Innovation & Job News

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Ann Arbor startups score big wins at Accelerate Michigan

When Steve Schwartz went up to collect the ceremonial $100,000 check for taking second place at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition last week, he was surprised but not shocked. The CTO of Genomenon didn’t expect to win big, but he knew the Ann Arbor-based startup’s team has a lot of potential when it comes to the fight against cancer.

"We all know someone in our lives who has been impacted by cancer," Schwartz says. "We're all passionate about it."

Genomenon is a life sciences company developing a technology platform focused on personalized medicine with simplified genome interpretation software. The University of Michigan spinout's platform tackles the challenges of analyzing DNA sequencing data, including gathering, organizing and interpreting the results. This is process is called tertiary analysis and typically requires extensive manual review that can be frustratingly inefficient and error-prone. Genomenon’s software accelerates tertiary analysis so it can treat patients and publish findings faster.

The 1-year-old startup’s team of seven has built out the product and has begun introducing it to its first paying customers. A larger product roll-out is planned for next year.

"We are now in the process of raising a seed round," Schwartz says. "This (the Accelerate Michigan win for $100,000) is a nice little bump for our seed round."

Five other Ann Arbor-based startups, all of which receive help from Ann Arbor SPARK, also walked away from Accelerate Michigan with $25,000 in prize money. Those include Akervall Technologies (winning the advanced materials category), Arborlight (alternative energy), FlexDex (medical device), Workit Health (IT), and PicoSpray (Advanced manufacturing).

Accelerate Michigan is Michigan's biggest business plan competition. It awards more than $1 million in prizes each year. Ann Arbor-based startups normally dominate the winners circle each year.

Source: Steve Schwartz, CTO of Genomenon
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Ann Arbor's SkySpecs preps to launch drone technology

SkySpecs is gearing up to launch its drone technology early next year. It's on the brink of raising a significant amount of seed capital and already testing its product with customers.

The Ann Arbor-based startup is developing aerial drone technology that uses artificial intelligence to inspect infrastructure in dangerous locations, such as the blades of wind turbines. It's WingMan platform allows the aircraft to hover near an object without fear of hitting it. Check out a demonstration of the company's WingMan technology here.

"Our first field prototypes are working well," says Danny Ellis, CEO of SkySpecs. "We have customers who are working with them in the field. We’re planning a full roll-out in 2016."

SkySpecs got its start three years ago with aspirations of making drones in the rapidly growing industry. That focus shifted to creating technology that makes sure drones can avoid running into objects they are buzzing around, such as wind turbines or hard-to-reach parts of bridges.

Now SkySpecs has shifted again to offering an end-to-end solution for its customers, equipping drones with its technology so operations are turn-key for its customers. Ellis noticed many of SkySpecs potential customers loved the technology but didn’t know much about drones.

"It was extra work for us," Ellis says. "They would come to us and ask us which drones to buy."

SkySpecs won the grand prize worth $500,000 from last year's Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition and is part of the Techstars accelerator in New York City. It currently has a team of eight people mainly based in Ann Arbor after hiring a couple of engineers and a business development professional over the last year.

The seed capital raise is expected to help SkySpecs grow out its team rapidly next year as it begins to roll out its technology on a national scale. It currently has two enterprise customers but Ellis doesn’t expect that his client list to remain that short for long.

"We have more in the pipeline," Ellis says.

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

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Mountain Labs brings big data muscle to healthcare industry

Healthcare is known for its seemingly insurmountable bureaucracies and mountains of data. Mountain Labs wants to simplify that. The Ann Arbor-based startup recently launched a public health surveillance platform called "Symport" that helps hospitals and medical researchers simplify big data and complicated processes. The end goal is to streamline the healthcare system.

"We're tracking clinical data to alert hospital administrators what they are doing that works," says Alex VanDerKolk, president of Mountain Labs. "It also helps clean and classify data sets."

Mountain Labs counts the University of Michigan and Henry Ford health systems as customers, along with a smattering of other research health systems across the Midwest. It raised a $200,000 angel round last year and is in the process of securing more capital.

"We raised another $350,000 on top of the seed round," VanDerKolk says.

The 1-year-old company currently employs a team of eight people. VanDerKolk expects his staff to continue to grow as it targets more health systems as customers.

"We are growing quickly," VanDerKolk says. "I'd like to have a presence in every state in the Midwest by the end of next year."

Source: Alex VanDerKolk, president of Mountain Labs
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

First electric scooters roll off GenZe's Ann Arbor assembly line

Michigan is famous for putting the world on four wheels in the 20th Century. Now Ann Arbor is making its mark in the world of two wheel vehicles. The first electric scooters are rolling off Ann Arbor-based GenZe production lines this month. Although the first order is just a few scooters, the company expects to hit its production goal of 3,000 scooters by next year.

"We're going to ramp up pretty quickly," says Yesim Erez, head of marketing for GenZe.

GenZe makes an electric scooter and an electric bike. The GenZe 2.0 electric scooter aims to make urban commuting more convenient by combining smart design with new technology. For instance, the scooter can recharge by plugging into a normal outlet but is equipped with a touch pad control center in the handlebars and mobile app so users can monitor power levels and travel plans through GPS. It has enough cargo to carry small loads, like groceries, but is small enough to fit in an elevator.

Check out a video on it here.

"They have the built-in capacity for urban commuting," Erez says. "It can satisfy the urban commuters needs throughout the day."

GenZe plans to start retailing its electric scooters for $2,999. It's targeting markets in Portland, San Francisco and Michigan to start, but plans to expand in urban areas across North America over the next couple of years.

GenZe, formerly Mahindra GenZe, opened a tech center in Ann Arbor in 2014. It has since expanded that presence to include a manufacturing facility. It currently employs 36 people, including 10 new hires. The number of staff is expected to increase with sales over the next year.

"We have been hiring as we ramp up production," Erez says. "We plan to continue to build out our staff."

Source: Yesim Erez, head of marketing for GenZe
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Happy hour startup DrankBank capitalizes on 4 years of growth

Jordan Eckstein, Ian Sabbag and Brian Shepanek were working in digital marketing five years ago when the trio of recently graduated University of Michigan students stumbled upon a business idea: centralizing happy hour specials on the web.

That idea launched DrankBank, an Internet startup that helps people find the best happy hour in their city. It started in Ann Arbor in 2011 and has grown to include major cities across North America from Portland to Chapel Hill. All of these dozens of cities shared one thing in common.

"The happy hour information wasn't available," Sabbag says. "It wasn't easy to find."

Most of the time people go to happy hours at bars they like to frequent or ones friends mention in passing. There wasn't a real option to find new ones outside of that person's regular orbit. DrankBank does that by collecting and centralizing happy hour information for bars and breweries across several major metropolitan areas.

DrankBank has grown about 20-30 percent each year since its launch. The number of visitors has increased each month since its launch. The DrankBank team wants to grow it further by collaborating with some major alcohol brands to expand its reach and sharpen its offerings to users.

Despite all of this growth, DrankBank is still an offshoot of the trio's digital marketing firm, Handprint Digital. The downtown Ann Arbor-based company calls an office in Nickels Arcade above Comet Coffee home. However, Eckstein, Sabbag and Shepanek believe they can turn DrankBank into its own standalone business in the not-too-distant future via its current growth curve.

"We're profitable because we have a low-cost model," Eckstein says. "We want to make it into an viable business in the long run."

Source: Jordan Eckstein and Ian Sabbag, co-founders of DrankBank
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Akadeum Life Sciences scores $1M in investment

Akadeum Life Sciences has landed seven figures worth of seed capital thanks to recently announced $1 million seed round for the Ann Arbor-based life sciences startup.

"It will help us build out our team," says Brandon McNaughton, CEO of Akadeum Life Sciences.

The 1-year-old startup spun out of the University of Michigan by developing a platform that helps researchers prepare research and diagnostic samples faster and more efficiently. The buoyancy-activated cell sorting technology uses tiny floating spheres, which Akadeum is describing as "microbubbles," to acquire target cells from biological samples. Check out a video describing it here.

"Our product goes into biological samples, like blood, and pulls out specific cells to improve research diagnostics," McNaughton says. "We do that using microbubbles."

Akadeum Life Sciences raised $150,000 from Michigan eLab, an Ann Arbor-based venture capital firm, last year to kick start development. Michigan eLab led this latest $1 million seed round. Detroit Innovate, Invest Michigan, and University of Michigan MINTS also participated in the round. Akadeum Life Sciences plans to raise a Series A next year.

Michigan eLab has pushed Akadeum Life Sciences to adapt lean startup methods, which is not normal practices for life sciences startups. That means Akadeum Life Sciences iteratively built its products to meet the needs of its users, working directly with them to develop products that address their specific problems. The startup is currently selling its technology to pharmaceutical and biotech firms, along with teams from research universities.

Akadeum Life Sciences currently employs four people, but McNaughton expects that number to grow over the next year. The startup plans to build out its sales and business development team as it grows.

Source: Brandon McNaughton, CEO of Akadeum Life Sciences
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Saline-based Imetris to launch HR management software

Imetris is expanding beyond its normal IT work to launch a new software platform later this year. The Saline-based company has been working on a human resources management software platform for small businesses. It would track recruiting and hiring efforts, helping companies streamline the process. The first module for it is nearly done and the company is preparing for a launch later this year or early next year.

"We are testing it within the company right now," says Chandru Acharya, president of Imetris. "We will be offering it to a select few customers and take it from there."

He adds that Imetris first became interested in building a HR management software platform after noticing there was a growing demand for it among small- and medium-sized businesses. He also noticed there wasn’t much in the market to satisfy that demand.

"There are not many products our there," Acharya says.

Imetris' core business consists of tech services in IT and data management, specifically managing data storage area devices for large corporations. Its revenue has grown 8 percent over the last year, mostly from work from new clients. That allowed the company to hire 10 people, expanding its staff to 110 people.

Source: Chandru Acharya, president of Imetris
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Q LTD transforms contractors to employees to fill out staff

Rounding out a creative team with independent contractors has been a popular strategy for boutique firms trying to find a balance between adapting to a flimsy economic recovery and staffing up for projects.

Q LTD is moving beyond that practice, hiring the last of its 1099 workers to become full-time team members this fall. The digital strategy firm has been growing incrementally for years now and making this last handful of hires was the right move for its growing amount of work.

"For us it's a nice, normal pace of growth," says Christine Golus, managing director of Q LTD. Paul Koch, a creative strategist for Q LTD adds, "Our goal is controlled steady growth."

The downtown Ann Arbor-based firm has hired four people over the last year, including the two former independent contractors. It now has a staff of 14 employees and one intern.

"All of the people are working full-time," Golus says.

And working on a number of projects. Q LTD has helped human resources at the University of Michigan design a new website. It also put together conference programs from the American Dental Association. Currently, Q LTD is working on a website redesign for The Kresge Foundation.

"The work indicates we will need that many more people," Golus says. "It's why we are hiring them on."

Source: Christine Golus, managing director of Q LTD, and Paul Koch, a creative strategist for Q LTD
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Library of Congress work helps power re:group's growth

Soon web surfers will be able to go to the website for the Library of Congress and click on the retail catalog for its e-commerce platform. They'll be able look for the work of re:group, but perhaps can't find the products from the downtown Ann Arbor-based firm at first glance? They will be able to take a step back and look at the whole catalog. Then they can can see it.

The 12-year-old digital marketing agency recently created the online retail catalog for the Library of Congress, which should go live later this fall. Its part of a bump in work from some big names, which include Taubman, the global retail development firm based in metro Detroit. The Tilted Kilt, a national restaurant franchisee, also named re:group as its agency of record.

That work has added up to a 5 percent bump in revenues for re:group, which has allowed the company to hire four people in the last year, expanding its staff to 34 employees.

"We'd like to grow 10 percent," says Carey Jernigan, vice president of development for re:group. "It's a little more than we did last year but we don't want to grow too rapidly. We don't want to disrupt the service we are giving our clients."

Much of that growth has come from referrals. It is also coming from re:group's work with franchise businesses. It has steadily grown its business bringing on more and more franchisee clients, like the Tilted Kilt. That is why it's continuing to host a quarterly conference, Franchise Business Update, for franchises in Ann Arbor with the next one happening next week in downtown.

Source: Carey Jernigan, vice president of development for re:group
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Goldman Sachs invests $50M in Ann Arbor's LLamasoft

Goldman, Sachs & Co is placing a big bet on LLamasoft, a downtown Ann Arbor-based startup that has been growing rapidly for years. The New York City-based investment banking firm is sinking $50 million into LLamasoft as part of its Series B in exchange for a minority investment and a seat on LLamasoft's board.

Company leadership says it has been meeting with a who's who of private equity firms to further fund its growth and at the end of the day partnering with Goldman Sachs made sense because of the culture fit, the people working the deal, and access to large amounts of capital for future growth.

"We felt the most comfortable with Goldman Sachs in the end," says Toby Brzoznowski, co-founder & executive vice president of LLamasoft.

The 12-year-old company specializes in supply chain software that help optimize logistics for large corporations and organizations. Its customers include multi-national corporations in a large variety of industries, ranging from aerospace to pharmaceuticals.

The $50 million from Goldman Sachs will help fund numerous technology development and growth initiatives, such as investing in supply chains analytics and developing new applications for its customers. All of that is expected to spike LLamasoft's growth in the near term.

"We have averaged 50 percent growth over each of the last five years," Brzoznowski says. "That's revenue growth but you can’t do it without the people. We're adding a good deal of people every month."

LLamasoft has hired 75 people over the last year, expanding its employee base to a little more than 300 people worldwide. Just under 200 of them are based in downtown Ann Arbor, and about 60 percent of its new hires work in Ann Arbor. Brzoznowski is optimistic those number will remain consistent, if not increase in the not-too-distant future.

"We continue to add people at a rapid pace," Brzoznowski says.

Source: Toby Brzoznowski, co-founder & executive vice president of LLamasoft
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Municipal admin services power Carlisle/Wortman Associates growth

Carlisle/Wortman Associates got its start offering civic planning services, such as helping local municipalities figure out zoning issues or plan for community growth. It built a respected brand around that work over the years. Today the Ann Arbor-based firm is increasingly known for more than that.

Carlisle/Wortman Associates is generating more and more of its revenue from offering administrative services for local municipalities. Those typically include running community development departments or building departments. Last year it opened an office in Oakland to help facilitate such work. Today 40 percent of Carlisle/Wortman Associates' staff focuses on providing municipal administrative services, which is up from 30 percent last year.

"It's becoming a much bigger part of the business," says Dick Carlisle, president of Carlisle Wortman Associates.

The firm got its start offering municipal administrative services about 10-15 years ago at the specific request of its customers. The side business started out innocently enough but soon turned into something that needed to be paid attention to.

"The more we did it the more we realized this is something we need to purposely try to do," Carlisle says.

Today Carlisle/Wortman Associates employs a staff of 26 employees and an intern. It has hired two people over the last year, including a building inspector and a landscape architect. Carlisle expects those hires to continue as its municipal administrative service continues to grow.

"I think its highly possible (municipal administrative services could equal half of the firm's work in the near future)," Carlisle says. "That part of the company is growing at a much more rapid rate than our core business. But it's only growing because of our core business."

Source: Dick Carlisle, president of Carlisle Wortman Associates
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Coherix scores $12M to grow manufacturing software in China

Coherix recently landed $12 million to help rapidly grow sales of its manufacturing software around the world. But the Ann Arbor-based startup nearly perished before getting to this point.

The company launched in 2004, making software that help streamline the advanced manufacturing process. Business grew quickly and the startup’s leadership had visions of going public. Then the Great Recession hit. The company's investors, never losing faith in Coherix's potential spent $9.6 million between 2008 and 2010 to keep the company afloat through hard times.

"We have a tremendous group of investors," says Dwight Carlson, CEO of Coherix.

When the economy turned around and Coherix extinguished its cash burn, Carlson had high hopes to raising a lot more money to fuel its growth.

"I thought they would be throwing money at me because we survived (the Great Recession)," Carlson says.

It didn't turn out that way. Investors saw that Coherix specialized in manufacturing, strike one. It is based in Michigan, strike two. Carlson cut his loses and went back to growing Coherix organically and further developing its technology.

Today its principal technology provides high-speed, high-definition 3D measurement and inspection services for manufacturers that streamlines their production capability. It creates efficiencies through high-tech, optical-based measurement and inspection of the assembly processes.

Coherix has found most of its success deploying this technology in China where 40 percent of that country’s gross domestic product is created through manufacturing. It employs 50 people globally, including 35 in Ann Arbor. It has hired two marketing people in Ann Arbor over the last year now that it has landed its latest investment round.

Carlson expects to hire a lot more people as he starts to put the $12 million in new seed capital to work. One third of that money will go toward building out Coherix's operations in China. The rest of it will be spent building the business in Ann Arbor. Taking Coherix public in the next few years is a dream again.

"Now we're pedal to the metal," Carlson says. "We are going from survival mode to rapid growth mode. We will be hiring an awful lot of people."

Source: Dwight Carlson, CEO of Coherix
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Huron Valley Financial growth rapidly with new service offerings

Huron Valley Financial got its start selling mortgages to people in Washtenaw County in the mid 1990s. Today it's doing the same across the country and offering a whole lot more as it grows at its fastest clip to date.

"We have had some of our best months ever in 2015," says Casey Daniels, vice president of business development for Huron Valley Financial.

The Ann Arbor-based company can now sell mortgages in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, California, Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina. It is also in the process of getting approval to sell mortgages in South Carolina. To accommodate that growth the firm has hired 18 people in sales and operations over the last year and is looking to hire another six now. It currently has a staff of 90 people.

The bigger staff and geographic footprint helps with Huron Valley Financial's growth. But its biggest gains are coming from its larger portfolio of services it can offer. Huron Valley Financial has been approved to service loans (a function it formerly had to outsource to larger financial institutions) and sell loans to Fannie Mae.

"Us getting our Fannie Mae approval was pretty big," Daniels says. "It allows us to streamline a lot of our processes."

Huron Valley Financial also launched a wholesale division earlier this month. It can now sell its mortgages and other lending products, like construction loans, to community banks and credit unions. The mortgage lender is also planning to further broaden its product portfolio, but Daniels declined to elaborate on those plans.

"We are always looking at additional products to add," Daniels says.

Source: Casey Daniels, vice president of business development for Huron Valley Financial
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

MuniRent targets large govt agencies to spike growth

MuniRent launched with the idea of bringing the sharing economy to municipalities across Michigan. Today the Ann Arbor-based startup is looking to spike its growth by bringing its technology to large government agencies, like state departments of transportation.

The 1-year-old startup's software enables municipalities to share heavy equipment, such as backhoes and earth movers, that would otherwise sit around and gather dust. It's two-person team had recruited 24 Michigan municipalities into its fold when the Oregon Department of Transportation came calling. It wanted to use MuniRent's platform internally for its nearly 100 work crews.

Nearly a year later the Oregon work crews (each crew is the equivalent of small city in Michigan) are averaging between 1-3 transactions a day. They have clocked 5,800 days of reservations for equipment that is in steady use.

"The data is unbelievable," says Alan Mond, co-founder & CEO of MuniRent. "It's real telling how much equipment use increased."

And word is getting around. MuniRent is fielding interest from state transportation departments in Texas, Colorado and Minnesota, along with the city of Los Angeles.

"We want to have at least 20 different large governmental agencies in the fold by next year," Mond says.

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

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

TorranceLearning looks to hire six in downtown Chelsea

TorranceLearning is a name that gets around, but it doesn't have to pay to reach its customer base. The downtown Chelsea-based firm lets it track record do the talking. And that has spurred its growth.

"We don't pay for advertising," says Megan Torrance, CEO of TorranceLearning. "We only pay for two trade show booths a year. It's really about the quality of our work that gets us our attention."

TorranceLearning calls the Chelsea Clocktower home and specializes in creating custom education projects for companies and non-profits. Its clients range from major auto suppliers like Denso to the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum. It recently landed work with NSF International, Consumers Energy, and Steelcase. That has allowed to start looking to hire half a dozen people to add to its staff of 13 people.

"We will finish the year 40-50 percent higher than last year," Torrance says.

TorranceLearning has been able to attract those new clients and expanded business through its growing reputation. The 13-year-old firm has landed several stories in niche publications about its work and growing business. Work like that has made Torrance optimistic about the company’s near-term prospects.

"I'd like to triple our revenues next year," Torrance says. "I'd to have a team of two dozen people or more."

Source: Megan Torrance, CEO of TorranceLearning
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.
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