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Ann Arbor's Leon Speakers celebrates 20th anniversary with public event

Ann Arbor's Leon Speakers will celebrate Michigan-made audio products and its 20th anniversary in a special public event called "Michigan Made HiFi" on Oct. 6 from 4-8 p.m.

 

The event has been organized in conjunction with two other Ann Arbor companies, Paragon Sight and Sound and MoFi Electronics. It will take place at Paragon, 3780 Jackson Rd., Ste. H.

 

Several new products will be on display, with demonstrations by Leon Speakers founder Noah Kaplan, and visitors will have a chance to see the restored 1967 Airstream trailer that Leon Speakers staff use to travel to a large industry trade show.

 

The event will include live acoustic sets by musician Camila Ballario, pizza from the Bigalora food truck, and Michigan craft beer provided by Tippins Market.

 

Kaplan says Leon is partnering with the two other companies because Paragon was one of the first companies to carry Leon products. Ann Arbor-based turntable maker MoFi also was another obvious partner for the event.

 

Kaplan says he aims to network with other local businesses that focus on handmade and locally made products and to create a "creative campus" of like-minded companies doing things related to sound and art. That includes creating a venue for live music called the Leon Loft.

 

"We're trying to put Michigan on the map as people who care about quality and craft," Kaplan says.

 

Despite the fact that music is more easily accessible in various digital formats than ever before, Kaplan says vinyl is "fully on the way back." However, he disputes the idea that the trend is all about nostalgia.

 

"People are buying and trading vinyl because it speaks to people's personalities," he says. "People crave things they can touch, and they want to buy products they can see and touch and to collect something tangible."

 

At the same time, he doesn't shun technology and thinks that the future of buying and consuming music will be a "hybrid."

 

"Sometimes people will stream music on their phone, sometimes they'll play it through speakers, sometimes through headphones," he says. "I think it will be a mix of everything — a little bit of digital, a little bit tangible. It goes along with our vision at Leon Speakers of mixing design with technology."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Leon Speakers.


Ann Arbor-area flower growers band together to form Michigan's first flower co-op

As the consumer trend toward buying local flourishes, a new wholesale flower co-op in Ann Arbor is aiming to expand that idea to include locally-grown flowers.

 

A group of 11 local flower growers banded together to create the Michigan Flower Growers' Cooperative, the only flower co-op in Michigan. Members host a wholesale market on Wednesdays for area florists and designers who would like to support local Michigan flower growers.

 

They launched their new co-op in July at Passionflower, a studio florist shop owned by Susan McLeary at 2401 S. Industrial Highway in Ann Arbor.

 

The three co-owners of the co-op are all farmers from the Ann Arbor area: Alex Cacciari of Seeley Farm, Trilby Becker of Sunseed Farm, and Amanda Maurmann of Gnome Grown Flower Farm. Maurmann also serves as market manager.

 

"We're lagging a little behind the local food movement, but it's the same intention," Maurmann says.

 

Maurmann says she hopes the co-op will inspire Ann Arbor-area consumers to consider the source of their flowers as they are increasingly doing with meat, eggs, and produce.

 

"People may see a flower stand at an airport stand and grab them without thinking twice about who grew those flowers," Maurmann says. "I'd love for people to start paying attention to where their flowers come from. If you see someone at the farmers market, for instance, selling a local bouquet, grab that instead of roses from Ecuador and you'll be contributing to Michigan's economy."

 

Maurmann says year-round production is not practical due to Michigan's climate, but the co-op hopes to expand its selling season next year by opening much earlier.

 

"We're aiming to get the biggest bang for our buck in the longest season possible," Maurmann says. "So next year, we plan to open in April with that first round of flowers that bloom in spring, like anemones."

 

The market takes a 30 percent commission on sales, but reducing the marketing and transportation costs for small farmers and providing them with a robust list of customers should mean that local flower farmers still come out ahead, Maurmann says.

 

Currently, about 20 buyers are showing up regularly at the Wednesday wholesale market, but Maurmann says that number grows by a few buyers each week.

 

Though this is the first flower co-op established in Michigan, Maurmann says she hopes it won't be the last.

 

"We hope that more will pop up," she says. "Michigan is a huge state, and third in the country for agricultural goods. I'd love it if other growers in Grand Rapids or Traverse [City] would start up their own flower co-ops."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

All photos courtesy of the Michigan Flower Growers' Cooperative.


National accounting and business consulting firm establishes Ann Arbor office

UHY LLP, a national certified public accounting and business consulting firm, has established an Ann Arbor office, the company's first location in Washtenaw County.

 

The Ann Arbor office, located at 455 E. Eisenhower Parkway, Ste. 102, opened for business Sept. 18 after extensive renovations. Jerry Grady serves as managing partner of the Ann Arbor office.

 

UHY has three other Michigan offices in Detroit, Farmington Hills, and Sterling Heights, with over 380 employees between them. UHY has also opened offices in Houston, West Hartford, Conn., and Miami this year.

 

Grady says UHY had intended to expand into Washtenaw County for a long time. The company has been serving clients in Ann Arbor, Chelsea, and Dexter, and the company recruits many of its employees from Eastern Michigan University, so opening an office in Washtenaw County made sense.

 

"Another reason is that we work a lot with Ann Arbor SPARK and private equity funds out here, and we have a lot of clients in Washtenaw County. We knew that by putting an office out here, it would allow us to continue our growth," he says.

 

The office currently has a staff of eight, with three more employees who split their time between the Farmington Hills and Ann Arbor offices.

 

Grady says the office space on Eisenhower Parkway made sense for several reasons. One reason is that it is close to I-94 and US-23, making it easier for employees to commute to other UHY locations.

 

Another reason is that the space is bigger than the company currently needs but just the right size for its expansion plans. Grady says UHY expects to add two more staffers to the Ann Arbor office in 2018, with total staff growing to between 25 and 30 in about five years.

 

Grady says he's looking forward to getting UHY staff involved in the Ann Arbor community and doing charitable work ranging from serving on foundation boards to running charity drives to recruiting young people for a summer leadership program.

 

"We've been in the area for a long time, and now we're looking to expand our footprint in the area, plant an office here, and be strongly supportive of the Ann Arbor community by getting involved in charitable organizations," Grady says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of UHY LLP.


Ann Arbor software firm InfoReady makes Inc. 5000 list

Ann Arbor software firm InfoReady has been ranked No. 313 on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the United States.

 

The company, which was founded in 2010 as a spin-off of GDI Infotech, had revenue of $2.1 million in 2016 and showed three-year growth of 105 percent.

 

InfoReady president and CEO Bhushan Kulkarni says the company originally focused on a product called InfoReady Review that helps universities streamline the grant application process. However, universities started using the software for other workflow applications, and Kulkarni says that's where "the growth really occurred."

 

The company recently added another product, InfoReady Thrive, which helps universities create a marketplace or one-stop shop for opportunities ranging from scholarships to fellowships to study-abroad programs and internships.

 

InfoReady had six customers in the first year of launching the product, and grew its customer base to 18 in the second year. By the end of the third year, Kulkarni says he expects to have about 100 customers coast-to-coast across the U.S.

 

InfoReady currently has a staff of about 20, but Kulkarni expects that to change.

 

"We're having natural employee growth to support the product," he says. "We need marketing staff and salespeople, and we expect that over the next year we'll be expanding our marketing department."

 

Kulkarni says InfoReady's products are appealing because they aggregate all opportunities on one site. The platform helps administrators put out the word about these opportunities and target faculty who can then target students who would be a good fit.

 

"It has become a platform for student engagement, success, and retention," Kulkarni says. "All this information is in one place, instead of having to visit 100 different sites to see what is available."

 

Kulkarni also notes that the platform is easy to implement and use, requiring little effort from university tech departments.

 

"Most of our growth is happening because we are providing the tools and product customers can use quickly and expand and scale their programs quickly with the help of technology," he says. "The ease of use and the fact that it requires no training is what's driving the growth."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of InfoReady.


Ypsi Township's SensiTile continues slow but steady growth

SensiTile, an Ypsilanti Township-based company that combines art and technology to create products for use in architecture and interior design, is experiencing slow and steady growth, boosted by word of mouth.

 

Founder Abhinand Lath started the company in his basement while he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, working on his master's thesis about using materials that bend and manipulate light.

 

"He made some prototypes while he was at the university, and that was the start of it all," says his wife, Vanika Lath. "He spent hours creating these prototypes and being the only person responsible for product design and gaining customer interest. It was a one-man show."

 

The company now manufactures custom architectural and design products from resin, glass, and terrazzo materials that interact with either embedded LED lights or ambient light.

 

Vanika Lath was trained as a physician but came on board her husband's company to help. She doesn't yet have an official title in her work with SensiTile and says she works on whatever needs doing at the time.

 

A few years after its founding, the company moved out of the Lath family's basement and into a rented space in Detroit, where their first big commission was designing materials for car-maker Saturn to use in a booth at the North American International Auto Show.

 

By 2008, however, the company was feeling cramped in its Detroit location and moved to its current location at 1735 Holmes in Ypsi Township.

 

The building had been foreclosed upon and was in a "sorry state," Lath says, with trees growing out of the dock. In other ways, though, it was a great find.

 

"The location is ideally suited to SensiTile's needs because we have two very distinct processes," Lath says. One process needs a very clean space, while mixing terrazzo creates a lot of dust, she says. Having a spread-out manufacturing space means the clean processes and the dusty processes can be separated.

 

Lath says that, at first, they wondered how they could use all the space they'd acquired. But today SensiTile may need to expand its footprint again, as well as adding on a few employees with a special set of skills that include both conceptual design and hands-on craftsman skills.

 

Lath says the company does very little advertising and thrives on word of mouth. This low-key strategy has resulted in a portfolio of clients from the University of Michigan to Marriott and Calvin Klein. These clients use SensiTile products in flooring, privacy screens, countertops, and more.

 

"Our fear earlier was what [would happen] if we get all this work and are unable to fulfill the orders, but we have now scaled up our processes and created efficiencies," Lath says. "We are hoping that a strategic and consistent inflow of projects will help support our next steps."

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of SensiTile.


Ann Arbor's Akadeum Life Sciences secures $1.5 million to develop microbubble technology

A recent funding round that netted almost $1.5 million will allow Ann Arbor-based bioscience company Akadeum Life Sciences to develop and market more products and double its staff.

 

The Ann Arbor company closed its latest round of financing Sept. 8, with Silicon Valley-based BioInfleXion Point Partners leading the financing round. The fund typically invests in the Bay Area, but said in a press release that the combination of the company's innovative technology and the strong team at Akadeum made the investment attractive. The core idea behind Akadeum's technology is sorting biological samples with microbubbles that target specific cells and float them to the surface to be collected.

 

Other investors include 5 Prime Ventures, the University of Michigan’s MINTS (Michigan Invests in New Technology Startups), Detroit Innovate Fund (part of Invest Detroit), and local angel investors.

 

Akadeum was founded by CEO Brandon McNaughton and CTO John Younger not long after they met by chance at a conference about seven or eight years ago. Later, when McNaughton was working at a startup and Younger was working as a professor at the University of Michigan, a mutual friend suggested they start talking with each other.

 

"We had a meeting, and I think both of us shared early on our interest in making an impact through innovation, developing something in the lab, and then putting it to work," McNaughton says.

 

They also agreed on a "lean startup" method that involved putting microbubbles in users' hands early in the development process.

 

"So we were basically doing development and marketing at the same time," says McNaughton. "For the life sciences, it's unusual to start getting early users before you're even done with development. In a lean startup, customer needs drive development, so you're not spending money or time on things they don't need."

 

Younger explains the microbubble technology that he and McNaughton have built their company on.

 

"When users have samples of cells, say from a clinical sample or from a patient, all the cells are like a big bowl of M&Ms," Younger says. "For the user, there's only one color they want, and they want to get rid of the rest. The technology lets us grab just the blue ones, or grab everything that's non-blue and throw it away so only the blue ones remain."

 

McNaughton says this latest round of funding will allow the company to launch a few products into a wider market.

 

"The last two years, we've focused on manufacturing microbubbles for cell separation, and now we need to decide what products we want to release," McNaughton says. "We're planning on releasing several of them. We're going to continue what we're doing, putting our products early on into user hands, and building the company."

 

To help with that expansion, Akadeum plans to move to a new facility at MI-HQ in Ann Arbor by the end of September and double its team from five to 10.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Akadeum.


Detroit's Veronika Scott on embracing "entrepreneur" label and what Ann Arbor can learn from Detroit

The University of Michigan (U-M) will host its annual day-long Entrepalooza symposium Friday, Sept. 22, at the Michigan League, featuring socially-minded Detroit entrepreneur Veronika Scott as keynote speaker.

 

Scott built a nonprofit called The Empowerment Plan around the idea of designing a coat specifically for the homeless and employing workers who have experienced homelessness.

 

Scott came up with the idea for a self-heated waterproof coat, which functions as a sleeping bag at night or a carrying bag during the day, while she was a student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

 

"It's always, from the beginning, been the plan to hire people from shelters. That's really the most important part of our business," Scott says. "The coat is just a bandage for systemic issues with unemployment and poverty."

 

Scott says the idea is to hire formerly-homeless people to make a product they will hopefully never have to use. So far, she says every employee hired from a shelter has been able to move into permanent housing within four to six weeks of starting work at The Empowerment Plan, with zero recidivism.

 

Even though Scott was running her own business before she even graduated college, she says it has been difficult to embrace the label "entrepreneur."

 

"Growing up, nobody in my family had ever started a business," she says. "I thought entrepreneurship was something for people from the higher classes, people with wealth and connections. It took me a long time to settle into that 'entrepreneur' title."

 

Scott will address that struggle with identifying as an entrepreneur during her keynote speech. She says many women have a "side hustle" ranging from baking to doing hair, but don't see themselves as entrepreneurs.

 

"Women usually wait until they've completed something, while men will often start talking about themselves as entrepreneurs after they get the idea," she says.

 

Scott says she is deeply involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Detroit, and one thing that stands out about it is how most small business owners collaborate and help each other out. She thinks Ann Arbor and other entrepreneurial hubs could learn from that example.

 

"Everyone supports each other, because they know everyone needs to rise with the tide," Scott says. Repairing the economy in Detroit is something that needs to be done collectively, not by one person or one company, she says.

 

As a nonprofit, sometimes a funder won't make sense for The Empowerment Plan, but Scott will pass on the funder's information and connect them to other entities that are a better fit.

 

"I don't see that happening in many other cities across the U.S." she says. "It doesn't work to be isolated and protective of your network and your connections and other things you see as valuable."

 

In addition to the keynote address, Entrepalooza includes opportunities for networking and workshops on a variety of topics led by members of the U-M and local entrepreneurial community, including representatives from Ann Arbor SPARK, Grand Circus Coding Bootcamps, Bodman PLC law office, and the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship.

 

The symposium is co-hosted by the U-M Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship at the College of Engineering, the U-M School of Public Health's Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship program, the U-M School of Information's Entrepreneurship Program, the U-M School of Music Theatre and Dance's EXCEL Program, and Innovate Blue.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 
Photos courtesy of The Empowerment Plan.

Ann Arbor startup's technology used to predict damage from hurricanes Harvey and Irma

Ann Arbor startup EigenRisk's risk analytics technology is being put to the test in tracking and assessing natural disasters, including hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

 

The company's EigenPrism software is a real-time event monitoring and notification service for natural disasters from earthquakes to hurricanes to landslides. Users in the risk management community, such as insurance companies and corporate risk managers, can use the system to receive notifications of loss estimates while catastrophes are in progress.

 

One of the first tests of the new technology happened during Hurricane Harvey, when global insurance company Lockton used the platform to quickly estimate its insured loss, both personal and commercial, within hours. Previously, these types of loss estimates could take weeks to compile.

 

The software is being used to track losses in Hurricane Irma and damages from the recent earthquake in Mexico as well.

 

"The footprint of the earthquake in Mexico was available within one hour," says EigenRisk co-founder and president Deepak Badoni.

 

EigenRisk is rooted in Badoni's 20-plus years in insurance. He has worked with insurance companies and large brokerages, and more recently with companies that specialize in computer models for risk management.

 

"We started the company about three years ago when a bunch of us who worked together saw that there's a gap in the industry," Badoni says.

 

Insurance companies need decisions fast, and sophisticated models for pricing already existed, but there was little in the way of technology for real-time monitoring. Badoni says technology has advanced enough that analytics can be gathered within minutes instead of weeks.

 

"Basically, we're a tech company bringing together the best-of-breed models from multiple players, together with data from clients such as risk managers and insurance brokerages, to create actionable insights," he says.

 

EigenPrism gathers information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other sources to track wind speeds during hurricanes, and earthquake data from the United States Geologic Service and other partners to quickly create estimates of damage, loss maps, and alerts.

 

Badoni says it's an exciting time for the company right now, as it's getting national attention.

 

The concept for the platform has been put to the test, and several companies have been early adopters of the technology. Now, Badoni says, it's time to grow.

 

The company's next steps involve looking for funding and ironing out a few details with the technology and with customer and client support for the software, Badoni says.

 

"We will be growing next year, and we want to add more client-facing resources, because so far we've been far more focused on building out the product," he says.

 

Badoni says he expects to scale the company, which now has 17 employees, in a "much bigger way" in the next two to three years.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of EigenRisk.


LLamasoft aims to improve third-world medical supply delivery via drones

Ann Arbor-based LLamasoft has partnered with Zipline, a company whose autonomous drones deliver medical supplies to remote locations, to optimize drone usage in public health supply chain applications.

 

Zipline, which is based in Half Moon Bay, Calif., has already been using drones to deliver medical supplies in Rwanda and is now expanding its services into Tanzania. LLamasoft's Global Impact Team has worked with the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and Medical Stores Department on supply chain projects to optimize the ministry's transportation routes for nearly four years.

 

"We've been helping the ministries of health answer questions like how many warehouses they need, where they need to put them, [and] how to ensure medicines are in stock at health facilities," says Sid Rupani, regional director for LLamasoft IMEA. "We examine transportation routes, the frequencies of deliveries, the capacities of the trucks, and all these other quantitative questions about how to set up the supply chain."

 

Rupani says he began talking to Zipline founders a couple years ago. He thought the time for a partnership was ripe because Zipline already had supply-chain expertise, and because drone technology was becoming more "mature."

 

"It made sense to model how their technology would fit in with supply chain management and improve the availability of medicines, the speed with which those medicines would be provided, and the impact on cost," Rupani says.

 

Zipline and LLamasoft collaborated for over a year, modeling existing operations in Rwanda so they could make the case for expanding their services into Tanzania in terms of benefits and cost.

 

Rupani says nobody is making the case that drones should replace existing transportation methods completely, now or in the future.

 

"So the question becomes what niches do they fit into, and where do they give a compelling advantage?" Rupani says.

 

In Rwanda, the partners found that delivering blood by drone made more sense than driving to the nearest blood bank. Instead of using three or four hours of an employee's time as well as fuel costs for a round-trip ride, a drone could deliver a few pints of blood in 20-30 minutes.

 

Rupani says delivery of vaccines is likely to be another useful application. Instead of sending one truck around each month to deliver vaccines to various health clinics, which may have power outages that spoil temperature-sensitive vaccines, a drone can deliver smaller amounts more frequently.

 

"It's a nice trade-off, because the cost worked out to be about neutral, but with better performance" and less waste, Rupani says.

 

Rupani says he and others at LLamasoft are working on a white paper with another partner with the aim of determining what niches in the supply chain can best be supplied by drones.

 

"We're looking not just at Zipline's technology but all available drone options currently on the market," Rupani says. "We'll be looking at all these different parameters and examining in which cases it would make sense to deliver by drones."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of LLamasoft.


Riverside Arts Center, FLY Children's Art Center aim to create Ypsi arts hub through merger

Two Ypsilanti arts nonprofits are joining forces in an effort to establish a community creative hub for downtown Ypsi.

 

Riverside Arts Center (RAC), located at 76 N. Huron St., and FLY Children's Art Center started working together more closely at the beginning of the summer and legally merged their operations in mid-August. Both of the organizations recently announced their incorporation in emails to supporters, press releases, and announcements on their websites.

 

RAC started as a nonprofit 21 years ago with the goal of establishing an arts center in an old Masonic temple owned by the Ypsi Downtown Development Authority. It has essentially served as a rental facility for local artists over the years but has lacked its own programming.

 

Emily Tuesday, executive director of RAC, says most nonprofits create a mission and then build a space to fit their programming, but RAC was different because it was mostly organized around utilizing an existing physical space. She says RAC wanted to start offering programming and become a central hub for the arts in Ypsi.

 

"We're in a prime location. Our building has many different avenues for creative expression. We're at a point in our growth where we need to have something else to offer the community," Tuesday says.

 

FLY was founded eight years ago as a mobile program aiming to provide opportunities for kids to utilize their creative intuition. It eventually moved into a space a few doors down from RAC and then relocated last year to the Off Center, next door to RAC at 64 N. Huron St.

 

Kim DeBord, former executive director of FLY and current RAC board member, says the incorporation was the result of serendipitous timing because FLY needed a more permanent location while RAC was looking to add programming. She says the merger is also timely for the Ypsi community in general.

 

"I think this community is really ready to have a hub like Riverside be an active participant in the community and ready to support an arts center," DeBord says.

 

RAC and FLY will undergo a rebranding effort led by Eastern Michigan University design students as part of a class project. The effort will focus on creating a new website for RAC and rebranding FLY from FLY Children's Arts Center to FLY Creativity Lab to better reflect its current mission.

 

FLY Creativity Lab will now be based at RAC but its exact location inside the arts center has yet to be determined. FLY also will continue to operate in a mobile capacity so it can bring its programming to other sites throughout the community.

 

"We're trying to bring the same kind of programs that we want for our kids to all the kids, especially as funding in schools gets cut and all these things that are considered 'extra' get cut," DeBord says.

 

RAC is actively looking to hire a full-time program manager to oversee the continuity and expansion of FLY's programming since the arts center has become a larger organization as a result of the incorporation. Another benefit of a larger organization at the center of Ypsi's creative hub is the ability to support more projects led by members of the community.

 

"If someone's going to take a creative initiative — whether they're an independent artist or a collective or a group — we'd like to be a place that people go, 'Well, first we should talk to Riverside,'" DeBord says.

 

RAC has invited about 60 community members to participate in strategic planning sessions for the arts center on Sept. 18, 19, and 27. The sessions will seek to address feedback collected through a survey that was dispersed more widely throughout the community earlier this year. The survey concluded that Ypsi residents want RAC to serve as a hub for the arts, offer programming, and be more relevant in the community.

 

"Ypsi really does have this potential to be our little mini utopia," Tuesday says. "We have a very diverse community. We have people who are supportive of taking risks. We're coming up with ingenious and creative ways to address issues within our community. That's really unique to this city."

 

RAC is holding a fundraiser titled "Fall for Art" on Oct. 14 during which more details on RAC and FLY's future will likely be announced.

 

Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

 

RAC group photo by Emily Tuesday. All other photos by Anastasia Zein.


Funding and mentorship program for startups comes to Ann Arbor SPARK

Kyyba Xcelerator, Bodman PLC, and TiE Detroit are partnering with Ann Arbor SPARK to bring a program for entrepreneurs called Pitch Club to Ann Arbor on Sept. 27.

 

The mentoring and funding program will be the first of 10 monthly events to be held in cities across Michigan, including Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Lansing. The program's aim is to connect entrepreneurial hubs and SmartZones within Michigan and to provide startups with potential funders and mentors as they grow their businesses.

 

Each event will include a pitch session, as well as unique touches including local keynote speakers and partnerships with local entrepreneurial and economic development organizations, including TechTown and Automation Alley. The keynote speaker at the Ann Arbor Pitch Club will be Don Hicks, founder of Ann Arbor software firm LLamasoft.

 

"We're pulling together amazing people to be judges, to invest, and provide guidance," says Michael Melfi, partner with Bodman and Pitch Club host.

 

Startups who want to present at a Pitch Club event complete an online application form, and those applications are then reviewed by a panel of judges. Those chosen to pitch at the monthly events not only get a chance to earn investments ranging from $25,000 to $100,000, but they also automatically get a $2,000 service provider package with resources for startups, one-on-one coaching with a mentor, and a free pass to the TiECon Detroit entrepreneurial conference.

 

Qualifying companies that receive funding from the TiE Detroit Angels may also have a chance to present to a global program for funding startups, the TiE Global Angel Alliance.

 

Melfi says the panel of judges will be looking for products or services that solve a problem for a large audience. The judges want to see pitches that have mass appeal and that are scalable and profitable.

 

"The way I look at the judging is that we're all optimists, looking for what's possible in the pitches we see," Melfi says. "We're looking for individuals or teams who have the right attitude, skills, and knowledge to succeed as entrepreneurs."

 

Startups interested in pitching at one of these events can apply at the Kyyba Xcelerator website.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of Michael Melfi.


Ann Arbor cosmetics company focusing on minority consumers wins $100,000 investment from U-M fund

SAHI Cosmetics, a startup cosmetics company founded by a University of Michigan (U-M) Ross School of Business graduate, has received a $100,000 investment from the Zell Founders Fund.

 

The U-M student-led seed fund has a focus on funding startups founded by Ross students and recent alumni. SAHI Cosmetics founder Sheleen Sahi is finding success quickly, having been named the best business in the Michigan Business Challenge in February 2017. SAHI products focus on Arab, Latina, and Indian consumers.

 

Sahi says it may seem like business growth is coming quickly and easily, but she spent a lot of time and effort setting up a foundation for success.

 

"What you get is what you put in," Sahi says. "One thing that helped me find success was that I worked really hard to get into a school like Ross and take all the right classes to set me up for success."

 

She says taking courses on marketing, strategy, and entrepreneurship is coming in handy now that she's working on making a future for SAHI Cosmetics.

 

Sahi says she thinks her company is attractive to investors in part because many people are moving toward an "inclusive economy."

 

"We look where there are open spaces, where there are folks neglected by certain industries," Sahi says. "Our brand is all about about inclusivity and celebrating diversity. That's a great, positive message that investors can back."

 

Sahi says members of the growing U.S. immigrant community have higher educational degrees, which means higher spending power, and many of those immigrants are used to spending money on custom goods and solutions.

 

"It's about time people start considering the demands for this particular population," she says. "They have the money to pay for it, and are willing to pay for it, so brands should start to consider the implication of including these other folks into their customer base."

 

Sahi says the Founders Fund investment has allowed her to hire a marketing firm and a PR firm to spread the word about her business and bring more customers to the website.

 

She also hopes to put more revenue into research and development and expand the SAHI line with products that complement her target market's complexion. Sahi is expecting to expand her line of blushes and highlighters next.

 

Her strategy is not to get products into department stores or other retail venues, but to connect with customers directly through the SAHI Cosmetics website.

 

"We're building our brand identity with customers," Sahi says. "We are hoping to get many repeat customers coming back to us and create a good connection with customers."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Sheleen Sahi.


Hero Nation comic con aims to boost minority representation in superhero culture

As a kid growing up in Detroit, Jermaine Dickerson would envision himself as a superhero who could fly over his problems and deflect harsh words as if he were bulletproof. Now the Ypsilanti Township resident has morphed into a graphic designer and artist whose superpower is fighting for representation and combating exclusion in Ypsi and beyond.

 

Dickerson founded Hero Nation, a superhero-inspired community movement, in the wake of last year's presidential election. Hero Nation's first major initiative will be a free comic con taking place on Sept. 9 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Parkridge Community Center, 591 Armstrong Dr. in Ypsi.

 

Dickerson says he founded Hero Nation because he was worried about what a Trump presidency would mean for his friends and family who are LGBTQ or people of color, so he felt compelled to do something "to change and impact lives."

 

Hero Nation aims to extend a platform for creative expression to marginalized groups, especially those who are comic book and superhero fans. Dickerson’s goal is to empower and uplift people who might not be able to identify with many of the characters they see on TV and in movies, so they can be their own superheroes. He wants to create safe spaces where people can escape from discrimination, hate, and bigotry.

 

“Let’s start building bridges," Dickerson says. "Let’s also start having important conversations about intersectionality, about representation, about diversity. ... Right now, more than ever, I think we need to have these conversations considering the social, racial, and political climate.”

 

The Hero Nation comic con will offer a variety of programming, video gaming, free food provided by Marco’s Pizza, vendors, a DJ, and more. Given the amount of low-income families on Ypsi's South Side, Dickerson wanted the comic con to be a free event with lots of giveaways for the young attendees. There will be free toys, school supplies, and comic books for kids. Teens who participate in the video game tournament will have the chance to win a PlayStation 4 or a PlayStation 3.

 

Dickerson funded the event through a combination of fundraisers, a crowdfunding campaign, and numerous sponsorships with local businesses and organizations, including DIYpsi, Go! Ice Cream, Vault of Midnight, Graduate Employees' Organization, Digital Inclusion, and Sanctum Sanctorum Comics & Oddities LLC. He also held a toy drive to collect items to give away to kids at the comic con.

 

The comic con will host presentations from various individuals and groups, including young poets from the Detroit-based InsideOut Literary Arts Project. It will also feature guest artists including Arvell Jones, co-creator of Marvel Comics character Misty Knight, and Andre Batts, creator of Detroit-based Urban Style Comics.

 

A panel titled "Wonder Women of Ypsi," moderated by Gillian Ream Gainsley, will feature panelists Yen Azzaro, Dr. Heather Neff, VicToria Harper, and Lynn Malinoff. The panel will highlight the achievements and stories of women who have deeply influenced the community. A closing ceremony will also be held in which an adult will be named "Hero of the Year" and a child will be named "Rising Hero of the Year."

 

Hero Nation plans to continue hosting community events focusing on diversity and inclusion. Dickerson realizes Hero Nation may evolve after seeing what works and what doesn't, and he wants to make sure it adjusts to the community's needs. He wants the comic con to establish a foundation for an event that could be brought to other cities, like Flint or Detroit.

 

“I know that this world is always in need of more heroes, so let’s build a nation of heroes,” he says. “Let’s establish that nation of heroes so that people can know that heroes exist, and it’s not just about people in capes and tights, or with shields and swords, but the hero can be you.”


Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

Photos courtesy of Jermaine Dickerson, except Go! Ice Cream photo by Nick Azzaro.

Ann Arbor picture frame manufacturer employing former prisoners expands business, moves to Saline

Urban Ashes recently announced a move into the former Johnson Controls factory at 135 E. Bennett St., Suite 15, in Saline in order to make room for an expansion into commercial contract furnishing and OEM picture frame manufacturing.

 

Paul Hickman founded the design and fabrication company in Ann Arbor in 2009 as a social enterprise employing former prisoners to make photo frames with reclaimed wood and non-toxic finish.

 

As the company expanded into other markets, including furniture, it became necessary to find a bigger space. Hickman says the company was "under the gun," running out of time on an extension of the lease at its old Ann Arbor location, when he ran across the Johnson Controls building in Saline. The building was in rough shape and hadn't had any updates in more than five years.

 

"We had to look pretty hard at the space to see the potential there, and luckily the landlord was willing to invest some money in replacing the roof and investing in the building," Hickman says. "We saw the raw space as being a really nice partner with what we do, reviving things and bringing things back to life. We weren't out looking for that, but it fit really well."

 

Hickman says the previous location's layout was "chopped up" on different levels, with wood storage and the shop floor on a different level from the offices and showroom. The new space is almost 9,000 square feet, up from about 3,000 at the old location.

 

"We're working on much larger pieces and higher volumes, so we need more equipment and more space," Hickman says.

 

Urban Ashes' move into commercial contract furnishings means the company will be providing custom-made furniture made from reclaimed wood for restaurants, hotels, health care settings, and other retail and commercial uses, including large conference tables for boardrooms.

 

Urban Ashes has already provided all the furniture for J.B.'s Smokehouse in Canton and large tables for the Detroit Foundation Hotel.

 

Hickman says the term "original equipment manufacturing" usually is applied to automotive firms but it is being used more for other industries as well. The expansion into OEM means that Urban Ashes will make picture frames for other companies who will then use the frames with their products and finishings and sell them under their own brands, rather than under the Urban Ashes brand.

 

Urban Ashes will also continue its focus on custom framing for more than 250 framing stores in 44 states, Hickman says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Urban Ashes.


Pitch Ypsi competition returns with $5,000 prize for entrepreneurs

The inaugural Pitch Ypsi $5000 business competition in March drew so much interest that organizers have already launched a second one.

 

Entrepreneurs in Ypsilanti who have an idea for a new business or for growing an existing business can submit a pitch at the Pitch Ypsi website by Sept. 15. Organizers will winnow the field down to the five best entries. Finalists will then pitch their ideas to a panel of judges at a finale event Oct. 26 at the downtown Ypsilanti Farmers Market, 16 S. Washington St.

 

The person or team with the best pitch gets the cash prize along with free legal services from Varnum - Attorneys at Law, which is one of the sponsors of the competition.

 

"We're looking for businesses or even just ideas that will benefit the Ypsilanti area," says Kristin Gapske, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at Washtenaw Community College and member of the Pitch Ypsi organizing committee. The winning concept at the first competition was Grove Studios' proposal for artist rehearsal spaces made of shipping containers.

 

Gapske says the committee wants all competitors to succeed, so organizers will host workshops and pitch practices for the five finalists after they're chosen. Businesses that don't make it to the final five are also provided with resources for establishing or growing a small business.

 

Gapske says organizers learned a number of things from the first competition, so a number of things are different during this second iteration.

 

"We were surprised that 60 people applied, but so pleased. We are prepared for an even bigger applicant pool this year, so we bulked out our committee group to about 10 to 12 people this time," Gapske says.

 

She says committee members are a "big grab bag of people who want to help Ypsilanti grow," pulling from groups that range from small business owners to entrepreneurial support groups to colleges and universities.

 

The first round used a Facebook page to organize the competition, but this time around, there's a slick new website designed by competition sponsor Do:Better.

 

Organizers hope that the popularity of the competition will continue to grow.

 

"We'd like to get to the point where we're holding three of these a year," Gapske says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo by Haiying Gan.

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