Innovation & Job News

2183 Articles | Page: | Show All

Study's early findings suggest high demand for Ann Arbor-to-Traverse City passenger rail

Passenger rail service between Ann Arbor and the Traverse City area is one step closer to reality based on early findings of a six-month feasibility study scheduled to wrap up in June.


Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, an advocacy group based in Traverse City, is leading the initiative to bring back regular passenger train service between southeast and northwest Michigan, with a goal of having it operational by 2025. Groundwork partnered with the Bay Area Transit Authority to apply for federal funds and announced that a grant was secured in early 2017.


Groundwork deputy director Jim Bruckbauer says his organization is looking at this particular route because the tracks are already in place for freight service, the state owns the tracks, and they're "still in pretty good shape."


A feasibility study for the service is being conducted by consultant firm Transportation Economics and Management Systems. Bruckbauer says the study looked at existing public input data from 2012, when the state of Michigan created a statewide trail plan, as well as at existing track conditions and travel patterns in the communities between Ann Arbor and Traverse City.


Early findings about how many people would likely use the passenger rail service are encouraging, particularly the fact that visits to the Traverse City region have been growing 4 percent per year.


"So now Traverse City and Petoskey are saying, 'Can we get a percentage of these visitors to come up by train?' The consultants are saying that, based on initial findings, there's a good case for that," Bruckbauer says.


He notes that passenger rail service would likely be rolled out in stages. The first stage would likely have special event trains taking passengers north for the National Cherry Festival, the Traverse City Film Festival, or a fall color tour, as well as taking Traverse City-area residents downstate for major events like the Ann Arbor Art Fair.


Bruckbauer says those special-event runs would allow organizers to test the market to see how many people are willing to travel the route by train.


"Then you can start building the service as demand and interest increases," he says.


Consultants are also looking at what it would take to get trains running at 60 mph along that corridor with the goal of making a five-hour trip from Ann Arbor to Traverse. Next, they'll look into what it would take to get trains going more than 100 mph, decreasing travel time even more.


A likely next step after completing the feasibility study would be deciding on the best operating structure, whether that would entail having a nonprofit or for-profit company operating the trains.


Bruckbauer says some of the money for the feasibility study came from a federal grant, but funding also came from Rotary Charities of Traverse City, the National Association of Realtors, and Traverse City-area real estate organizations.


"It's interesting to see the private-sector real estate community coming together around this idea," Bruckbauer says. "They see what rail does for the economy, for development and real estate values, when a rail goes through communities."


Though the feasibility study isn't finished yet, Bruckbauer says it's already "pretty clear that it is going to take an incremental approach to building long-term service."


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

Images courtesy of Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.

EMU's Digital Divas program marks eight years of encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers

Last week Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) Digital Divas program celebrated its eighth year of encouraging girls to consider STEM careers, and organizer Bia Hamed says it's getting "stronger, better, and bigger."


The biannual program invites high school girls to a day-long conference in April, with a November session targeting middle school girls. The conference features a keynote speaker and choice of two breakout sessions.


Hamed says the program began when EMU computer science professor Skip Lawber noticed there were only a few women in his classroom. He asked female students if they would run some STEM sessions for local high school girls.


"And every year since then, we've grown and grown," Hamed says, noting that the program is free to all. Organizers will even use money from private sponsors including DTE Energy and AT&T to help pay for transportation so that more girls can attend.


About 600 girls from high schools all over southeast Michigan attended this year's high school event on April 13. Approximately 6,000 girls have participated since the program's inception.


"Girls actually outperform boys in elementary school in science and math, but they get intimidated by the lack of good female role models in science," Hamed says.


Digital Divas' goal is to empower girls to change that culture. Professional women from various industries lead 90-minute hands-on breakout sessions on topics ranging from how to fly a drone to how to make your own cosmetics to how to build a mobile app.


This year, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell opened the event, and the keynote speaker was Neetu Seth, president and CEO of Ann Arbor data management company NITS Solutions. Seth earned both her bachelor's degree and her MBA from EMU and came back to inspire the next generation of girls interested in STEM careers.


Hamed says many EMU alumni have returned to give back to the program.


"Several of Skip Lawber's students who have graduated and are working in various fields came back to host breakout sessions," she says, adding that a number of volunteers at this year's events were participants in past Digital Divas programs.


"There was an almost-magical energy in the room," Hamed says of the event. "It has been a great experience."


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


Photos courtesy of Eastern Michigan University/Debra Burke.

SPARK annual meeting highlights: Tackling Michigan's fear of the future and a new summer tech event

At Ann Arbor SPARK's annual meeting Tuesday, keynote speaker David Egner told the crowd at Eastern Michigan University's Student Center that he could sum up all the things that hold Michigan back in one word: fear.


Egner, president and CEO of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, made an unlikely comparison between southeast Michigan's response to the decline of the auto industry and New Orleans' response to Hurricane Katrina. Egner said Michigan had "the same natural disaster" as New Orleans, but our response to that disaster has been far slower and less confident.


"I still hear the phrase once in a while: 'We're only one good Chevy away from the best rebound in the history of southeast Michigan,'" Egner said. "Although the (automakers) have done a very good job of diversifying, especially around this issue of mobility, we still are holding on to that past because we're fearful of what lies ahead."


Egner said that fear leads to multiple liabilities for our region and the state, including our talent deficit, high barriers to college education, crumbling infrastructure, and low self-image. He said those liabilities hold us back from our potential to be a national or international leader in mobility, freshwater research, inclusivity, and other areas.


Egner outlined three solutions to that problem: carefully crafting a vision of our future, creating opportunity for reasonable discourse, and working to connect our present to our future. He emphasized the idea that the baby-boomer-era tradition of "climbing the ladder" to career success is antiquated, suggesting rock climbing as a more apt modern metaphor.


"(Rock climbers) never go straight up," Egner said. "They have to find the opportunity for the next big toehold, moving up, and a lot of times they have to move backwards or move sideways to move up."


Egner's themes of envisioning and embracing the future echoed several announcements SPARK made at the annual meeting about its short- and longer-term organizational plans. SPARK president and CEO Paul Krutko celebrated the conclusion of the economic development organization's 2012 five-year plan, and announced its new 2018 strategic plan.


The plan includes some interesting new goals. Among them are helping more companies to scale as Duo Security has, encouraging company location and growth east of US-23 in Washtenaw County, and working with the city of Ann Arbor to improve the attractiveness of the State Street-Eisenhower Parkway corridor.


Krutko also announced a new SPARK event called A2Tech360, which will run June 13-15. A2Tech360 serves as an expansion of SPARK's successful Tech Trek and Tech Talk programs, which respectively offer a self-guided walking tour of Ann Arbor tech businesses and TED-style talks by local tech leaders. Tech Trek and Tech Talk were held on the same day last year, but this year they'll be just two components of the multi-day A2Tech360 event.


A2Tech360 activities on Wednesday, June 13, will be focused on connecting local companies to investors. Programming on Thursday, June 14, will include the new Meeting of the Minds summit for local mobility leaders and SPARK's annual FastTrack awards for high-growth businesses. Tech Trek and Tech Talk will take place on Friday, June 15. Washington Street between Division Street and Fifth Avenue downtown will be closed June 15 for two new events: Live at Tech Trek, a musical event featuring two live bands and a DJ; and Mobility Row, where 20 mobility companies will show off new technology to the public.


Krutko also announced that SPARK plans to continue scaling up A2Tech360 to eventually become a weeklong event. The event is one of SPARK's key goals under the talent attraction focus area of its new strategic plan.


Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications.


Photos courtesy of Ann Arbor SPARK.

WCC hosts Smart Cities Symposium focused on using technology to solve urban challenges

A Smart Cities Symposium April 6 at Washtenaw Community College brought together about 140 city planners, engineers, administrators, mayors, and economic development leaders for a day of discussion on how to use technology to meet the new challenges cities face.


Michelle Mueller, vice president for economic, community, and college development at WCC, says there are a few common misconceptions about "smart cities."


"A lot of people think smart cities are about making the city digital and about technology, but it's really about solving complex community problems using technology as a vehicle to pinpoint where we are and using information to solve those issues," Mueller says.


Mueller says much of the conversation around "smart cities" has been focused on connected and autonomous vehicles. But symposium organizers wanted to feature talks and panels that included energy and smart grids, water issues, and more.


Ken Washington, vice president of research and advanced engineering and chief technology officer at Ford Motor Co., was the first speaker of the day, "setting the stage for what's happening in the auto industry," Mueller says.


Next up was Dr. Toni Antonucci, professor of psychology and senior research scientist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research Life Course, who talked about the demographics of aging and what that means for city planners.


Other speakers included Paul Krutko, president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK, on how technology and big data can make cities more inclusive and prosperous by attracting and retaining talent; Camilo Serna, vice president of corporate strategy at DTE Energy, talking about the smart grid and how to improve energy infrastructure; and Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, talking about the future of transportation infrastructure in Michigan.


The event concluded with a panel discussion featuring James R. Sayer, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute; Craig Hupy, public service area administrator for the city of Ann Arbor; and Eugene W. Grant, mayor of Seat Pleasant, Maryland.


"A lot of folks think that if they're from a small town, they don't have to deal with smart city issues or don't have the competitive advantage to bring in business," Mueller says. "But Mayor Grant is from a small rural town of about 5,000 people, and he did it."


Serving as an example of gathering data for making data-driven decisions, Grant made the case to taxpayers that a vacant house pulls down the value of houses around it by as much as 13 percent. He created a business case for buying up vacant properties, fixing them up, and reselling them, investing the funds raised back into development.


"It addressed the societal problem of vacant houses and, by showing that the program would raise the value of all homes in the city, residents were really able to get behind it," Mueller says.


Mueller says WCC would like to build on the symposium's momentum by applying to the National Science Foundation to have the college designated a "regional center of excellence."


"We've done so much work in this area. I think we're positioned well," Mueller says.


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


Photos courtesy of Washtenaw Community College.

Duo Security opens Detroit office in Bamboo Detroit coworking space

Opening a Detroit office was always a matter of "when" more than "if" for Ann Arbor tech company Duo Security.


That's according to Duo chief information officer Raffaele Mautone, who helped lead the company's recent expansion into Detroit. Duo celebrated its first day in business at co-working space Bamboo Detroit, 1420 Washington Blvd. in Detroit, on April 9.


Duo began its search for the right location in Detroit about a year ago. The company has been a part of the Detroit community for years, Mautone says, and it's been "watching Detroit being disruptive and grow."


"We looked at other locations, but Bamboo aligned with our culture and had what we look for in a building and in a partner," Mautone says.


Duo transferred 30 employees from its Ann Arbor team of around 300 to the Detroit office, where they are currently occupying temporary digs. Mautone says the company chose employees for the Detroit office based partly on what roles needed to be filled and partly on which employees already lived closer to Detroit than to Ann Arbor.


Before the year is out, Duo's Detroit team expects to take over the entire 9,000-square-foot sixth floor at Bamboo. That space will allow the Detroit office to grow to somewhere between 75 and 90 employees, depending on how the space is designed during the build-out phase, Mautone says.


Mautone says that although he is focused on growing the Detroit office, Duo continues to expand in Ann Arbor as well. He expects growth to happen at both locations "organically."


"We love doing tech talks and doing community outreach, and we've joined events here where people from Ann Arbor were invited to talk about the region and how we can grow together," Mautone says. "We think adding the Detroit office complements what's already going on between the two cities and creates a region that allows the local tech community to grow."


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


Bamboo photos courtesy of Bamboo Detroit. Raffaele Mautone photo courtesy of Duo Security.

Ypsi's National Society of Black Engineers Jr. wins endurance race at its first national competition

Ypsilanti Community High School's (YCHS) chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Jr. is brand new, but its Student Racing Challenge team is already making waves at the national level.


Ypsi's student chapter of the engineering society was just revived during the 2017-2018 school year. But the team recently returned from NSBE Jr.'s 44th annual national convention, which took place March 20-25 in Pittsburgh, having won first place in the endurance challenge of the Ten80 race. Ten80 is a STEM initiative of NSBE Jr. that teaches science and engineering concepts through modifying and racing remote-control cars.


The YCHS team had only competed once before in Ypsi before being invited to compete at the national level, says the chapter's advisor, Lynne Settles.


"The judges were pretty impressed and were surprised we had just started our chapter," Settles says. "They put in a lot of hard work in a short period to get to this level."


Student teams are given a basic kit for the car and have to decorate it as well as modify it to go faster. They are required to document the entire process on a display board as part of a presentation at the national conference.


A total of 50 teams from around the United States competed at the national level, including YCHS' team of seven 11th-grade students: Alexis Smith, Deahja Tigner, Iyana Morgan, Bennie Williams, Maximilian Harper, Horus McDaniel, and Duane Thomas.


The Ten80 challenge involved various races, and other teams won in the speed category, but the YCHS team's car won the endurance race that required the cars to make the most laps in an obstacle course without crashing into other cars or obstacles.


Settles says the kids had to raise about $8,000 to make the trip. They were helped by the University of Michigan's sponsor chapter, small local businesses, and nonprofits like the Rotary Club of Ypsilanti. For $25, local individuals or organizations could have their name listed on a sponsorship T-shirt worn by the YCHS team as well.


Settles says this was a unique "real world experience" for the Ypsi students, none of whom had ever been to a national conference before.


"It was a first for them, meeting this many people from around the country, and an opportunity to meet other high school student and college students from all over country, as well as professional engineers from every area of engineering from all over the country," she says. "It's an experience I don't think they will forget."


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


Photos courtesy of Lynne Settles.

Ann Arbor's IndustryStar Solutions marks steady growth in supply chain field

IndustryStar Solutions, based at 330 E. Liberty St., Suite 3F in Ann Arbor, is a small but fast-growing software company with potential to change the supply chain management field.


Founded in 2013 by William Crane, Tony Lancione, and Matt Forster, the company provides "supply chain as a service," as well as offering a supply chain management software platform that client companies can choose to use or not.


Crane and Forster met while earning their MBAs at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and started the company as a class project. They later added Lancione, whom Crane had known since junior high.


In 2014, the startup moved to TechArb, the university's student venture accelerator, then moved into a small office in the lower level of Ann Arbor SPARK Central in early 2015. Since the autumn of 2015, the company has been operating out of the third floor of the same building that houses SPARK.


Ben Ludy, IndustryStar's senior manager for marketing and design, says the company has grown "steadily" every year since it was founded. Although last year was a slower year for the company, it still added a few new employees and landed some larger clients. ChicagoInno recently featured the company as one of 15 Ann Arbor Tech Companies to Watch.


The executive team's Michigan roots aren't the only reason the company has stayed in the Ann Arbor area, Ludy says.


"We've found a lot of talented software engineers and programmers right here in southeast Michigan, especially ones who have gone to schools like the University of Michigan," he says.


He adds that Michigan State University and Western Michigan University house some of the best supply chain management programs in the state, and many IndustryStar employees come from those schools as well. Additionally, automotive companies were some of IndustryStar's first clients, so staying in Michigan made sense from that standpoint as well.


On the "supply chain as a service" front, IndustryStar helps companies with strategy, procurement, quality, and logistics. For instance, a customer may have intellectual property rights to a new technology, but he or she isn't sure how to get it built.


"They come to us, and we source the parts to build their widget and manage any further production after that," Ludy says. IndustryStar can also use its network to help the client find appropriate people to assemble the parts and manage the process, he adds.


The company's supply chain software program is the real innovation, though. Ludy says the current industry standard is managing projects in spreadsheets, but IndustryStar's supply chain management platform goes beyond the spreadsheet's capabilities.


"We turned our spreadsheets into software applications so you can manage everything all in one place online, have it be accessible from anywhere, and have multiple people work inside the project simultaneously making changes or deleting data, with the ability to see the change history," Ludy says. "We're telling clients, 'Scrap your spreadsheet. We have a better way to manage this sort of data.'"

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

Nexient to invest $4 million, add 300 jobs in Ann Arbor area

Nexient, a Silicon Valley-based software company with two locations in Michigan, recently committed to spending $4.17 million on expansion and adding 300 jobs at its Pittsfield Township facility over the next three years.


The expansion will be helped by a $1.5 million Michigan Business Development Program performance-based grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.


Nexient has already added 25 jobs in Washtenaw County since January of 2018 and has plans to increase that to the 300 skilled jobs the performance-based grant calls for. A large number of new jobs will go to software developers, but the company also plans to add quality engineers, business analysts, user experience designers, and support staff.


Nexient established its tech hub in Pittsfield Township in 2010, and also has a smaller center in Okemos. In 2015, Nexient took over the lease next door to its Pittsfield hub, making room for 500 or more employees.


Southeast Michigan has a great pool of both recent graduates and candidates for mid-level and senior talent, according to Nexient CEO Mark Orttung.


"Michigan has been a fantastic environment for us, with the combination of access to the University of Michigan and another 20 universities within a few hundred miles," Orttung says. He says Ann Arbor is a "great place to live" and it isn't difficult to recruit employees to the area.


"We have plenty of room to grow, and we're aggressively investing to grow the team," Orttung says.


Nexient serves a number of industries from healthcare to auto manufacturing with "agile" software – software that is built incrementally and collaboratively, and is modified according to feedback from clients and end users. It's not rigid, but meant to evolve.


"We like to talk about a product-minded approach," Orttung says, noting that some companies release parts of a new piece of software in two-week "sprints." A company might have the ultimate goal of a six-month roadmap for releasing new software but will release pieces of it every two weeks, getting feedback and tweaking the product as the process goes on.


"It's a very fast-paced and nimble way to create software," he says. "As you use the software, you'll notice little things that could make it better, so you can make adjustments along the way, and three to six months down the road, you've already taken into account what end-users would find to make it a better, more usable product."


Orttung says that clients are continually looking for more of the "product-minded approach" that agile software brings to the table.


"I expect to see demand growing in the marketplace, and we're looking forward to growing in Ann Arbor," Orttung says.


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


Photos courtesy of Nexient.

Portland, Ore. nonprofit installs free public phone in Ypsi

The new pay phone at Landline Creative Labs, 209 Pearl St. in Ypsilanti, looks ordinary, but it's got a unique twist: thanks to Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit Futel, you don't have to pay to use it at all.


The phone across from the Ypsilanti Transit Center is only the seventh Futel has installed and its first outside the Portland area. Conceived as a combination of social mission and public art project, Futel was born out of the disappearance of the public pay phone.


"As someone who grew up in the '80s, the phone was a piece of urban hardware we never expected to go away," says Futel founder Karl Anderson. Calling the pay phone a "seminal cultural hub," Anderson notes that phones, especially pay phones, were a "key part of hacker history."


"The origins of experimentation with computers and networking revolved around the phone, and the phone was the first computer network most people interacted with," he says.


Anderson works for Ann Arbor-based Duo Security and splits his time between Ann Arbor and Portland. Through Duo co-founder Dug Song, Anderson became acquainted with Mark Maynard, co-owner of Landline.


Anderson was searching for a grant, and Maynard wanted a pay phone at his building. A grant from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation connected all the pieces, and the Futel phone on Pearl Street became operational in early March.


Futel phones have a dial tone, an operator standing by, and other features that any other pay phone has. Additionally, the phones offer the option for users to set up a voicemail inbox, as well as a directory of important and useful numbers.


The difference from the average pay phone is that Futel is run entirely by volunteers and paid for with donations, and all calls are free.


"What we are is a phone company buying services and then giving them away," Anderson says. "We buy various phone services, from call time to outgoing and incoming phone numbers to 911 service and server time for internet connectivity."


Anderson says people use Futel phones for all sorts of things, often for emergencies, but just as often for social reasons.


"The line between essential and nonessential, between emergency and non-emergency, is not so important. People need to communicate," he says.


To hear an overview of Futel's offerings or set up a voicemail box, call (503) 468-1337. An in-depth interview with Anderson is available at


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


Photo courtesy of Futel.

U-M grad turns love of travel into boutique travel agency

Vinal Desai Burbeck is often asked if there is still a place for travel agents in an age when anybody can book a hotel or a flight on the internet. Her answer is an emphatic "yes."


Burbeck caught the travel bug about eight years ago and in 2015 she started her own Ann Arbor-based boutique travel agency, Wanderlark. She saw the business as a way to share with others her love of wandering off the beaten path. Burbeck didn't travel much as a child but, as an undergrad at the University of Michigan, she leapt at the chance to study literature abroad in London.


"It changed my life and opened my eyes to all the possibilities and the joy of travel," she says.


She knew she wanted to see more of the world but wasn't able to do that until around 2010 while she worked for Google, traveling both within the U.S. and also to Ireland as part of her job.


Burbeck considers herself a "Type A planner" and began using her skills and love for travel to create itineraries for family and friends. Realizing how excited she got about discussing travel with others, she decided she might be able to make a career from it. After a few years of planning, she launched Wanderlark, making it her full-time job.


Burbeck says travelers who don't mind a one-size-fits-all approach to travel may be happy going to chain restaurants and seeing the tourist attractions everybody else visits. However, the clients who seek her out want a customized travel plan filled with mom-and-pop restaurants and other hidden gems.


"I'm like a hunting dog or a truffle pig, seeking out the really good stuff that's hard to find," Burbeck says. "The average person doesn't have the time, energy, or expertise to find those better experiences themselves, and I do all of that legwork for them."


Her clients receive a complete and customized itinerary full of experiences that are tailored to their interests, but also includes some flexibility so they don't feel they have to frantically rush from place to place, she says.


Burbeck says she likes to use the term "consultant" rather than "travel agent," because agents work on commission and are often focused on up-selling rather than creating a unique experience for a client.

"I want to be client-centric, whether somebody's budget (for travel planning) is $100 or $10,000 or more," she says. "At the end of the day, I want to make sure they have the best possible experience that will keep them traveling. I feel like you can't put a price tag on that."


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


Photo courtesy of Vinal Desai Burbeck.

"Blue Ocean Shift" co-author to appear at two Ann Arbor events March 30

Renee Mauborgne, who with W. Chan Kim co-authored two business books, Blue Ocean Strategy and Blue Ocean Shift, will speak at two Ann Arbor events Friday, March 30.


Mauborgne will first speak at an Ann Arbor SPARK fireside chat at 10 a.m. at SPARK Central, 330 E. Liberty in Ann Arbor. At noon, she will be the featured speaker at an Entrepreneurship Hour sponsored by the University of Michigan's Center for Entrepreneurship, held in Stamps Auditorium on north campus. Both events are open to the public.


Mauborgne will talk about the principles behind the two books. Blue Ocean Strategy outlined a plan for finding "uncontested market spaces," or "blue oceans," rather than competing head-to-head in markets already saturated with competition, which the co-authors call "red oceans". The follow-up book, Blue Ocean Shift, looked at companies that were putting the first book's strategies into practice. Ann Arbor businessman Ted Dacko's success story was featured in the authors' second book.


Mauborgne says the two authors' journey started in the Midwest during the economic downturn of the mid-'80s and seeing Detroit "crumble before our eyes."


"That's when the Midwest shifted from being the vibrant economy it once was to the 'rustbelt' of America. It was a very sad time," Mauborgne says. "We set out to understand what it would take to thrive, not merely survive, as competition heated up across the globe."


When asked why the Blue Ocean books stand out in a world full of self-help and business strategy advice, Mauborgne and Kim say there are three main criteria: relevance, actionability, and rigor.


The two authors note that Blue Ocean Shift is a culmination of research that initially involved a study of more than 150 strategic moves in more than 30 industries across 100 years.


"By studying and understanding what works, what doesn't, and how to avoid the potential pitfalls in making a blue ocean shift in a variety of sectors ... Blue Ocean Shift lays out a systematic step-by-step process for inspiring people’s confidence and seizing new growth," Mauborgne says.


More information about the SPARK fireside chat is available at SPARK's events page. To learn more about the Entrepreneurship Hour event, visit the Center for Entrepreneurship website.


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


Photo courtesy of Melanie Boscherie.

FastTrack Awards for high-growth Washtenaw County businesses open for applications

Midwesterners tend to have both a great work ethic and a humility that means they don't like to brag. But they need to put that aside at least once a year, according to Phil Santer, senior vice president and chief of staff for Ann Arbor SPARK, sponsor of the FastTrack Business Awards.


The program, which celebrates Washtenaw County companies that demonstrate consistent year-to-year growth, is now accepting applications through May 1.


"I think some companies are resistant to apply because they don't want to look like they are patting themselves on the back," Santer says. "But the companies that qualify for these awards have achieved a significant milestone and should be rewarded."


To qualify for the awards, public or private companies must be headquartered in Washtenaw County and must have had at least $100,000 in gross revenue in 2014 with an annual average growth of at least 20 percent for the following three years.


Companies self-report their revenue but must provide support documents that are reviewed by CPA firm and FastTrack Awards partner Yeo and Yeo.


Businesses are welcome to apply every year that they qualify, and that means some companies have been named FastTrack winners for several years in a row. Last year, Ann Arbor software firm LLamasoft qualified for the awards for its 10th year in a row.


Santer notes that while many winners have come from high-tech fields, that's just because high-tech companies tend to have that sort of quick growth. However, Washtenaw-based companies in any industry are welcome to apply. Previous winners have come from industries ranging from real estate to manufacturing, Santer says.


The FastTrack Business Awards were formerly part of a larger business awards ceremony, Deals of the Year, but SPARK has been running the awards independently for the last three years.


Last year, the awards ceremony was paired with SPARK's annual meeting. This year, the FastTrack Business Awards ceremony will take place June 14 as part of a series of events including SPARK's annual Tech Trek and a discussion around mobility.


Santer says the awards ceremony has turned out to be a good networking opportunity as well. Speaking of last year's awards ceremony, he says it was "energizing" to see representatives from a variety of industries who wouldn't normally hang out in the same circle mingling at the ceremony.

"It was an opportunity to say, 'Here are people doing great things in your backyard that are not already a part of your network,'" he says.


The application form for the awards ceremony can be found through the Ann Arbor SPARK website.


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

Photo by Doug Coombe courtesy of Ann Arbor SPARK.

U-M's first VegWeek highlights issue of food waste with "waste dinner"

A "waste dinner" demonstrating the usefulness of commonly discarded food items was the culminating event of the University of Michigan's (U-M) first-ever VegWeek, which ran March 12-16.


VegWeek was billed as "a week dedicated to animals, the environment, and health." Aaron Brodkey, vice president of the Michigan Animal Respect Society (MARS), the lead organizing group for VegWeek, says calling the week's final event a "waste dinner" was a calculated gamble. He says the "shock factor" got people's attention, but also made marketing the event a little difficult.


"We had to clarify it was pre-consumer waste, like clippings from vegetables or day-old bread, not leftovers from someone's cafeteria lunch tray," Brodkey says.


The dinner was meant to raise awareness about the issue of food waste, and included small "food bites" served at five different stations. A stew made from vegetable scraps and desserts made with spent grain from the beer brewing process were two of the menu items highlighting how food can be used creatively rather than thrown away or composted, Brodkey says.


The nonprofit VegMichigan has hosted a "Veg Week" in the Ann Arbor area for years, but the March event was a first for the U-M campus. It was organized and sponsored by MDining (representing U-M's dining halls), Planet Blue student leaders, MARS, the U-M Sustainable Food Program, and other campus groups dedicated to sustainability.


Events earlier in the week included a talk by Dr. Joel Kahn, a U-M alum and cardiologist, about the health benefits of a plant-based diet; a screening of the documentary Forks Over Knives; and a panel discussion with U-M professors who have adopted a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Before the waste dinner, Dr. Will Tuttle (author of The World Peace Diet) and Daniel McKernan (founder and executive director of Barn Sanctuary, based in Chelsea) discussed the environmental and ethical benefits of a plant-centric diet.


Brodkey says that each VegWeek event attracted at least 120 participants, and more than 200 came to the Waste Dinner. The chef had prepared enough food for about 150 people, and the event ran out of food.


Brodkey, a senior, won't be around to help organize a second VegWeek in 2019, but he feels like VegWeek created some momentum.


"I'm hoping that, with that momentum, MARS and the rest of the organizers will see it was valuable and move forward with it again next year," he says.


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


Photos courtesy of the University of Michigan.

U-M's new Center for Social Media Responsibility aims to quickly make accountability tools public

Garlin Gilchrist II, the executive director of the University of Michigan's new Center for Social Media Responsibility (CSMR), considers himself a "technologist and engineer" who loves the way technology connects people.


"I am a graduate of University of Michigan engineering, and engineering and computer science have been a love of mine since I was a child," he says. "When I was a software developer at Microsoft, I felt we were using technology to help people connect, lift up their voices in the community, and do political organizing."


CSMR's goal is to address concerns about social media's negative effects by creating metrics to assess social media companies' accountability, as well as a public forum to discuss the topic. Gilchrist sees that as a continuation of his work as director of innovation and emerging technology for his hometown of Detroit, using technology to address inequities, he says. He hopes to work on related issues in his new role and says he sees CSMR as an "opportunity to go deeper."


While one facet of the new center's work will be on curbing negative behaviors like aggressive online comments, cyber-bullying, and the spread of "fake news," Gilchrist says the main focus is on the positive goal of making online interactions "better and richer."


That end goal can be achieved through applying groundbreaking research already being done at the university, Gilchrist says.


"Faculty and researchers are doing some of the most important scholarship in the world around how information flows through social networks, both online and offline," Gilchrist says. "They're researching how social media impacts users and broader media and conversations, so the School of Information is the perfect home for the center."


He says the goal is to "activate" that research and make it usable for media makers and users so they can improve their experience, whether that's implementing better commenting platforms and guidelines for civil conversation or figuring out what sort of networks encourage or discourage the spread of information from unreliable sources.


"I've just come on board in February, and I really want to hit the ground running," Gilchrist says, adding that he wants to be "aggressive" in looking for opportunities to show what researchers are doing and how their work can improve the world of social media.


"We want to make tools available to the public soon, so this becomes a center of action," he says. "As social media continues to grow as a primary way so many people get information about the world, it's important that those experiences and lenses to the outside world are designed with care. I see the center as an opportunity to make sure they're designed in a conscientious way."


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


Photo courtesy of Garlin Gilchrist II.

Desai Accelerator's new program manager aims to double intern staff, build program's reputation

Katy Lind brings a variety of entrepreneurial experience to her new role as program manager for the University of Michigan's Desai Accelerator, but her journey into entrepreneurship was not a straight line.


Lind officially started at Desai March 5 after the previous manager, Alison Todak, left to serve as managing director of Ann Arbor co-working space Cahoots. As an undergrad, Lind studied dance and theater, but toward the end of her undergrad experience, she decided she wanted to go into business.


"I'm a curious person and I've always pursued things I'm excited about," she says.


She earned an MBA in entrepreneurship and marketing from Indiana University and went on to work in film marketing for three years. After that she worked with a marketing company that consults with Fortune 500 companies, and then spent 14 months working for startup Duo Security in Ann Arbor.


But as Duo grew, so did Lind's desire to start a business of her own. Her first venture, Nasty Soap, didn't work out, but Lind says she doesn't like the word "failure."


"I learned so much, and I wouldn't have been able to start Pincause if I hadn't gone through that," she says.


Pincause was the brainchild of Lind and her partner Nate Stevens. It's an online platform that commissions artists to create pins highlighting various causes, and funding those causes with a portion of the purchase price. In 14 months after the January 2017 launch, Pincause has raised about half a million dollars for various causes. Stevens continues to run the day-to-day operations there so Lind can concentrate full-time on her role at Desai.


One of her first initiatives at Desai is to double the program's intern staff from five to 10.


"What differentiates Desai from other business accelerator programs is that we have interns, period," she says. "When you're starting a business, it's difficult getting talent, and you don't usually need that talent as full-time employees. By doubling the intern staff, we give these startups even more access to highly-skilled talent so we can stay competitive with other accelerators."


Those interns will help the six startups that will make up the summer 2018 cohort at the accelerator. Applications closed in early March, and Desai staff are still going through applications to see which six startups will be chosen for the program that runs from June 11 to Sept. 28. Desai's summer program in previous years has been the launch pad for big startup successes, including MySwimPro and SAHI Cosmetics.


"I'm excited to be here, supporting entrepreneurs with the day-to-day issues they encounter," Lind says. "I'll be that person out in the field with them, and I've been where they are. Any problems they encounter, we will get through that together."


Along with growing the intern staff, Lind wants to grow Desai's reputation.


"We want Desai to gain recognition as a linchpin in the support network across the Midwest for our tech startups," she says. "We're a growing presence, and we're doing amazing things."


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


Photo courtesy of Desai Accelerator.

2183 Articles | Page: | Show All