Innovation & Job News

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Ann Arbor-based startups all but sweep Accelerate Michigan

Ann Arbor-based startups all but swept the awards at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition last week, taking home a combined $740,000 in seed capital.

Startups from Tree Town took the top two spots, and won six out of the nine sub categories. A startup led by University of Michigan students also took second place in Accelerate Michigan's student portion of the competition.

The big winner was SkySpecs, a startup developing drone technology, taking home the $500,000 first place prize. Getting here has been a long road for Ann Arbor-based company, originally placing in the student portion of the competition in 2012.

"This was our third year doing it," says Danny Ellis, CEO of SkySpecs. "It was a really, really good competition. I was impressed with so many of the competitors."

Cribspot, which calls Kerrytown home and has an office in downtown Detroit, took second place in the overall competition. That showing earned it $100,000 in seed capital, which company plans to use to adds staff to help further develop and expand its online-student-housing platform.

The following Ann Arbor-based companies took home category awards:

- Ornicept won the IT prize (worth $25,000) for its software platform that helps field workers collect and manage data.
- Solartonic won the Alternative Energy prize ($25,000) for its flexible solar panel technology, solarap, that attaches to non-traditional surfaces, such as wrapping around the pole of a street lamp.
- Akervall Technologies won the Advanced Materials prize ($25,000) for its thin-yet-tough mouthguard made of non-compressible, perforated materials.
- Freestride Therapeutics won the Life Science prize ($25,000) for its drug that relieves and even prevents shin pain for racing horses.
- AlertWatch won the Advanced Transportation prize ($25,000) for its patient-monitoring technology.
- TurtleCell won the People's Choice award ($10,000) for the second year in a row for its Phone case that comes with retractable earbuds.

HeelSecret took second place in Accelerate Michigan's student competition ($5,000) for its shoe attachment that helps better connect high heels to the people wearing them. The startup is led by University of Michigan students.

Source: Danny Ellis, CEO of SkySpecs
Writer: Jon Zemke

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SkySpecs wins Accelerate Michigan, spot at Techstars incubator

Third time turned out to be the charm for SkySpecs. It took the Ann Arbor-based drone startup three tries at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition before it won it all and a hefty payday to go with it.

SkySpecs first participated in Accelerate Michigan's student competition in 2012 when the startup was being launched by some University of Michigan students. It took third place in the student portion that year. It came back again in 2013 and made the semifinals of Accelerate Michigan. This year it went all the way and took home $500,000 in seed capital.

"The biggest things for us is it's going to really accelerate our product development," says Danny Ellis, CEO of SkySpecs. "It will enable us to do what we need to do to get our project out into the world and hire more people."

SkySpecs is developing aerial drones that use artificial intelligence to inspect infrastructure in dangerous locations, such as the blade of wind turbines. It's WingMan platform allows the aircraft to hover near an object without fear of hitting it. Check out a demonstration company’s WingMan technology here.

SkySpecs has hired two people (business development and computer programer) over the last year, expanding its staff to nine employees. Those nine people are currently working in New York City at the Techstars incubator. The company plans to wrap up its tour there and return to Michigan by February when it hopes to have 10 prototypes working in the field.

"We thought (Techstars) was going to help us to take it to the next level," Ellis says. "They have the right network and the right skill set."

Source: Danny Ellis, CEO of SkySpecs
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Cribspot adds $100K to seed round with Accelerate Michigan win

Cribspot announced raising a $660,000 seed round a little more than a month ago. Add another six figures to that number after its win at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition.

The Ann Arbor-based startup, it also has an office in downtown Detroit, took second place at Michigan's pre-eminent business plan competition. That showing comes with $100,000 in seed capital the startup can use in the best way it sees fit.

"We want to add more features that cater more toward landlords," says Jason Okrasinski, co-founder & CEO of Cribspot. "We also want to have a larger footprint across the country."

The 1-year-old startup and recent Bizdom graduate is creating an online portal that creates one central website for off-campus housing in higher education. The co-founders, mostly University of Michigan students, recognized that finding off-campus houses is an exercise of searching craigslist ads and signs on the sides of buildings. Cribspot offers a central location where students and landlords can come together to find/offer/manage student housing.

Cribspot landed $660,000 in seed capital early this fall with the round led by Huron River Ventures. It plans to put most of the $100,000 it won at the Accelerate Michigan competition to hiring another software engineer, expanding its staff to six full-time employees and four interns. It is also looking to expand into an other few university markets (it’s currently in 15) including Wayne State University and the University of Detroit Mercy.

Source: Jason Okrasinski, co-founder & CEO of Cribspot
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Caelynx expands bottom line on growth of software platform

Three years ago Caelynx made all of its money from its engineering consulting and staffing services. By next year its only going to get about half of its bottom line from those sources. The other half, from its rapidly growing software platform.

"Software is continuing to be the major growth area," says Hans Steiner, director of business development for Caelynx. "All areas are growing but software is leading it."

The Ann Arbor-based company's computer-aided engineering platform works as a simulation platform for the company.

"This allows them to test it virtually so they can see if it performs," Steiner says.

Caelynx recently notched another 20 percent revenue growth year, making it the sixth consecutive year to do it. Ann Arbor SPARK has now recognized Caelynx as one of its FastTrack award winners for exponential revenue growth.

Caelynx has also hired one person in the U.S. and three for its Romania office over the last year. It now has a staff of 12 people in the U.S. and six in Romania. The company also recently moved from Ann Arbor's southside to a new office just north of downtown near the Amtrak train station.

"It's smaller but it's the right size for us," Steiner says.

Source: Hans Steiner, director of business development for Caelynx
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Ann Arbor lands office for Texas-based VC firm, Mercury Fund

Mercury Fund, a Houston-based venture capital firm, is opening its Midwestern office in Ann Arbor and is taking aim at making investments in Michigan-based startups.

To solidify its plans it has brought on Adrian Fortino as a partner to run the Ann Arbor office. Fortino had been running the Invest Detroit fund (he will remain an advisor) and will utilize his local expertise to make more investments in local startups.

"We are deeply interested in exploring the research and industrial background here," says Adrian Fortino, partner with Mercury Fund. "I see an immense opportunity in the industrial and research corridors."

Mercury Fund is in the midst of raising a $100-million investment vehicle, which Fortino expects to close before the end of the year. Mercury Fund has made investments in two local startups, DeepField and Swift Biosciences, and is currently looking at other potential investments.

The Ann Arbor office of Mercury Fund is located in the Headwaters space in Kerrytown. Headwaters is a small community of startups and early stage investors led by Ann Arbor-based Huron River Ventures.

"There is an incredible value to being around other investors in town," Fortino says.

Source: Adrian Fortino, partner with Mercury Fund
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Edmunds acquires Tech Brewery’s Carcode SMS

Automotive website Edmunds has acquired Ann Arbor-based Carcode SMS, making the mobile startup the firm's first acquisition.

Carcode SMS created a website plugin that allows consumers to text automotive dealership staff and inquire about a specific car. The software assigns local cell phone numbers to dealerships so mobile shoppers can text them and provides the dealership with an app that allows staff to respond and manage conversations in a compliant environment. Edmunds plans to launch this technology across its dealership network, providing CarCode SMS for free to both dealers and consumers.

"More and more traffic is going through the dealerships mobile websites," says Steve Schwartz, co-founder of Carcode SMS.

The Tech Brewery-based got its starts a couple of years ago creating mobile technology for automotive dealerships that leveraged QR codes. The three-person team pivoted a year ago to focus on the text-message conversations platform. It won the 2014 Edmund Hackomotive contest last spring.

That was the first contact Carcode SMS had with Edmunds, which led to an invitation to participate in the company’s newly formed startup accelerator program last summer. It also led to a spike in the startup’s revenues thanks to dozens of new dealerships signing up for its .

"We ended up generating revenue very quickly after the hackomotive competition," Schwartz says.

It ended with the acquisition. The terms of the deal were not disclosed. Schwartz and one of the other co-founders are leaving the company while Carcode SMS' CEO takes on a role with Edmunds.

Source: Steve Schwartz, co-founder of Carcode SMS
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Universal Marketing Group hires 75, looks to hire 100 more

Universal Marketing Group announced the opening of a new call center in Ann Arbor last year with lots of fanfare. The Toledo-based firm promised to creates dozens of jobs and invest millions in Tree Town.

One year later it has accomplished a lot of those things. The 11-year-old company has grown the Ann Arbor office (its second location) to 75 people, and it’s in the process of hiring 100 more people.

"It's going pretty well," says Kirk Schimmoeller, general manager of Universal Marketing Group. "We are taking on more clients as well as servicing our existing client. We have the new office up and running now."

Universal Marketing Group is occupying a large section of the former Border headquarters. It received a $600,000 incentive from the state to open the location with the promise of creating 400 new jobs by 2016.

The company currently employs 300 people overall, and plans to have 150-200 employees in Ann Arbor by the end of next year. That hiring is ramping up now because its the beginning of the company’s busy season handling work for retailers and gyms.

"Our busy season continue through the first quarter," Schimmoeller says.

Source: Kirk Schimmoeller, general manager of Universal Marketing
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Cayman Chemical hires 17 as it fills out Ann Arbor offices

Interns are an important part of Cayman Chemical's growth. The bio-tech firm has hosted a steady stream of interns over the years and turned a number of its former interns into full-time positions.

The Ann Arbor-based company hosted 15 interns over the summer, and has three right now. Over the last year, the company has turned seven into full-time employees making up nearly half of its new hires. And the firm is looking for more.

"We are working to hire interns all year," says Christine Booher, vice president of human resources for Cayman Chemical. "We want to hire five right now."

The 34-year-old company provides researchers with bio-chemical tools and research services. It has hired 17 people over the last year, and is currently looking to hire another four people right now. Those new job openings include two entry-level scientists, a regulatory affairs professional, and a facility management professional. Check out its open positions here.

That growth puts Cayman Chemical’s staff to 225 employees. A consistent growth in revenue (Booher declined to say how much) has lead to the constant hiring. That has allowed the firm to continue filling up newly acquired space. The company doubled its building count in Ann Arbor to four last year, and recently just opened a new product shipping area.

"We have our facilities pretty much full at this time," Booher says.

Source: Christine Booher, vice president of human resources for Cayman Chemical
Writer: Jon Zemke

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RetroSense Therapeutics scores FDA orphan status

RetroSense Therapeutics hit a significant milestone when the U.S. Food & Drug Administration granted the Ann Arbor-based startup an orphan designation for its lead technology.

Orphan status for a biopharmaceutical company is actually much better than it sounds. It gives the company bureaucratic cover to continue keep pushing forward its commercialization efforts by helping protect its rights to its research.

"It's a form of intellectual property identification," says Sean Ainsworth, CEO of RetroSense Therapeutics. "That's a key part of it."

The 4-year-old startup is developing a novel gene therapy to restore vision in retinal degenerative diseases, using technology licensed from Wayne State University. RetroSense Therapeutics' platform extracts a new gene from blue-green algae that helps make cells more photo sensitive. The company plans to apply this gene to human cells to regenerate photo receptors in the retina.

The FDA Orphan designation is intended to support the development of medicines and technologies that diagnose, treat or prevent rare diseases and conditions that impact 200,000 people or fewer in the U.S. It serves as an incentive for their development by designating a seven-year period of market exclusivity following FDA approval, along with certain tax credits for clinical testing expenses.

"It gives us the chance to demonstrate efficacy," Ainsworth says. "We expect to see that in our stage one clinical study."

RetroSense Therapeutics employs four people. It is in the process of wrapping up some of its pre-clinical testing and plans to launch clinical tests in 2015.

Source: Sean Ainsworth, CEO of RetroSense Therapeutics
Writer: Jon Zemke

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DotMine Day Planners relaunches on consumer demand

Sarah Nicoli left the corporate world more than a decade ago to start her own firm, DotMine Day Planners.

These days she is relaunching the company after realizing there is demand for good, old-fashioned, paper-and-pen day planners from a core group of her old customers.

"I just got an email today from a woman who placed an order," Nicoli says.

The Ann Arbor resident worked in product development at Proctor & Gamble before launching DotMine Day Planners in 1999. She built up the company until last year when she choose to focus on digital versions. That's when she realized her core customer group still really liked the feel of in-hand planner.

"People emailed us saying last year was the worst year for them without their paper planner," Nicoli says.

Now DotMine Day Planners is relaunching its product and rebuilding its relationships with retailers. It has rebuilt its team to seven people and has added a marketing person recently. Nicoli plans to keep rebuilding her good business through the rest of next year.

Source: Sarah Nicoli, president of DotMine Day Planners
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Clean Energy Coalition begins consulting across U.S.

The Clean Energy Coalition wrapped up a number of sustainability projects over the last year, and got started on a few more. All of them added up to a broader reach for the Ann Arbor-based non-profit.

The Clean Energy Coalition got its start in 2005 with the idea of helping spreading green practices across Michigan. Those have ranged from improving fuel-efficiency to making homes more energy efficient to promoting alternative methods of transportation.

For instance, it teamed up with the city of Ann Arbor and Zingerman's on a pilot program to help make the employees of those organizations implement more energy efficient practices. That program wrapped up earlier this year but was not renewed by DTE Energy. The Clean Energy Coalition also wrapped up its Michigan Greenfleets program. The four-year, $42 million initiative worked to bring better fuel efficiencies to local government vehicles, such as introducing vehicles that run on natural gas or hybrid technology or installing electric charging stations.

"We saw about 1.5 million gallon reduction of petroleum usage each year since we implemented the program," says Sean Reed, executive director of the Clean Energy Coalition.

The Clean Energy Coalition also launched ArborBike this year. The bike-share program has locations across downtown Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan’s campus. ArborBike will have 14 stations with 125 bikes when it's fully deployed next spring.

"Right now the system is at about half capacity," Reed says.

All of these wins have led to a demand for the Clean Energy Coalition’s consulting services. It's working with the EPA's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, and targeting other similar opportunities across the U.S. this year and in 2015. The Clean Energy Coalition currently employs 15 employees and a handful of interns. It has made a couple of replacement hires over the last year.

Source: Sean Reed, executive director of the Clean Energy Coalition
Writer: Jon Zemke

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DeNovo Sciences secures $2M Series A investment round

DeNovo Sciences has closed on a Series A round of investment worth $2 million earlier this month, allowing the life sciences startup to start fundraising for a Series B in 2015.

"We are in very good shape (from a monetary standpoint)," says Kalyan Handique, president & CEO of DeNovo Sciences.

The Plymouth-based startup, it calls the Michigan Life Sciences and Innovation Center home, got its start in Ypsilanti in 2011 developing a platform for early detection of cancer from blood samples. The idea is to create an less-invasive method than the traditionally painful route of biopsies. It won the top prize worth $500,000 in the 2012 Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition. The Series A consists of all new money from angel investors and pre-seed funds.

DeNovo Sciences has developed a fully automated system to detect cancer, primarily breast and colon cancers. Two of those systems are currently in use in medical centers in the Middle East and Asia. The startup also has purchase orders for two more locations, including one in the U.S.

"We are actively engaged with more customers around the world," Handique says. "We hope to see more orders next year."

DeNovo Sciences has a staff of nine employees, nine independent contractors and one intern. It has hired three people over the last year, including software developers and clinical researchers.

Source: Kalyan Handique, president & CEO of DeNovo Sciences
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Human Element creates 3 jobs as it hits double-digit growth

Human Element has grown in a number of ways over the last year. It has watched its revenue spike by double-digits, its staff is on the rise, and its office expand by a few thousand square feet.

The downtown Ann Arbor-based e-commerce company (it specializes in the Magento e-commerce platform) has watched its revenue jump by 40 percent since 2011. That has allowed it to hire three people, a software engineer and project manager over the last year, and it's looking to add a software developer now to its team of 13 employees and six independent contractors.

"Growing that quickly has its challenges," says Ben Lorenz, managing partner of Human Element. "We're targeting 30 percent growth right now. We feel that is a manageable way to grow the team."

Which has prompted the 9-year-old company to expand its office. The company added 2,000 square feet earlier this year. Another addition of a few thousand square feet of office space seems like its in the card considering the company’s current growth curve.

"If we can stay on track of our growth plan we will need more space next year," Lorenz says.

He adds that a rebound in demand for e-commerce work, specifically the Magento platform, has driven the growth. Lorenz is quick to add that his company is controlling the growth because it takes a long timeline (typically closer to a year than just a few months) to get new hires up to speed with the rest of the team.

Another factor is Ann Arbor SPARK giving a Phase 4 grant to Human Element last year. The $12,000 grant helped the company form some strategic planning for its growth so it can lessen the learning the curve to getting bigger.

"SPARK has been helping us quite a bit," Lorenz says.

Source: Ben Lorenz, managing partner of Human Element
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Spry Publishing almost doubles staff with acquisition

Ann Arbor-based Spry Publishing has acquired Farmington Hills-based The Word Baron, a move that nearly doubles Spry Publishing's staff.

Spry Publishing is a health-and-wellness publisher and a member of the Edwards Brothers Malloy family of businesses. Most of Spry Publishing’s work is focused on the pharmaceutical industry. The Word Baron specializes in digital marketing, ranging from graphic design to building training manuals.

"It (acquiring The Word Baron) expands our creative services that we can offer our clients," says Jeremy Sterling, director of sales & marketing for Spry Publishing.

He adds the two firms have partnered on projects before and there is a good synergy between them thanks to how the services they provide complement each other so well. The Word Baron's three employees have moved into Spry Publishing’s offices in Ann Arbor, expanding the staff to eight employees.

The Word Baron has a number of clients in the automotive industry. Sterling expects the combination of the two firms will allow them to offer a more comprehensive publishing and marketing package to their respective clients.

"We should grow well across both of our businesses," Sterling says.

Source: Jeremy Sterling, director of sales & marketing for Spry Publishing
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Vivergy software bridges sustainability and public health

A couple of tech entrepreneurs in Ann Arbor are working to bridge the gap between living a sustainable lifestyle and improving the public health with their new startup, Vivergy.

Kevin Kononenko and Dom Parise's are releasing the digital platform this week. Vivergy enables individuals to score their impact on local health due to their energy consumption and air pollution. That way they can see if the tweak their everyday behavior they can see how it can have a real-world impact on lessening things, like childhood asthma.

"Children in Ann Arbor inhale on average seven cigarettes each year," Kononenko says. "That is the equivalent of living with a smoker for three months."

Kononenko and Parise were inspired by the frustrating conventional wisdom that comes with sustainability -ie. the problems seem too enormous, things are slow to change, and that the positive actions of one person are often negligible.

"It always feels very negative, overwhelming, and sad," Kononenko says. "I wanted to do something about it that encourages people to think about it in a different way."

Vivergy is launching this week and the two partners are planning to focus on generating local usership at first. However, the platform can be used anywhere in the world.

Source: Kevin Kononenko and Dom Parise, co-founders of Vivergy
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at
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