps, Bodman PLC law office, and the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship.

 

The symposium is co-hosted by the U-M Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship at the College of Engineering, the U-M School of Public Health's Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship program, the U-M School of Information's Entrepreneurship Program, the U-M School of Music Theatre and Dance's EXCEL Program, and Innovate Blue.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 
Photos courtesy of The Empowerment Plan.

Ann Arbor startup's technology used to predict damage from hurricanes Harvey and Irma

Ann Arbor startup EigenRisk's risk analytics technology is being put to the test in tracking and assessing natural disasters, including hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

 

The company's EigenPrism software is a real-time event monitoring and notification service for natural disasters from earthquakes to hurricanes to landslides. Users in the risk management community, such as insurance companies and corporate risk managers, can use the system to receive notifications of loss estimates while catastrophes are in progress.

 

One of the first tests of the new technology happened during Hurricane Harvey, when global insurance company Lockton used the platform to quickly estimate its insured loss, both personal and commercial, within hours. Previously, these types of loss estimates could take weeks to compile.

 

The software is being used to track losses in Hurricane Irma and damages from the recent earthquake in Mexico as well.

 

"The footprint of the earthquake in Mexico was available within one hour," says EigenRisk co-founder and president Deepak Badoni.

 

EigenRisk is rooted in Badoni's 20-plus years in insurance. He has worked with insurance companies and large brokerages, and more recently with companies that specialize in computer models for risk management.

 

"We started the company about three years ago when a bunch of us who worked together saw that there's a gap in the industry," Badoni says.

 

Insurance companies need decisions fast, and sophisticated models for pricing already existed, but there was little in the way of technology for real-time monitoring. Badoni says technology has advanced enough that analytics can be gathered within minutes instead of weeks.

 

"Basically, we're a tech company bringing together the best-of-breed models from multiple players, together with data from clients such as risk managers and insurance brokerages, to create actionable insights," he says.

 

EigenPrism gathers information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other sources to track wind speeds during hurricanes, and earthquake data from the United States Geologic Service and other partners to quickly create estimates of damage, loss maps, and alerts.

 

Badoni says it's an exciting time for the company right now, as it's getting national attention.

 

The concept for the platform has been put to the test, and several companies have been early adopters of the technology. Now, Badoni says, it's time to grow.

 

The company's next steps involve looking for funding and ironing out a few details with the technology and with customer and client support for the software, Badoni says.

 

"We will be growing next year, and we want to add more client-facing resources, because so far we've been far more focused on building out the product," he says.

 

Badoni says he expects to scale the company, which now has 17 employees, in a "much bigger way" in the next two to three years.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of EigenRisk.


LLamasoft aims to improve third-world medical supply delivery via drones

Ann Arbor-based LLamasoft has partnered with Zipline, a company whose autonomous drones deliver medical supplies to remote locations, to optimize drone usage in public health supply chain applications.

 

Zipline, which is based in Half Moon Bay, Calif., has already been using drones to deliver medical supplies in Rwanda and is now expanding its services into Tanzania. LLamasoft's Global Impact Team has worked with the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and Medical Stores Department on supply chain projects to optimize the ministry's transportation routes for nearly four years.

 

"We've been helping the ministries of health answer questions like how many warehouses they need, where they need to put them, [and] how to ensure medicines are in stock at health facilities," says Sid Rupani, regional director for LLamasoft IMEA. "We examine transportation routes, the frequencies of deliveries, the capacities of the trucks, and all these other quantitative questions about how to set up the supply chain."

 

Rupani says he began talking to Zipline founders a couple years ago. He thought the time for a partnership was ripe because Zipline already had supply-chain expertise, and because drone technology was becoming more "mature."

 

"It made sense to model how their technology would fit in with supply chain management and improve the availability of medicines, the speed with which those medicines would be provided, and the impact on cost," Rupani says.

 

Zipline and LLamasoft collaborated for over a year, modeling existing operations in Rwanda so they could make the case for expanding their services into Tanzania in terms of benefits and cost.

 

Rupani says nobody is making the case that drones should replace existing transportation methods completely, now or in the future.

 

"So the question becomes what niches do they fit into, and where do they give a compelling advantage?" Rupani says.

 

In Rwanda, the partners found that delivering blood by drone made more sense than driving to the nearest blood bank. Instead of using three or four hours of an employee's time as well as fuel costs for a round-trip ride, a drone could deliver a few pints of blood in 20-30 minutes.

 

Rupani says delivery of vaccines is likely to be another useful application. Instead of sending one truck around each month to deliver vaccines to various health clinics, which may have power outages that spoil temperature-sensitive vaccines, a drone can deliver smaller amounts more frequently.

 

"It's a nice trade-off, because the cost worked out to be about neutral, but with better performance" and less waste, Rupani says.

 

Rupani says he and others at LLamasoft are working on a white paper with another partner with the aim of determining what niches in the supply chain can best be supplied by drones.

 

"We're looking not just at Zipline's technology but all available drone options currently on the market," Rupani says. "We'll be looking at all these different parameters and examining in which cases it would make sense to deliver by drones."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of LLamasoft.


Riverside Arts Center, FLY Children's Art Center aim to create Ypsi arts hub through merger

Two Ypsilanti arts nonprofits are joining forces in an effort to establish a community creative hub for downtown Ypsi.

 

Riverside Arts Center (RAC), located at 76 N. Huron St., and FLY Children's Art Center started working together more closely at the beginning of the summer and legally merged their operations in mid-August. Both of the organizations recently announced their incorporation in emails to supporters, press releases, and announcements on their websites.

 

RAC started as a nonprofit 21 years ago with the goal of establishing an arts center in an old Masonic temple owned by the Ypsi Downtown Development Authority. It has essentially served as a rental facility for local artists over the years but has lacked its own programming.

 

Emily Tuesday, executive director of RAC, says most nonprofits create a mission and then build a space to fit their programming, but RAC was different because it was mostly organized around utilizing an existing physical space. She says RAC wanted to start offering programming and become a central hub for the arts in Ypsi.

 

"We're in a prime location. Our building has many different avenues for creative expression. We're at a point in our growth where we need to have something else to offer the community," Tuesday says.

 

FLY was founded eight years ago as a mobile program aiming to provide opportunities for kids to utilize their creative intuition. It eventually moved into a space a few doors down from RAC and then relocated last year to the Off Center, next door to RAC at 64 N. Huron St.

 

Kim DeBord, former executive director of FLY and current RAC board member, says the incorporation was the result of serendipitous timing because FLY needed a more permanent location while RAC was looking to add programming. She says the merger is also timely for the Ypsi community in general.

 

"I think this community is really ready to have a hub like Riverside be an active participant in the community and ready to support an arts center," DeBord says.

 

RAC and FLY will undergo a rebranding effort led by Eastern Michigan University design students as part of a class project. The effort will focus on creating a new website for RAC and rebranding FLY from FLY Children's Arts Center to FLY Creativity Lab to better reflect its current mission.

 

FLY Creativity Lab will now be based at RAC but its exact location inside the arts center has yet to be determined. FLY also will continue to operate in a mobile capacity so it can bring its programming to other sites throughout the community.

 

"We're trying to bring the same kind of programs that we want for our kids to all the kids, especially as funding in schools gets cut and all these things that are considered 'extra' get cut," DeBord says.

 

RAC is actively looking to hire a full-time program manager to oversee the continuity and expansion of FLY's programming since the arts center has become a larger organization as a result of the incorporation. Another benefit of a larger organization at the center of Ypsi's creative hub is the ability to support more projects led by members of the community.

 

"If someone's going to take a creative initiative — whether they're an independent artist or a collective or a group — we'd like to be a place that people go, 'Well, first we should talk to Riverside,'" DeBord says.

 

RAC has invited about 60 community members to participate in strategic planning sessions for the arts center on Sept. 18, 19, and 27. The sessions will seek to address feedback collected through a survey that was dispersed more widely throughout the community earlier this year. The survey concluded that Ypsi residents want RAC to serve as a hub for the arts, offer programming, and be more relevant in the community.

 

"Ypsi really does have this potential to be our little mini utopia," Tuesday says. "We have a very diverse community. We have people who are supportive of taking risks. We're coming up with ingenious and creative ways to address issues within our community. That's really unique to this city."

 

RAC is holding a fundraiser titled "Fall for Art" on Oct. 14 during which more details on RAC and FLY's future will likely be announced.

 

Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

 

RAC group photo by Emily Tuesday. All other photos by Anastasia Zein.


Funding and mentorship program for startups comes to Ann Arbor SPARK

Kyyba Xcelerator, Bodman PLC, and TiE Detroit are partnering with Ann Arbor SPARK to bring a program for entrepreneurs called Pitch Club to Ann Arbor on Sept. 27.

 

The mentoring and funding program will be the first of 10 monthly events to be held in cities across Michigan, including Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Lansing. The program's aim is to connect entrepreneurial hubs and SmartZones within Michigan and to provide startups with potential funders and mentors as they grow their businesses.

 

Each event will include a pitch session, as well as unique touches including local keynote speakers and partnerships with local entrepreneurial and economic development organizations, including TechTown and Automation Alley. The keynote speaker at the Ann Arbor Pitch Club will be Don Hicks, founder of Ann Arbor software firm LLamasoft.

 

"We're pulling together amazing people to be judges, to invest, and provide guidance," says Michael Melfi, partner with Bodman and Pitch Club host.

 

Startups who want to present at a Pitch Club event complete an online application form, and those applications are then reviewed by a panel of judges. Those chosen to pitch at the monthly events not only get a chance to earn investments ranging from $25,000 to $100,000, but they also automatically get a $2,000 service provider package with resources for startups, one-on-one coaching with a mentor, and a free pass to the TiECon Detroit entrepreneurial conference.

 

Qualifying companies that receive funding from the TiE Detroit Angels may also have a chance to present to a global program for funding startups, the TiE Global Angel Alliance.

 

Melfi says the panel of judges will be looking for products or services that solve a problem for a large audience. The judges want to see pitches that have mass appeal and that are scalable and profitable.

 

"The way I look at the judging is that we're all optimists, looking for what's possible in the pitches we see," Melfi says. "We're looking for individuals or teams who have the right attitude, skills, and knowledge to succeed as entrepreneurs."

 

Startups interested in pitching at one of these events can apply at the Kyyba Xcelerator website.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of Michael Melfi.


Ann Arbor cosmetics company focusing on minority consumers wins $100,000 investment from U-M fund

SAHI Cosmetics, a startup cosmetics company founded by a University of Michigan (U-M) Ross School of Business graduate, has received a $100,000 investment from the Zell Founders Fund.

 

The U-M student-led seed fund has a focus on funding startups founded by Ross students and recent alumni. SAHI Cosmetics founder Sheleen Sahi is finding success quickly, having been named the best business in the Michigan Business Challenge in February 2017. SAHI products focus on Arab, Latina, and Indian consumers.

 

Sahi says it may seem like business growth is coming quickly and easily, but she spent a lot of time and effort setting up a foundation for success.

 

"What you get is what you put in," Sahi says. "One thing that helped me find success was that I worked really hard to get into a school like Ross and take all the right classes to set me up for success."

 

She says taking courses on marketing, strategy, and entrepreneurship is coming in handy now that she's working on making a future for SAHI Cosmetics.

 

Sahi says she thinks her company is attractive to investors in part because many people are moving toward an "inclusive economy."

 

"We look where there are open spaces, where there are folks neglected by certain industries," Sahi says. "Our brand is all about about inclusivity and celebrating diversity. That's a great, positive message that investors can back."

 

Sahi says members of the growing U.S. immigrant community have higher educational degrees, which means higher spending power, and many of those immigrants are used to spending money on custom goods and solutions.

 

"It's about time people start considering the demands for this particular population," she says. "They have the money to pay for it, and are willing to pay for it, so brands should start to consider the implication of including these other folks into their customer base."

 

Sahi says the Founders Fund investment has allowed her to hire a marketing firm and a PR firm to spread the word about her business and bring more customers to the website.

 

She also hopes to put more revenue into research and development and expand the SAHI line with products that complement her target market's complexion. Sahi is expecting to expand her line of blushes and highlighters next.

 

Her strategy is not to get products into department stores or other retail venues, but to connect with customers directly through the SAHI Cosmetics website.

 

"We're building our brand identity with customers," Sahi says. "We are hoping to get many repeat customers coming back to us and create a good connection with customers."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Sheleen Sahi.


Hero Nation comic con aims to boost minority representation in superhero culture

As a kid growing up in Detroit, Jermaine Dickerson would envision himself as a superhero who could fly over his problems and deflect harsh words as if he were bulletproof. Now the Ypsilanti Township resident has morphed into a graphic designer and artist whose superpower is fighting for representation and combating exclusion in Ypsi and beyond.

 

Dickerson founded Hero Nation, a superhero-inspired community movement, in the wake of last year's presidential election. Hero Nation's first major initiative will be a free comic con taking place on Sept. 9 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Parkridge Community Center, 591 Armstrong Dr. in Ypsi.

 

Dickerson says he founded Hero Nation because he was worried about what a Trump presidency would mean for his friends and family who are LGBTQ or people of color, so he felt compelled to do something "to change and impact lives."

 

Hero Nation aims to extend a platform for creative expression to marginalized groups, especially those who are comic book and superhero fans. Dickerson’s goal is to empower and uplift people who might not be able to identify with many of the characters they see on TV and in movies, so they can be their own superheroes. He wants to create safe spaces where people can escape from discrimination, hate, and bigotry.

 

“Let’s start building bridges," Dickerson says. "Let’s also start having important conversations about intersectionality, about representation, about diversity. ... Right now, more than ever, I think we need to have these conversations considering the social, racial, and political climate.”

 

The Hero Nation comic con will offer a variety of programming, video gaming, free food provided by Marco’s Pizza, vendors, a DJ, and more. Given the amount of low-income families on Ypsi's South Side, Dickerson wanted the comic con to be a free event with lots of giveaways for the young attendees. There will be free toys, school supplies, and comic books for kids. Teens who participate in the video game tournament will have the chance to win a PlayStation 4 or a PlayStation 3.

 

Dickerson funded the event through a combination of fundraisers, a crowdfunding campaign, and numerous sponsorships with local businesses and organizations, including DIYpsi, Go! Ice Cream, Vault of Midnight, Graduate Employees' Organization, Digital Inclusion, and Sanctum Sanctorum Comics & Oddities LLC. He also held a toy drive to collect items to give away to kids at the comic con.

 

The comic con will host presentations from various individuals and groups, including young poets from the Detroit-based InsideOut Literary Arts Project. It will also feature guest artists including Arvell Jones, co-creator of Marvel Comics character Misty Knight, and Andre Batts, creator of Detroit-based Urban Style Comics.

 

A panel titled "Wonder Women of Ypsi," moderated by Gillian Ream Gainsley, will feature panelists Yen Azzaro, Dr. Heather Neff, VicToria Harper, and Lynn Malinoff. The panel will highlight the achievements and stories of women who have deeply influenced the community. A closing ceremony will also be held in which an adult will be named "Hero of the Year" and a child will be named "Rising Hero of the Year."

 

Hero Nation plans to continue hosting community events focusing on diversity and inclusion. Dickerson realizes Hero Nation may evolve after seeing what works and what doesn't, and he wants to make sure it adjusts to the community's needs. He wants the comic con to establish a foundation for an event that could be brought to other cities, like Flint or Detroit.

 

“I know that this world is always in need of more heroes, so let’s build a nation of heroes,” he says. “Let’s establish that nation of heroes so that people can know that heroes exist, and it’s not just about people in capes and tights, or with shields and swords, but the hero can be you.”


Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

Photos courtesy of Jermaine Dickerson, except Go! Ice Cream photo by Nick Azzaro.

Ann Arbor picture frame manufacturer employing former prisoners expands business, moves to Saline

Urban Ashes recently announced a move into the former Johnson Controls factory at 135 E. Bennett St., Suite 15, in Saline in order to make room for an expansion into commercial contract furnishing and OEM picture frame manufacturing.

 

Paul Hickman founded the design and fabrication company in Ann Arbor in 2009 as a social enterprise employing former prisoners to make photo frames with reclaimed wood and non-toxic finish.

 

As the company expanded into other markets, including furniture, it became necessary to find a bigger space. Hickman says the company was "under the gun," running out of time on an extension of the lease at its old Ann Arbor location, when he ran across the Johnson Controls building in Saline. The building was in rough shape and hadn't had any updates in more than five years.

 

"We had to look pretty hard at the space to see the potential there, and luckily the landlord was willing to invest some money in replacing the roof and investing in the building," Hickman says. "We saw the raw space as being a really nice partner with what we do, reviving things and bringing things back to life. We weren't out looking for that, but it fit really well."

 

Hickman says the previous location's layout was "chopped up" on different levels, with wood storage and the shop floor on a different level from the offices and showroom. The new space is almost 9,000 square feet, up from about 3,000 at the old location.

 

"We're working on much larger pieces and higher volumes, so we need more equipment and more space," Hickman says.

 

Urban Ashes' move into commercial contract furnishings means the company will be providing custom-made furniture made from reclaimed wood for restaurants, hotels, health care settings, and other retail and commercial uses, including large conference tables for boardrooms.

 

Urban Ashes has already provided all the furniture for J.B.'s Smokehouse in Canton and large tables for the Detroit Foundation Hotel.

 

Hickman says the term "original equipment manufacturing" usually is applied to automotive firms but it is being used more for other industries as well. The expansion into OEM means that Urban Ashes will make picture frames for other companies who will then use the frames with their products and finishings and sell them under their own brands, rather than under the Urban Ashes brand.

 

Urban Ashes will also continue its focus on custom framing for more than 250 framing stores in 44 states, Hickman says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Urban Ashes.


Pitch Ypsi competition returns with $5,000 prize for entrepreneurs

The inaugural Pitch Ypsi $5000 business competition in March drew so much interest that organizers have already launched a second one.

 

Entrepreneurs in Ypsilanti who have an idea for a new business or for growing an existing business can submit a pitch at the Pitch Ypsi website by Sept. 15. Organizers will winnow the field down to the five best entries. Finalists will then pitch their ideas to a panel of judges at a finale event Oct. 26 at the downtown Ypsilanti Farmers Market, 16 S. Washington St.

 

The person or team with the best pitch gets the cash prize along with free legal services from Varnum - Attorneys at Law, which is one of the sponsors of the competition.

 

"We're looking for businesses or even just ideas that will benefit the Ypsilanti area," says Kristin Gapske, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at Washtenaw Community College and member of the Pitch Ypsi organizing committee. The winning concept at the first competition was Grove Studios' proposal for artist rehearsal spaces made of shipping containers.

 

Gapske says the committee wants all competitors to succeed, so organizers will host workshops and pitch practices for the five finalists after they're chosen. Businesses that don't make it to the final five are also provided with resources for establishing or growing a small business.

 

Gapske says organizers learned a number of things from the first competition, so a number of things are different during this second iteration.

 

"We were surprised that 60 people applied, but so pleased. We are prepared for an even bigger applicant pool this year, so we bulked out our committee group to about 10 to 12 people this time," Gapske says.

 

She says committee members are a "big grab bag of people who want to help Ypsilanti grow," pulling from groups that range from small business owners to entrepreneurial support groups to colleges and universities.

 

The first round used a Facebook page to organize the competition, but this time around, there's a slick new website designed by competition sponsor Do:Better.

 

Organizers hope that the popularity of the competition will continue to grow.

 

"We'd like to get to the point where we're holding three of these a year," Gapske says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo by Haiying Gan.


NewFoundry makes Inc. 5000 list, mulls move out of Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor software firm NewFoundry has made the 2017 Inc. 5000, Inc. magazine's list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.

 

NewFoundry ranked 1,347, with a current revenue of $2.2 million and a three-year revenue growth of 302.9 percent. The company analyzes needs and then creates software and mobile apps for companies in a variety of industries. Clients include the University of Michigan and firms such as Club Car/Ingersoll Rand, Renesas Electronics Corporation, ROUSH Performance, and Sea Ray/Brunswick.

 

In a 2015 interview with Concentrate, NewFoundry CEO Richard Chang said the company's goal was to double its revenue each year, and as of 2017, Chang says that is "working out quite nicely."

 

Chang says that doesn't necessarily mean all the growth is in cash. Sometimes NewFoundry takes a "slice of ownership" in other companies in exchange for their services, he says.

 

While the Inc. 5000 list focuses purely on revenue, NewFoundry is also growing in other ways. NewFoundry's staff has increased from 15 to 19 over the past two years, and Chang says the company is currently trying to hire even more, as it needs more engineers on staff.

 

The company celebrates its fifth anniversary in September, and Chang says he's not sure what another five years will bring for the company, but it will have to be forward-thinking and open to change. He says he expects his company to become more deeply involved with providing software for autonomous vehicle technology and newer energy technology like wind power.

 

Currently located at 1950 Manchester Rd., Chang says he is worried NewFoundry will outgrow its space and be unable to stay in Ann Arbor.

 

"We've done quite a bit to try to stay in Ann Arbor and be a part of the community here," Chang says. In 2015, he considered moving the company to Ypsilanti, but then lucked into finding the current space.

 

"We really wanted to stay in Ann Arbor and support the town that allowed us to grow to the level we are at now, but the space problem in Ann Arbor really needs to be tackled," Chang says.

This piece is part of a series highlighting local business growth in the Ann Arbor area. It is supported by Ann Arbor SPARK.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of Richard Chang.


Detroit entrepreneur brings 20 small business pop-ups to Briarwood Mall

A popular small business pop-up event that's attracted thousands of visitors in Detroit is making its way to Ann Arbor.

 

The All Things Detroit pop-up will take place Aug. 18-20 at Briarwood Mall, 100 Briarwood Circle in Ann Arbor. Jennyfer Crawford, a Detroit entrepreneur and owner of consulting firm Ask Jennyfer, is organizing the event. It will feature about 20 small businesses from around metro Detroit, showcasing everything from homemade ceramics to T-shirts. This will be Crawford's first such event outside the city of Detroit.

 

"Ann Arbor is a different bank of customers, and it'll help these small businesses build more brand awareness," Crawford says.

 

Crawford says she held her first All Things Detroit events about four years ago in her one-bedroom apartment, but they quickly grew too big for that venue. She moved into Detroit's Eastern Market, at first filling up one shed. After two years, she expanded to rent out the entire market with 250 vendors and more than 12,000 visitors.

 

Crawford says she thinks Ann Arbor, with its love of funky shops and art fairs, will be a good fit for the handmade products on sale at the event. It's also a trial run for expanding All Things Detroit into other areas, including Brooklyn, N.Y., later this year.

 

Visitors to the August event can use an "e-punch system" or a sort of virtual loyalty card through the All Things Detroit mobile app to win prizes and get discounts.

 

Crawford says she reached out to several small businesses in the Ann Arbor area but none had signed up to vend at the event as of early August. Small business owners from Washtenaw County interested in vending during the Briarwood event may reach Crawford at 877-873-5307 or through the Ask Jennyfer website.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Photos courtesy of All Things Detroit.

Swedish software company aims to expand Ann Arbor presence

Modelon, a Swedish-based software company with an office in Ann Arbor, is finding success with a "bottom-up" approach that allows everyone to bring innovative ideas to the table.

 

Modelon was started about nine years ago, and today the company's global operations now employ about 75 people across Europe, Asia, and the U.S. The company creates software tools for "virtual engineering" for a variety of industries.

 

"Back in the day, you'd build a prototype and test it, and then go back and build a new prototype, and that got to be pretty costly and time-consuming," says David Higbie, Modelon's chief commercial officer. "Using technology like ours, engineers can test out lots of different ideas virtually on a desktop computer, then fine-tune design decisions before they even go to prototyping."

 

Modelon expanded its footprint into the U.S. with an Ann Arbor office about four years ago. Currently, Modelon's office at 24 Frank Lloyd Wright Dr. in Domino's Farms has five on staff, but Higbie says he hopes to add three more Ann Arbor staffers within a year or two.

 

He says Ann Arbor made sense as the U.S. hub for Modelon in part because it's a great place to live but also because it's in an automotive technology hub, and the automotive industry is a big part of Modelon's customer base.

 

"The types of employees we're looking for are hard to find," Higbie says. "They have to have the right technology, engineering, and software development background, and Ann Arbor is a great place to find those people."

 

The company recently wrapped up a summer event called One Modelon that brings employees from all over the globe to Sweden, a tradition that dates back to when Modelon was founded.

 

"Back when everyone was in Sweden, you could just talk to someone across the hall, but as the company has grown, they have maintained the commitment to bringing the entire company together as a way to get face-to-face time and building company culture and trust," Higbie says.

 

That is just one facet of Modelon's "bottom-up" corporate culture.

 

"Our culture is one where people are really encouraged to test new ideas on their own," Higbie says. "You have an opportunity to do a ton of different things based on your own personal interests and where you can make a contribution."

 

While employees have flexibility in how they work, the company still keeps a "pretty tight control" on its objectives with a focus on "over-delivering" to the customer, Higbie says.

 

"It's exciting to be in this industry bringing something unique in terms of both the culture and the technology we've developed," Higbie says.

This piece is part of a series highlighting local business growth in the Ann Arbor area. It is supported by Ann Arbor SPARK.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Modelon.


Summer internship program pairs students with local startups, expert mentors

A digital marketing summer internship program that connects students with both local startups and expert marketing mentors will graduate its latest class of interns today.

 

Now in its third year, the Digital Summer Clinic Internship Program is a partnership between Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) Center for Digital Engagement and Ann Arbor SPARK. This year's program gave paid internships to 24 student interns out of an applicant pool of 79. The program runs for nine weeks each summer, pairing students with startups that need help with digital marketing.

 

Origins of the internship program

 

Bud Gibson, director for the Center for Digital Engagement, runs the summer clinic program and says it grew out of an earlier partnership with Google and local nonprofits, started in 2008.

 

"We started training students in digital marketing and then we'd pair the students with nonprofit organizations, and they'd help those organizations build out Google AdWords accounts," Gibson says.

 

Gibson says the program "evolved substantially," and in 2015 organizers decided to put together the Center for Digital Engagement. They brought SPARK into the partnership, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation funded the first two years of the internship program through a grant.

 

Kimberly Brown, senior marketing manager at Ann Arbor's Duo Security, was involved in the earlier iteration of the program and came back this summer to serve as a mentor in residence.

 

Teachers and advisors reach out to recruit students, and there is a social media campaign to encourage applications as well. SPARK contributes by recruiting the startups who participate.

 

Win-win for startups and students

 

Gibson says the interns "are bringing value directly to the company," and the students, in turn, get hands-on experience applying the lessons they learned in their college courses.

 

Students primarily come from EMU and Washtenaw Community College, but the social media campaign brings in participants from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan as well.

 

Students who apply for the program aren't just marketing majors. They come into the program with majors ranging from computer science to public relations to digital art. They use their skills to help startups with everything from creating blog posts to updating Facebook or Instagram accounts to revamping company websites.

 

"They are not only bringing tangible skills, like building a landing page for the company's website, but they're also developing networking skills and refining their own online presence to increase the chances of landing a job after this," Brown says.

 

Weekly coaching sessions

 

An important component of the program is a weekly "clinic," in which the students must talk about what projects they've been working on and get suggestions and advice. Industry experts are also brought in to give talks or do panel discussions.

 

"The interns get the sort of coaching most people don't get in their day-to-day work at their jobs," Brown says.

 

Nicole Raymond interned in the program and managed the program's PR and digital media efforts this summer.

 

She was paired up with Ann Arbor startup TrueJob, which has created a new approach to job hunting. Raymond's internship involved producing blog posts and updating the company's social media accounts.

 

She says she appreciated getting hands-on experience with the digital side of marketing since that wasn't covered in any depth in her public relations courses in college. She also is glad that the job taught her more about analytics.

 

"The biggest benefit wasn't a certain skill, but more confidence in myself and my abilities," Raymond says. "In PR, you're not going to get this kind of experience anywhere else, and I've learned skills that other people [coming into their first jobs] won't have."

 

Gibson says confidence-building is a big part of why the weekly clinic is part of the program. He adds that industry experts' involvement as speakers and mentors makes the internship stronger and more robust than other internship programs, where students are thrown into a company to sink or swim.

 

"Kim leads the panel discussion and sources our speakers, and we could not do this without the dedication of skilled executives," Gibson says. "At the Center for Digital Engagement, we're a bunch of professors trying to help students, but we couldn't do it without the rest of the community."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Anastasia Bebeshko.

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