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First Capital Fund established to help Michigan's early-stage startups thrive

Young startups across Michigan will get a helping hand from a new multi-million-dollar fund managed by Invest Detroit Ventures and supported by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the New Economy Initiative (NEI).


The First Capital Fund's goal is to raise $4.2 million in two years and offer up to $150,000 in capital to tech companies in the earliest stages. MEDC has made an initial $2 million investment in the fund, which Invest Detroit aims to double by bringing private capital into the fund. NEI will support the fund with $800,000.


Adrian Ohmer, principal with Invest Detroit Ventures, says the fund does not require startups to bring along any additional financiers because funding for early-stage startups has become harder to find.


"Something we've observed in our seven years of existence is that a lot of the capital pegged as early stage has moved down the pipeline," Ohmer says. "Even angel investor groups only want to fund startups in the post-production phase."


Ohmer says awarding up to $150,000 to startups means they don’t have to spend months on the road, raising more capital from various investors, in order to move on to the next level and then do another road trip to raise even more funds a year later.


"We want to make sure they have enough money to meet certain milestones that we work with them to set in order to get them to a fundraising round that makes sense for them in their industry," Ohmer says.


While Invest Detroit is based in Detroit, it has always had a wider focus, Ohmer says.


"With the rebirth of Detroit, the city is certainly central to a lot of what we care about, but our team has always had a statewide focus," Ohmer says.


That focus includes Ann Arbor, which Ohmer calls a "hotbed for startups."


"Ann Arbor companies are more than likely going to be a prominent part of our fund," Ohmer says.


He notes that the fund hopes to engage a broad range of Michigan startups, including those in the Upper Peninsula.


"Companies from the Upper Peninsula have always come down to big events that the state hosts, like the Michigan Growth Capital Symposium, so we're going to find ways to establish a presence there, though it might be mostly through web-based meetings," Ohmer says.

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

Adrian Ohmer photo courtesy of Invest Detroit.

G2 Consulting to double office space, add staff in Ann Arbor

Three years after establishing its Ann Arbor office, Troy-based geotechnical engineering services firm G2 Consulting Group is doubling its space here and adding staff.


The geotechnical, geoenvironmental, and construction engineering services firm's work revolves primarily around testing soil, rock, and groundwater for building projects and developing solutions to the challenges the resulting data may present. G2 will move from a 2,700-square-foot space at 1590 Eisenhower Place to a 7,900-square-foot space at 1350 Eisenhower Place at the end of April.


"We're at a point in our old office that, even if we wanted to hire another engineer, technician, or scientist, we don't have a desk or chair to put them in," says Jason Stoops, the firm's Ann Arbor office manager. "We talked about whether we wanted to stay the same size and service the clients we're already working for or try to expand our client base. But if we want to expand, we need staff to do that."


Stoops says the new location has more space than the Ann Arbor office currently needs. However, the office is expecting to add at least four new staff members and warehouse some equipment on site, allowing Ann Arbor to be more of a full-service engineering firm instead of just a satellite office to the Troy headquarters.


G2 has worked on several major projects since opening in Ann Arbor. The Ann Arbor office's first big project was the Arbor Hills shopping center on Washtenaw Avenue. The firm has since worked on Bank of Ann Arbor's headquarters renovation and the downtown Ann Arbor Residence Inn by Marriott.


Although the firm is headquartered just an hour's drive away, Stoops says G2 has worked hard to engage with the Ann Arbor community. A May open house for the new facility will feature Arbor Brewing Co. beverages and Zingerman's food.


"We're trying to create the feel that we're culturally in step with Ann Arbor," Stoops says.


Stoops raises the possibility that another three years might bring more exciting news for G2. The firm is currently considering opening another office in Ohio or western Michigan.


"We're hoping to take the success of our Ann Arbor office to other markets," Stoops says.

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

Jason Stoops image courtesy of Jason Stoops.

Online Tech and Actifio partner to make long-term data storage cheaper, easier

Rapidly changing technology can make it difficult to retain and retrieve old files in useful formats, but a new partnership between Ann Arbor's Online Tech and Massachusetts IT company Actifio aims to address that challenge.


Some industries, such as the healthcare field, need records that can go back several years or even a decade. Retaining both the files and the quickly-outdated hardware and software needed to retrieve files that old can be challenging and expensive. Jason Yaeger, senior director of solutions architecture and security officer at Online Tech, says the partnership between Actifio and his company allows clients to recover up to 10 10-terabyte databases in under 10 minutes.

Online Tech runs five data centers and two cloud-computing infrastructures in the Midwest, and specializes in solutions for large businesses that need to keep backup or disaster recovery files. Actifio's OnVault software allows companies to retrieve large sets of data quickly and cheaply, and to eliminate the need for keeping duplicate sets of data.


"With this service, using Actifio's software, we're able to archive the information for whatever retention period (clients) want," Yaeger says. "If they want to stop using Online Tech, that data is then stored in a compressed native format and can be retrieved at any time with a free tool. They're not reliant on using our service or Actifio."


The partnership will also allow Online Tech to streamline customers' development practices. For instance, when building a website, a company will typically go through multiple stages from development to testing to quality assurance.


"You may end up with four copies of the same dataset that could amount to four or more terabytes of data," Yaeger says. "Because we can instantly recover data and virtualize datasets, you can delete that instance of the data, and then instantly mount it again during the next phase. It saves on having to save sprawling datasets from a development viewpoint."


Yaeger says the partnership with Actifio will play a key role in Online Tech's future. Clients' infrastructure costs continue to fall, so if Online Tech just kept providing the same services to the same clients, the company's revenue would stagnate and then drop. The company has managed to avoid that problem so far, showing steady growth in recent years.


"With the ever-decreasing cost of cloud infrastructure, companies like Online Tech need to increase the value to our clients by solving more of their technical and business challenges," Yaeger says. "The partnership with Actifio will help enable our growth."

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

Jason Yaeger photo courtesy of Online Tech.

Zingerman's among 2017 Washtenaw County Environmental Excellence Award winners

Three Washtenaw County businesses and one government department were named winners in the 20th annual Environmental Excellence Awards, sponsored by the county's Water Resources Commissioner's Office and the county Board of Public Works.


The awards are given to area businesses and nonprofits that show excellence in the areas of waste reduction and recycling, water quality protection, and pollution prevention initiatives and compliance. This year's awards were presented at a March 16 ceremony held at Weber's Inn.


County water quality specialist Catie Wytychak serves on the awards committee. She says that when the committee selects winners each year, they try to look for an organization that has done outstanding work but hasn't already been honored.


The award for "Waste Reduction and Recycling" went to Ann Arbor-based The Betty Brigade, which provides relocation and organization services. Wytychak says the business stood out because when its employees are providing decluttering and moving help, they sort out items to be recycled or home toxics to be brought to the county for proper disposal rather than just sending all unwanted items to the trash.


The "Water Quality Protection" award went to the Saline Environmental Commission. Wytychak says the commission has been doing good work for a long time, including giving away rain barrels and hosting a comprehensive recycling program at Saline City Hall. But the commission also recently completed a major project to label 100 storm drains with markers reading, "Don't dump, drains to river."


"They got the whole neighborhood involved," Wytychak says.


The "Pollution Prevention" award went to Ann Arbor-based machine shop Lambert Industries, Inc. Wytychak says pollution prevention is a mandatory program for companies that store toxic waste on their property, and an environmental health employee visits these businesses to make sure none of the toxic chemicals are making it into storm drains or rivers. Lambert Industries won for going above and beyond in this category.


The "Overall Achievement" award goes to a company that is involved in environmental efforts in all three categories: waste reduction and recycling, water protection, and pollution prevention. Wytychak says this year's winner, Zingerman's Community of Businesses, was outstanding in all those areas.


"They have been doing so many good practices since the very beginning, but what brought them to our attention recently was that a master rain gardener built a rain garden at one of their locations to absorb runoff from the parking lot," Wytychak says.


Information on the county's other Environmental Excellence programs is available at the county's website.

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

All photos courtesy of Washtenaw County Environmental Excellence Partnership Program.

Grant helps Ann Arbor, other Midwest cities brace for climate change effects

The Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC) and partners are using a $77,000 grant to help Ann Arbor and four other Midwest cities prepare for climate change in a pilot program intended to be extended throughout the country.

The Urban Sustainability Directors Network's (USDN) Innovation Fund awarded the grant to the Great Lakes Climate Adaptation Network (GLCAN), a regional network of the USDN that includes Ann Arbor among its member cities. Throughout 2017, HRWC will use the bulk of the grant to provide staff for the project in Ann Arbor as well as Dearborn; Bloomington, Ill.; Indianapolis; and Cleveland.

Under the program, the cities and GLCAN will develop vulnerability assessments for use in city planning and budgeting, and to prepare for climate impacts such as high heat days or floods.

Many projects around the country focus on stopping global warming, but Rebecca Esselman, watershed planner with HRWC, says climate change is already a reality and can't be discounted during the planning process.

"Even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, we'd still have a climate on a trajectory to change pretty significantly," she says. "We can't not prepare for that future. It doesn't mean we've accepted climate change."

Cities are currently doing vulnerability assessments for various reasons, such as whether water supplies or infrastructure like roads and dams are vulnerable. However, these efforts typically do not consider climate change factors that will either introduce new vulnerabilities or make existing ones worse.

"If you have aging dams and climate change produces an extreme rain event, then you end up with a bigger problem than you originally thought you had," Esselman says.

Historical trends and projections for the future provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will help participating cities create an adaptable template for cities to assess climate-related vulnerabilities.

Esselman says the pilot is taking place in medium-sized Great Lakes cities because the Great Lakes region has shared climate threats, and because small-to-medium cities often don't have the same resources as larger cities.

"Larger cities have climate action plans and are working on this already, but smaller cities don't always have the capacity to do this, so we're coming up with something that works for those size cities," she says.

Once the tool is tested in Great Lakes cities, it can be adapted to other medium-sized communities throughout the U.S., adjusting for a different set of climate factors.

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

Ann Arbor flooding image courtesy of GLISA.

Concept for shipping-container studio spaces wins $5,000 in inaugural Pitch Ypsi competition

A local musician and entrepreneur's idea for artists' rehearsal spaces made of shipping containers won $5,000 in the first annual Pitch Ypsi $5,000 contest.
Pitch Ypsi $5,000 is a business plan competition hosted by leaders in eastern Washtenaw County, including Ypsilanti mayor Amanda Edmonds and Ann Arbor SPARK East business accelerator manager Joe Licavoli. More than 60 businesses applied for the competition, and the five best submissions were chosen by a committee to present at a pitch night March 8 at the Eastern Michigan University College of Business. A panel of five judges ruled unanimously to make the final award to Grove Studios.
Grove Studios founder Rick Coughlin wants to use shipping containers to build a modular studio space for rehearsals, performances, and collaboration in Ypsi. Coughlin also envisions the possibility of holding gallery shows, lectures, and other art and music events in the container spaces.
He says his vision is similar in some ways to existing coworking spaces that cater to tech startups. The difference for his studio would be the focus on creating a hub for artists and using modular spaces. Two 20-foot shipping containers can be patched together to create a 400-square-foot space, or two 40-foot containers would create 800 square feet of space.
Entrepreneurs have already tried a similar idea in Norway, and Coughlin is in talks with Norwegian company Nordic Shelter to engineer shipping containers for Grove Studios.
"We want to elevate the idea of an artists' working space. We believe we can do it right, and shipping containers are one of the ways we can get there," he says.
Grove Studios recently opened a more traditional collaborative artists' rehearsal space at 1145 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti Township. Coughlin rents that property but has been seeking properties that he could buy for Grove Studios in the city of Ypsilanti. He hopes to avoid the sort of large-scale artist displacement that occurred in 2015, when the former SPUR studio space in Ypsi abruptly closed due to a change in building ownership.
Coughlin has lived in Ypsi for 23 years and feels "really connected" to the community. He wants Grove Studios to be part of Ypsi's ongoing revitalization as a cultural hub.
Coughlin says the $5,000 prize will help him to launch further marketing and crowdfunding efforts. He hopes to bring in $40,000 through a Patronicity crowdfunding campaign and then have the Michigan Economic Development Corporation match that amount through its Public Spaces, Community Places program.
"We want to make sure that we're telling our story in a way that people really understand it, so the money we raise would pay for quality video and photography and marketing and branding to accomplish that," he says.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at

Conceptual renderings courtesy of Grove Studios.


Edible Project app makes eating out easier for those with dietary restrictions

A new Ann Arbor-based app, which helps diners with food restrictions find menu items they can eat, is reaping the rewards of a publicity stunt that distributed 1,000 care packages across Ann Arbor.

Early on March 6, Edible Project cofounders Mike Copley and Ish Baid and a team of helpers distributed 200 doormats and several camp chairs with the Edible Project logo around the University of Michigan (U-M) campus and other parts of Ann Arbor. They also distributed 1,000 care packages, each containing a special-ordered fortune cookie with messages about food restrictions, a $3 gift card to Piada Italian Street Food, a piece of candy, and a flyer with more information about the app.

Baid said his team wanted to create buzz across campus and around town, and the publicity stunt accomplished what they had hoped.

"In the past week, we've had more downloads of the app than over the entire life of the app. And we're still getting 150 to 200 new users coming in daily," he says.

Baid, who serves as chief technology officer for the Edible Project, says the idea for the app was born from his partner's dairy allergy. The two were friends while students at U-M, and Copley's allergy made eating out a chore.

"It could take half an hour to order, because if he has even the smallest trace of dairy, it would put him in the hospital," Baid says.

According to Baid and Copley's research, one in five Americans have similar diet restrictions, ranging from eating a "Paleo" diet to being kosher or halal to being vegan. (A survey conducted on the U-M campus by the Edible Project team suggested an even higher ratio of one in four respondents with dietary restrictions.) These restrictions often mean that diners will stick to just one restaurant where they know the menu, or to ordering a salad at every eatery.

Copley and Baid knew there had to be a better way and released the first iteration of their app in January of 2016. They started by going to different eateries in Ann Arbor and trying to gather ingredient information.

"We realized it was a bad approach," Baid says. "Who is really the expert in dietary restrictions? It's the people with the restrictions. They know exactly what food is good in Ann Arbor and that fits a specific diet."

Within the next month, the app will be opening to user submissions. Users will be able to sign up as Edible Project "scouts" and report back on the best gluten-free or vegan menu items in the city.

Other plans for the future include competing in entrepreneurship events, networking, and working with a startup accelerator program. Their long-term plan, though, is to take the app nationwide.

"Our goal is to have every menu in the country documented," Baid says. "We're in an era when people are info-hungry, so I think it's possible, and we want to be the ones who make that happen."

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

Photos courtesy of the Edible Project.

Sold-out Ypsi TEDx event announces speakers, plots livestream

A variety of local speakers will give nine eight-minute talks on the topic of interdependence for the second annual TEDxYDL event at Eastern Michigan University’s (EMU) Halle Library on April 13.

The event is co-sponsored by the Ypsilanti District Library and Halle Library. It's one of thousands of independently organized programs around the world licensed through TED, a nonprofit organization devoted to "Ideas Worth Spreading" in the form of short talks delivered by leading thinkers in various disciplines.

If you want to attend in person, you're already out of luck. The program has filled up completely with a long waiting list both years, with the event’s free tickets being snapped up in the first two hours they were available for the 2017 event.

However YDL communications and development coordinator Gillian Ream Gainsley says YDL is seeking a sponsor to host a livestream event this year so people on the waiting list for tickets have another option. Gainsley says organizers haven’t moved the event to a bigger space because their TED license limits the audience to 100 people.

Gainsley says choosing speakers was fun but challenging. Organizers received 62 applications and cut those down to nine talks (one talk features two speakers) that fit this year’s theme of interdependence.

The application of biomedical illustrator Megan Foldenauer, who plans to talk about the human eye, stood out.

"She told the story about how she started illustrating all of her biology papers and her professor told her about medical illustration as a field. It seemed like a fascinating way to talk about the intersection of art and science, and it fit our theme," Gainsley says.

Another presenter is Jim McBee, owner of The Ann magazine.

"Jim is going to talk about fake news, which is obviously a hot topic, but we’re also hoping he’ll talk about how an independent local print newspaper is functioning and why that’s still important," Gainsley says.

Another speaker, EMU lecturer Ping Zhou, will address the topic of interdependence by focusing on the geography of international trade. Gainsley says the last few months' divisive political climate inspired the topic for the 2017 event.

"There are so many divisions, but at the end of the day the various disciplines, as well as people and countries, depend on each other in interesting ways we don’t often think about," she says.

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

All images courtesy of TEDxYDL.

Busch's, North Peak team up to create exclusive Newfangled Pale Ale

Ann Arbor-based Busch's Fresh Food Markets have added another Michigan craft brew to their line of designer beer after collaborating with Dexter-based Northern United Brewing Co (NUBC).

The resulting beer, North Peak Newfangled Pale Ale, is the third in a series of Busch's exclusive beers made by Michigan brewers with Michigan ingredients. The new beer is a 5.5-percent alcohol-by-volume Midwestern pale ale featuring Michigan hops and grains, according to Marty Phelan, category manager for Busch's. The beer hit the shelves in early March and will be carried in all 16 Busch's locations in Michigan, including Ann Arbor.

Phelan says Busch's first beer collaboration happened about a year ago, when the chain worked with Short's Brewing Company in Bellaire. That partnership was so successful that Busch's went on to make a second beer with Dark Horse Brewing Co. in Marshall.

Phelan says Busch's input on the new beers varies from brewer to brewer. Busch's was able to give a lot of input on the recipe and the name of the beer that Dark Horse developed for Busch's, for instance.

Phelan says Busch's already had a "great relationship" with North Peak, which is one of several brands falling under NUBC's banner. After seeing the previous two collaborations, NUBC approached Busch's about releasing a beer developed by Ron Jeffries, who also is production manager for NUBC's Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales line.

The new brews are going over well with customers, and Phelan said he is getting "a lot of feedback."

"Just on our Facebook page alone, we get hundreds of comments about these beers," Phelan said. "I love working on these projects. It's a lot of fun to do this with Michigan breweries."

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

Brackets for Good pits Ann Arbor-area nonprofits against each other for $10,000 prize

For the second year in a row, the nonprofit Brackets For Good is helping Ann Arbor-area organizations raise money and awareness by pitting nonprofits against each other in a bracket-style competitive online giving tournament.

Since its 2012 founding in Indianapolis, the nonprofit has expanded to 11 cities including Ann Arbor. Each participating nonprofit gets to keep all donations raised during the competition, and the top winner gets a $10,000 prize from a sponsor.

Valeo Financial Advisors was a major sponsor in other cities, so when Valeo opened a new office in Ann Arbor, it brought the Brackets For Good fundraiser with it last spring.

Until March 31, supporters may make online donations to help a favorite Ann Arbor-area nonprofit organization advance toward the final $10,000 Championship Grant. This year's 38 participating nonprofits range from the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre to Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County.

Last year’s Championship Grant winner in the Ann Arbor area was the Ecology Center, an environmental education and policy action nonprofit.

Ecology Center deputy director Rebecca Meuninck says she thinks the organization’s success the first year was due to its efforts to engage board, staff, and supporters while keeping things fun.

The Ecology Center did a lot of outreach on social media and organized watching parties at the office for staff and board members as the climax of each round of the competition played out. A clock on the Ann Arbor bracket's home page counts donations and time left to donate.

"Everybody pitched in. In the last few minutes, donors would make last-minute gifts to push us over each week," Meuninck says.

Besides receiving the $10,000 grand prize, the competition also helped the Ecology Center bring in a large chunk of money much earlier in the year than usual. Many charities receive the bulk of their donations toward the end of each year, but the Ecology Center brought in about 20 to 25 percent of its annual budget by March due to the competition, Meuninck says.

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

FlexDex begins shipping low-cost surgical tool designed to replace robotic system

New applications for robots seem to be in the news every day, but Ann Arbor-based FlexDex Surgical's new surgical tool increases surgeons' flexibility and reduces costs by taking a robot out of the equation.

The mechanical platform, which allows surgeons to more easily make sutures inside the body during minimally invasive laparoscopic surgeries, recently began shipping nationwide. Developed in a University of Michigan (U-M) engineering lab, the device is designed to be ergonomic and intuitive to use. Unlike other laparoscopic surgical tools, the FlexDex needle driver mimics the direction of the surgeon’s hand and locates the device’s center of rotation at the surgeon’s wrist, where it's mounted.

Before the invention of the FlexDex device, surgeons could use an old-fashioned but cumbersome straight-stick instrument or the robot-assisted da Vinci surgical system, whose $2 million price tag is prohibitively expensive for many hospital systems. Both approaches take more training to use than the FlexDex device.

At $500, the FlexDex also has a clear cost advantage. The low price is partly due to the fact that the FlexDex device is purely mechanical, requiring no power source. The device uses cables and pulleys that are relatively inexpensive to produce.

"Those parts are just put together in a novel way to provide robot-like dexterity in a mechanical instrument," says FlexDex chairman and CEO Thomas Davison.

The FlexDex platform has already been used in operations. Down the road, FlexDex will be able to attach tools other than a needle to the platform.

"We started with the needle holder because one of the more difficult maneuvers in surgery is suturing," says Davison.

The company has plans to start shipping other FlexDex-compatible laparoscopic instruments soon, including vessel sealers, scissors, graspers, and dissector instruments. FlexDex has raised over $10 million through federal grants and private investments.

FlexDex was cofounded in 2014 by pediatric surgeon Jim Geiger, surgery professor at the U-M Medical School and pediatric surgeon at U-M C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital; and Shorya Awtar, associate professor of mechanical engineering at U-M. The technology stems from research funded by the National Science Foundation.

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

ContentOro nabs Fortune 1000 clients with quality web content, good word of mouth

Fortune 1000 company Citrix has partnered with Ann Arbor-based ContentOro to create an informational hub for small businesses on Citrix's file-sharing and collaboration website

ContentOro built the Small Business Center for ShareFile clients who are business owners and managers. The site features 260 pages in 24 sections with information and advice on a variety of topics for businesses that are just getting started, including how to raise capital, how to negotiate a lease, or how to build out a go-to-market strategy.

ContentOro provides that content through a partnership with John Wiley and Sons, a large global publisher. Wiley's print content has already been thoroughly edited, so ContentOro can repurpose it for web content more quickly and cheaply than paying someone to research, write, and edit new content.

ContentOro CEO and founder Bob Chunn says he is planning other projects with multiple Fortune 500 companies soon, building on good word of mouth like the referral that brought ContentOro to Citrix's attention. Chunn says one of his first paying clients of 2016 was Redford-based national chain Pet Supplies Plus, and he has been using that project to show other major clients what ContentOro can do.

Chunn says major companies don't find short, "clickbait"-style articles valuable. Instead, they want to provide information that is authoritative and trustworthy.

"We're working to bring content in line with what these powerful companies want to show their customers," he says.

Consumers respond well to the higher-quality content. Chunn says ContentOro's metrics show that visitors to pages built by ContentOro stay three times as long and view four times as many pages compared to content elsewhere on a client's website.

Chunn says he feels his mission is, at heart, a "noble" one: free and equal access to information currently contained in print books.

"Our technology allows the content to be used on the internet and allows search engines to find it," he says. "Everyone, regardless of income or status in life or where they happen to be located, can have access to that information now."

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

Clinc closes $6.3 million funding round, eyes major clients for AI financial assistant

Ann Arbor-based artificial intelligence (AI) company Clinc has closed a $6.3 million series A funding round, hot off the launch of Finie, the company's voice-controlled AI platform for banking.

Clinc was founded in 2015 by Jason Mars and Lingjia Tang, both University of Michigan professors specializing in AI and systems research. The new funding round, led by Columbus, Ohio-based Drive Capital, brings Clinc's total investment to $7.75 million just six months after the company closed a $1.2 million seed funding round.

The new funding will allow Clinc to add as many as 20 employees to its current staff of 21, and to further develop and market Finie. Finie's AI technology is able to understand natural speech and then allow users to converse with their bank accounts without using special keywords or question templates. The technology can be integrated into multiple platforms, from mobile apps to chatbots to Facebook messenger.

With the new round of funding, Clinc's technology could soon be integrated into Amazon's virtual assistant, Alexa, or into the Google Chrome browser. Mars says he doesn't like to try to convince investors by telling them about Finie but rather just enjoys showing them what it can do.

"People recognize when they are seeing something they haven't seen before," he says. "I show them how to use it, and they say, 'Okay, I get it. I'm in.'"

Mars attributes the company's success to a combination of great timing and having the best technology in the field. He says financial institutions have been making promises in terms of what they want to do with AI, but until now technology has lagged behind.

"What they want to do requires absolute state-of-the-art technology, and we have the smoking gun," Mars says.

Clinc doesn't want end users to have to install yet another app, Mars says. The aim is to have Clinc's technology incorporated into apps they are already using.

"Say they already have the Chase or Bank of America app on their phone. Finie would be just a new button or a new experience added onto the app as a sort of feature," he says.

Mars says the public should be on the lookout for a "blockbuster" announcement from Clinc this summer.

"We're working very closely with a top financial institute to integrate our technology into, potentially, two of their products, and that could be released to users as soon as June or July," he says.

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

Ypsi software company moves to historic building, receives $10,000 grant to upgrade

White Pine Software Technologies recently received a $10,000 Innovate Ypsi grant from Ann Arbor SPARK that will allow the company to add technology infrastructure and fiber optic internet access to its office space in a historic Ypsilanti building.

The building at at 300 N. Huron is more than 100 years old and once served as town hall for the community. White Pine will move into the second-floor office space some time after the March 3 completion date for the infrastructure upgrade.

White Pine, founded in 2014, currently occupies space in Ann Arbor SPARK’s East business incubator and offers data management and analysis to science, engineering, and computer science companies.

When a company generates a lot of data in labs while calibrating equipment or carrying out other engineering functions, that data is often managed by what White Pine president Robert Smith calls "homegrown" systems. When companies decide to upgrade those systems, White Pine helps them standardize the way the data is managed.

"What we do is apply an ISO standard developed in Europe for managing that data in ways that make it easy to plug in large amounts of analysis tools and manage it according to IT standards for traceability, security, and other things," Smith says.

Smith says he has lived in Ypsilanti for 30 years and it was a natural decision to base his business in the community, but he probably would have kept looking for another location if he hadn't been able to secure the grant. He says the building was already wired for business-quality internet service, but his data-driven business requires infrastructure that is "very solid and reliable."

Smith says he was happy to be able to locate his business in the North Huron building situated near the Riverside Arts Center and other local amenities.

"The grant was really the thing that made the decision easy," Smith says. "Otherwise, we would have wrestled with it a long time and would have had to go somewhere else. We probably would have ended up in a business park, but they are not interesting places to work."

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 based in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at
300 N. Huron photo by Robert Smith.

Cosmetics company wins best business at Michigan Business Challenge

A cosmetics company focused on Arab, Latina, and Indian consumers was named winner of the Michigan Business Challenge on Friday, Feb. 17, after a multi-round pitch competition.

Sponsored by the University of Michigan's (U-M) Zell Lurie Institute (ZLI), the Michigan Business Challenge gives U-M student teams the opportunity to win more than $85,000 in cash prizes and get feedback from business leaders. Challenge winner Sahi Cosmetics took home a $25,000 award for best business, plus an additional $2,000 for outstanding presentation.

Shelly Sahi brainstormed her business idea in December 2015 after consulting with a mentor at ZLI. She determined that there was no direct competitor for the market she was targeting – primarily Arab, Latina, and Indian women with medium skin tones.

"I've been a makeup artist my whole life, and I know that it's hard to find makeup for women with yellow and olive undertones to their skin," Sahi says.

She says she thinks her pitch stood out to the judges because of her enthusiasm and her attention to market research, which showed there was a gap to be filled.

"If it's something you truly believe in, something you really want to see come to fruition, that's what comes through in your pitch," Sahi says.

Sahi completed her MBA at U-M's Ross School of Business and currently runs her business out of U-M's Desai Accelerator. She worked at Ford before she started her MBA studies and initially thought she would return there after she graduated.

"I wasn't thinking of being an entrepreneur," she says. "It started as something on the side but turned into so much more."

After funding a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2016, she is now working at her cosmetics business 70 hours a week, with three interns working part-time under her.

Sahi says the prize money will help her develop an "aggressive" go-to-market strategy. Short-term plans include hosting pop-up markets in the Detroit metro area this year, with a five-year plan that includes opening a flagship store in Detroit.

In addition to the best business plan track, the Michigan Business Challenge also offers an "Impact Track" that supports teams with a social or environmental mission. The winner of the Impact Track was AIMTech, a startup that has developed an affordable, high-quality, low-tech pressure ventilator that requires no electrical power. The business' aim is to prevent deaths caused by respiratory illnesses in infants living in low-income countries.

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

Photo by Doug Coombe.
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