Innovation & Job News

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Locavorious grows business with blueberry pilot at U-M

Locavorious has been all about the fruits and veggies since its inception eight years ago. The Ann Arbor-based company made its name by providing frozen produce subscriptions much like CSA subscriptions. Now its growth is coming from a slightly different space, blueberries.

Locavorious recently wrapped up a pilot program with the University of Michigan Dinning where it supplied 7,000 pounds of locally sourced blueberries to the university. The program kept eight U-M cafeterias in fresh blueberries for weeks.

"It went great," says Rena Basch, owner & operator of Locavorious. "We're going to expand that this coming semester. The blueberries were a natural starting point."

Locavorious, which calls the Washtenaw Food Hub home, freezes produce harvested from local farms and then sells them on a subscription basis so customers can capture local food at its peak freshness. The idea is to minimize carbon footprints by keeping produce shipping from across the company to a minimum, all while keeping more money in the local economy.

Locavorious has sold about 15,000 pounds of food last year. It expect that number to go up as it aims to broaden its sales to large institutions like U-M. Basch expects to hit 10,000 pounds of blueberry sales this year. The company’s team of six people have been making this work, sometimes with the help of a group of disabled adults that helps the firm get through the busy times.

"It has been really great," Basch says. "They do things like label bags or wash dishes."

Source: Rena Basch, owner & operator of Locavorious
Writer: Jon Zemke

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RetroSense Therapeutics launches clinical trials on 1st human patients

RetroSense Therapeutics has taken a big step toward commercializing its gene therapy technology (it helps restore vision) this spring now that it’s begun studying its impact on patients. The Ann Arbor-based life sciences startup has launched the clinical studies for its technology, including testing on its first human subjects. The first and second phase of the clinical study is expected to wrap up within the next year.

"It's a huge milestone for us," says Sean Ainsworth, CEO of RetroSense Therapeutics. "We need the human clinical studies before we can get approval from the FDA."

The 6-year-old startup is developing a novel gene therapy to restore vision in retinal degenerative diseases, using technology licensed from Wayne State University. RetroSense Therapeutics' platform extracts a new gene from blue-green algae that helps make cells more photo sensitive. The company plans to apply this gene to human cells to regenerate photo receptors in the retina.

RetroSense Therapeutics received orphan status for its technology two years ago. Orphan status gives a biopharmaceutical company bureaucratic cover to continue keep pushing forward its commercialization efforts by helping protect its rights to its research.

That has enabled the company's core team of four employees and half a dozen independent contractors to get the company to clinical trails. RetroSense Therapeutics leadership still believes it has a ways to go before it can hit commercialization.

"It's going to take a few years at least," Ainsworth says.

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

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Ann Arbor's Park n Party expands online parking biz across U.S.

Park n Party got its start five years ago helping tailgaters find an easier way to party at Michigan football games, specifically helping them reserve that perfect parking spot online. Today, the Ann Arbor-based company is helping tailgaters across the U.S..

Park n Party has partnered with LAZ Parking to offer its online parking reservation services at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Indy 500 this spring. The company also has brokered partnerships to offer its services in downtown Detroit; Lincoln, Neb; Pasadena, Calif, and South Bend, Ind.

"We're hoping to get into Lansing," says Jason Kapica, co-founder of Park n Party. "We have some contacts there and we hope to get in there this fall."

Park n Party specializes in helping people attending events find and reserve a parking spot online. That way they can avoid driving around a traffic-choked venue looking for a parking spot.

"We make your event day a lot less stressful," Kapica says.

Park n Party started with a few hundred parking spaces near Michigan Stadium. Today it manages about 10,000 spaces in five cities, primarily towns with big college football followings. However, Park n Party doesn’t limit itself to any one sport. Users can utilize Park n Party’s online platform for any sort of game, concert or event.

Usually Park n Party and its team of four people rely on partnerships with parking lot owners near these venues to grow. Its work with these parking companies has allowed it to grow to other markets and create a density of parking offerings there. That's how its current expansion into Indianapolis took place and how the company plans to keep growing the future.

Source: Jason Kapica, co-founder of Park n Party
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Humax Corp launches app to take paying it forward into 21st Century

Wayne and Cheryl Baker have long believed in the concept of paying it forward. The Ann Arbor couple believe in it so deeply they launched Humax Corp, which specializes in creating social capital, more than 20 years ago.

They also created the Reciprocity Ring exercise in 2000, which helped push the practice of paying it forward to a broader scale. Today they are taking their concept into the 21st Century with the Give and Get mobile app.

"We have always wanted to," says Wayne Baker, chief scientist of Humax Corp. "There has always been a need for it. We just needed technology to catch up."

Wayne Baker is a professor of management and organization at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. Cheryl Baker, Humax Corp's CEO, is a research at U-M.

The Reciprocity Ring creates an environment where the practice of paying it forward fulfills personal and professional requests from strangers. So instead of people paying it forward to specific people for specific reasons, the Reciprocity Ring broadens the giving so users pay it forward to strangers because they want to do good. You can check out Wayne Baker's TED Talk about it here.

The Give and Get app takes those good deeds and the requests for them to the digital realm, helping groups people with the ease of using a mobile app. Humax Corp's team of four people (it recently hired two people) launched the app in a private beta in February and is testing it out with pilot groups of 40 to 100 people.

"The app can support much larger groups than that," Wayne Baker says.

The Bakers plan to keep working out bugs of the app and streamline its efficiency this spring and summer. A launch date for a public beta has not been set, but Wayne Baker expects that to happen before the end of this year.

Source: Wayne Baker, chief scientist of Humax Corp
Writer: Jon Zemke

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U-M senior tackles global hunger and overfishing with insect feed

Eric Katz and Viraj Sikand were working at a salmon hatchery on a Native American reservation last year when they came up a business idea that called for making food with fewer fish and more insects.That was the day Kulisha was born.

Katz, a University of Michigan senior studying business, and Sikand, a Brown University senior studying environmental science, became fast friends last summer. Sikand spoke about a small village he visited in Kenya that had a big problem with overfishing. Essentially, the inhabitants were fishing not only for their own food but to also produce animal/fish feed to sell. This put a huge stress on the local aquatic ecosystem.

"We wanted to think of ways to help stop that from happening," says Katz, co-founder of Kulisha.

Kulisha, Swahili for "to feed," is their attempt to do just that. The company is creating a business model where villagers can create the animal and fish food from local insects instead of fish. They came up with the idea to use insects during a hike through a local reservation.

Today they have built out a team of five people and are planning a trip to Kenya to set up their operations this summer. They hope to begin production by July and expect to be on-site through September.

Source: Eric Katz, co-founder of Kulisha
Writer: Jon Zemke

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ProModel grows step by step with Ann Arbor's economy

ProModel is a tech company that risen with Ann Arbor's tech economy over the last decade. The predictive analytics firm opened its Ann Arbor office in 2004 at the behest of the firm's CTO Daniel Hickman, an Ann Arbor resident born and raised in the region.

"I love Ann Arbor," says Daniel Hickman, CTO of ProModel. "In the early days we found it really easy to hire really smart people with all of the universities around here."

Today the company employs 38 people in Ann Arbor out of its 100 total employees. It has hired 38 people alone in the last years and expects to add more.

"We went from one person to three to six to 24," Hickman says. "We have steadily grown."

And the company found room to grow in the mid-2000s. Back then the automotive industry was in a perpetual slump, Pfizer was pulling up stakes from Ann Arbor and the Great Recession was just around the corner. Hiring talented people and finding cost-effective office space was much easier back then. ProModel carved out a home with room to expand on the city's south side.

"It's not true today," Hickman says.

Real estate in downtown Ann Arbor is tight. ProModel is glad it got in early. Today its managing a growing client list with project work ranging from military projects to shipbuilding. Hickman expects that workload will continue to grow and ProModel will be able to take advantage of it because it got a head start when the getting was good.

Source: Daniel Hickman, CTO of ProModel
Writer: Jon Zemke

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U-M Desai Accelerator announces 2016 cohort of startups

The University of Michigan's Desai Accelerator announced its second cohort of startups> A group of six promising young companies were selected from more than the 80 that applied.

The Desai Accelerator is a joint venture between the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business (Zell-Lurie Institute) and the U-M College of Engineering's Center for Entrepreneurship. Last year it welcomed five startups to its 16-week program, its first cohort.

The startups have to spend at least four of the six weeks working in Ann Arbor, leveraging U-M's network. This is what sets Desai apart from other startup accelerators. The U-M Alumni Association has 540,000 living alumni and tens of thousands of students, making it one of the deepest talent pools in the world.

"These are people we tap for mentors, strategic advisors, investors and partners," says Kelly LaPierre, managing director of the Desai Accelerator. She adds that many U-M students could also serve as potential early employees for these startups.

The six startups chosen for the accelerator’s 2016 cohort are:

Ash & Anvil, an affordable, stylish, everyday clothing provider for shorter men co-founded by Venture for America Detroit fellow Steven Mazur and Eric Huang.

"It's not a traditional tech business like most people are doing," LaPierre says. "But what they are doing is truly innovative."

Clash Audio, a neuroscience-based streaming service that uses human curation, neuroscience research and popular music theory to analyze new music and distill millions of songs into a small, optimized database.

Gaudium, a creator of anime-style mobile games; runner-up of 2016 Michigan Business Challenge.

MySwimPro, a social fitness platform for swimmers and triathletes.

Roomations, an online platform and subscription service that provides homeowners easy access to interior design services online, including 3D room designs, shopping lists, style boards and personal design advice, by crowdsourcing freelancer designers.

Sultant, a cloud-based SaaS platform that acts as a digital financial "advisor" for small businesses by providing quick and meaningful insights, actionable recommendations and intuitive visualizations

Source: Kelly LaPierre, managing director of the Desai Accelerator
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Civionics to expand sensor pilot with local manufacturer

It's not uncommon for tech startups to pivot in their focus. Not all survive the decision. Ann Arbor-based Civionics seems to be thriving after such a choice. The company has gone from using its wireless sensor technology to measure the strength of large-scale infrastructure (think bridges) to monitoring the strength of the machines in factories.

"We couldn't find a market pain that was screaming out for our technology," says Gerry Roston, CEO of Civionics, explaining the pivot.

Civionics technology uses a prescriptive diagnostic method to monitor factory machines. The idea is to minimize downtime and wear and tear. It is currently deployed in a factory of a major local manufacturer (Roston declined to say which one) as part of a pilot project. Civionics three person team (it recently hired a new person) has grand ambitions for that pilot project.

"It's the first step in a long roll-out in the factory," Roston says. "The customer is sticking its toe in the water."

Civionics has also been participating in a number of local programs and competitions to grow its profile. Those include Automation Alley's 7Cs program, which helps local firms with manufacturing. Civionics also recently advanced to finals of Global Automotive & Mobility Innovation Challenge.

"Those warm introductions are extremely important," Roston says.

Source: Gerry Roston, CEO of Civionics
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Personal tragedy inspires launch of U-M spin-out, Neurable

Making the world a better place is the kind of warm and fuzzy rhetoric tech entrepreneurs use when launching their new startup.

Ramses Alcaide wants to make the world a better place, too, but his inspiration comes from personal experience.

The University of Michigan PhD candidate is dedicated to developing technologies to assist people with physical disabilities because he witnessed first-hand the challenges of living with such disabilities. In particular, the hardships that faced his favorite uncle. That uncle, also a scientist, suffered an accident that immobilized his legs when Alcaide was a young man. His struggles stuck with the U-M grad student.

"I remember seeing him struggle to relearn how to walk with the archaic technology of the time," Alcaide says. "I thought there has to be a better way. But I had no idea what that was."

Those memories served as the inspiration for Alcaide's post doctorate studies and a new startup called Neurable. The University of Michigan spin-out is developing a non-invasive brain-computer interface that allows for real-time control of software and physical objects, allowing people to control wheelchairs, robots and even a car with no training.

Neurable currently has a working prototype of its technology and is working toward commercializing it next year. The startup aims to raise $500,000 in seed capital to make that happen and more.

"We have much bigger dreams," Alcaide says. "We want to make it into a full-fledged company."

It's off to a good start. Neurable, with the help of U-M's Zell-Lurie Institute, took second place in the Rice Business Plan Competition. That gave it $50,000 in seed capital, as well as up to $280,000 for the competition's OWL Investment Prize.

"I really wanted to bring this technology to the next level so I can help as many people as possible," Alcaide says.

Source: Ramses Alcaide, founder & CEO of Neurable
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Clarity Quest Marketing capitalizes on patience, focus

For more than a decade, Christine Slocumb has been spreading the good word about her clients at Clarity Quest Marketing. And she has learned a thing or two about running a PR firm over that time.

"Don't worry about the first two years," Slocumb says. "The first two years are the most difficult. Also, over 15 years you will have a few years that are lean and mean."

Ann Arbor-based Clarity Quest is celebrating its 15th anniversary this month. The company has 20 employees and an intern between its home base in Ann Arbor and offices in Connecticut and Seattle. Its revenue is up 25 percent last year, and that's on top of a 23 percent increase the year before that. Slocumb wants to hit 30 percent revenue growth this year as her firm's work grows across the U.S.

"We have some of our first clients in Silicon Valley now," Slocumb says. "That's a region I always wanted to tap into."

Slocumb suggest other small companies focus on a handful of things to really grow and establish themselves: patience, perseverance, hard work and finding a niche. Clarity Quest Marketing has sharpened its focus in its later years to concentrate on work in healthcare IT firms. That specialization has really allowed the company to grow in recent years.

"That really paid off for us," Slocumb says.

Source: Christine Slocumb, president of Clarity Quest Marketing
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Michigan venture capital growth outstrips national averages

Venture capital in Michigan has come a long way over the last 15 years, and a new report from the Michigan Venture Capital Association puts some numbers to that growth.

The Ann Arbor-based non-profit released its annual report this week showing growth with some impressive numbers for the venture capital in the Great Lakes State. Michigan enjoyed its best year for venture capital investment in 2015, clocking $328 million. That's up from $224 million the year before (it's third best year) and $246 in 2012, its second best year. Venture capital in Michigan is up 150 percent over the last decade, according to the report.

Michigan-based venture capital firms have $2.2 billion under management, up 47 percent in the last five years and more capital under management than ever before. Michigan venture investors finance nearly every Michigan venture-funded startup. The report concludes that local venture capital has gone from practically non-existent in Michigan 15 years ago to having firmly taken root and growing steadily.

"There are a lot of factors at play at this point," says Maureen Miller Brosnan, executive director of Michigan Venture Capital Association. "Venture capital has firmly established its role in as an economic driver in Michigan."

Ann Arbor is widely seen as the capital for venture capital activity in Michigan thanks to its proximity to the University of Michigan. There is also a large concentration of local VCs headquartered in Ann Arbor and a number of out-of-state VCs with offices in Tree Town.

The report also shows a rise in angel investing in Michigan. There are currently 128 startups in Michigan that have received funding from a locally based angel group, a 42 percent increase in the last five years. Membership in Michigan’s nine angel groups hit 294 investors, a 59 percent increase in the last five years. Michigan’s Grand Angels was listed among the three most active angel groups in the country, and a new angel group in the Upper Pennisula, Innovation Shore Angel Network, launched last year, according to the report.

"Grand Angels has set the pace for growth of the nine angel groups in the state of Michigan," Miller Brosnan says. "There has been tremendous growth there."

Source: Maureen Miller Brosnan, executive director of Michigan Venture Capital Association
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Armune BioScience lands $4M investment, chases another $25M

Armune BioScience closed on a newly expanded Series A worth $4 million last week, and the life sciences firms has its eyes on even bigger things this year.

"We're on hunt for a $25 million Series B round," says David Esposito, president & CEO of Armune BioScience. "We have brought on Mavericks Capital out of Palo Alto to help us land it."

The Kalamazoo-based company, it also has a laboratory in Ann Arbor, is developing an innovative, non-PSA blood test to aid in the early detection of prostate cancer. Apifiny went to market last year with Armune BioScience hope to sell 1,500 tests.

"We have done a little more than 5,000 billable tests," Esposito says. "That exceeded our expectations for the test for our first year on the market."

That growth allowed Armune BioScience to expand its Series A by $1.5 million. It also prompted the company to hire another three people, all of them medical techs, for the Ann Arbor lab. The company now employs 10 salaried employees and another 10 consultants. The new infusion of seed capital is expected to add more staff this year.

"We'll probably go another five people in the laboratory by the end of the year," Esposito says. "Those will probably be medical techs and PhDs."

Source: David Esposito, president & CEO of Armune BioScience
Writer: Jon Zemke

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PreDxion Bio's tech helps tailor treatments to patient's immune system

The team at PreDxion Bio isn't just trying to come up with new technology to help sick people. It's trying to help really really sick people. The University of Michigan’s Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies spinoff is in the early stages of developing a diagnostic device to help create custom diagnosis. The technology is coming from U-M's Pediatric Critical Care Precision Laboratory.

"One of the main thrusts of our lab is to develop new diagnostic tools to treat these really sick patients," says Walker McHugh, co-founder of PreDxion Bio and a biomedical engineering graduate student at the University of Michigan. He is launching the startup with Dr. Timothy Cornell, a physician at U-M, and Caroline Landau, an MBA student at U-M's Ross School of Business.

PreDxion Bio's technology is a patent-pending diagnostic device that gives doctors the information they need to precisely tailor treatments to a specific patient's immune response. The idea is to make precision care more available to people in intensive care.

The team has created a prototype and is currently entering it into a variety of high-profile business plan competitions. It is one of two U-M startups to make it to the Rice Business Plan Competition next week where it will compete for $1 million in prizes.

The company plans to use any winnings from business plan competitions and any seed capital it can raise to develop a next generation version of its technology that will be manufacturing grade. It hopes to then submit it for clinical trials that will eventually lead to FDA approval in 3-5 years. In the meantime PreDxion Bio's team is looking for interested parties to help it get to the next step.

"We're talking with strategic partners," McHugh says.

Source: Walker McHugh and Caroline Landau, co-founders of PreDxion Bio
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Systems in Motion becomes Nexient, doubles Ann Arbor office space, adds staff

Change has been in the air at the Ann Arbor office of Systems in Motion, and it's been a welcome transition. The California-based IT firm rebranded itself to Nexient, doubled its office space in Ann Arbor, and made a score of new hires locally.

"I could see us adding 100 people over the next 2-3 years," says Colin Chapman, chief delivery officer for Nexient. He adds, "I expect it (hiring) will pick up with the pipeline we have right now."

Nexient specializes in application development, information management and testing services. It uses an Agile software development methodology, which makes the creation of software viable through a system of incremental improvements. That system enables it to be cost-competitive with overseas companies, bringing more outsourced jobs back to the U.S. Nexient rebranded itself from Systems in Motion last spring in an effort to help it differentiate itself from other tech firms.

Nexient employs about 250 people in Ann Arbor after hiring 20 people over the last year. That hiring pace is a bit slower than in recent years because the company ran out of room at its offices.

"We were facilities constrained," Chapman says. "Our current building could only seat 230."

It did double its space early this year, taking over the lease in an adjacent space. Nexient went from 35,000 square feet to 75,000 square feet with that move. That should give it enough space to grow at an accelerate pace for the next two years.

"I expect the renovations (of the new space) to finish in the next month," Chapman says.

Source: Colin Chapman, chief delivery officer for Nexient
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Inmatech expects breakout year for its battery tech

Inmatech has some grand ambitions for its battery technology in 2016. The Ann Arbor-based firm is looking to close on a couple of partnerships, bring its platform to market, and hire a lot of people along the way.

The University of Michigan spinout is developing advanced battery technology that greatly improves the performance of super capacitors for electronics. These super capacitors enable the batteries to improve the delivery of energy and increase energy density.

"We would be able to charge and recharge faster," says Les Alexander, CEO of Inmatech. "Our energy density is two-to-three times that of the other super capacitors on the market today."

The Inmatech team of eight people has been working on the technology for five years, mainly out of the University of Michigan's Venture Accelerator in the university's North Campus Research Complex. It made significant strides forward in 2015, hiring six people. The new hires range from technicians to executive leadership, including promoting Alexander from COO to CEO.

Inmatech expects to hire even more this year, a move that it will force it to find its own office space. First it needs to land some investment in order to make the commercialization of its battery technology possible.

However, Inmatech isn't going the traditional venture capital route. It is working to broker joint development agreements with two corporate partners. One would put Inmatech's technology in automotive applications.

"It’s a huge step forward for us," Alexander says. "It puts us on the path toward commercialization."

Inmatech is currently proving its battery technology through prototypes. It is currently at the later end of that process, which has helped the company land on Michigan’s 50 Companies to Watch list.

Source: Les Alexander, CEO of Inmatech
Writer: Jon Zemke

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