Innovation & Job News

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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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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, 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


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

Ann Arbor's Midwestern Consulting opens first satellite office in Detroit

Midwestern Consulting, an Ann Arbor engineering services firm, has opened a satellite office at 1420 Washington Blvd., suite 301 in Detroit.


Established in 1967, the Ann Arbor office offers consulting services for civil, environmental, and transportation engineering projects along with surveying, planning, and landscape architecture.


The firm has a total staff of 48 between the Ann Arbor and Detroit locations. Brandon Walker, Midwestern's project manager and laser scanning expert, will split his time between the two offices and serve as manager of the Detroit office. Two other employees are currently staffing the Detroit office along with Walker.


Walker says the firm has serviced Detroit-based clients including Verizon Wireless and Neumann Smith for many years, and it was time that the company established an office in Detroit.


"We've experienced great success in Washtenaw County, and we were looking to expand organically, and the Metro Detroit area was a natural fit," Walker says. "We've done 35 projects in the last two years in or around the city of Detroit, and we're following up with a few more."


Walker says he thinks it's possible to serve Detroit customers from Ann Arbor, but a presence in the city of Detroit will make it easier for Midwestern to do projects with the city of Detroit and other nearby municipal clients, Walker says.


"We felt we really need a presence in Detroit, and after a few discussions, we decided it was something we wanted to make happen," he says. "I love the feel of Detroit already. We've received a very warm welcome."


Walker says the time between deciding to open an office in Detroit and opening for business on Washington Boulevard was about three months, helped by the fact that Midwestern chose a location that had "ready-made" office space.


The Detroit office will be doing a lot of the same things as the Ann Arbor office, but it will focus largely on wireless communication, laser scanning, and land development, while the Ann Arbor office will handle more traffic engineering and other specialities.


"We're excited about this," Walker says. "We still call Ann Arbor home, but great things are going on in Detroit, and we hope to make it a great extension of the Ann Arbor office."

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 southeast Michigan. You may reach her at


Photos courtesy of Midwestern Consulting.

Ann Arbor creative agency Phire Group adds staff, expands offices in recent growth spurt

Phire Group, an Ann Arbor branding and creative agency, is celebrating growth on multiple fronts as it closes out 2017.


The company hired new digital creative director Mike Gatto and three other employees this year, bringing the agency's total headcount to 26. Phire Group also recently expanded from occupying just the first floor of 111 Miller Ave. in Ann Arbor to filling the entire two-story building.


Owner and principal Jim Hume says his philosophy since the agency's founding in 2004 has been to build an "anti-agency" that looks beyond the traditional methods of many public relations and marketing firms.


"Many agencies and marketing firms come to a client with a specific thought in mind of how they're going to spend the client's money on traditional media," Hume says. "I've been more about the mindset of building community, building a culture, and creating brands that will last."


Hume says Phire Group spends a lot of time talking to employees in the company as well as clients and competitors in the industry to collaboratively come up with "truly authentic stories that build on the best of organizations, and build brands around that."


Putting those philosophies about branding into practice has led to slow but steady growth.


"We've continued to grow every year since our inception," Hume says. "We've really grown in both capabilities as well as the talent level. We're aiming to be not just the top agency in town, but the top agency in the Midwest."


Hume says the agency already has "the strongest design team around," but believes that Gatto, who has 20 years of experience working at digital design firm Perficient, will take the firm to the next level, focusing even more on the digital side of branding and making Phire Group a viable choice for large, national brands.


Phire Group already services large national clients such as Masco and local clients such as the University of Michigan and the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. The agency is also seeing more interest from large companies with large footprints across the globe, Hume says.


"We're starting to see tremendous growth nationally and even internationally," Hume says. "We consider ourselves transformational in terms of what we can do for clients, whether that's finding breakthroughs for sustainable, community-owned solutions to problems or elevating companies that are doing a good job and could be doing a great job."

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
Photos courtesy of Phire Group.

Event-planning platform for Hispanic community wins $100,000 in Accelerate Michigan competition

Mi Padrino, an Ann Arbor-based company that hosts an event-planning and fundraising site aimed at the Hispanic community, was named first runner-up in the 2017 Accelerate Michigan innovation competition, taking home a $100,000 prize.


The final round of the annual competition took place Nov. 16 at the Detroit Masonic Temple. The grand prize of $500,000 went to Orbion Space Technology in Houghton. Other Ann Arbor-based winners were Spellbound, which won the People's Choice award and a $10,000 prize, and Canopy, a University of Michigan startup that won $6,000 and a grand prize in the competition's grad-level student track.


Though she didn't take home the top prize, Mi Padrino CEO and founder Kim Gamez says it felt just as good to be named first runner-up.


"I was thinking I had no chance of winning here," Gamez says. "I mean, there was an actual rocket scientist competing."


After marrying a Mexican native, Gamez became fascinated with many parts of Hispanic culture. She built her business around a facet of Latino culture that involves asking for help when organizing big life events like weddings and quinceañeras (15th birthday parties for girls, similar to the "Sweet 16" tradition). In Spanish, "padrino" can mean a godfather, a best man, or a sponsor.


"As part of the padrino tradition, families will reach out to sponsors or godparents to pay for different events, and I love the fact that the whole community comes together to put together an event for the person honored that day," Gamez says. "Until recently, that was all done manually, with a handwritten list and exchange of cash checks. I love this part of the culture, but I hated the process."


To remedy that, she built a platform that combines event organizing with crowdfunding. Those planning a 15th birthday party, for instance, can list items like a dress or the venue that need to be purchased, and padrinos can pay for them with a credit card online. The site also includes event planning tools.


The concept caught on so quickly that it amazed both Gamez and her husband. She says she was hoping for 600 users by the end of 2017, but the platform has already surpassed the 50,000-user mark.


Gamez says the company, which makes its money on a small platform fee for online payments, has been losing money to date, and the $100,000 prize will allow the company to turn its finances around. Gamez says she also hopes to add four more full-time employees to the existing two full-time employees.


In addition to the cash prize, Accelerate Michigan winners' packages include free legal and accounting services and other in-kind services donated by Michigan-based sponsors.


Accelerate Michigan is operated by Invest Detroit Ventures with the support of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Ann Arbor SPARK, Invest Michigan, Spartan Innovations, the Michigan Small Business Development Corporation, and JR Turnbull. A full list of competition winners is available at the Accelerate Michigan website.


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


Photos courtesy of Mi Padrino.

Aubree's to serve free Thanksgiving meals at Depot Town location

Aubree's Pizzeria and Grill is bringing free Thanksgiving meals to its Ypsilanti location and hoping to continue doing so for years to come.


Anyone is welcome to enjoy a free meal at Aubree's Depot Town location, 39 E. Cross St., from 12 to 4 p.m. on Nov. 23, Thanksgiving Day. Volunteers will serve traditional Thanksgiving fare like turkey, dressing, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie.


Aubree's offered free Thanksgiving meals at its Marquette location for the first time last year. Members of the French family, who own the Aubree's brand and several restaurant locations across Michigan, wanted to expand the offering to Ypsi and Adrian this year. They decided to make it happen after identifying enough family members, friends, staff, and residents who were interested in volunteering at each location.


The three Aubree's locations will serve 350 pounds of turkey, plus a variety of side dishes. Hope Clinic is allowing the Depot Town location to use its commercial kitchen to cook the turkeys because the restaurant doesn't have enough ovens to handle the turkeys that will be served up in Ypsi. The restaurants will have backup pizzas ready to serve in case they run out of Thanksgiving fare.


Aubree's president Andy French anticipates the free Thanksgiving dinner will become an annual event. He says he and his family are excited about the idea of the offering becoming part of their tradition every Thanksgiving.


"Our intention is to just give back, especially in Ypsilanti. That’s where we started and the town has supported us for 46 years," French says. "We’ve been very grateful and we have a history of giving back to the community. This is just another way we can continue to do it and we’re excited for it."


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

Photo by Doug Coombe.

Tech Homecoming connects out-of-towners with Ann Arbor tech industry on Thanksgiving Eve

Ann Arbor SPARK's annual Tech Homecoming event is billed as a way for out-of-towners to connect with Ann Arbor's tech industry while they're in town for Thanksgiving, but the event is also just a lot of fun.


"If I go to a dreary networking event, I don't go back," says John Fisher, managing partner in software company Atomic Object's Ann Arbor office. "Last year's event was well-attended and fun, and it tells you something that we're going back."


The 2017 Tech Homecoming event takes place from 4-7 p.m., Nov. 22, at Fred's, 403 E. Washington St. in downtown Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor SPARK organizes the happy hour-style event on the night before Thanksgiving, generally known as the biggest bar night of the year. Fisher and two other Atomic Object employees attended their first Tech Homecoming last year, and Fisher says it was a great way to establish and strengthen connections.


Last year, Fisher and his co-workers ran into the head of a company they'd worked with before, and that gave them an opportunity to catch up and strengthen the ties between the two companies. Fisher says it's also nice to commiserate with other business owners who have many of the same challenges.


While Atomic Object hasn't recruited any employees from the event, Fisher says he thinks Tech Homecoming presents a strong pool of candidates to draw from.


"On the recruiting side, it would be valuable if we just find the one right person," Fisher says. "A lot of students are attending the event with the intention of returning to or staying connected to Ann Arbor. That's really valuable with how competitive hiring is in the development field, to find people who want to stay in southeast Michigan long-term."


The event is free, but organizers request that participants register at the Eventbrite page for Tech Homecoming.


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


Photo courtesy of John Fisher.

Ann Arbor's first meadery to open in 2018, featuring Michigan-made ingredients

Ann Arbor's first meadery, Bløm Meadworks, is aiming to fill a niche for gluten-free drinkers as well as hardcore craft beer drinkers who are looking for something different.


Co-founder Matthew Ritchey will combine his brewing and finance experience with co-founder Lauren Bloom's interest in local food systems to open the downtown mead and cider business in 2018. The pair took possession of retail space on the first floor of 100 S. Fourth Ave. in downtown Ann Arbor in early November and are hoping to open for business in early 2018 after a round of construction is completed, Bloom says.


The name of the business is both a nod to the product and to Bloom's family name.


"We liked the idea of a bloom, which is tied into our business, because it's dependent on honey and fruit and the bee population," Bloom says. "But it's also inspired by my family name, and we did a little riff on that as a nod to my surname as originally spelled and mead's Scandinavian roots."


Ritchey has a background in finance and spent some time as head brewer and co-owner at Begyle Brewing Co. in Chicago, while Bloom worked in the nonprofit sector helping organizations that focus on local foods.


Ritchey's discovery that he had a gluten allergy, combined with the fact that both honey for mead and apples for cider can be sourced locally, led the pair to create Bløm Meadworks.


"Both apples and honey have such incredible flavors and aromatics," Bloom says. "Our brewing and fermentation happen at a lower temperature [than beer] so you can retain those amazing flavors and smells."


Bløm's meads will differ from most common meads by being less sweet and lower in alcohol, in the range of 5-7 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) instead of the 12-13 percent ABV typically found in meads.


"They're on the drier side, carbonated, with a brighter and lighter feel," Bloom says.


Bløm Mead's space on Fourth Avenue will contain both a production area and a tap room, and four types of mead will be available in cans for retail distribution. One is a standard mead, made simply of honey, water and yeast. Another is a "ciser," or half mead and half cider. A third is hopped with Michigan hops, and a fourth is a "gin botanical mead," flavored with lavender and juniper.


Bloom says it was important to both owners that all ingredients be sourced from Michigan. They have already built relationships with local honey producers for the mead, King Orchards in northern Michigan for cider apples, and Hop Head Farms for the hops in their hopped mead.


Updates on the opening of the business will be posted to the Bløm website as well as to the business's Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.


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


Photo courtesy of Bløm Meadworks.

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