Innovation & Job News

2161 Articles | Page: | Show All

CNN's Sanjay Gupta to sponsor, appear at new U-M health hackathon

CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta will sponsor and appear at a new health communication hackathon event at the University of Michigan (U-M).

 

The U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation (IHPI) is now accepting applications from students and professionals who are interested in taking part in the jointly-run Gupta Family Hackathon for Health Communication. The inaugural hackathon will kick off on the evening of Friday, March 23 and run through Sunday, March 25. The deadline to apply for the event is March 1.

 

Elyse Aurbach, program development associate with IHPI, says there are already a couple of health hackathons active in Ann Arbor, including a U-M-run one for students and another run by the nonprofit A2 Health Hacks. But those hackathons tend to focus on technology, while the Gupta-sponsored hackathon concentrates on communication issues in a healthcare setting.

 

Aurbach says participants can pitch a technology solution to communication problems, but ideas not based in technology are welcome as well. The communication hacks can be directed from physicians to patients, from a health system to the general public, or from one medical team member to another.

 

As an example of a communication difficulty in the healthcare setting, Aurbach noted that medical professionals are challenged by helping patients understand that colds are caused by viruses and can't be effectively treated with antibiotics. Part of that communication challenge also includes relaying best practices for preventing the transmission of the cold virus.

 

Aurbach also notes that communication from one health professional to another can often use improvement. For instance, she says, making sure that information gets transferred between two attending physicians during a shift change can have a "dramatic impact" on the patient's health outcomes.

 

After the kick-off reception Friday with Dr. Gupta and his wife Rebecca Gupta at Michigan Stadium, the hacking part of the weekend starts on Saturday at U-M's Taubman Biomedical Science Research Building. Participants will have a chance to talk about their ideas or hear from other participants and form teams organically around shared interests, Aurbach says.

 

From noon on Saturday through noon on Sunday, teams will develop their ideas. Judging, including cash prizes, will take place Sunday afternoon.

 

The hackathon is open to students and professionals from a variety of backgrounds.

 

"What we're looking for is enthusiasm about the topic and a commitment to participate," Aurbach says. "We hope to get participants from lots of different backgrounds, from design to community programming to healthcare research."

 

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


Inspired by transgender bathroom debate, U-M holds conference on inclusive design

The University of Michigan Taubman (U-M) College of Architecture and Urban Planning hosted a symposium on inclusive design last week, harnessing public interest in recent debates about transgender people's use of public restrooms.

 

The symposium, called "Stalled!," ran Feb. 7-8. Taubman College partnered with the U-M Initiative on Disability Studies, the U-M Spectrum Center, and the U-M Women’s Studies department for the symposium. Speakers from Yale; the University of California, Berkeley; and the United Kingdom were also in attendance.

 

Adam Smith and Lisa Sauve, designers and owners of Ann Arbor design studio Synecdoche, also attended to talk about designing a gender-neutral bathroom for Nightcap bar, a first for the city of Ann Arbor.

 

Jonathan Massey, dean and professor at the Taubman College, says the symposium started with controversies around gendered bathrooms and transgender individuals because they're a concrete example of how design can be inclusive or not. But he says the topic was just a launching pad to "open up bigger conversations."

 

Massey says people with different gender identities and especially disabled people generate knowledge about cities and architecture by the creative methods they devise to get around.

 

"They're hacking the city," Massey says. "They have to come up with creative workarounds just to enjoy access to things other people take for granted."

 

For example, speaker Joel Sanders from Yale began working with a trans activist on gender-inclusive restrooms. But the pair quickly began to understand there were other challenges and opportunities for inclusion in restrooms, such as including foot-washing stations for Muslims who need to do their daily ablutions in airport bathrooms.

 

Smith and Sauve talked about building a restroom for Nightcap that was both beautiful and inclusive, combining a shared washing area with sinks and a mirror and individual rooms for the toilets.

 

"In one way, it was no big deal, just a small shift in what we're used to," Massey says. "But they talked in the panel about how much negotiation it took to get planning approval and permits. Ultimately, the city of Ann Arbor was happy to work with them, once they all got on the same page."

 

Massey says building gender-neutral or accessible bathrooms in new buildings isn't difficult or particularly expensive, but retrofitting old buildings can be.

 

"But the Americans with Disabilities act was passed in 1991, and people have had more than 25 years to get used to this idea. It shouldn't be a surprise or a big deal," Massey says. Architects and building owners need to start thinking of accessibility requirements on the same level as other safety code upgrades like needing a better sprinkler system for a larger space, he says.

 

Massey says there is a social justice component to these issues, but these issues also force architects and designers to be more creative in a way that could benefit everyone. He says the best outcome of the symposium was building relationships between individuals and departments that don't often get together.

 

"There were lots of new faces that had never been to Taubman College, and they were learning about us and what we do here and vice versa," he says.

 

Massey says he hopes that in two or three years, Taubman will become the sort of place where nobody would think of building binary gender restrooms.

 

"Right now, there's a culture here of teaching standard practice and then adding on disability access as a second phase or afterthought," he says. "This was the beginning of a conversation that will help us to pivot the college to a condition where people start from the premise of maximizing opportunity for everyone."


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

Washtenaw County seeks to scale up summer youth employment program in 2018

A successful summer youth employment program in Washtenaw County is hoping to double the number of young people served and is looking for more employers to participate.

 

The program, called Summer18 this year, started as a 10-week pilot program in 2016 with 26 businesses employing 50 youth in paid summer jobs. It was founded as a collaboration between Michigan Works Association and the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development. The University of Michigan (U-M) joined as a partner last year, and the number of youth employed increased to 75.

 

Shamar Herron, deputy director for Michigan Works Southeast, says that adding U-M brought "university-sized resources" to the program, including money and staff time. Various U-M departments also serve as employers in the program.

 

Julia Weinert, assistant director of U-M's Poverty Solutions, says her organization got on board with the summer employment program because the university believes these types of programs are effective in addressing the root causes of poverty.

 

"It's hard to find your first job as a young person," she says. "A lot of times, your parents will get you in with someone they know. But if you don't have that network and are coming from a place of minimal resources, an opportunity to get into a job is a huge first step that launches you into whatever you want to do, whether that's a specific career path or going to college."

 

This year, program organizers have an ambitious goal to serve 150 young people between 16 and 24.

 

Employers must commit to interviewing potential employees, and then providing training and orientation. They also have to commit to paying the participants $10 an hour for those without a high school degree and $12 an hour for those who do have a degree.

 

Participating youth must commit to attending an entire month of "soft skills" training before being matched with employers, and then working a minimum of 20 hours per week for the remainder of the summer program.

 

"The key message we want businesses to understand is that we're sending out a quality product in terms of these young people," Herron says. "We run them through a month's worth of soft skills like how to show up on time and communicate effectively, and how to dress appropriately."

 

Herron says the program tries to coordinate the interests of each youth with a summer employer, but sometimes, an exact match can't be made. Still, Herron says, every effort is made to make as close a match as possible and explain to the employee why they were paired with a particular business.

 

Benefits for participating youth are obvious, but there are upsides for employers as well, Herron says. Youth who are kept busy during the summer are less likely to get into trouble with the law, which is a benefit to the community as a whole. More specifically, youth who have a good experience with an employer are likely to talk about that workplace to friends and family, creating good public relations between the community and the employer, Herron says.

 

"This is our opportunity to help young people understand what it takes to go to work," Herron says. "If we don't do this, 20 years from now we'll be kicking ourselves over the missed opportunity to prepare the next generation of our workforce."

 

Interested youth and local business may apply to take part in the program here.

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of U-M.


Arbor Insight software enables easier reporting of harassment, other workplace incidents

Arbor Insight has landed a second major client for its software allowing employees to anonymously report workplace incidents ranging from fraud to sexual harassment.

 

Comerica was the first client for the Ann Arbor-based company's Neighborhood Watch for Corporations platform. The second client is a large regional credit union, but Arbor Insight has not yet released the name of the business publicly.

 

Arbor Insight CEO Scott LaVictor says the first two client companies have been financial institutions because they are in one of a few industries, along with healthcare and advanced manufacturing, that have a regulatory requirement to protect employees by implementing a reporting protocol.

 

With sexual harassment in the national news in recent months, Arbor Insight's software addresses some of the barriers to reporting harassment and other workplace concerns. A company survey showed that people who experience workplace harassment often don't report it because they don't know how to do it or they worry about anonymity or retaliation.

 

Neighborhood Watch provides a third-party-controlled tool that not only makes it easy to report workplace incidents but makes it easier for management to respond appropriately. Instead of an ad hoc group of phone hotlines, paper forms, or online platforms, Arbor Insight's tool provides ease of access and a smarter way to help both employees and management.

 

LaVictor says that's because Arbor Insight's tool and the machine intelligence that powers it provides important context for managers responding to these types of reports.

 

"Our tech has evolved to make sure that what's being reported is not just what users want to say, but what the client needs to hear," LaVictor says. "Often, there's a big difference in context, and we always say that context is king – or queen."

 

For example, a traditional risk management investigation into a stolen laptop computer would simply ask when and where it happened, who was involved, and would request contact information.

 

LaVictor says those basic queries miss context and require a lot of follow-up by the investigator.

 

"Where our tool really shines is that, once it recognizes the topic is computer theft, it's trained to ask those basic questions but also asks was the device used for work, was it password-protected or encrypted, does anyone else in the office use it, or was a thumb drive inserted in the computer?" LaVictor says.

 

LaVictor says this kind of reporting could potentially head off workplace violence as well.


"I've done a lot of workplace violence investigations, and there were always indicators," he says.

 

In interviews, he found there were always at least two or three people who heard comments, saw things, or were told stories that suggested the incident was likely to occur. If employees were able to report those concerns, it would have provided key context that could have resulted in an appropriate intervention such as counseling for the troubled employee, LaVictor says.

 

"We're at an important point with our second client, who is committed to helping us grow," LaVictor says. "Our survey results clearly indicate that a platform like ours is accessible and intelligent and something that people want."

 

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.

RITMO app introduces on-demand mass transit at U-M, with plans to expand

A new app is revolutionizing public transportation on the University of Michigan's (U-M) north campus by combining the efficiency of a fixed-route bus service with the convenience of a ridesharing service.

 

The app, called Reinventing Urban Transportation and Mobility (RITMO), uses a sophisticated algorithm to figure out the best route and combination of transportation methods to help a rider reach his or her destination. That could mean taking a small RITMO shuttle vehicle for the entire route or having a shuttle take the rider to a bus stop to continue his or her trip on a traditional U-M bus. The system offers almost door-to-door service, a la Uber or Lyft, but still operates within the framework (and much more affordable price point) of public transit.

 

Pascal Van Hentenryck, the Seth Bonder Collegiate professor at the U-M College of Engineering, has been working on related projects for years. But he had the idea for RITMO after seeing empty buses traveling across campus.

 

He noted that fixed-route buses make sense in busy corridors with a high density of riders, but in other areas, the buses were not being used efficiently. A U-M team did some surveys about how students and faculty use transportation options to come up with new, more efficient options.

 

Van Hentenryck says the future of transportation is "on-demand and multi-modal," and notes that RITMO's advantages are that it is "dynamic and completely integrated."

 

"We are bringing transit into the 20th century instead of using technology from 30 years ago," he says.

 

Van Hentenryck notes that the project has created new jobs for shuttle drivers but hasn't increased U-M's transportation budget. As employee costs went up, infrastructure costs were reduced.

 

Van Hentenryck says he and his team would like to eventually expand their service to the entire U-M campus, as well as neighborhoods a few miles north of campus. While the app and shuttle and bus rides are completely free to students and faculty right now, a small fee comparable to a municipal bus fare may be charged in the future for off-campus destinations, Van Hentenryck says.

 

Right now, the system is limited to north campus and solely to the hours of 7-11 p.m., but extended hours will be rolled out in a staged deployment, adding RITMO service from 7-11 a.m. and then from 3-7 p.m. Future plans also include using electric vehicles and, eventually, autonomous shuttles.

 

Van Hentenryck says RITMO organizers hope to continue studying the system to see if people will change their habits as a result of using RITMO.

 

"Another motivation for this is the significant pressure on parking," Van Hentenryck says. "With a new, interesting transit system, we will see if they are willing to not drive to campus. If we can get people on this transit system, it decreases that parking pressure, we won't have to build new parking lots, and it'll be good for everyone."

 

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

 
Images courtesy of RITMO.

Concluding "a good Michigan story," Armune BioSciences sells off pioneering cancer-detection tech

David Esposito, president and CEO of Armune BioScience, says a recent transaction in which Wisconsin-based Exact Sciences acquired Armune's underlying technology is the final chapter of "a good Michigan story."

 

The transaction was announced at the JP Morgan Healthcare conference in San Francisco in December, but details of the transaction were not released.

 

Esposito says that Armune, headquartered in Kalamazoo with lab operations in Ann Arbor, has been a Michigan success story from its founding in 2008, when it launched at the University of Michigan (U-M). It was supported by angel groups based in the state, received financial help and mentorship through U-M's Biomedical Research Council, and expanded its Ann Arbor lab operations after landing $700,000 in seed capital in 2015. Additionally, a Michigan consulting firm, EMA Partners, helped broker the deal with Exact Sciences.

 

"The only blood-based non-PSA cancer testing in the world was supported by the Michigan life science community," Esposito says.

 

Armune was the maker of Apifiny, a blood test that helps doctors diagnose prostate cancer without relying on prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests.

 

Esposito notes that PSA tests give a lot of false positives, because high PSA levels can be related to normal changes from aging or other changes in the prostate that aren't cancer. In contrast, Apifiny uses biomarkers that indicate the immune system is responding to cancer.

 

The match with Exact Sciences was a good one, since both companies had a goal to tackle the most commonly-diagnosed cancers. Exact Sciences is on a mission to address the 10 deadliest cancers, including breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancers, and one of Exact Sciences' earliest products was Cologuard, a screening test for colon cancer.

 

Cologuard, however, is a fecal test, and Esposito says Armune's complementary technology will help Exact Sciences develop more blood-based tests for cancers.

 

With Exact Sciences having purchased the underlying technology, Armune BioScience still exists as a company name, but has ceased lab operations. Esposito says the Armune team is looking for the next great technology to build another company on.

 

"Most of our team is looking for another innovation to scale up and see how it goes," he says.

 

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


Photo courtesy of David Esposito.

Duo Security launches film showcase emphasizing diverse creators and tech themes

Last week's A2 Tech Film Showcase drew 600-700 attendees to the Michigan Theater – an impressive turnout for an event originally planned as a small filmmakers' get-together in the basement of Ann Arbor's Duo Security.

 

Rik Cordero, senior media producer at Duo and founder of the showcase, says the Jan. 19 event grew out of discussions among Duo employees about a lack of diversity in both independent filmmaking and in the tech world.

 

"We wanted to create a platform for underrepresented voices in the indie filmmaking and tech industries through short films," Cordero says.

 

He says bringing diverse voices to the table is ingrained into Duo's company culture.

 

"We want to show that the way we solve problems is to have multiple perspectives, because we can focus on the wrong things or miss problems when everyone has the same point of view," Cordero says.

 

Response to Duo's early announcements about the film showcase was strong, and Cordero didn't want to leave anybody out.

 

"We were going to have a small get-together in the basement of Duo, but we started to see the RSVP response climb very rapidly, and we hit our ceiling for capacity at Duo," he says.

 

Duo reached out to a few sponsors, including ad agency Q+M and Ann Arbor SPARK, and booked the main theater at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater for the event. Cordero says organizers envisioned the event as a showcase rather than as a competition. First-time filmmakers and more seasoned filmmakers both participated, and several participants helped other filmmaking teams with editing or acting.

 

The two basic guidelines were that films had to be made by women or people of color and/or had to feature women and people of color in the storyline, he says. The second guideline was that all films should embrace and explore the consequences or side effects of technology in films of about 10 minutes.

 

Concepts touched on in the showcase ranged from social media addiction to genetic editing to rampaging artificial intelligence, but many of the themes related to realities we're all living right now, Cordero says. The films also ranged from more traditional narratives to more experimental short films.

 

"With the experimental stuff, they were using all kinds of nontraditional techniques, and that was sort of the point with this technology angle being highlighted," he says.

 

Cordero says Duo staff members are already making plans for a second A2 Tech Film Showcase, working out an application that ensures that a range of diverse voices will be represented. The themes for future showcases haven't been worked out yet, but Cordero says staffers are brainstorming a list of potential new themes.

 

"This was a genuinely positive event, and we couldn't have hoped for a better response," he says.

 

Information about the short films and filmmakers is available here.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Q+M.


Pitch@WCC competition returns, offering opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs

Washtenaw Community College (WCC) is gearing up for its third annual Pitch@WCC competition, which provides an increasingly popular opportunity for early-stage entrepreneurs to win cash and gain business skills.

 

Kristin Gapske, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at WCC, says a pitch competition with an educational component was one of the first big projects she and others at the center focused on after the center opened in September 2014. WCC launched the first Pitch@WCC competition in April of 2016, attracting nine participants and filling all 50 slots for audience members.

 

The competition grew in 2017, attracting 15 pitches and about 120 audience members. This year, organizers expect the competition to grow again.

 

As part of the educational component, participants aren't just thrown in to sink or swim but rather learn many useful skills along the way.

 

"Applicants are supported throughout the process," Gapske says. "We teach them how to identify their target market, understand how to market to them, and all the other components that go into a successful pitch."

 

Participants in this year's competition must apply online by Feb. 9. Those who make it through the online process are required to attend additional meetings and workshops before the final event, set for 6 p.m. May 15.

 

Participants must come to an organizational meeting to get more details about the competition process and requirements. They must also attend three Entrepreneurial Center workshops, one about storytelling, one about crafting a pitch, and a third of the participant's choice. Finally, participants are required to come to a practice session to hone their pitches in front of the competition judges.

 

The entire process, including applying and attending workshops, is free for participants, and Gapske says an added bonus is that participants often get many networking opportunities.

 

"They get connected to each other, and you'll see the participants working with each other and rooting for each other," she says.

 

The competition has three tiers for entrepreneurs who are at different stages in the process: start, build, and grow. A top prize and a runner-up is named in each category, earning winners $1,000 in the "start category," $1,250 in the "build category," and $1,500 in the "grow" category. There's also a $500 prize for the audience choice winner.

 

Judges are open to many different types of businesses. Winners in the past have included a company producing a natural deodorizer, an apparel company, a cake maker, a massage therapist, and a custom tutoring business for Japanese expatriates.

 

Gapske says the pitch competition provides a smaller, more local opportunity for startups that aren't yet ready for larger and tougher business plan competitions. The competition also furthers the Entrepreneurship Center's overall mission in helping students.

 

"It aligns with what we're doing here at the center in terms of creating a co-curricular experience," Gapske says. "Students are getting skills with photography and graphic design and HVAC and construction, and some of them will be going out and needing to run a business. This gives them a chance to articulate what the business is and develop a succinct and effective pitch."

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of WCC/Victoria Bennett.


Ann Arbor companies' new app doubles typing speeds for the severely disabled

Two Ann Arbor companies, Atomic Object and Koester Performance Research (KPR), recently collaborated to create a tool called Scanning Wizard that makes it easier for people with severe disabilities to use computers and smartphones.

 

Technology already exists to help people with severe disabilities, including those who can't speak, to use adaptive "switches" that can be operated with a small muscle twitch to navigate online, write documents, or send texts on their smartphones. If a user is writing an essay, for instance, the switch will activate a menu and then do something similar to playing "20 questions" with the user, according to KPR founder Heidi Koester.

 

"The computer starts going through groups of items, and when the user hits the switch, it chooses the thing you wanted and narrows it down from there," Koester says.

 

The process is complicated, and it takes a long time to do anything with these menus, even when they're tailored to the individual users. Currently, many switch systems allow the user to write at about one word per minute.

 

"Imagine someone being in on a conversation at one word a minute," she says. "That makes it hard for them to participate on a full basis with their peers and do the things they want to do."

 

The innovation that Scanning Wizard brings to the table is making the fine-tuning process smarter and more efficient. The application is called a "wizard" because it walks a user – or more typically the user's caregiver, relative, or teacher – step by step through the process of tailoring the switch system's settings to the user.

 

Koester says she wanted the app to be available as a simple website that would be accessible to the average person with no special training. Atomic Object managing partner John Fisher notes that, after the first online session, the application is cached and can be used offline in areas where internet access might be spotty.

 

Small pilot studies showed that Scanning Wizard allowed users to double their text entry speed on average. Fisher says increasing speed from one word per minute to two or three per minute doesn't seem like much.

 

"But imagine if you could type three times faster. How would that impact your life?" Fisher says.

 

Koester came to Atomic Object with her idea and some development experience, but she wasn't a professional app developer.

 

"We worked with her to define what her high-level priorities were, came up with a comprehensive design for the software, and built the application," Fisher says. "We delivered the first version of the product and handed the code base over to her, and she enhanced it with the knowledge she'd gained working alongside our team."

 

The application is available for free at scanningwizard.com.

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Atomic Object.


Ann Arbor's SkySpecs raises $8 million to expand reach of drone wind turbine inspection tech

SkySpecs, an Ann Arbor-based company that uses automated drones to inspect wind turbines, recently landed $8 million in financing that will allow the company to expand globally and add to its product line.

 

The most recent round of financing came from Statkraft Ventures, UL Ventures, and Capital Midwest with follow-on investments from Venture Investors, Huron River Ventures, and additional existing investors.

 

Co-founder and CEO Danny Ellis says SkySpecs' 2017 was focused on using research and development to commercialize the company's product. The company began tracking inspections in April of 2017 and completed 3,600 turbine inspections at more than 70 wind farms in the U.S. and Europe.

 

Ellis says the latest round of financing will allow the company to "focus on improving robotics and data analytics and taking it worldwide to customers everywhere." Ellis says the initial wave of expansion will occur in Europe, where the wind energy industry is more mature. But SkySpecs plans to target Australia and South America shortly after that.

 

Ellis says the technology could be extended to other applications, but since many of the company's existing clients are in the energy industry, energy infrastructure is likely to remain a strong focus.

 

There are a number of advantages to automated drone inspections, including speed, safety, and accuracy of data. Inspections of all three blades of a wind turbine can be done in 15 minutes and don't involve the dangers of having a human inspector hanging from ropes or standing on a crane, Ellis says. Automated drone inspections are also more uniform.

 

"The data is measurable and repeatable, because each inspection is done the same way," Ellis says. The automated drones can repeat their procedure exactly in a way a manual drone flight or a camera inspection from the ground cannot, due to variations in user input.
 

"Typically, they are looking for normal wear and tear, erosion, any sort of splitting or delamination of the fiberglass," Ellis says. The drones are not only looking for signs of potential catastrophic failure but also pinpointing areas where the turbines might not be working efficiently.

 

The data gathered allows SkySpecs to recommend if something needs to be repaired or replaced right away, or if it can be put off for a few months or a year.

 

"If you need to repair everything, you should, but not everyone has that flexibility in the budget, and we can help them set priorities," Ellis 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.

 

All photos courtesy of SkySpecs.


Pitch Ypsi competition addresses criticism through community feedback forum

Pitch Ypsi, a business pitch competition started in 2017, is asking for community feedback to shape the future of the competition. Organizers are hosting a community feedback forum from 4:30-7 p.m. at SPARK East, 215 W. Michigan Ave. in downtown Ypsilanti on Wednesday, Jan. 10.

 

The nonprofit gave away a $5,000 prize at each of two competitions in 2017, both of which drew strong interest, according to competition founder and Ann Arbor serial entrepreneur Al Newman.

 

"The planning committee's original goal was to get 50 people to attend the first event," Newman says, but 195 of the free tickets to the event were snapped up almost immediately, and 62 applicants applied for the competition. "The response far exceeded our expectations."

 

However, organizers received some constructive criticism that has led them to rethink a few aspects of the competition.

 

"The leadership team should more reflect the community," Newman says, so broadening the planning team and leadership is a top priority.

 

At least one participant at the last pitch competition was upset that a company based in Pittsfield Township won the second competition in 2017, and Newman says the parameters for the competition should have been better explained to the community.

 

"The planning team understand that the contestants needed to be from the two eastern Washtenaw County ZIP codes (48197 and 48198) but didn't communicate that very well," Newman says. He adds that though the word "Ypsi" is in the title of the competition, the goal is really to promote entrepreneurship and business growth in the whole eastern half of the county.

 

Community members are invited to tonight's meeting to provide any and all feedback. Newman says the plan is to have at least one Pitch Ypsi event in 2018, with the first probably happening in the second quarter of the year, but no dates have been set yet.

 

More information about the community feedback forum is available at Pitch Ypsi's Facebook event page.


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

Continuing decade of turnaround, ADI set to invest $4m and create 100 jobs in Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor-based Applied Dynamics International (ADI) recently announced that it will invest almost $4.4 million and create 100 or more jobs in Ann Arbor as part of a planned expansion.

 

The business, known for its flight simulator platform used by Boeing and the U.S. Air Force, received a $650,000 performance-based grant from the Michigan Business Development Program (MBDP) based on plans to add jobs in Michigan. MBDP is an incentive program available from the Michigan Strategic Fund in cooperation with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
 

ADI considered expanding its presence in the UK or Seattle but chose to expand in Ann Arbor, according to CEO Scott James.

 

"There were a lot of reasons why, in the end, we decided to go this route," James says. "More than anything, it was the access to talent. Also, the support the state of Michigan offers is what made it happen."

 

ADI was founded in 1957 and has undergone ownership changes as well as changes in focus. James says the company was close to bankruptcy when he took over as CEO in 2008. As part of his plan to make ADI profitable, he decided the company needed to focus on the most promising pieces of technology.

 

Out of that decision grew ADI's real-time distributed computation platform, which allows a computational load to be distributed over a network of inexpensive computers. The technology allows complex feedback data to be provided in real time, lending itself not only to simulation software like ADI's flight simulator but also to analytics and data handling. James says the underlying technology could also be applied to modernizing next-generation utility grids.

 

ADI has been growing both in revenue and in employee numbers over the last few years. ADI's revenues were about $5 million in 2014 and about $9 million in 2017, with $11 million projected for 2018. The company's headcount has grown from 36 in 2014 to its current team of 67.

 

The company plans to add at least 100 jobs, most of them software development engineers, and to build out its current building off Stone School Road. Some of the existing space is currently being remodeled, and a new wing of the building will be added soon. James says he expects to break ground on the addition within the next 18 months.

 

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 by Sarah Rigg.


Chelsea couple turns soapmaking hobby into full-time business, with help from Etsy and Amazon

Little Flower Soap Co. in Chelsea started as a small hobby business and has grown into a full-time job for owner Holly Rutt and her husband Justin.

 

Holly Rutt's interest in handmade soap dates back to 2010, when a college friend gave her the first bar of handmade soap she'd ever tried. She fell in love immediately and asked the friend for more information about handmade soaps. Rutt went on to learn soapmaking from that friend's sister in a one-room log cabin, an experience she describes as "magical."

 

The problem was that the initial recipe she used made 125 bars of soap, much more than the Rutts needed. They gave much of that first batch of soap away as wedding favors when they married in 2010.

 

"The favors were really well received. Guests were sniffing each other's soap," Holly Rutt says. Several friends also encouraged her to market her soaps.

 

Her first try at selling soap was an art fair fundraiser for the roller derby team the Derby Dimes, but she was unsure who would pay $4.50 for a bar of soap or $20 for five.

 

"But everybody bought five, and we sold out," Rutt says. That's when she knew it could be more than a hobby and began selling her goods online through Etsy.

 

Justin Rutt is an osteopathic doctor with an interest in herbs, and Holly Rutt also runs a floral business, Sweet Pea Floral Design. The two areas of expertise work well together in the bath and body business.

 

The couple went on to create lotions, bath balms, lip balms, candles, and other bath and body products. Justin Rutt writes the "recipes" for all products except the original soap, while Holly Rutt hopes to farm enough lavender to create all the essential oils she'll need for her soaps and other products.

 

Rutt says she was worried that 2016 was going to be an "off" year for the business, since sales on Etsy were down. But then she got in on the ground floor of a new Amazon program called Amazon Handmade, which provides a market for artisans offering unique homemade goods.

 

"If it wasn't for Amazon Handmade, we would have had a down year, but we ended up with an up year in 2016, and we've done 50 percent more in sales this year, too," Rutt says.

 

Rutt says a surprising side effect of this decision was picking up more male customers. Customers at Etsy had been 95 percent women, but the mix of customers from Amazon is closer to 50/50 men and women, she says.

 

The business has grown steadily since 2010. Now, in addition to Holly and Justin Rutt, the Little Flower Soap Co. has one full-time employee and two part-timers who work year-round, as well as 15 temp workers filling orders during the holiday rush. The Rutts also sell their products wholesale to about 200 small shops around the U.S.

 

Holly Rutt continues to run her flower arranging business in the ground floor of the old barn on the Rutts' Chelsea property, while the soap factory operates upstairs.

 

In the future, the Rutts are hoping to add an all-natural deodorant to the product line and, after the success of a recent offering of bourbon-flavored lip balm, more booze-inspired lip care products. Holly Rutt also hopes to offer various classes on flower arranging, soapmaking, and candlemaking.

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 Little Flower Soap Co.


U-M launches nonprofit to help entrepreneurs in developing countries

The University of Michigan (U-M) has launched a new nonprofit institute focused on helping entrepreneurs in developing countries.

 

The Michigan Academy for the Development of Entrepreneurs (MADE) was created through a partnership between U-M's Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies (ZLI), U-M's William Davidson Institute (WDI), and Aparajitha Foundations. Entrepreneur Mike Pape will serve as executive director.

 

WDI is an independent, nonprofit research and educational organization focused on providing private-sector solutions in emerging markets. Aparajitha Foundations, a part of Aparajitha Group, is a charitable trust with the objective of supporting the less privileged mainly in terms of education and health.

 

Stewart Thornhill, executive director of ZLI, says the idea behind MADE grew out of U-M's MBA curriculum. In the last half-semester of their first year, usually in March and April, all classes for first-year MBA students form teams to complete Michigan Action-Learning Projects. Teams spend two to seven weeks on site working with corporate clients on projects, developing recommendations, and presenting ideas to the board or CEO.

 

"They can use it as an opportunity to provide value to the client as well as learn the process of dealing with real-world, messy situations instead of the clean classroom problems they've been encountering," Thornhill says.

 

WDI also supports student teams working with nonprofits in emerging economies. Over time, Thornhill says the two U-M programs had inadvertently created a network of international partners.

 

"We decided we could do more to leverage this network," Thornhill says. "We could learn from each other and take advantage of these preexisting relationships and find a way to become more than the sum of our parts."

 

MADE's initial focus is on India, but the nonprofit will also build on past work in Vietnam and Kosovo, with plans for future expansion into other areas.

 

Executive director Pape will be helped by a team of students doing a four-credit course that will help formalize the nonprofit's business plan and make sure it can remain a sustainable, ongoing enterprise, Thornhill says. He says he believes the nonprofit will have solidified its model and will become self-sustaining within two to three years.

 

Thornhill says MADE isn't about people from the U.S. going to another country thinking they know what's best for these emerging economies, but rather about mutual learning.

 

"There are things that we teach and learn here in the U.S. that don't apply in other countries, because they don't have the same property rights and legal structures or things we take for granted in terms of infrastructure," Thornhill says. "Step one is learning from successful entrepreneurs in these countries about what works and what doesn't. Maybe you can take someone working in rural India and have them learn from someone in Vietnam, and then transfer that knowledge to someone in Morocco. We're here to learn and then to spread the knowledge."

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of MADE.


Platform for hiring camp counselors wins $25,000 SPARK Boot Camp award

Having managed a summer camp in Michigan's Lower Peninsula, Curtis and Brooke McFall know the pain of trying to recruit suitable camp counselors. That experience led the Ann Arbor couple to create CampGig.com, an online platform to match camp counselors with camps, which recently won the $25,000 "Best of Boot Camp" prize from Ann Arbor SPARK.

 

Boot Camp is a multi-week SPARK program designed for entrepreneurs who need help assessing the feasibility of their business concept, building a business model, and finding customers. The entrepreneurs receive mentorship and exposure to potential early-stage investors. Breath of Life, a company that makes an app to help users with meditation and relaxation, won the $10,000 runner-up prize.

 

The McFalls developed their business idea after talking to other camp administrators and realizing that hiring staff every year was a pain point for all of them. Camp counselors can be recruited through college job fairs or job postings online, but those avenues take up a lot of administrators' time. Alternately, counselors can be recruited through international placement agencies, but Curtis McFall says those are expensive.

 

"We decided we needed to make something similar to the international placement agencies, but for domestic staff," McFall says.

 

The McFalls conceived the idea this January and started seeking developers to create the platform in February.

 

"The concepts were already there with the international placement agencies, but we wanted to tweak and update the concept for our site," McFall says.

 

McFall says SPARK's Boot Camp was "an invaluable experience," and he was pleasantly surprised at the amount of engagement and energy mentors put into the process. He felt Boot Camp was particularly valuable in the area of finding potential customers.

 

"Everybody knows this, but you need to be doing as much customer discovery as possible," McFall says. "That's what a lot of Boot Camp participants' success will hinge on."

 

He says the Boot Camp experience also made him and his wife rethink pricing. Staff can sign up and look at job listings for free, but camps have to pay for a membership. Boot Camp made the McFalls revise their pricing model, how camps pay, and what they get for their fee.

 

McFall says the cash prize will help his company recruit staff and get more candidates in the system before the McFalls start marketing to camps. The site currently has about 200 profiles, but the McFalls want to have a minimum of 1,000 profiles on the site before doing a marketing push so there is a robust candidate pool for camps to choose from.

 

"That's what we found out during customer discovery: if we have the candidates, the camps will come," McFall says.

 

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

 

Photo of check presentation courtesy of Jenn Cornell. Brooke and Curtis McFall photo courtesy of Curtis McFall.

2161 Articles | Page: | Show All