Innovation & Job News

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White Pine Systems converts part-time workers to full-time employees

The staff at White Pine Systems is in transition. Normally that's not a sign of good things, but it is for the Ann Arbor-based company .

The software firm has made a handful of hires from its own ranks in the last year, bringing on a new CTO and a few web developers.

"We've gone from more part-time contributors to full-time people," says Doug Dormer, founder & CEO of White Pine Systems.

The 8-year-old company’s technology specializing in sharing information between health-care providers. The idea is to streamline the healthcare system (primarily in the behavioral health and traditional healthcare) by making closely guarded personal information readily available to the people who need to see it in a timely fashion.

White Pine Systems has been able to bring on more work with existing clients and land a few new ones. It’s adding new modules beyond its normal behavioral health which also is expanding its workload.

"It's a combination of the market is getting good with regulations, our work is being recognized, and our marketing efforts are working," Dormer says.

Source: Doug Dormer, founder & CEO of White Pine Systems
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Flipsi Bottle pivots with new baby bottle product

Flipsi Bottle is pivoting. Not a lot but noticeably, especially for those who are old enough to drink from their own cup.

The Ann Arbor-based startup got its start with two brothers making a sport bottle that could be turned inside out for easy cleaning. The company prototype is made out of food-grade silicone that is flexible and non-toxic. Now Flipsi Bottle is making a bottle for babies that it plans to market as Flipsi.

"That is virtually done with development," says Jeff Plott, CTO of Flipsi Bottle.

The 1-year-old company and its team of three people plan to take the product to the ABC Kids Expo in Las Vegas this fall to find a strategic partner. It hopes to begin production early next year.

"We were able to crack the baby bottle first," Plott says. "We also saw that there is a big market for the baby bottle."

Flipsi Bottle has raised about $40,000 in winnings from business plan competitions this year. Among those wins was a second-place showing at the Greenlight Business Model Competition in March, which came with a check for $10,000.

Source: Jeff Plott, CTO of Flipsi Bottle
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Beyond Startup expands with second stage marketing work

Catherine Juon launched Beyond Startup with the idea of helping growing businesses make the leap to second stage. Now she is launching a second part of that company focused on second stage marketing using her own name,, as the URL.

"I get the phone call when people have an online marketing problem, and it often turns out to be an second stage thing," Juon says. "The whole marketing SEO thing turns out to be the icing on the cake."

Juon helped grow online marketing firm Pure Visibility in downtown Ann Arbor before striking out on her own with Beyond Startup two years ago. The consulting firm helps its clients grow out of small business mode and into rapidly expanding firms.

Much of her work has also become helping those firms with market discovery and customer discovery. That has transformed into the creation of its own line of business.

"The second stage consulting is really its own thing," Juon says.

Juon is now working with Bud Gibson, a profession at Eastern Michigan University who created the search marketing program at the university. The pair are working on creating a sequence of workshops on solving company sales problems in the digital age.

"Our partnership is gradually growing," Juon says.

Source: Catherine Juon, founder of Beyond Startup
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Plymouth Ventures closes on 3rd investment fund worth $61M

Plymouth Ventures doesn't typically add partners to its team, and it's not for lack of qualified candidates. That changed this year for the Ann Arbor-based venture capital firm as it added a new partner and chief financial officer to go with its new $61 million investment vehicle.

"We get about 10 resumes a year from people who grew up in Michigan, went to Washington, D.C, or San Francisco, got married, had children, and want to come home," says Jeff Barry, partner with Plymouth Ventures. "We get 10 really good resumes each year. We usually send them along (to other investment firms) to get placed. This time we happened to be looking for someone."

Two new someones to be exact. Plymouth Ventures brought on Chris Frick as its CFO and Evan Ufer (grandson of University of Michigan broadcasting legend Bob Ufer) as a partner. Both are Michigan returnees from the coasts. Ufer, who is in his mid 30s with a young family, worked in private equity in New York City before coming back to Ann Arbor. Barry points out that Ufer and Frick's resumes stood out so much that the firm knew it had to hire both to help maintain the company's growth.

"We knew we were going to need some added horse power to deploy more capital," Barry says.

Plymouth Ventures closed on its third investment vehicle worth $61 million earlier this month. That’s up from its second fund from a few years ago that totaled $41 million. Plymouth Ventures invests in scalable tech companies in the Midwest and has $100 million under management today. The firm's average investment ranges between $2 million and $6 million.

The 11-year-old firm invested two thirds of its last investment fund in Michigan-based startups. Plymouth Ventures expects to invest about half of its new fund in Michigan-based companies. It has already made its first investment for the new fund earlier this year (Ohio-based Certified Security Solutions) and is on target to make a couple more before the end of the year.

"We're looking at a handful of great companies in the Great Lakes region," Barry says. "We expect to do 2 more (investments) before the end of the year."

Source: Jeff Barry, partner with Plymouth Ventures
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Hines Industries hires 5 engineers on 30% growth

The last two years have been pretty kind to Hines Industries.

The Ann Arbor-based manufacturing tech firm’s revenue has spiked 30 percent in each of the last two years. That has enabled it to hire five new people (engineers) over the last year, expanding its staff to about 40 people.

"We have had an increase in the automotive section," says Dawn Hines, CEO of Hines Industries. "That is because the automotive sector was ordering less in 2010 and 2011."

Hines Industries makes balancing equipment for manufacturers. Its standard dynamic balancing machine models and specialized balanced configurations for the automotive industry that improves manufacturing process efficiency.

Hines points out that her company has invested in its own operations, including a new IT system, an improved website, and a better customer communication systems. She credits the rebounding economy and surging auto industry with the recent growth spike, but expects it to level out to low-double-digit growth in the next couple of years.

"We think we will be growing something like 15 percent per year," Hines says. "We expected to do more business with existing customers and more business internationally."

Source: Dawn Hines, CEO of Hines Industries
Writer: Jon Zemke

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OST grows Ann Arbor office, targets bigger growth in A2

OST went through a big growth spurt over the last year, and the Grand Rapids-based tech firm expects its Ann Arbor and Detroit offices to benefit from that growth over the next year.

OST, AKA Open Systems Technologies, hired 50 people over the last 12 months, including two sales professionals in Ann Arbor. The local office staff, which also splits time at the Detroit office, now stands at 13 employees.

"We have had a tremendous amount of growth across the entire organization," says Rob Kellner, principal of application development practice for OST.

OST specializes in IT services, database security, and mobile application development for a number of large companies with a big presence in Michigan, such as ProQuest and Thomson Reuters

"We have seen a 40-50 percent growth especially in application development and managed services," Kellner says. "Both of these particular areas have exploded."

That's good news for the Tree Town and Motown offices. Although a vast majority of OST's new hires have been in Grand Rapids, Kellner expects the staffs in Ann Arbor and Detroit office to grow exponentially this year to keep up with the spiking demand for mobile apps and managed services. He also says OST is aggressively going after new business in southeast Michigan in 2014.

"That's definitely an area that will see a big push for growth," Kellner says.

Source: Rob Kellner, principal of application development practice for OST
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Eloquence Communications eyes Beta launch, partnerships

What was once Patient Provider Communications is now Eloquence Communications, and a number of new business options have come at the same time as the Ann Arbor-based firm’s new name.

The health-care startup has developed a nurse-call system through an innovative healthcare communication technology. This platform is called Eloquence, which prompted the 5-year-old company to change its name to match it. Eloquence Communications has raised more than $2 million to develop this platform. It has recently completed the product-development phase, received an issued patent and has filed for two more.

"We have a lot of options," says Lance Patak, CEO of Eloquence Communications. "And they are accumulating very quickly."

Patak points out that a competitor in Eloquence Communications’ space was recently acquired, prompting a lot of attention to his firm. It is now exploring a variety of options from acquisitions to strategic partnership to Beta test sites. Patak expects to secure a Beta test site or two before the end of the summer.

"We have two partners that are more than willing to provide a Beta site," Patak says.

Eloquence Communications has hired three replacement employees over the last year and is in the process of making a fourth hire.

Source: Lance Patak, CEO of Eloquence Communications
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Blue Heron Talent expands with international work

Blue Heron Talent has doubled its revenue over the last year and a major part of that growth is due to new business abroad.

The Ann Arbor-based company specializes in c-suite level coaching, and all of its client had been domestic until this last year. That's when a longtime global client referred the firm to a few international colleagues. Today about 12 percent of the company’s revenue comes from foriegn-based clients.

"That has been very exciting working with different cultures around the globe," says Barbara Allushuski, president & CEO of Blue Heron Talent.

Blue Heron Talent helps executives maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses through coaching. The idea is to help these companies grow by helping their leadership teams grow as professionals. It services both executives in large corporations and entrepreneurs in new startups.

"It's very in-demand because companies are growing again and companies what to be all they can be," Allushuski says.

Blue Heron Talent has added a handful of coaches over the last year to help keep up with demand. Allushuski points out that finding the right fit for her company has become a challenge in the last year, specifically finding coaches with both academic and business backgrounds.

"That continues to be the challenge," Allushuski says. "I can't find enough c-suite-level coaches with the right background."

Source: Barbara Allushuski, president & CEO of Blue Heron Talent
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Java Hope Project focuses on helping chronically unemployed

The Java Hope Project has a hard nut to crack, helping chronically unemployed women become self-sufficient through entrepreneurship.

The Ypsilanti-based non-profit helps women escape poverty through a 3-month training course that takes them from unemployment to running their own coffee stand that could gross as much as $100,000 annually. It sounds like a good idea on paper. Maybe even easy. It's anything but in reality.

"I have to go back and do what the parents didn't teach them to do, like being self-sufficient and believing in themselves," says Brenda Moore, executive director of the Java Hope Project.

The Java Hope Project has been working with women at Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS) in Detroit for the past year. The program has had 63 participants. So far three of them of stuck through it, built up professional skills and used them to land jobs. It's a step in a long process that Moore hopes to get a couple of them running their own coffee cart in the next year.

"We have to make sure they have the wherewithal to manage the cart," Moore says.

The program teaches the women, often single mothers, the need for professionalism in the workplace. It also teaches the basic of running a small business in the hope that entrepreneurship will help them break the cycle of poverty.

The Java Hope Project has recently been approved to become an apprentice program by the U.S. Dept of Labor. Moore is exploring the option of partnering with a large local organization or two to grow its reach later this year.

"I think the program will get better with that umbrella over it," Moore says. "It will strengthen the program."

Source: Brenda Moore, executive director of the Java Hope Project
Writer: Jon Zemke

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The Brinery doubles production as it grows across Midwest

Even though The Brinery can be described as a slow-food startup, fast would be a better word to describe the Ann Arbor-based firm's growth.

The 4-year-old company’s sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles and tempeh can be found in close to 100 stores in Michigan and Chicago. The Brinery has taken on two outside distributors over the last year after relying on self-distribution at local businesses and farmers markets.

"We have pretty much doubled sales since last year," says David Klingenberger, founder of The Brinery. "Every year we have come close to doubling our sales."

Helping make that possible is moving to a bigger production facility. Klingenberger started The Brinery by making sauerkraut in his home. This February he moved his business to the Washtenaw Food Hub, a new facility that helps provide support to local farmers and food companies to become economically and environmentally sustainable.

"We're the anchor tenant there," Klingenberger says.

And it's filling out that space quickly. The Brinery's team now stands at a dozen people, which is up from four a year ago. Klingenberger expects the numbers for his business (sales and staff) to keep growing as he aims to open up in markets in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois over the next year.

Source: David Klingenberger, founder of The Brinery
Writer: Jon Zemke

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TECAT Performance Systems triples revenue since 2012

There is a lot of new over at TECAT Performance Systems. The Ann Arbor-based startup has some new staff, new markets for its principal product to explore, and a new name.

The 2-year-old firm, which spun out of TECAT Engineering, changed its name to TECAT Performance Systems this summer. It also hired some new staff, including a new marketing person and CEO. The team of less than 10 people has been focused on growing the company’s revenue. It has added to its customer base and has tripled its revenue since 2012.

"This year we have already exceeded last year's revenue," says Don Keating, vice president of business development for TECAT Performance Systems. "We have some exciting things in the pipeline for the rest of the year."

TECAT Performance Systems is commercializing wireless sensor technology that collect environmental, motion and mechanical information and stream it wirelessly to a central control unit. These sensors, designed to be used in confined spaces, monitor and record live torque data from any rotating shaft. The company is now exploring options on using the technology to measure other things in other industries, such as defense.

"The product itself has evolved so it can do multiple functions besides just measure torque," Keating says.

In the meantime, TECAT Performance Systems is continuing to refine its sensor technologies with an eye for mass producing them on a much larger scale. However, such a increase in productivity is still a year or two away.

"We're in the very early stages of those discussions," Keating says.

Source: Don Keating, vice president of business development for TECAT Performance Systems
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Augment Ventures makes 2 investments in lighting startups

Augment Ventures is off to a fast start for 2014, making two investments in clean-tech startups and laying the groundwork to make a couple more before the end of the year.

"Our portfolio is up to five startups right now," says Sonali Vijayavargiya, founder & managing director of Augment Ventures.

Vijayavargiya launched the venture capital firm out of Ann Arbor nearly three years ago. Augment Ventures specializes in making early investments in startups in the clean-tech/sustainability sector. Its most notable investment so far is in downtown Ann Arbor-based logistics tech firm LLamasoft in 2012.

Augment Ventures has made two investments so far this year. Both firms, Revolights and Lumenetix, are based in California. Lumenetix designs, manufactures and sells UL recognized color tunable LED light engines for fixture manufacturers. It is currently working with one of the Big 3 (Vijayavargiya declined to say which one) to integrate its products in the automotive sector. Revolights is working to bring new lighting solutions to bicyclists.

"They're trying to bring 360-degree visibility to commuter bikers," Vijayavargiya says. She adds, "we are very excited about both (startups)."

Augment Ventures has also added a couple of people to its team this year, expanding it to five people. That staff is working to nail down a couple more investments before the end of this year.

"We are actively doing due diligence with five opportunities," Vijayavargiya says. "Two of those firms are Michigan-based."

Source: Sonali Vijayavargiya, founder & managing director of Augment Ventures
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Big Air Software racks up hackathon wins, prize money

Sam Harrell is becoming a brand name in local hackathons and beyond, recently winning several and taking home enough prize money to supplement a comfortable middle class lifestyle.

The Ann Arbor-based computer programer and founder of Big Air Software works on mostly consulting contract work in the private sector and developing his own apps. He won the New York City Kaltura Video Experience Hackathon earlier this summer, which included a $50,000 purse. He took $20,000 home when he won the Code Michigan hackathon last fall. He also won hackathons hosted by Ann Arbor SPARK and Maker Faire Detroit, which included some nice tech swag.

Hackathons are usually one-day events where software developers, and sometime tech makers in general, collaborate to come up with innovative new technologies in a short, intense time period. Harrell likes them because they help him keep his edge when it comes to staying on top of what’s next in technology.

"I just like to move fast and be agile," Harrell says. "Keeping up with tech trends and staying on top of them is a risky business. Not everyone has the stomach for it."

When a tech startup goes on a competition tear like Harrell has been on lately that usually means some sort of angel investment isn't far behind the prize money. That's not the same situation with solo operators like Harrell because investors tend to gravitate toward teams with products as opposed to individuals with ideas. That means Big Air Software will probably remain a one-man operation until investors or entrepreneurs figure out a workaround. And that’s fine by Harrell. He is already planning on what to do at his next hackathon.

Source: Sam Harrell, founder of Big Air Software
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Ann Arbor SPARK scores $500K for Michigan Angel Fund

The Michigan Angel Fund has enjoyed so much success in its first year that organizers are coming out with a sequel in 2014.

The Michigan Economic Development Corp is giving Ann Arbor SPARK, which manages the Michigan Angel Fund, $500,000 for the continuation of the Michigan Angel Fund’s first investment vehicle and then some.

"This is allowing us to raise a second fund," says Skip Simms, manager of the Michigan Angel Fund and senior vice president of Ann Arbor SPARK. "The first fund is nearly all invested. It will allow us to continue investing in early stage technology companies across the state."

The Michigan Angel Fund is an angel-investment equity fund that specializes in early stage investments. It only invests in Michigan-based tech start-ups in the hopes of growing the Great Lakes State’s new economy.

It has 72 members and has made six investments in its first year. Those investments range from $100,000 to $250,000 and are part of seed rounds for startups looking to raise between $250,000 and $2 million. Its latest investment is in Larky, an Ann Arbor-based mobile app startup that just closed a $1.76 million Series A round.

"We will probably have a portfolio of 9-10 companies (by the end of the year)," Simms says.

Source: Skip Simms, manager of the Michigan Angel Fund and senior vice president of Ann Arbor SPARK
Writer: Jon Zemke

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MuniRent gains tractions, wins spot in Code for America

MuniRent, the startup that enables municipalities to share heavy equipment, has been gaining traction with some local governments in its first year, but it's finding a lot of easy target clients in Oregon.

MuniRent has landed the cities of Chelsea and Milan as clients and is in the process of signing up Washtenaw County, Ypsilanti, and a handful of municipalities in Macomb and Oakland counties. However, it's starting to appear that the startup's easiest opportunities are in the northwestern section of the U.S.

"There is a lot of action in Michigan but the biggest concentration (of municipalities open to MuniRent's idea of sharing heavy equipment) is in Oregon," says Alan Mond, co-founder of MuniRent. "Oregon has been doing this since 1995 but they were using Excel spreadsheets."

MuniRent launched out of 1000 Tools last year, which is based in the sharing economy where people who own expensive or niche tools can put them up as rentable online. MuniRent is now 1000 Tools primary product, enabling local municipalities to put their heavy or niche equipment up for rent to other nearby municipalities.

The three-person startup has spent its first year getting the company established in Metro Detroit, and it also got tipped off to Oregon's affinity for the idea recently. MuniRent also won a place in Code for America’s 2014 accelerator class. About 120 companies applied to take part in the four-month-long program, which takes place in San Francisco, and MuniRent was one of five (and the only one from the Midwest) to make the cut.

"We were pretty flattered to be selected," Mond says. "It's a pretty big deal. They are a growing force in the government tech space."

Source: Alan Mond, co-founder of MuniRent
Writer: Jon Zemke

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