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Ypsi's National Society of Black Engineers Jr. wins endurance race at its first national competition

Ypsilanti Community High School's (YCHS) chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Jr. is brand new, but its Student Racing Challenge team is already making waves at the national level.


Ypsi's student chapter of the engineering society was just revived during the 2017-2018 school year. But the team recently returned from NSBE Jr.'s 44th annual national convention, which took place March 20-25 in Pittsburgh, having won first place in the endurance challenge of the Ten80 race. Ten80 is a STEM initiative of NSBE Jr. that teaches science and engineering concepts through modifying and racing remote-control cars.


The YCHS team had only competed once before in Ypsi before being invited to compete at the national level, says the chapter's advisor, Lynne Settles.


"The judges were pretty impressed and were surprised we had just started our chapter," Settles says. "They put in a lot of hard work in a short period to get to this level."


Student teams are given a basic kit for the car and have to decorate it as well as modify it to go faster. They are required to document the entire process on a display board as part of a presentation at the national conference.


A total of 50 teams from around the United States competed at the national level, including YCHS' team of seven 11th-grade students: Alexis Smith, Deahja Tigner, Iyana Morgan, Bennie Williams, Maximilian Harper, Horus McDaniel, and Duane Thomas.


The Ten80 challenge involved various races, and other teams won in the speed category, but the YCHS team's car won the endurance race that required the cars to make the most laps in an obstacle course without crashing into other cars or obstacles.


Settles says the kids had to raise about $8,000 to make the trip. They were helped by the University of Michigan's sponsor chapter, small local businesses, and nonprofits like the Rotary Club of Ypsilanti. For $25, local individuals or organizations could have their name listed on a sponsorship T-shirt worn by the YCHS team as well.


Settles says this was a unique "real world experience" for the Ypsi students, none of whom had ever been to a national conference before.


"It was a first for them, meeting this many people from around the country, and an opportunity to meet other high school student and college students from all over country, as well as professional engineers from every area of engineering from all over the country," she says. "It's an experience I don't think they will forget."


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


Photos courtesy of Lynne Settles.

Ann Arbor's IndustryStar Solutions marks steady growth in supply chain field

IndustryStar Solutions, based at 330 E. Liberty St., Suite 3F in Ann Arbor, is a small but fast-growing software company with potential to change the supply chain management field.


Founded in 2013 by William Crane, Tony Lancione, and Matt Forster, the company provides "supply chain as a service," as well as offering a supply chain management software platform that client companies can choose to use or not.


Crane and Forster met while earning their MBAs at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and started the company as a class project. They later added Lancione, whom Crane had known since junior high.


In 2014, the startup moved to TechArb, the university's student venture accelerator, then moved into a small office in the lower level of Ann Arbor SPARK Central in early 2015. Since the autumn of 2015, the company has been operating out of the third floor of the same building that houses SPARK.


Ben Ludy, IndustryStar's senior manager for marketing and design, says the company has grown "steadily" every year since it was founded. Although last year was a slower year for the company, it still added a few new employees and landed some larger clients. ChicagoInno recently featured the company as one of 15 Ann Arbor Tech Companies to Watch.


The executive team's Michigan roots aren't the only reason the company has stayed in the Ann Arbor area, Ludy says.


"We've found a lot of talented software engineers and programmers right here in southeast Michigan, especially ones who have gone to schools like the University of Michigan," he says.


He adds that Michigan State University and Western Michigan University house some of the best supply chain management programs in the state, and many IndustryStar employees come from those schools as well. Additionally, automotive companies were some of IndustryStar's first clients, so staying in Michigan made sense from that standpoint as well.


On the "supply chain as a service" front, IndustryStar helps companies with strategy, procurement, quality, and logistics. For instance, a customer may have intellectual property rights to a new technology, but he or she isn't sure how to get it built.


"They come to us, and we source the parts to build their widget and manage any further production after that," Ludy says. IndustryStar can also use its network to help the client find appropriate people to assemble the parts and manage the process, he adds.


The company's supply chain software program is the real innovation, though. Ludy says the current industry standard is managing projects in spreadsheets, but IndustryStar's supply chain management platform goes beyond the spreadsheet's capabilities.


"We turned our spreadsheets into software applications so you can manage everything all in one place online, have it be accessible from anywhere, and have multiple people work inside the project simultaneously making changes or deleting data, with the ability to see the change history," Ludy says. "We're telling clients, 'Scrap your spreadsheet. We have a better way to manage this sort of data.'"

This piece is part of a series highlighting local business growth in the Ann Arbor area. It is supported by Ann Arbor SPARK.


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

Nexient to invest $4 million, add 300 jobs in Ann Arbor area

Nexient, a Silicon Valley-based software company with two locations in Michigan, recently committed to spending $4.17 million on expansion and adding 300 jobs at its Pittsfield Township facility over the next three years.


The expansion will be helped by a $1.5 million Michigan Business Development Program performance-based grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.


Nexient has already added 25 jobs in Washtenaw County since January of 2018 and has plans to increase that to the 300 skilled jobs the performance-based grant calls for. A large number of new jobs will go to software developers, but the company also plans to add quality engineers, business analysts, user experience designers, and support staff.


Nexient established its tech hub in Pittsfield Township in 2010, and also has a smaller center in Okemos. In 2015, Nexient took over the lease next door to its Pittsfield hub, making room for 500 or more employees.


Southeast Michigan has a great pool of both recent graduates and candidates for mid-level and senior talent, according to Nexient CEO Mark Orttung.


"Michigan has been a fantastic environment for us, with the combination of access to the University of Michigan and another 20 universities within a few hundred miles," Orttung says. He says Ann Arbor is a "great place to live" and it isn't difficult to recruit employees to the area.


"We have plenty of room to grow, and we're aggressively investing to grow the team," Orttung says.


Nexient serves a number of industries from healthcare to auto manufacturing with "agile" software – software that is built incrementally and collaboratively, and is modified according to feedback from clients and end users. It's not rigid, but meant to evolve.


"We like to talk about a product-minded approach," Orttung says, noting that some companies release parts of a new piece of software in two-week "sprints." A company might have the ultimate goal of a six-month roadmap for releasing new software but will release pieces of it every two weeks, getting feedback and tweaking the product as the process goes on.


"It's a very fast-paced and nimble way to create software," he says. "As you use the software, you'll notice little things that could make it better, so you can make adjustments along the way, and three to six months down the road, you've already taken into account what end-users would find to make it a better, more usable product."


Orttung says that clients are continually looking for more of the "product-minded approach" that agile software brings to the table.


"I expect to see demand growing in the marketplace, and we're looking forward to growing in Ann Arbor," Orttung says.


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


Photos courtesy of Nexient.

Portland, Ore. nonprofit installs free public phone in Ypsi

The new pay phone at Landline Creative Labs, 209 Pearl St. in Ypsilanti, looks ordinary, but it's got a unique twist: thanks to Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit Futel, you don't have to pay to use it at all.


The phone across from the Ypsilanti Transit Center is only the seventh Futel has installed and its first outside the Portland area. Conceived as a combination of social mission and public art project, Futel was born out of the disappearance of the public pay phone.


"As someone who grew up in the '80s, the phone was a piece of urban hardware we never expected to go away," says Futel founder Karl Anderson. Calling the pay phone a "seminal cultural hub," Anderson notes that phones, especially pay phones, were a "key part of hacker history."


"The origins of experimentation with computers and networking revolved around the phone, and the phone was the first computer network most people interacted with," he says.


Anderson works for Ann Arbor-based Duo Security and splits his time between Ann Arbor and Portland. Through Duo co-founder Dug Song, Anderson became acquainted with Mark Maynard, co-owner of Landline.


Anderson was searching for a grant, and Maynard wanted a pay phone at his building. A grant from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation connected all the pieces, and the Futel phone on Pearl Street became operational in early March.


Futel phones have a dial tone, an operator standing by, and other features that any other pay phone has. Additionally, the phones offer the option for users to set up a voicemail inbox, as well as a directory of important and useful numbers.


The difference from the average pay phone is that Futel is run entirely by volunteers and paid for with donations, and all calls are free.


"What we are is a phone company buying services and then giving them away," Anderson says. "We buy various phone services, from call time to outgoing and incoming phone numbers to 911 service and server time for internet connectivity."


Anderson says people use Futel phones for all sorts of things, often for emergencies, but just as often for social reasons.


"The line between essential and nonessential, between emergency and non-emergency, is not so important. People need to communicate," he says.


To hear an overview of Futel's offerings or set up a voicemail box, call (503) 468-1337. An in-depth interview with Anderson is available at


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


Photo courtesy of Futel.

U-M grad turns love of travel into boutique travel agency

Vinal Desai Burbeck is often asked if there is still a place for travel agents in an age when anybody can book a hotel or a flight on the internet. Her answer is an emphatic "yes."


Burbeck caught the travel bug about eight years ago and in 2015 she started her own Ann Arbor-based boutique travel agency, Wanderlark. She saw the business as a way to share with others her love of wandering off the beaten path. Burbeck didn't travel much as a child but, as an undergrad at the University of Michigan, she leapt at the chance to study literature abroad in London.


"It changed my life and opened my eyes to all the possibilities and the joy of travel," she says.


She knew she wanted to see more of the world but wasn't able to do that until around 2010 while she worked for Google, traveling both within the U.S. and also to Ireland as part of her job.


Burbeck considers herself a "Type A planner" and began using her skills and love for travel to create itineraries for family and friends. Realizing how excited she got about discussing travel with others, she decided she might be able to make a career from it. After a few years of planning, she launched Wanderlark, making it her full-time job.


Burbeck says travelers who don't mind a one-size-fits-all approach to travel may be happy going to chain restaurants and seeing the tourist attractions everybody else visits. However, the clients who seek her out want a customized travel plan filled with mom-and-pop restaurants and other hidden gems.


"I'm like a hunting dog or a truffle pig, seeking out the really good stuff that's hard to find," Burbeck says. "The average person doesn't have the time, energy, or expertise to find those better experiences themselves, and I do all of that legwork for them."


Her clients receive a complete and customized itinerary full of experiences that are tailored to their interests, but also includes some flexibility so they don't feel they have to frantically rush from place to place, she says.


Burbeck says she likes to use the term "consultant" rather than "travel agent," because agents work on commission and are often focused on up-selling rather than creating a unique experience for a client.

"I want to be client-centric, whether somebody's budget (for travel planning) is $100 or $10,000 or more," she says. "At the end of the day, I want to make sure they have the best possible experience that will keep them traveling. I feel like you can't put a price tag on that."


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


Photo courtesy of Vinal Desai Burbeck.

"Blue Ocean Shift" co-author to appear at two Ann Arbor events March 30

Renee Mauborgne, who with W. Chan Kim co-authored two business books, Blue Ocean Strategy and Blue Ocean Shift, will speak at two Ann Arbor events Friday, March 30.


Mauborgne will first speak at an Ann Arbor SPARK fireside chat at 10 a.m. at SPARK Central, 330 E. Liberty in Ann Arbor. At noon, she will be the featured speaker at an Entrepreneurship Hour sponsored by the University of Michigan's Center for Entrepreneurship, held in Stamps Auditorium on north campus. Both events are open to the public.


Mauborgne will talk about the principles behind the two books. Blue Ocean Strategy outlined a plan for finding "uncontested market spaces," or "blue oceans," rather than competing head-to-head in markets already saturated with competition, which the co-authors call "red oceans". The follow-up book, Blue Ocean Shift, looked at companies that were putting the first book's strategies into practice. Ann Arbor businessman Ted Dacko's success story was featured in the authors' second book.


Mauborgne says the two authors' journey started in the Midwest during the economic downturn of the mid-'80s and seeing Detroit "crumble before our eyes."


"That's when the Midwest shifted from being the vibrant economy it once was to the 'rustbelt' of America. It was a very sad time," Mauborgne says. "We set out to understand what it would take to thrive, not merely survive, as competition heated up across the globe."


When asked why the Blue Ocean books stand out in a world full of self-help and business strategy advice, Mauborgne and Kim say there are three main criteria: relevance, actionability, and rigor.


The two authors note that Blue Ocean Shift is a culmination of research that initially involved a study of more than 150 strategic moves in more than 30 industries across 100 years.


"By studying and understanding what works, what doesn't, and how to avoid the potential pitfalls in making a blue ocean shift in a variety of sectors ... Blue Ocean Shift lays out a systematic step-by-step process for inspiring people’s confidence and seizing new growth," Mauborgne says.


More information about the SPARK fireside chat is available at SPARK's events page. To learn more about the Entrepreneurship Hour event, visit the Center for Entrepreneurship website.


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


Photo courtesy of Melanie Boscherie.

FastTrack Awards for high-growth Washtenaw County businesses open for applications

Midwesterners tend to have both a great work ethic and a humility that means they don't like to brag. But they need to put that aside at least once a year, according to Phil Santer, senior vice president and chief of staff for Ann Arbor SPARK, sponsor of the FastTrack Business Awards.


The program, which celebrates Washtenaw County companies that demonstrate consistent year-to-year growth, is now accepting applications through May 1.


"I think some companies are resistant to apply because they don't want to look like they are patting themselves on the back," Santer says. "But the companies that qualify for these awards have achieved a significant milestone and should be rewarded."


To qualify for the awards, public or private companies must be headquartered in Washtenaw County and must have had at least $100,000 in gross revenue in 2014 with an annual average growth of at least 20 percent for the following three years.


Companies self-report their revenue but must provide support documents that are reviewed by CPA firm and FastTrack Awards partner Yeo and Yeo.


Businesses are welcome to apply every year that they qualify, and that means some companies have been named FastTrack winners for several years in a row. Last year, Ann Arbor software firm LLamasoft qualified for the awards for its 10th year in a row.


Santer notes that while many winners have come from high-tech fields, that's just because high-tech companies tend to have that sort of quick growth. However, Washtenaw-based companies in any industry are welcome to apply. Previous winners have come from industries ranging from real estate to manufacturing, Santer says.


The FastTrack Business Awards were formerly part of a larger business awards ceremony, Deals of the Year, but SPARK has been running the awards independently for the last three years.


Last year, the awards ceremony was paired with SPARK's annual meeting. This year, the FastTrack Business Awards ceremony will take place June 14 as part of a series of events including SPARK's annual Tech Trek and a discussion around mobility.


Santer says the awards ceremony has turned out to be a good networking opportunity as well. Speaking of last year's awards ceremony, he says it was "energizing" to see representatives from a variety of industries who wouldn't normally hang out in the same circle mingling at the ceremony.

"It was an opportunity to say, 'Here are people doing great things in your backyard that are not already a part of your network,'" he says.


The application form for the awards ceremony can be found through the Ann Arbor SPARK website.


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

Photo by Doug Coombe courtesy of Ann Arbor SPARK.

U-M's first VegWeek highlights issue of food waste with "waste dinner"

A "waste dinner" demonstrating the usefulness of commonly discarded food items was the culminating event of the University of Michigan's (U-M) first-ever VegWeek, which ran March 12-16.


VegWeek was billed as "a week dedicated to animals, the environment, and health." Aaron Brodkey, vice president of the Michigan Animal Respect Society (MARS), the lead organizing group for VegWeek, says calling the week's final event a "waste dinner" was a calculated gamble. He says the "shock factor" got people's attention, but also made marketing the event a little difficult.


"We had to clarify it was pre-consumer waste, like clippings from vegetables or day-old bread, not leftovers from someone's cafeteria lunch tray," Brodkey says.


The dinner was meant to raise awareness about the issue of food waste, and included small "food bites" served at five different stations. A stew made from vegetable scraps and desserts made with spent grain from the beer brewing process were two of the menu items highlighting how food can be used creatively rather than thrown away or composted, Brodkey says.


The nonprofit VegMichigan has hosted a "Veg Week" in the Ann Arbor area for years, but the March event was a first for the U-M campus. It was organized and sponsored by MDining (representing U-M's dining halls), Planet Blue student leaders, MARS, the U-M Sustainable Food Program, and other campus groups dedicated to sustainability.


Events earlier in the week included a talk by Dr. Joel Kahn, a U-M alum and cardiologist, about the health benefits of a plant-based diet; a screening of the documentary Forks Over Knives; and a panel discussion with U-M professors who have adopted a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Before the waste dinner, Dr. Will Tuttle (author of The World Peace Diet) and Daniel McKernan (founder and executive director of Barn Sanctuary, based in Chelsea) discussed the environmental and ethical benefits of a plant-centric diet.


Brodkey says that each VegWeek event attracted at least 120 participants, and more than 200 came to the Waste Dinner. The chef had prepared enough food for about 150 people, and the event ran out of food.


Brodkey, a senior, won't be around to help organize a second VegWeek in 2019, but he feels like VegWeek created some momentum.


"I'm hoping that, with that momentum, MARS and the rest of the organizers will see it was valuable and move forward with it again next year," he says.


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


Photos courtesy of the University of Michigan.

U-M's new Center for Social Media Responsibility aims to quickly make accountability tools public

Garlin Gilchrist II, the executive director of the University of Michigan's new Center for Social Media Responsibility (CSMR), considers himself a "technologist and engineer" who loves the way technology connects people.


"I am a graduate of University of Michigan engineering, and engineering and computer science have been a love of mine since I was a child," he says. "When I was a software developer at Microsoft, I felt we were using technology to help people connect, lift up their voices in the community, and do political organizing."


CSMR's goal is to address concerns about social media's negative effects by creating metrics to assess social media companies' accountability, as well as a public forum to discuss the topic. Gilchrist sees that as a continuation of his work as director of innovation and emerging technology for his hometown of Detroit, using technology to address inequities, he says. He hopes to work on related issues in his new role and says he sees CSMR as an "opportunity to go deeper."


While one facet of the new center's work will be on curbing negative behaviors like aggressive online comments, cyber-bullying, and the spread of "fake news," Gilchrist says the main focus is on the positive goal of making online interactions "better and richer."


That end goal can be achieved through applying groundbreaking research already being done at the university, Gilchrist says.


"Faculty and researchers are doing some of the most important scholarship in the world around how information flows through social networks, both online and offline," Gilchrist says. "They're researching how social media impacts users and broader media and conversations, so the School of Information is the perfect home for the center."


He says the goal is to "activate" that research and make it usable for media makers and users so they can improve their experience, whether that's implementing better commenting platforms and guidelines for civil conversation or figuring out what sort of networks encourage or discourage the spread of information from unreliable sources.


"I've just come on board in February, and I really want to hit the ground running," Gilchrist says, adding that he wants to be "aggressive" in looking for opportunities to show what researchers are doing and how their work can improve the world of social media.


"We want to make tools available to the public soon, so this becomes a center of action," he says. "As social media continues to grow as a primary way so many people get information about the world, it's important that those experiences and lenses to the outside world are designed with care. I see the center as an opportunity to make sure they're designed in a conscientious way."


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


Photo courtesy of Garlin Gilchrist II.

Desai Accelerator's new program manager aims to double intern staff, build program's reputation

Katy Lind brings a variety of entrepreneurial experience to her new role as program manager for the University of Michigan's Desai Accelerator, but her journey into entrepreneurship was not a straight line.


Lind officially started at Desai March 5 after the previous manager, Alison Todak, left to serve as managing director of Ann Arbor co-working space Cahoots. As an undergrad, Lind studied dance and theater, but toward the end of her undergrad experience, she decided she wanted to go into business.


"I'm a curious person and I've always pursued things I'm excited about," she says.


She earned an MBA in entrepreneurship and marketing from Indiana University and went on to work in film marketing for three years. After that she worked with a marketing company that consults with Fortune 500 companies, and then spent 14 months working for startup Duo Security in Ann Arbor.


But as Duo grew, so did Lind's desire to start a business of her own. Her first venture, Nasty Soap, didn't work out, but Lind says she doesn't like the word "failure."


"I learned so much, and I wouldn't have been able to start Pincause if I hadn't gone through that," she says.


Pincause was the brainchild of Lind and her partner Nate Stevens. It's an online platform that commissions artists to create pins highlighting various causes, and funding those causes with a portion of the purchase price. In 14 months after the January 2017 launch, Pincause has raised about half a million dollars for various causes. Stevens continues to run the day-to-day operations there so Lind can concentrate full-time on her role at Desai.


One of her first initiatives at Desai is to double the program's intern staff from five to 10.


"What differentiates Desai from other business accelerator programs is that we have interns, period," she says. "When you're starting a business, it's difficult getting talent, and you don't usually need that talent as full-time employees. By doubling the intern staff, we give these startups even more access to highly-skilled talent so we can stay competitive with other accelerators."


Those interns will help the six startups that will make up the summer 2018 cohort at the accelerator. Applications closed in early March, and Desai staff are still going through applications to see which six startups will be chosen for the program that runs from June 11 to Sept. 28. Desai's summer program in previous years has been the launch pad for big startup successes, including MySwimPro and SAHI Cosmetics.


"I'm excited to be here, supporting entrepreneurs with the day-to-day issues they encounter," Lind says. "I'll be that person out in the field with them, and I've been where they are. Any problems they encounter, we will get through that together."


Along with growing the intern staff, Lind wants to grow Desai's reputation.


"We want Desai to gain recognition as a linchpin in the support network across the Midwest for our tech startups," she says. "We're a growing presence, and we're doing amazing things."


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


Photo courtesy of Desai Accelerator.

Threads interdisciplinary art festival moves to Ypsi, scales up for 2018

The organizers of the Threads All Arts Festival learned a lot from their event's first iteration in Ann Arbor in 2016 and are planning a second, bigger, and better festival in Ypsilanti this weekend.


The interdisciplinary festival featuring music, poetry, dance, film, and visual arts runs from 1 p.m. March 10 to 10:30 p.m. March 11 at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, 100 Market Place in Ypsi. The first Threads festival grew out of casual music nights and related events that Nicole Patrick and fellow students from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance had organized.


Wanting to get more exposure for their bands, dance troupes, and other artistic projects, Patrick and a few other founders pulled together a proposal and won a grant to launch an interdisciplinary arts festival. They organized the event in just four months and hosted it at the Yellow Barn in Ann Arbor in 2016.


The group aimed to host a second festival in summer 2017, but finding a venue proved difficult. The Yellow Barn had been taken over by Theatre Nova and was no longer available for rent, so the date was postponed and the hunt for a new venue began.


Patrick, along with festival co-organizer Meri Bobber, toured several spaces before winding up in Ypsi. They say their "jaws dropped" when they walked into the Freighthouse, located in Ypsi's historic Depot Town district.


"The space is one big, gorgeous room with rafters and natural light," Patrick says. "The sound is good, and it had the space we needed to build gallery walls and put in two stages, and even have food there. It's what we'd been looking for the whole time."


The new location means that the festival can feature acts nonstop, with larger ensembles and acts on the main stage, and smaller, quieter acts on a cozier second stage. A gallery will feature works by local visual artists.


Patrick says organizers already had a great lineup of artists who had applied to participate in the festival, but once they knew the festival's new home would be in Ypsilanti, they opened up a second call for artists targeted specifically at Ypsi residents.


"We knew that if we were moving into that community, the representation of Ypsi-based artists needed to be stronger in the lineup, so we got them more involved," Bobber says.


Patrick says she is pleased that the festival is acting as a launching pad for artistic careers and new works.


"One thing that excites me a lot is the number of premieres of works happening at the performance," Patrick says. "There will be a composer premiering a chamber ensemble, and a few bands are using it as a way to get the word out that they're going to release an album soon."


Continuing the focus on all things local, food will be available for purchase by El Harissa, Pilar's Tamales, and Veg-O-Rama, with drinks by Stovetop Roasters and the Corner Brewery.


Single-day passes cost $10, with full festival passes costing $15. Children under 12 get in free. A full schedule for the festival is available here.


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

Photos by Theo Schear.

Solar Marketplace aims to help houses of worship finance eco-friendly projects

Local houses of worship had a chance to learn about eco-friendly projects undertaken by local faith communities during a "solar open house" in December, and a "Solar Marketplace" this weekend will help them figure out how to finance their own.


The Solar Marketplace is being organized by Solar Faithful, an initiative from the city of Ann Arbor’s energy office in partnership with Michigan Interfaith Power and Light, which aims to promote solar projects in houses of worship. The city's climate action plan calls for reducing community-wide emissions by 25 percent before 2025, and as part of that plan, the city has set a goal of generating 2.4 megawatts of solar energy each year. With 400 houses of worship in the greater Ann Arbor area, the city believes that making houses of worship more energy-efficient will help achieve those goals.


The marketplace, scheduled from 2-4 p.m. March 11 at Campus Chapel, 1236 Washtenaw Court in Ann Arbor, will host eight to 10 solar installers who consistently get high customer ratings, including two or three with experience in financing for solar projects.


"Neither the city nor IPL are advocating for any one vendor," says Jane Vogel, past board president of Michigan IPL and current liaison to the Solar Faithful team. "We're simply facilitating the process of enabling houses of worship to talk with solar installers."


Currently, Vogel says, the main two strategies for financing a solar panel installation on a house of worship involves fundraising through a capital campaign or taking out a loan, but Michigan IPL and Solar Faithful are interested in helping houses of worship find creative ways to finance solar projects.


For instance, a 30 percent tax credit for solar projects is available to residential homeowners, but nonprofits and churches can't take advantage of that tax credit.


"But that opens the door to thinking about collaborating with an investor who can harvest the tax credits while helping a house of worship," Vogel says.


Houses of worship that aren't yet ready to fund a large solar project can still make their facilities more energy-efficient, and attendees can learn about how to do that during the event as well. A program offered in conjunction with Michigan Saves and DTE Energy provides zero percent financing on energy-efficiency measures, and more details about that program will be available during the solar marketplace.


"It's important to get the energy load of the building lowered through good energy-efficiency actions so that, by the time you're thinking of installing solar, you'll have lower energy use demand in the building," Vogel says.


While the March 11 presentation will be geared toward faith communities, the marketplace is free and open to all area residents and nonprofit organizations. Those interested in attending are asked to RSVP to Jennifer Young, project manager with Michigan IPL, at or (248) 463-8811.


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

Ann Arbor-based ISP finds long-lasting success with all-in-one tech deployment

MCI and other early internet service providers (ISPs) have gone the way of the dodo, but Ann Arbor-based Synergy Fiber, founded in 1998, has outlasted those other ISPs by thinking strategically about the future. That continues with the company's current focus on being an "all-in-one" internet technology vendor that recently connected the largest single-phase student housing complex ever built in the United States.


When a developer builds a new office complex or a student dormitory, traditionally several different companies have been involved in technology infrastructure. One company runs wiring, another company provides phone service, another provides internet service, another provides video surveillance and security, and so on. Synergy Fiber simplifies the process by providing all those services and more through one vendor.


The company's recent record-setting student housing project is located at Texas A&M University, but the company has also done several large projects in Washtenaw County, including 411 Lofts student housing and the luxury apartments that comprise Foundry Lofts.


Synergy Fiber CEO Norman Roe says the company started as a "small mom and pop ISP" and has expanded over the last 20 years due to the current trend of "ubiquitous wireless availability and a little bit of luck." From those first few lean years, the company has grown to employ about 50 full-time staffers. About 25 of them are located at the company's headquarters at 3131 S. State St. and the rest are spread out at the company's other locations around the globe. The company now sees yearly gross revenues of more than $10 million.


Roe says there may be some narrow-band service providers still in existence after 20 years, but Synergy is one of the first broadband service providers and has outlasted most of the competition.


"It was a natural evolution, but we survived," Roe says. "There aren't many 20-year-old broadband ISPs in the entire country."


Roe says he thinks that the future for Synergy Fiber and others doing this kind of comprehensive IT deployment is "extraordinarily bright." He says his company's methods will "fundamentally change" building management systems and put more power in property owners' hands.


"We have a very specific niche that has lots of legs for the future of how IT services are deployed," Roe says.


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


Photos courtesy of Synergy Fiber/Andres Gomez.

Stroke treatment device wins $25,000 top prize at Michigan Business Challenge

A student business plan for a medical device that safely and quickly removes blood clots during treatment for strokes has won the $25,000 top prize in the University of Michigan's (U-M) 2018 Michigan Business Challenge.


The campus-wide, multi-round business plan competition hosted by the Zell Lurie Institute gives student teams an opportunity to win cash prizes, network with others, and get mentoring and advice from local business leaders. The final round took place Feb. 16.


The idea behind the winning plan, which is called Clot Buster, stemmed from an earlier collaboration between U-M students and faculty, including founder Yang Liu, Dr. Luis Savastano, professor Aditya Pandey, and several other students.


Liu was working on a device to remove plaque, and while talking with Savastano and his team, he wondered if a similar mechanism could be used to remove clots.


"Savastano is a neurosurgeon and does a lot of stroke treatments at the University of Michigan, and we thought this might have good potential," Liu says. "Within one month, we built a prototype that proved the idea, and we believe it's really going to work."


Devices already exist to suck out clots, but the catheter used for the procedure quickly gets jammed, Liu says.


"How Clot Buster works is that there is a rotating wire in the shaft that breaks the clot into pieces as it's being sucked into the catheter, so the catheter never gets clogged," Liu says. "This enables uninterrupted, nonstop clot removal."


Liu says he knew Clot Buster had a great product and a great team but it was still a "pleasant surprise" to take the top honors during the competition.


The prize money will go toward development of the device, taking it from the research and development phase to a marketable product.

"We're currently just in the R&D phase, but within this year, we'll use the money to improve and optimize the device so it can be tested in animals," Liu says.


Two other finalists won $2,500: Advanced LIDAR Semantics, which creates devices with enhanced object recognition for use in autonomous vehicles, and Sonodontics, creator of technology that uses ultrasound to scan for gum disease.


Teams with a business idea that includes a social mission were eligible to participate in the Seigle Impact Track. PedalCell, which creates bicycle-powered phone chargers for the bike share industry, took home the $15,000 top prize in the Impact Track.


A full list of prize winners is available at the Zell Lurie website.


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


Photo courtesy of Emily Brourman.

Ann Arbor to expand presence this year at SXSW's "Michigan House"

The connection between Michigan and Austin, Texas may not seem an obvious one. But the "Michigan House" spotlighting Michigan leaders and products has grown steadily at Austin's annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and will this year expand again to include more significant representation for Ann Arbor.


This year's SXSW, which runs March 9-18, will be the fourth for Michigan House, a project of Detroit-based nonprofit Creative Many Michigan (formerly ArtServe Michigan). Creative Many has had a presence at the media, music, film, and tech conference in Austin for at least 10 years, according to Joe Voss, the organization's director of strategic partnerships.


Creative Many members would attend and also send speakers to SXSW, since Creative Many's mission is to foster the development of creative professionals in Michigan. They'd also take ideas back to Michigan from SXSW.


Five years ago, Voss noticed that a lot of Michigan groups, companies, and individuals were attending SXSW, and thought that they could do even more if they worked together. From that came the first Michigan House in 2015.


"We essentially rented a house, took everything out of the house, and put all Michigan stuff in it," Voss says. "It became a hospitality experience for Michigan-connected organizations, companies, and individuals, and it's grown from there."


For the 2018 conference, the Michigan House will move into a venue right downtown near the Austin Convention Center. Creative Many worked out a deal with SXSW so that its members get discounted admission to the conference. Michigan House panels on March 10 will be part of SXSW's official programming, though other Michigan-related panels are scheduled throughout the conference.


There has been some Ann Arbor participation from the first Michigan House, but that has expanded in 2018 to include more panelists with Washtenaw County connections, including representatives of Ann Arbor SPARK, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor coworking space Cahoots, and autonomous microtransit company May Mobility, in addition to many representatives from Detroit, Lansing, and Grand Rapids.


Voss says that a Michigan story that sparked a lot of interest this year was the issue of mobility, so several panel discussions will feature that topic. Many Michigan House panels will also focus on the issue of water and the Great Lakes, as well as some community health issues.


"It's awesome to have Ann Arbor in the mix more than ever," Voss says.


A full list of participants and a schedule of Michigan House panels is available here.


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


Photos courtesy of Michigan House.

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