Innovation & Job News

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Civionics brings wireless sensors to manufacturing

Civionics got its start spinning out of the University of Michigan in 2009 by commercializing wireless sensor technology. The platform was primarily used to measure the strength of large-scale infrastructure, such as bridge supports.

That's changing now. The startup is pivoting from its previous work, which mostly generated revenue from government grants, to a product platform.

"We have a new product we began selling at the end of last year," says Andy Zimmerman, CEO of Civionics. "We hope it will help us enter some new verticals."

That new product is called Constellation. It is based on Civionics original technology but applies it to manufacturing equipment in factories. The idea is to monitor the strength of those machines and avoid breakdowns with well-timed maintenance. The company is aiming to focus on Michigan’s automotive market as a start.

To help make that happen, Civionics has joined Automation Alley's 7Cs program. The program helps small businesses leverage cutting edge manufacturing technology, opening the door for them to go to the next level of production.

"Automation Alley clearly has the connections in the area that we lack," Zimmerman says.

The Ann Arbor-based company currently employs a core team of a handful of people after adding one over the last year. Zimmerman expects to grow that team later this year as it lines up the first customers for Constellation.

Source: Andy Zimmerman, CEO of Civionics
Writer: Jon Zemke

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U-M students launch healthy food startup called Fruit Fairies

Densu Dixon and his friend Eric Jensen were both dedicated athletes when they came to the University of Michigan. They not only took their workouts seriously, but also their diets. It's a lifestyle choice that took an unusual turn when it became their business.

"We started to get frustrated with the availability of fresh produce on campus," Dixon says. "We couldn't find a service to help us so we decided to make one ourselves."

The U-M sophomores launched Fruit Fairies earlier this year. The startup aims to eating healthier in college more affordable through a weekly subscription service that delivers baskets of healthy food to the doorsteps of co-eds across the country. The baskets include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and additional options.

The Fruit Fairies staff assembles the baskets on Sundays and delivers them to its customers across Ann Arbor. The Sunday assembly-and-delivery system allows them to buy fresh food in bulk from wholesalers. The student-run startup is currently trying to raise $7,500 through a crowd funding campaign to grow its business later this spring. Check it out here.

"We are hoping for the beginning of April," Dixon says.

Source: Densu Dixon, co-founder at Fruit Fairies
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Renaissance Venture Capital Fund closes on second fund worth $79M

The Renaissance Venture Capital Fund has closed on its second investment vehicle, a $79 million fund destined for Michigan-based startups and the venture capital firms investing in them.

The 6-year-old firm, which has offices in Ann Arbor and Detroit, is a fund of funds, meaning it invests in smaller venture capital firms. It closed on its first fund for $45 million in 2010 with an idea of helping grow Michigan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem by infusing it with more seed capital and attracting more outside investors.

Some of Michigan's biggest corporations have contributed to Renaissance Venture Capital Fund’s investment vehicles. The hope is by including them they will help these startups grow by providing revenues and potential acquisitions. The fund also invests in out-of-state venture capital firms looking to invest in Michigan-based startups.

"For every $1 we put in them they put $4 into the state," says Chris Rizik, CEO of the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund. "It has worked out very well."

For instance, the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund made an investment in Houston-based Mercury Fund, which opened its Midwestern office in Ann Arbor. Mercury Fund has invested in Ann Arbor-based startups like DeepField and Swift Biosciences.

The Renaissance Venture Capital Fund and its team of four people have already made eight investments in venture capital firms and is aiming to make three side-by-side investments in startups with those VCs. The second fund has been active for two years and is looking to continue to keep going this year.

"We probably have another 3-4 years left to invest," Rizik says.

Source: Chris Rizik, CEO of the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Message Blocks eyes expansion into event software with new hires

If slow and steady wins the race it also can build the business. That's what the team behind Message Blocks is learning.

The Ann Arbor-based startup offers a comprehensive event-planning software platform that streamlines the event-planning process. The platform focuses on the event planner's experience, allowing users to share documents and presenters to use plug-in presentations. Message Blocks launched this platform in the fall of 2013 and has built it up ever since.

"We have kept every customer," says Len Gauger, founder & CEO of Message Blocks. "Our retention rate is quite high."

The 2-year-old startup has also attracted new clients. It landed the Michigan Realtors Association, which is using the platform for everything from events to media releases. Message Blocks also has pilot programs with new customers underway in Michigan, California, and Washington, D.C. This year the company is looking to take on bigger events, such as concerts.

"We are looking at out-of-the-box verticals that deal with large amounts of people," Gauger says. "It's about helping their team organize better."

Message Blocks currently employs a team of seven people and is looking for a few summer interns this year. It has hired three people over the last year and is looking to add another three right now.

Source: Len Gauger, founder & CEO of Message Blocks
Writer: Jon Zemke

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U-M student startup app helps track loved ones

A group of students at the University of Michigan are trying to bring campus safety into the 21st Century with a new mobile app called Companion.

The five students began working on the app a few months ago after noticing there wasn't a comprehensive public safety tool that worked with their smartphones.

"It was the culmination of a number of experiences we have had for years," says Danny Freed, co-founder of Companion. "We would get crime alerts that are 12 hours old and useless or there are the blue safety stations that no one uses."

Companion's mobile app harnesses real-time walking data that allows for family and friends to keep an eye on you as you walk home late at night. It matches that data with historical walking pattern and a predictive engine so local campus police can determine the optimal placement of officers.

Companion won the Pryor-Hale Award for Best Business at the Michigan Business Plan Competition. That came with $20,000 in seed capital. The team, all U-M undergraduates, also won the Most Successful Undergraduate team award for $2,500 as well as the Marketing Award sponsored by Marketing Associates for $2,500.

That $25,000 will go toward further developing the app. A Beta version is currently available in the Apple App Store, but the team is looking to enhance its capability.

"We are continuously adding features," Freed says.

Source: Danny Freed, co-founder of Companion
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Stratos launches all-in-one credit card for your wallet

Stratos is launching its all-in-one payment card this week, a product that aims to consolidate the contents of your wallet into one piece of durable, dynamic plastic.

"It's a next generation card that can hold all of the cards in your wallet," says Thiago Olson, CEO of Stratos.

The Stratos Bluetooth Connected Card consolidates an unlimited number of plastic cards into one and can work anywhere traditional credit cards are accepted. That means the Stratos Card can load credit, debit, loyalty, membership and gift cards into a familiar, universally accepted card that can instantly change into the card you need on demand.

The Stratos Card comes equipped with Bluetooth technology that consolidates your cards helps make sure the right one is ready to go when the user is ready to check out. Check out a video describing it here.

"If I simple double tap this card it will say, 'Based on your location you are near Macy's. Do you want to use your Macy’s card?'" Olson says.

Users can access the Stratos card on a subscription basis for $95 per year or $145 for two years. Customers can sign up now and expect the cards to be shipped in April. The cards are made of a durable plastic that comes with a scratch-proof coating.

"It's more resistant to wear and tear than an average credit card," Olson says.

Stratos launched a little more than two years ago in downtown Ann Arbor. It has grown into a new office space in Kerrytown, taking over the former home of Duo Security. It currently employs a staff of 50, including 25 people and a few interns in Ann Arbor. It has hired about 15 people over the last year and it looking to hire another 14. You can check out the open positions here.

Source: Thiago Olson, CEO of Stratos
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Pixel Velocity scores $10M in Series B round

Pixel Velocity has landed $10 million in seed capital thanks to a Series B round of investment in the image processing and data analytics startup.

"They're really well-positioned in an area that combines data from sensors and data analytics," says Jonathan Murray, managing director of the Ann Arbor office of Draper Triangle Ventures, which also participated in Pixel Velocity’s Series B.

The Ann Arbor-based company creates sensor technology that helps provide safety, security and operational continuity solutions to commercial and government facilities. Its imagery and data analytic tools help protect users from accidental or natural threats, such as leaks, spills or intrusion. The company is planning to expand into the oil and gas market this year.

Money from the Series B will fund the Pixel Velocity’s revenue growth and expanding operations by adding more working capital to its bottom line. That money will help do everything from adding inventory to expanding its staff. The company has hired 10 people over the last year, including positions in executive management, software development, and hardware engineers. It currently employs 17 people and the occasional intern.

"We will also be doing some work on our branding," Grisham says.

Source: Heather Grisham, COO of Pixel Velocity, and Jonathan Murray, managing director of the Ann Arbor office of Draper Triangle Ventures
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Stout Systems takes aim at record growth year in Ann Arbor

Stout Systems has been riding a nice wave of success since the Great Recession hit, and it looks like the ride has yet to crest for the tech firm.

"If it keeps going this way for us it will be a record year for us," says John W. Stout, founder & president of Stout Systems. "It was already a record January for us."

The Ann Arbor-based company providing staffing and consulting services in the software and IT sectors. It's fourth quarter last year produced the best sales ever for the 22-year-old firm. That allowed it to add to its staff, including four hires in January and another one coming onboard this month. The firm currently employs 35 people, including a dozen that work at client sites.

"The area we have grown the most is our consulting business," Stout says. "It has really taken off in the last few years."

Stout Systems also recently won the Corp! Magazine's 2015 DiSciTech Award in the Science and Technology category for its innovative and cost effective project management system. The DiSciTech awards are presented to Michigan companies and educational organizations that are leading the way in science, technology and digital initiatives through innovation, research and applied science.

Source: John W. Stout, founder & president of Stout Systems
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Sales of Another Rinse’s recycled goods spread across U.S.

It didn't take much for Another Rinse's made-from-recycled-materials products to carve out their own little niche. The thing is, the Ann Arbor-based company’s never stopped carving.

The one-year-old company gives new life to old things by turning them into a refinished product with a new purpose. For instance, it turns old wooden golf clubs into bottle openers. And its sales have been growing exponentially since its launch. They can now be found in 37 states and three countries.

"Michigan is our top sales state followed by New York," says Michael Sydlowski, owner of Another Rinse. "We have been streamlining our sales online sales process."

Sydlowski worked in sales and marketing before launching Another Rinse out of his basement. At the time he wanted to find a new use for old golf clubs collecting dust there. He turned them into bottle openers and coat hooks. He added old wooden tennis rackets and baseball bats into the mix, along with turning old golf balls into corkscrews. Now he is looking to add reclaimed wood products to his lineup.

Another Rinse's products have recently shown up in consignment shops in Wisconsin and Indiana. The company’s products mostly end up being sold online. Sydlowski estimates 90 percent are either bought or gifted to men.

"I never thought the split would be that way," Sydlowski says.

Another Rinse is run by a core team of three people.

Source: Michael Sydlowski, owner of Another Rinse
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Draper Triangle’s Ann Arbor office spreads the seed capital

Draper Triangle Ventures opened its Michigan office in Ann Arbor a year ago, and the venture capital firm is off to a fast start.

The Pittsburgh-based firm has made investments in two Ann Arbor-based startups over the last year. The first was in Amplifinity, which makes referral software, in early 2014. Draper Triangle Ventures also recently sunk money into Pixel Velocity, a image processing and data analytics startup.

"A person can make and manage two investments per year," says Jonathan Murray, managing director of Draper Triangle Ventures’ Ann Arbor office. "I'll make two investments this year, and Pixel Velocity is one of them."

Draper Triangle Ventures has more than $200 million under management across three funds. Its latest investment fund was set to raise more than $100 million. The venture capital firm invests in early stage tech ventures, such as software and IT startups.

Murray is Draper Triangle Ventures’ lone representative in Michigan. The firm has its main office in Ann Arbor and another satellite location in downtown Detroit. Murray expects to make one more investment in a local startup this year but that number could grow.

"I have a long list (of potential startups to invest in)," Murray says. "There are a lot of very good prospects on it. It could change from two investments to three investments if the right opportunity comes along."

Source: Jonathan Murray, managing director of Draper Triangle Ventures’ Ann Arbor office
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Ann Arbor tech firms Aysling, Juggernaut merge

Tech firms Aysling and Juggernaut are merging, but the combination of the two companies isn't going to be difficult.

"We have shared the same office (they are both in the old Borders headquarters) for several years now," Emily Kania, director of marketing for Aysling.

Aysling, formerly known as Aysling Digital Media Solutions, sells and manages Adobe and WoodWing digital publishing software and digital media production services for publishers, retailers, and corporations. Juggernaut develops its own customer relationship management platform. Aysling will now sell and manage Juggernaut’s software.

The Ann Arbor-based companies are both connected through local angel investor David Fry. "He's invested heavily in both companies," Kania says.

Juggernaut's nine employees are now assimilated into Aysling's operations and will work under the Aysling brand. The company has a staff of 32 employees and one intern. It has hired seven people over the last year, mostly in software development, sales, and a new controller.

Source: Emily Kania, director of marketing for Aysling
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Betty Brigade refines business model, in hiring mode

Betty Brigade joined Goldman Sach's 10,000 Small Businesses program last summer, and it ended up having a profound impact on the concierge service's bottom line.

The Ann Arbor-based company’s sales are up 90 percent in both January and February, and are trending in a positive direction for the rest of the year.

"We have had tremendous sales growth when we are typically quiet," says Sharon McRill, president of Betty Brigade.

McRill started Betty Brigade in 2004 after being laid off at Borders. It now employs 10 people. It has hired three people over the last year and is looking to hire two more now.

That growth is largely thanks to the lessons McRill learned at the Goldman Sach's 10,000 Small Businesses program. She was able to cut $4,000 worth of monthly overhead from her business without laying anyone off or cutting salaries. One of the ways was downsizing the company's offices by half because the whole space wasn't being fully used.

"That really helped me clean up some areas that weren’t working and places we were spending money where it wasn't effective," McRill says.

It also helped the Betty Brigade attract more profitable work. For instance, it has been doing more work for trusts and banks at cleaning out houses and buildings.

Source: Sharon McRill, president of Betty Brigade
Writer: Jon Zemke

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iVantage Group expands core team, moves into new home

Brighton-based iVantage Group has gone through a lot of changes over the last year. The 10-year-old staffing firm has moved into a bigger home (4,500-square-feet) and hired a new recruiter. The firm is looking to add three more recruiters and two sales professionals to the team. It has also made strategic investments in its technology infrastructure, allowing its recruiters to work more efficiently.

"We did all of this stuff without going into debt," says Juliet Shrader, president & CEO of iVantage Group.

The company specializes in staffing services for the IT, insurance and banking sectors, helping its clients find IT, engineering, finance and executive talent in the tech world. It was able to leverage its internal investments into a growing revenue, hitting nearly $10 million in revenue.

"We're doing business smarter," Shrader says.

Today iVantage Group employs a staff of 14 core team members and about 100 people in the field. Shrader expects to grow both numbers significantly in 2015.

"We're going to continue to add to those numbers," Shrader says.

Source: Juliet Shrader, president & CEO of iVantage Group
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Premier acquires U-M spinout Electric Field Solutions

Premier, a gas and electrical industries service company, has acquired Electric Field Solutions, a University of Michigan spinout specializing in electric field measurement and detection.

"The company that acquired us has been working with use for over a year," says Nilton Renno, co-founder & CEO of Electric Field Solutions. "The testing exceeded its expectations by far."

Renno, a University of Michigan professor of engineering, first developed Electric Field Solutions' principal technology to measure electric fields caused by dust storms on the surface of Mars. The Ann Arbor-based company, it calls the Venture Accelerator home, is developing the Charge Tracker, a sensor product that can identify stray voltage from a distance of more than 10 feet. That technology caught the attention of Premier, a unit of Houston-based Willbros Group, which acquired Electric Field Solutions for an undisclosed amount.

Electric Field Solutions employed a couple people and a few independent contractors. Renno is now going on to work on another startup that helps detect black ice and sends feedback to the braking system in vehicles. Why leave Electric Field Solutions and go onto a new venture?

"I have a full-time job," Renno says. "I think we went through three CEOs with the company. We didn't find the right person to direct the company. When the last CEO left I decided to sell the company."

Source: Nilton Renno, co-founder & CEO of Electric Field Solutions
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Ann Arbor State Bank continues growth streak, adds new hires

Ann Arbor State Bank is making significant strides forward with its bottom line and is expanding its product offerings... and staff.

The downtown Ann Arbor-based bank has made about 90 percent of its profits from commercial and mortgage lending. It is now adding private banking and leasing services to its portfolio. The leasing services would focus on commercial and equipment leases for businesses.

"It's a small piece but we hope it will become a big piece," says Peter Schork, president & CEO of Ann Arbor State Bank.

The 6-year-old bank has grown its staff, adding six new hires over the last year. It currently has a staff of 37 employees and one intern. Its new hires include professionals specializing in mortgage lending, private banking, and commercial leasing.

Ann Arbor State Bank has grown quite a bit over the last year, going from $205 million in total assets to $230 million in total assets by the end of 2014. Schork expects the community bank to make similar gains this year.

"We had a great year," Schork says. "A very profitable year."

Source: Peter Schork, president & CEO of Ann Arbor State Bank
Writer: Jon Zemke

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