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China's Camel Energy to add 41 jobs with new Pittsfield Township R&D center

Chinese-based battery manufacturer Camel Energy recently announced it will establish a research and development headquarters in Pittsfield Township on Varsity Drive.

 

The company's parent corporation, Camel Group Battery Academy Co., employs about 6,000 people in China. Camel Energy received support from Ann Arbor SPARK and a nearly $300,000 incentive from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, choosing Ann Arbor over other U.S. sites in California and Texas.

 

The company will invest $4.6 million in the new R&D headquarters and expects to add 41 jobs here.

 

Phil Santer, senior vice president of business development for SPARK, says most of the jobs will be related to engineering or technical R&D, with a few managerial or sales positions as well. Zubo Zhang, president of Camel Energy, is expecting to move with his family to the Ann Arbor area and bring a handful of Chinese colleagues to the location as well.

 

Santer says foreign investments are an increasingly important part of Michigan's economy, but foreign businesspeople often are more familiar with America's east and west coasts than the heartland.

 

"With foreign company attraction, we're often overcoming the perception about these well-known areas like California or New York or Boston and need to raise awareness of the cool stuff going on in Michigan," Santer says. "For instance, 76 percent of all automotive R&D happens in Michigan. That's a nice fact that people respond to."

 

Santer says Camel Energy was interested in locating where automotive R&D talent is concentrated.

 

"Around the Ann Arbor region and throughout Michigan, there's this focus on electrification and energy storage, and they wanted a location where they could tap into the talent here," Santer says. Camel Energy focuses on traditional car batteries in its China market but wants the Pittsfield Township site to focus on development of higher-efficiency batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles, he says.

 

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

Argus Farm Stop to open second location in Ann Arbor's Burns Park

Argus Farm Stop is gearing up to open a second location in Ann Arbor's Burns Park neighborhood at 1200 Packard St., with a grand opening tentatively set for August.

 

Bill Brinkerhoff and Kathy Sample launched the first Argus Farm Stop in summer 2014 just outside downtown Ann Arbor on West Liberty. Brinkerhoff and Sample created what they saw as a "next-generation" farmers market, open year-round, seven days a week, and featuring produce, dairy, and meat from more than 140 local farmers and producers. Producers set their own prices and keep 80 percent of the sale price. The shop also includes a popular coffee bar.

 

"We love farmers markets, but they are limiting for some people, only being open one day a week," Sample says. "The sense of community at a farmers market can't be beat, but some people just can't shop on a Wednesday or a Saturday."

 

The idea for the Burns Park location came about after a Burns Park resident approached Brinkerhoff and Sample about creating a new market in his neighborhood.

 

"He saw an abandoned building in a vibrant neighborhood and thought it shouldn't be that way," Sample says.

 

Brinkerhoff and Sample coached the man and connected him with the builder they used to remodel their West Liberty location, but he ultimately decided he wasn't in a position to quit his job to take on opening a market. But by that time, Sample says so much effort had been put into the new market that it seemed a shame to let it go to waste. So she and Brinkerhoff stepped up to turn the building into a second Argus location.

 

The new business will bring the building at 1200 Packard full circle, as it was a neighborhood market from the 1930s through 1960s. Sample says Burns Park is ideal for Argus in many ways.

 

"We felt it would support the business model with enough people who care about local food and enough of a population to support the coffee bar, for that sense of community," she says.

 

Sample says her main goal is to strengthen the local food ecosystem, and she hopes the Argus model will spread around the country. She says she gets so many inquiries about how to set up a similar store in other communities that she hopes to someday soon build a portal on the Argus website to help interested parties figure out if it's feasible in their communities.

 

"We put about $1 million into the hands of farmers every year at our current location, and I think we can duplicate this in our other store," Sample says.

 

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

 
Photo courtesy of Argus Farm Stop.

Washtenaw Community College-led consortium to develop workforce for American Center for Mobility

Washtenaw Community College (WCC) will form a consortium of community colleges to develop mobility industry training programs at the American Center for Mobility's (ACM) automated vehicle testing and development facility in Ypsilanti Township.

WCC is already partnering with Wayne County Community College District and is in talks with Macomb Community College as well, according to Brendan Prebo, associate vice president of marketing and communications for WCC.

Prebo says the partnership between WCC and ACM was a natural choice because the community college is located in the "center of the mobility universe."

"We have MCity (the University of Michigan's connected vehicle research and test facility) here a few miles away, University of Michigan engineering school in the area, and ACM in Ypsilanti Township just down the road," Prebo says.

Prebo says WCC began looking into training employees to work in the mobility industry several years ago. The school established its own Advanced Transportation Center to develop certificate and college credit programs for mobility careers.

"What we're doing with ACM at Willow Run is a natural extension of activities we've already undertaken in this area," Prebo says.

WCC will establish an office on ACM's campus, and Prebo says it will be initially staffed with two or three people by the end of June. The office will allow WCC staff to coordinate with ACM to develop mobility curricula, certificates, and degrees, as well as apprenticeship and internship programs.

Additionally, WCC will allow students interested in a bachelor's- or master's-level program to accrue credits at WCC at about a quarter of the cost of attending a state university, and then transfer those credits to a four-year program at a university.

The consortium is also talking about ways that connected vehicle engineering and other issues related to mobility could be introduced to curricula at the K-12 level. One way would be integrating mobility skills and knowledge into preexisting summer camp programs aimed at students ages 8 to 18, Prebo says.

Prebo says there's a lot of excitement about the announcement, but it will take time to build the consortium as well as develop classes and other programs.

"We're really just in the beginning stages of building some of those programs, but we look forward to having more to announce in the months ahead," Prebo says.

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

Photo by Bill Milliken Jr.


Ann Arbor Health Hacks Weekend invites broad range of participants to address barriers to care

On June 23-25 the nonprofit A2 Health Hacks will host a weekend-long event with the aim of inspiring a wide range of participants to dream up innovations in healthcare.

 

Ann Arbor Health Hacks Weekend is now in its second year. This year's theme is "Removing Barriers to Healthcare." Participants will tackle solutions to problems that prevent people from receiving appropriate care, from affordability to transportation to difficulties taking time off work.

 

Beatrix Balogh, a systems engineer, co-founded A2 Health Hacks in the autumn of 2015 with three other women who had an interest in healthcare: supply chain manager Britt Johnson, innovation consultant Diane Bouis, and industrial engineer Neelima Ramaraju.

 

The four women talked about what they felt was lacking in terms of developing healthcare innovations in the Ann Arbor area. They knew that the University of Michigan ran its own health hacks events, but those were only open to students.

 

"We thought about what if we wanted to participate in something like that, but you're not a student," Balogh says. "We wanted to learn what others are doing in healthcare and get connected."

 

From there, the four established A2 Health Hacks and began inviting researchers, professors, and employees from healthcare startups to monthly two-hour mini-hacks, workshops, and happy hours to assess how much interest there was in the community.

 

Balogh says the four wanted to do a longer event with a bigger crowd than the three dozen who usually showed up to the monthly events. Their first weekend-long hackathon in summer of 2016 attracted about 90 participants and 40 mentors working on the theme of prototyping disease prevention. This year, A2 Health Hacks hopes to attract 120-150 participants.

 

The weekend event kicks off with networking Friday night. Then from Saturday morning through noon on Sunday, participants form their own teams to work on various health hacks. On Sunday afternoon, a panel of judges awards prizes.

 

First and second prizes are entry into Ann Arbor SPARK's Entrepreneur Bootcamp program and promotion on the A2 Health Hacks website for up to one year. Third prize is a "customer discovery" program from The SearchLite, a service that helps startups and entrepreneurs in their early stages.

 

Balogh says none of the ideas coming out of A2 Health Hacks have yet produced a marketable product, but many participants continue pursuing innovations that help people live healthier lives. One participant, for instance, started an Uber-style transportation system that partners with a local Meijer to help low-income people get rides to the grocery store.

 

Balogh says that A2 Health Hacks' overall goal is to get all sorts of people in Michigan involved in healthcare innovation.

 

"Those new ideas shouldn't just be coming from people with expertise in healthcare, but from people with unique mindsets working together to come up with innovative ventures and ideas," Balogh says.

 

Registration for the weekend event is still open, with signup available on A2 Health Hacks' website.

 

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

 

All photos courtesy of A2 Health Hacks.


Annual open house for 70 Ann Arbor tech businesses adds TED-style "Tech Talks"

Ann Arbor SPARK will host its third annual Tech Trek open house event for Ann Arbor tech businesses on June 16, adding a new TED Talks-style "Tech Talk" component this year.

 

Tech Trek participants can visit more than 70 Ann Arbor technology businesses and learn about each company's products or services. Visitors start at one of three locations, where they receive a map to all participating businesses.

 

Christina York is the CEO and owner of SpellBound, an augmented-reality mobile app that makes the illustrations in children's books come to animated, 3-D life. She says she has enjoyed seeing how the Tech Trek program has grown and changed since the beginning.

 

"At the very first one, we expected a few people to come by and talk to us," York says. "We were blown away that something like 800 people came through that first year. We were so busy we couldn't leave our table."

 

York says people may feel intimidated when they hear "augmented reality company," but their imaginations are sparked once they see what SpellBound can do.

 

"We put a three-by-four foot mat on the floor, and people can point their mobile device at it," York says. "(Mobile devices will display) a three-foot elephant and a six-foot tree, and people can get snapshots taken of them posing with it. It was fun to see adults acting like little kids."

 

York says the open-house setting of Tech Trek allows for one-on-one personal conversation, but it's hard to go deep. Participating companies asked SPARK if they could have more time to explain their products, services, and missions, and thus Tech Talk was born.

 

York, one of 10 presenters who will give seven-minute talks about their technology, will talk about how SpellBound technology can help with "therapeutic play."

 

She says she hopes the Tech Talk portion of the program will allow participants to get a sense of Ann Arbor's entire tech scene, from brand-new startups to well-established movers and shakers.

 

The other Tech Talk presenters are Emily Drier, Ann Arbor chapter leader of Girl Develop It; Greg Gage, co-founder and CEO of Backyard Brains; James Goebel, founding partner of Menlo Innovations; Lon Lowen, senior director of engineering operations at Arbor Networks; Daniel Moore, technical service engineer at Universal Robots; Jon Oberheide, co-founder and CTO of Duo Security; Andrew Sardone, vice president of engineering at Nutshell; Chris Schneider, senior vice president of engineering at LLamasoft; and Alon Yaffe, vice president of product management and data protection at Barracuda Networks.

 

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

Ann Arbor's Court Innovations attracts $1.8 million in Series A funding

Ann Arbor startup and University of Michigan (U-M) Law School spin-out Court Innovations has attracted $1.8 million in its Series A funding round, allowing it to expand its mission to make justice more accessible to all.

 

CEO MJ Cartwright says the funding will allow Court Innovations to expand its Matterhorn product, which facilitates a variety of online interactions between defendants and the court system, nationwide.

 

"We're thrilled that BELLE Michigan Fund led the round, and from there, we were able to get Northern Michigan Angels excited about what we were doing," Cartwright says.

 

Private investors and an online equity crowdfunding platform also provided part of the $1.8 million raised.

 

Contributing $50,000 was U-M's student-led Social Venture Fund. The Social Venture Fund's core areas of interest are education, food systems and environment, health, and urban revitalization. An online product for processing court cases might seem like an odd match for the fund.

 

"But if you think about the areas they are working in, criminal justice fits with that fairness element. Making justice accessible to everybody actually impacts all of their core areas," Cartwright says.

 

A number of online portals already allow people to pay for traffic tickets and other ordinance violations online, but Matterhorn allows defendants to do more than that in cases of civil infractions and lesser misdemeanors.

 

"We also allow them to give reasons for why they may have been pulled over for a traffic ticket, or they can say they don't have the cash to pay upfront and want to set up a payment plan to pay off a fine over the next two paychecks," Cartwright says.

 

Cartwright says the idea for Court Innovations came about when U-M law professor J.J. Prescott was batting around ideas with students about how to reduce the outstanding warrants and unresolved cases bogging down courts.

 

Pilot programs proved that the technology worked and that people would use it. Next, Court Innovations had to prove that courts participating in the pilot program could be converted to paying customers. The company also conducted studies that showed that, in participating courts, the number of fines paid in full and cases closed increased, and time spent on cases dropped.

 

The program started in Michigan with about 18 or 19 courts participating, then expanded into Ohio and more recently Arkansas.

 

Cartwright says she believes the program was attractive to so many investors because everybody knows somebody who has had a negative experience dealing with the court system.

 

"People understand it and see the potential for it very easily," Cartwright says. "Combine the social impact with the strong business impact, plus our proven outcomes, and it's a nice combination for a broad range of people to get excited about."

 

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

Renaissance Venture Capital Fund CEO named finalist for regional Entrepreneur of the Year award

Chris Rizik, CEO of Ann Arbor's Renaissance Venture Capital Fund, was recently named a finalist for an Entrepreneur of the Year award for the Michigan/Northwest Ohio region by the global accounting and professional services firm EY (formerly Ernst & Young).

 

Rizik is one of several Ann Arbor-area nominees for the award, along with Jan and Sassa Akervall of Akervall Technologies, Phil Brabbs of Torrent Consulting, and Doug Armstrong of North Star Reach. Award winners for the region will be announced during a June 21 event at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and regional winners can go on to be considered for a national award.

 

Rizik was nominated by a colleague and then interviewed by a panel of independent judges who were impressed not only by Renaissance's commitment to Michigan but also by the fact that Rizik started his venture capital business in 2008 when the economy in Michigan was at one of its lowest points.

 

Rizik says the nomination is flattering to him personally. But more importantly, he's glad it will shine a light on what Renaissance is doing to help Michigan's entrepreneurial community. He describes Renaissance as "a fund of funds with a mission."

 

"We invest in venture funds around the country under the condition that they come get engaged in Michigan," Rizik says.

 

Rizik came to venture capital with a background as a lawyer. He then started working in venture capital and says he saw a lot of missed opportunities.

 

"There was this great research coming out of universities in Michigan, a high concentration of engineers, lots of talented people, but we still couldn't seem to shake out of being a middle-of-the-pack state," Rizik says.

 

He saw too many startups unable to grow due to lack of funding, and great talent and technology leaving the state.

 

"I thought that leading this new fund that would try to do something innovative was a mission I could really get behind," he says. "I felt from my experience it could work, even though nobody had done it before, and it has been exactly what I hoped."

 

Rizik says Renaissance's business model is now being replicated in other parts of the country, and Michigan is breaking out of that "middle-of-the-pack" position. Compared to about 10 or 15 years ago, startups today have nearly 10 times as many venture capital firms to seek funding from.

 

"Every year, we see Michigan becoming more and more important as a national venture capital hub," Rizik says.

 

Another aspect of Renaissance's mission is to help connect small startups with larger corporate players. Renaissance helps startups get meetings and customer relationships with big companies, and the major companies get exposed to innovation they wouldn't otherwise see, he says.

 

"I love getting up every day for work and looking at the impact we're having," Rizik says. "Everybody involved is making good money and at the same time really helping Michigan."

 

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

Photos courtesy of Renaissance Venture Capital Fund.


Barracuda to fill downtown Ann Arbor office with 115 new hires

Barracuda Networks has plans to add staff and completely fill its downtown Ann Arbor office space in its newest wave of expansion.

 

The information technology security company, based in California with a large office in Ann Arbor, recently announced plans to add 115 new employees here over the next four years, including software engineers, quality assurance and sales staff, and tech support engineers. The company currently employs 226 in Ann Arbor.

 

Barracuda will be expanding with help from Ann Arbor SPARK and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). SPARK plans to help Barracuda fill those positions via SPARK's jobs portal and through highlighting Barracuda jobs in its weekly newsletter, as well as providing talent scouts to help identify prospective hires. Barracuda also received a $750,000 grant through the Business Development Program, available through the Michigan Strategic Fund in cooperation with the MEDC.

 

Rod Mathews, senior vice president and general manager of data protection at Barracuda, says downtown Ann Arbor was the "most appealing place" to add new employees, because Barracuda already has a "critical mass of people working on email archiving and cloud solutions." Additionally, Mathews says current employees like the restaurants, shops, and general atmosphere around downtown Ann Arbor.

 

Mathews says when Barracuda Networks moved into the former Borders Books headquarters on a long-term lease, the company was already planning to grow to fill the available space.

 

After the 115 new employees are hired, the building will be full. If Barracuda wants to expand again, the company might need to look into moving, but for now the space at 317 Maynard St. is adequate, Mathews says.

 

Mathews says the company made the expansion because its business is growing overall as more businesses turn to cloud-based solutions such as Office 365 and Microsoft Azure.

 

"We're in a great position in the market as people transition to the cloud because our solutions are unique in the marketplace," Mathews says.

 

Mathews says Barracuda is already one of the largest tech employers in Ann Arbor's downtown and the company is committed to staying in the downtown area.

 

"We worked with the MEDC to identify incentives the state has for hiring people from Michigan," Mathews says. "We really like the state and the educational institutions around the state that we hire people from."

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 Barracuda Networks.

Ann Arbor "Woman in Tech" award nominee discusses challenges of being a female tech leader

Two Ann Arbor companies, Warmilu and Workit Health, are finalists for Techweek Detroit's "Woman in Tech" award. Techweek events across the U.S. host "Elite Eight" awards celebrating the top leaders in tech for each community. Both Warmilu and Workit Health are finalists in the "Rising Startups" category for Michigan.

 

Workit Health is a private, online program for helping users beat addiction, from caffeine to workaholism to gambling addictions. The company was co-founded by Lisa McLaughlin and Robin McIntosh.

 

Warmilu creates non-electric warming technology intended to reduce deaths from hypothermia. The company's first product, a heating pack created with phase-change materials combined with a thermal buffer that creates safe and long-lasting heat, was designed for premature infants in resource-scarce regions. However, the technology can be used in other applications, including stadium seat warmers.

 

Warmilu founder and CEO Grace Hsia says dismissive attitudes towards herself and her female-led team actually prompted her decision to manufacture in-house. When she experimented with contracting out manufacturing, Hsia says it was sometimes difficult to convince suppliers that she was the head of Warmilu and that her company should be taken seriously.

 

"I'd be on a phone call with a supplier, and they'd say things like, 'Okay, little lady,' or call me honey or darling, or they'd even say, 'Let me talk to your CEO,'" she says.

 

Warmilu finished clinical trials in 2013 and the company was supposed to start filling an order for 1,000 packs in fall 2014. But the week before Thanksgiving, Warmilu's manufacturer said it would not be able to fulfill the order for another six months.

 

"They hadn't dedicated as many resources to our packs because they weren't convinced we'd succeed as a woman-owned company," Hsia says.

 

That manufacturer may regret that decision now. After making a small profit on the order of about $5,000 per year starting in 2013, the company is on track to make $300,000 in total sales in 2017.

 

Hsia says she is in good company with TechWeek's other finalists. Detroit corporate communications technology company Backstitch, cofounded by Stephanie Warzecha, is also nominated for Detroit's "Woman in Tech" award.

 

"The other female business founders inspire me," Hsia says. "They're pushing boundaries for gender equality and showing that women have the ability, with backgrounds in science, technology, and math, to make a difference and push for a better world. I love the women on this list. They are all people I look up to."


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

New Vinology head bartender returns home from Colorado with bartending trends on the brain

Ian Youngs, the new head bartender at Ann Arbor wine bar Vinology, could make you a drink off the menu, but he'd prefer to make something unique.

 

"Someone might come up to the bar and ask if I can make a Cosmopolitan," Youngs says. "Sure, I can make that, but why don't I make you something strange, something that fits your palate more?"

 

When creating a custom drink, Youngs says he starts by asking if there's anything the customer hates, and then follows up by asking: "What do you want to dream about tonight?"

 

Youngs grew up in the Irish Hills just west of Ann Arbor and went to the University of Michigan, where he got serious about food and beverage his junior year.

 

He left Michigan about two and a half years ago to learn more about his craft in Aspen, Colo., where he soon landed at Hooch, a speakeasy bar with a "darker vibe," Youngs says.

 

Earlier this year, he moved back to Michigan for personal reasons, to "support family in a time of need."

 

But if he had to end up anywhere out of necessity, Ann Arbor is "a lovely area" to ply his trade as an expert in wine and cocktails, he says.

 

Youngs keeps an eye on trends and says Michigan is due to start enjoying the "tiki" vibe and more rum drinks. He says he loves making cocktails with unexpected ingredients, like squid ink for a black cocktail. Youngs says drinks with fire are on the rise as well. But above all, cocktail connoisseurs are becoming interested in unusual liquors and liqueurs from other regions, such as aquavit, a caraway-flavored Scandinavian spirit, or arrack, a south Asian spirit made from the sap of coconut flowers, sugarcane, grain, or fruit.

 

Youngs shares the credit for Vinology's dynamic cocktail menu with bartender Mark Long.

 

"We rock this bar out together," Youngs says. "He's a fantastic bartender."

 

Youngs says he never wants to be a dictator when it comes to creating a drinks menu and running a bar.

 

"It's not because I'm not able to, but it's my personal philosophy to split the ideas among everyone," Youngs says. "Everyone has a story to tell through their own drinks."


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

Ann Arbor's Motawi Tileworks and Menlo Innovations named to Forbes' top 25 small companies list

Ann Arbor companies Motawi Tileworks and Menlo Innovations have made Forbes magazine's second annual list of 25 "small giants," featuring outstanding small, privately-owned companies across the U.S.

 

The Forbes article says it recognizes companies that have "sound models, strong balance sheets, and steady profits." The companies on the list are noted by others in the field as being outstanding, and all give back to their communities in some way.

 

Menlo Innovations, founded in 2001 by CEO Richard Sheridan and COO James Goebel, is an Ann Arbor-based company that produces custom software. The company was named after Thomas Edison's "invention factory" at Menlo Park in New Jersey and was featured by Forbes for being an innovative model for other companies.

 

The Forbes article noted that Menlo is so well-respected in its field that people pay to tour Menlo's office and executives pay a premium to spend time there observing the company's business model.

 

Nawal Motawi, founder of Motawi Tileworks, says she didn't know her company was named to the list until she got the new issue of Forbes in the mail.

 

"This means more to me than any other business reward I've received," Motawi says. "I'm blown away being in the same list as some of the other companies on the list that I study and revere."

 

Motawi started her tile business in Ann Arbor 25 years ago, confident in her art but humble about her knowledge of the business end. Art school actually discourages people from changing any of their work just to make a profit, she says.

 

"In art school, selling art for money is a bad thing," Motawi says. "I knew I didn't know anything about business, and I was very open-minded at the beginning. I sought out what resources were available, like the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, and I read Inc. magazine."

 

Over time, Motawi grew her business, but profit margins remained low. She made the tough decision to continue selling art tiles at galleries around the country but to pull installation tiles out of showrooms and allow the wholesale side of the business to die off.

 

"The margins were terrible," she says. "It was fun to be in big trade shows, but the more I studied it, the more I felt it was not making sense."

 

It was a controversial decision that caused a split between Motawi and her business partner. But several years later, profit margins at Motawi are much better, closer to 10 percent than 2-4 percent.

 

Motawi says being part of the "Small Giants" club is not just about being small at all costs but about being "human-scaled."

 

"It's a different attitude than the carrot-and-stick hierarchy in most businesses," she says. "Ordering people around isn't much fun. I rely on my employees to make decisions and give them the information and tools to do that."


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

Cultivate to host 10-week "Sundays in the Garden" concert series

Cultivate Coffee and Tap House in Ypsilanti holds "craft, community, and cause" as its three core values, and all three will go into its new weekly "Sundays in the Garden" summer music series.

 

Every Sunday from June 11 to Aug. 20, with a week off July 2, Cultivate will host a free concert in its outdoor beer garden from 6-8 p.m. Featured artists will include local favorites ranging from Chris Dupont to Planet D Nonet. The series echoes summerlong event series like Sonic Lunch or the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, which have both become local entertainment institutions.

 

Bekah Wallace, director of community and connection for Cultivate, says the seeds for the series were planted several years ago, when her daughter was a year old. She spent a lot of time looking for cool, free things she and her family could do locally.

 

"I noticed that live music events were a good way to find out what's going on in the community, get connected, meet people, and give back," she says.

 

After opening the beer garden last summer, Cultivate brought in musicians on an irregular basis, but Wallace felt that a bigger, more regular series was in order.

 

Each Sunday will feature a local musician, a local charitable cause, and a Michigan beer on tap. A rep from each community nonprofit will speak onstage about the organization's mission, and each will have a table where patrons can learn about volunteering, food or fund drives, and other ways to help. Cultivate will also donate $1 from the purchase price of each beer from the featured brewer to the featured charity.

 

Wallace says Cultivate's mission is to eradicate hunger by 2030, and many of the nonprofits chosen for the series contribute to that effort either directly or indirectly.

 

"We are working on how we can strengthen our community and address hunger at a root level," Wallace says.

 

Featured nonprofits will be Ypsi Meals on Wheels, Michigan Ability Partners, The Agrarian Adventure, SOS Community Services, Dawn Farm, Hope Clinic, Washtenaw ID/WICIR, Ozone House, Growing Hope, and Food Gatherers.

 

Featured breweries will include HOMES Brewery, Transient Ales, and Bell's Brewery.

 

"We wanted to feature cool, upcoming breweries but also other breweries that are Michigan favorites," Wallace says.

 

Wallace says Ypsi already has lots to be proud of, and the series is supposed to be a celebration of "the good things going on and the community organizations we love."

 

Concerts will be held rain or shine, unless there is a severe weather warning. A tarp system will shield musicians and their instruments in case of light rain, but audience members will "have to be up for the adventure" if it rains, Wallace says.

 

More information and updates about rain delays or cancellations will be available on Cultivate's Facebook page. A full lineup of bands and beers is available at Cultivate's website.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Photos courtesy of Cultivate Coffee and Tap House.

Ann Arbor tech company TrueJob aims to eliminate online job-hunt headaches

Anybody who's been frustrated trying to use a clunky job-search website will appreciate the mission of TrueJob, an Ann Arbor-based company that has built a different kind of site to match employers with new employees.

 

Founder Scott Goci graduated from the University of Michigan in 2009, and says the combination of a tough economy and his impractical psychology degree led to difficulty finding a job. Job-seeking websites that hadn't changed much in 20 years didn't help the process.

 

"I tried Indeed and Monster.com and a bunch of other sites, and they were all bad," Goci says. "An article at the time from TechCrunch noted that job websites were bad, and that was written in 2009. Even today, job sites haven't evolved in a long time."

 

Goci says a typical job-search site asks for information that doesn't actually help pinpoint the best job matches.

 

"They focus on locations and job titles, but that was not how I was searching for jobs, and I wanted to find something better," he says.

 

Goci wanted to create a job-search site that was based on analytics. It would give feedback to job seekers on how they could improve their chances and give information to companies about how potential employees conduct their career searches.

 

Goci spent a few years learning coding and systems administration and getting some startups off the ground before he felt ready to build a better job-search website. He met co-founder Mike Kling through the Ann Arbor Coffee House Coders meetup group and brought him on board to create TrueJob in 2015.

 

Goci compares the job site's technology to internet radio station Pandora. Like Pandora, Netflix, or other sites that tailor recommendations based on user feedback, TrueJob mines a user's profile and resume to suggest matches. It then allows users to give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down to job matches, and the program uses that information to tailor better job recommendations for users.

 

TrueJob's most recent public success was partnering with Ann Arbor SPARK to revamp SPARK's free job portal.

 

Goci says that beyond helping job seekers figure out how to improve their resumes and applications and providing data to employers, TrueJob can provide analytics to economic development organizations like SPARK to help them spot employment trends in their area.

 

"Economic development organizations need to provide analytics to show their value to the communities they operate in," Goci says. He says SPARK staff noticed that their job portal got plenty of traffic, but not necessarily participation and engagement, and they wanted to know why.

 

"It was mostly a filtering problem," Goci says. "If users can start 'liking' jobs and getting better job recommendations, there will be more engagement. SPARK really wants to use these analytics to provide insight into how job seekers find jobs, how employers find employees, and a lot of other things it couldn't track before."

 

Goci says the technology is applicable to other areas such as industry associations.

 

"Say you have an airline with a union and they have a job board. They might want to see how membership in the union impacts how people are hired," he says.

 

Goci says that in the future he'd like to focus on working with other economic development organizations, from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to TechTown to entities outside Michigan's borders.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Mike Kling and Scott Goci photo courtesy of Scott Goci.

Ann Arbor's GDI Infotech celebrates 25 years in business

After two economic downturns, a major shift in corporate focus, and the spinoff of a successful second company, GDI Infotech will celebrate 25 years of growth in Ann Arbor this year.

 

Founder Bhushan Kulkarni grew up in India and moved to the United States to study engineering. After an internship at Ford Motor Co., Kulkarni moved to Ann Arbor and started two other companies before launching GDI Infotech (originally Global Dynamics Inc.) as an engineering consulting firm in 1993.

 

The company was thriving and adding employees, but the internet started changing the way companies managed data and promoted collaborative workflow, so GDI Infotech's emphasis shifted to software and information technology.

 

"But we never really left our engineering core, and now things have come full circle, and we're working on things like mobility and autonomous vehicles," Kulkarni says. "In the future, I think a lot of growth for GDI will come from skills associated with both IT software and engineering and advances happening around us in intelligent mobility."

 

While focusing on creating workflow automation and collaborative platforms at GDI, Kulkarni saw an opportunity to spin off a separate company, InfoReady, in 2010. Kulkarni says InfoReady grew out of observing several GDI customers' struggles with information overload. They needed to find information, act on it, and track actions to get results.

 

Kulkarni created a matchmaking algorithm platform at GDI and started applying it to different problems for a variety of clients, first helping universities match with appropriate grants.

 

"It just so happened that we had the University of Michigan in our backyard looking for ways to fast-track their grant cycle, attracting more grant revenue, and getting through the process of deciding what grants to apply to rapidly," Kulkarni says. "I thought if this 800-pound gorilla in Michigan has this need, how is the whole sector doing?"

 

InfoReady's second project was InfoReady Thrive, a platform that helps match college students with internships, fellowships, study-abroad programs, and other extracurricular learning opportunities.

 

Kulkarni's current focus is on running InfoReady, and he has left day-to-day operations of GDI Infotech to his "two lieutenants," his wife and business partner Swatee Kulkarni and technology solutions expert Madhuri Deshpande.

 

Kulkarni says he has learned many lessons through the ups and downs his companies have experienced.

 

"First there was the dot-com bubble bursting – that was just crazy," he says. "I think we were better prepared for our latest economic downturn, but it still hit us to some extent. But other than those two major downturns, we've been steadily growing 15 to 20 percent every year on average."

 

Kulkarni attributes his companies' successes to the "ecosystem of people" around him, saying he likes to surround himself with smart people who know more than he does.

 

"Living in this community is a great opportunity to connect with many folks that are passionate about the community, from Ann Arbor SPARK to the Ann Arbor Chamber," he says. "I meet a lot of great people who become my role models, and I've learned quite a bit from them."

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 Bhushan Kulkarni.

Three Ann Arbor firms named in "50 Michigan Companies to Watch" list

Ann Arbor's J Keller Properties, McCreadie Group, and Torrent Consulting were among the "50 Michigan Companies to Watch" honored during the 13th annual Michigan Celebrates Small Business (MCSB) awards gala May 4 in Lansing.

 

Jennifer Deamud, executive director of MCSB and associate state director of the Michigan Small Business Development Center, says the awards ceremony is intended to be the Academy Awards for small business in Michigan.

 

MCSB launches a call for nominations in fall each year, and companies can nominate themselves or have their name put forth by a community member. Nominated companies are notified and encouraged to complete an awards application.

 

Winners must have between six and 99 employees and between $750,000 and $50 million in sales the year they apply. Applicants must show a history of sales and employee growth over the previous five years, and explain how they plan to grow their companies in the next few years.


"We're looking for a justification for why they are on a growth path," Deamud says. "Are they diversifying their product and service line? Are they expanding to new markets? Are they leveraging technology to streamline their processes? We also look at how the company engages with community and their employees, and at their workplace culture."

 

Representatives of Michigan entrepreneurial service organizations choose the winners in a two-round judging process. Deamud says MCSB tries to compile a diverse set of winners every year, and that shows in the recipients from Ann Arbor.

 

J Keller Properties is a property management group, McCreadie Group develops software for pharmacy schools and healthcare providers, and Torrent Consulting helps businesses figure out how to best use cloud computing and mobile technologies to serve customers.

 

Deamud says many people expect tech companies to dominate these types of awards, but that isn't the reality.

 

"As you see in Ann Arbor and in all 50 honorees, there is a nice diversity of industries represented," she says. "It goes to show that we're not looking for manufacturing or other specific industries, but just companies that are on a growth path. With just over 400 nominations this year, that shows that companies here in Michigan are on a growth path."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Torrent Consulting and McCreadie Group photos courtesy of Michigan Celebrates Small Business. J Keller photo courtesy of J Keller Properties.
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