Innovation & Job News

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Ann Arbor companies win $100,000 at Accelerate Michigan competition

Three Ann Arbor companies took home a combined $100,000 in prize money last week at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition in Detroit.
 
Digital wellness platform developer JOOL Health was the biggest winner of the three, placing third overall and winning $50,000. Movellus Circuits and Workit Health each won $25,000 awards in the University Research Highlight and People's Choice categories, respectively.
 
This year's semi-finalists for the state's largest business plan competition were narrowed down from nearly 200 applicants across the state and also included Ann Arbor's ContentOro, PreDxion Bio, and ShapeLog.
 
More than $1 million in cash and prizes were awarded in total, including a $500,000 grand prize for SPLT. The Detroit-based mobility company took advantage of intern placement and business incubation resources at Ann Arbor SPARK's Central Innovation Center earlier this year.
 
Movellus' prize money will go toward more protection for the intellectual property behind its semiconductor chip optimization software, which has already netted three major customers and significant interest from Silicon Valley, according to chief operating officer and cofounder Muhammad Faisal.
 
Faisal launched the company three years ago while finishing his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan (U-M). Today, Movellus employs five full-time and four part-time employees in its downtown Ann Arbor office. Faisal credits the U-M networking community with helping get the company to where it is now.
 
In his pitch to the Accelerate panel last week, Faisal said we all benefit and depend on more powerful, less expensive electronics released every couple of years, thanks to regular advances in chip technology. But the physical space on those chips isn't unlimited real estate, and it's running out.
 
"There's a need for software and architectural innovation, and that's exactly what we do," Faisal says.
 
Using Movellus' algorithms, Faisal says developers can produce chips that consume less power, cost less, and get to market faster.
 
A new release is due out from Movellus in early 2017, and there are plans to open a "customer- and investor-facing office" in California in the next six months. Faisal says the company will continue growing the engineering side of its business in Ann Arbor.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Jolly Pumpkin to add new restaurants in Chicago, Dexter

2017 is shaping up to be a big year for Dexter-based Jolly Pumpkin. The popular portfolio of Michigan restaurant-breweries announced last week it will open a new location in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, and partner and CEO Tony Grant says a much smaller farm-to-table restaurant is also coming to Jolly Pumpkin's Dexter brewery.
 
The 5,800-square-foot Chicago restaurant will serve craft beers, distilled spirits, and wines from the Northern United Brewing Company brand, including Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, North Peak Brewing Company, Nomad Cidery, Civilized Spirits, and Bonafide Wines, as well as a full pub menu.
 
Grant calls the new location a "no-brainer" for Jolly Pumpkin, which also has locations in Traverse City, Ann Arbor, and Detroit and is known for its distinct brand of sour, barrel-aged beers. Plans for a Chicago expansion have been in the works since Jolly Pumpkin opened its third location in Detroit's Midtown last year.
 
Grant says getting in front of new customers is key to the brewery's success, and opening shop in a "great Midwestern city" like Chicago provides new opportunity to do so.
 
"The point of direct contact with the beer drinker is just so important for Jolly Pumpkin, because the beer is very different," Grant says. "Being able to interface with who's drinking the beer and talk with them about what they're drinking and what they're experiencing is just really important for us."
 
Also new for Jolly Pumpkin next year will be a farm-to-table restaurant at its Dexter brewery, which currently has a tasting room with snacks, but no dining.
 
The new venture will seat 50 to 70 patrons and will be run by Maggie Long, the longtime chef at Jolly Pumpkin's Ann Arbor location. Long was also recently tapped to help develop the menu for Avalon International Breads' new Hearth and Soul Cafe in Ann Arbor.
 
"It'll be more intimate, like you're sitting in her kitchen environment," Grant says. "It'll be a really neat experience for the guest."
 
Grant hopes the city of Dexter will greenlight the project once a new wastewater system is installed, and the new venture will also open next year.
 
Grant says Jolly Pumpkin's ownership and management team is always looking for new opportunities, especially within Michigan, if and when the timing is right. But he also says they're mindful about not overextending.
 
"We're still very small," he says.
 
Grant credits business partner and brewer Ron Jeffries' dedication and craft with putting the company in its current position.
 
"He makes great beer, [and] he does not sacrifice quality to cut costs or cut corners or get something out the door quickly," Grant says. "He's a perfectionist, and it really shows in the end product."

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

"Escape room" trend reaches Ann Arbor with civic engagement twist

The owners of a new Pittsfield Township "escape room" hope their venture not only entertains visitors but also gets them exploring their own communities after they've puzzled their way out.
 
Guests at Decode Detroit pay for the challenge of being "locked" in a room with the "adolescent artificial intelligence" Minerva, which they must then outwit in order to "escape." Escape rooms have been popular in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago for several years now and have more recently made their way to Detroit. They've caught on for both entertainment and employee team-building purposes.
 
With his parents' help, Patton Doyle founded Decode Detroit earlier this year and opened its first location last month. The 25-year-old Ann Arbor native spent the last several years studying transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That's where he and his roommate developed the technological thriller storyline that drives Decode Detroit.
 
Doyle and his team started scouting locations last spring. Doyle settled on launching in the Detroit area in part because of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan's (RTA) proposed regional transit master plan, which Doyle hopes will yield new job opportunities in his field if voters approve it next week.
 
But as he got familiar with Detroit, he saw another opportunity to help guide people through its disconnected developments.
 
"The goal in the short term was to open this escape room and see if we could make a go of it," Doyle says. "Then we started thinking about how you could use this same sort of puzzle, goal-oriented story, or adventure to do some real good with it."
 
The idea is for players to continue the game after "escaping" by visiting stations around Ann Arbor for a sort of scavenger hunt of additional puzzles that will lead them to the game's final conclusion.
 
Details for this part of the plan are still being worked out, but Doyle envisions partnering with local businesses as a means of cross-promotion. He hopes that approach will benefit all parties and be fun for players as they learn more about their community.
 
Other cities could eventually be included in the scavenger hunt beyond the walls of Decode Detroit. While plans to buy or lease space in Detroit have temporarily stalled, a second Detroit location is still being pursued as well.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Photos courtesy of Decode Detroit.
 

Spanish auto parts supplier to create nearly 200 jobs in Chelsea

Gestamp, an international supplier of metal parts and assemblies for auto manufacturers, will expand its North American operations into Chelsea, investing $68 million and creating 195 new jobs over the next four years.
 
The Madrid, Spain-based company specializes in products for developing lighter, safer, more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles. In Chelsea, Gestamp will build a chassis assembly line, an electronic coat paint line, and a remote laser-welding 3D technology line.
 
The location is Gestamp's fourth in Michigan and its first in Washtenaw County. The company currently has plants in Lapeer and Mason, and offices in Troy. Ann Arbor SPARK helped Gestamp choose Chelsea by providing demographics and economic statistics, as well as information on available incentive programs, says Jennifer Olmstead, senior manager of business development at SPARK.
 
Working with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, city of Chelsea, and Michigan Works, Olmstead says SPARK put together a proposal that convinced the company to locate in Chelsea.
 
"This project is a great example of the power of collaboration," she says.
 
Another determining factor was Gestamp's timeline, which called for operations to begin by early 2018. By purchasing an existing and vacant 190,000-square-foot production facility previously occupied by Jaytec on Sibley Road, Olmstead says the company can "hit the ground running."
 
Renovations on the property will start next year, with hiring to follow in 2018.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Build/Create Studios adds staff, sharpens marketing services

With expanded services and staff to support its clients' digital marketing needs, the team at Ann Arbor's Build/Create Studios feels poised to plant a firmer foothold in the web design and development market.
 
The firm has committed itself to beefing up its digital marketing services this year, introducing automation software from SharpSpring and hiring Matthew Perkins as its first director of marketing. According to cofounder Ian Wilson, the investment is paying off.
 
"It’s been an exciting year … and [it] has added the need for additional marketing help that we’re trying to attract to help solidify future growth," Wilson says.
 
Founded as a two-person operation in 2010 by designer/coder Wilson and business/client manager Eric Lynch, the company has grown to a staff of six. It offers web design, web development, digital marketing, and search engine optimization (SEO) services in the WordPress platform.
 
According to Wilson, SharpSpring's software works along with Build/Create's inbound marketing and SEO efforts to track site visitors, quantify their value, and automate "the lead nurturing process."
 
While other tools like SharpSpring are available — HubSpot and Marketo, to name two — Wilson says SharpSpring offers a few advantages.
 
"First, it is easy to use while also being incredibly robust," he says. "Secondly, the monthly cost is about one quarter the cost of competitors."
 
And SharpSpring is only sold through agencies, which gives Build/Create an additional advantage.
 
"A reasonably priced, competitive product that gives businesses the data they need to make smart sales and marketing decisions is an easy pitch to make," he says.
 
With the new business Perkins has helped generate, Wilson says the company is looking to fill out its marketing team with new hires who can build SharpSpring workflows, execute email marketing campaigns, consult on SEO and paid media, and complement the studio's existing strengths.
 
"Having the development chops to integrate our tracking and marketing automation software into existing website and business processes is a major asset, and something we are very proud of," Wilson says.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Using tech, ÆPEX brings live classical music to new venues

A new program aimed at getting classical music out of the recital hall and into public spaces around Ann Arbor debuts Friday, when ÆPEX Contemporary Performance stages its first live concert with simulcast viewing.
 
ÆPEX executive director Garrett Schumann says the "ÆPEX Access" concerts were conceived as a way to use low-cost technology and "manageable" streaming services, like Facebook Live and Periscope, to give people an "unexpected musical experience" in atypical venues. ÆPEX is dedicated to presenting contemporary classical works in innovative ways.
 
The first ÆPEX Access concert, entitled "Winds/Brass/Piano," will present works by Evan Chambers, Karel Husa, Elliott Carter, and Pierre Boulez at Ann Arbor's First United Methodist Church on Friday at 7:30 p.m. The concert will stream via Facebook Live to a viewing and listening station set up in Ann Arbor's Braun Court, and it will also be viewable online at ÆPEX's Facebook page.
 
"The potential, per se, of getting a drink or an order of fries from Aut Bar and sitting in the courtyard watching the concert is completely unique to this event," Schumann says. "We hope the change of setting and novelty of the presentation leads people into those kind of special experiences with our music."
 
ÆPEX used funds from a recent $1,000 mini-grant from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation to purchase its own projector and screen for Friday's simulcast, and the organization plans to staff the event with a couple of volunteers.
 
The inaugural ÆPEX Access concert follows a string of recent efforts by local arts organizations to bring their work to the public, including the University Musical Society's "Falling Up and Getting Down" live music and skateboarding event at the Ann Arbor Skatepark and the Ann Arbor Art Center's POP-X temporary art exhibit in Liberty Plaza last month.
 
"One of the most meaningful aspects of going to a concert is participating in a communal activity, and we see future broadcasts as another way to organize this communal experience around an ÆPEX performance," Schumann says.
 
But finding the right technology and a reliable process for on-site broadcasting will be the biggest challenge for future events, according to Schumann, as the group looks to expand its programming across Michigan. January's concert at Western Michigan University will be simulcast at Ypsilanti's Cultivate Coffee and Tap House and the Flint Institute of Music.
 
Schumann still expects most of ÆPEX's regular audience to attend at the church in person Friday, but he's curious to see how audiences engage with the Braun Court stream.
 
"We expect the Braun Court broadcast to be a meaningful and unique experience for anyone who should happen upon it, Braun Court's regular patrons on Friday, and anyone who is intrigued by the idea of watching a concert outdoors on a lovely Michigan fall evening," he says.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Photo courtesy of 
ÆPEX Contemporary Performance.
 

New entrepreneurs face off in "kinder, gentler" take on "Shark Tank"

They won't get torn to shreds by Kevin "Mr. Wonderful" O'Leary or Mark Cuban, but that doesn't mean it won't feel like "sink or swim" for local entrepreneurs set to pitch their business ventures at the New Enterprise Forum's (NEF) Pitch Pit: Fall Colors event this Thursday at Ann Arbor SPARK Central.

Modifying the format of the long-running reality TV show "Shark Tank," three contestants will pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges for a $100 cash prize, plus any additional funds donated by audience members that night. NEF, an Ann Arbor-based entrepreneurial services organization, has hosted "Pitch Pit" competitions several times a year since 2013.

Organizer and NEF vice president Stefan Sysko says the event is meant to be a fun way to support entrepreneurs at all levels by giving them a chance to present to a relevant audience and get feedback from experienced judges.

Contestants are usually either referred to the competition or they apply online. Sysko says the main criterion is pretty simple: "An early-stage company with a scalable idea."

"We want to provide a forum in which we can support and encourage entrepreneurs who are at that difficult early stage," he says.

This week's program features three very different companies, including a line of horror/Halloween-themed products meant to encourage STEM-based learning, and a new approach to veterinary wound care.

Judges will include Romy Kochan of Gingras Global, Robb Lippitt of Secret Sauce Capital, and Paul Nucci from Eastern Michigan University's Center for Advancing Social Enterprise.

Sysko says the judges will bring a "kindler, gentler" approach to judging than "Shark Tank"'s panel, as well as years of experience with startups, venture capital, and social entrepreneurship support.

"We look for experienced, knowledgeable folks who can give not only critiques of pitches, but also solid advice and suggestions on improving participants’ pitches and business models," he says.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

German chemical company to expand into Ann Arbor

German chemical company WACKER will expand its U.S. operations into Ann Arbor next year, when it opens a new research and development facility for silicones at the Michigan Innovation Headquarters (MI-HQ) co-work community.

The new R&D labs are scheduled to officially open in the first half of 2017 and will be run by Wacker Chemical Corporation (WCC), WACKER’s longstanding Adrian, Mich.-based subsidiary for North, Central, and South America. Project work will focus on health and medical care applications, coatings and paints, silicone-based softeners and personal care products, and silicone-based product solutions for electronic devices.

With more than 3,000 specialized products, WACKER silicones is a leading silicone manufacturer worldwide. Michigan has been a good home base for the firm's U.S. operations, according to WCC spokesperson William Toth.

"WACKER has had a presence in Adrian serving global and domestic customers since 1969," Toth says. "Since then our site and business has grown, and we have become associated with the local community, which offers a good quality of life and employment resources."

Ann Arbor's proximity to both Adrian and the University of Michigan, as well as its highly skilled talent pool, all played a part in the decision to locate here. WACKER will join over 30 other companies at MI-HQ's 90,000-square-foot West Side space.

The company is looking for team members with expertise in silicone and polymer chemistry. It will staff the Ann Arbor site through new hires as well as from within, although Toth would not indicate how many new positions will be created.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Numerous local startups among 2016 Accelerate Michigan semifinalists

The Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition has announced its 2016 semifinalists, and several Washtenaw County startups are again among the Michigan businesses who will make their pitch for a shot at winning up to $500,000 next month.

The state's largest business plan competition, Accelerate Michigan awards more than $1 million in cash and prizes each year, including a $500,000 grand prize. Narrowed down from nearly 200 applicants across the state in nine sectors, this year's field of 36 Accelerate Michigan semifinalists includes Ann Arbor's ContentOro, JOOL Health, Movellus Circuits, PreDxion Bio, ShapeLog, and Workit Health

Workit co-founder and CEO Lisa McLaughlin knows firsthand how much an Accelerate Michigan win can mean. Her company took home Accelerate's IT sector award last year, and she says the achievement and $25,000 prize were a "pivotal milestone" during a challenging time for the young business.

Since then, McLaughlin says she and her colleagues have made significant progress that they can't wait to share.

"[Michigan Economic Development Corporation]-sponsored programs like Accelerate have been key to our early development process, and we will always be grateful for the deep local support we received," McLaughlin says.

Founded in Oakland, Calif., in 2014, Workit is a digital health program designed to help people overcome addiction. Users receive one-on-one coaching from professional counselors while completing a set of personalized online exercises. Workit is offered as a health benefit for employers to provide to employees and their families for now, but there are plans to eventually make it available directly to the public.

A native Detroiter, McLaughlin moved back to Michigan last year to grow Workit's clinical and business development teams in Ann Arbor, which she describes as one of "few communities where interdisciplinarity is the norm."

"Our core developer is an engineer and neuroscientist [and] most of our team has hybrid degrees in multiple disciplines," she says. " Where else do you find these magic people?"

McLaughlin has spent the last 15 years in recovery herself, which is how she first met Workit's cofounder, Robin McIntosh, in 2009. She has also lost several friends to addiction.

"It started and remains a company driven by our deep commitment to our purpose," she says.

With overdoses on the rise across Michigan, McLaughlin sees Accelerate as an opportunity to not only help grow her company, but also make a difference in her own community.

"It feels great to be out there competing to scale a new channel for the lost and the living," she says.

Accelerate Michigan is operated by the community development financial institution Invest Detroit with support from organizations including the New Economy Initiative, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and Ann Arbor SPARK. The competition finals will take place Nov. 3 at Cobo Center in Detroit.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Australian senior-monitoring tech startup establishes Ann Arbor base

Australian health technology startup Curo Technologies has relocated its home base from Melbourne to Ann Arbor SPARK's Central Innovation Center.

Curo director Steve Hopkins says the strategic decision to move the company's core operations to the United States was based on the size of the domestic market and better positioning for continued international growth.

"All of our tech development going forward will be based here in Ann Arbor for the global operation," he says.

Curo’s wireless sensor technology monitors seniors' daily activities (with their consent and without any cameras, Hopkins says), such as the completion of expected tasks — think opening a bedroom door, refrigerator, or medicine cabinet — whether they are home or away. It can then alert caregivers if the patient deviates from his or her normal routine.

"We're basically a software company that gathers data and then conceptualizes it," Hopkins says.

Hopkins, a Dexter resident, joined the company in January after helping to arrange and oversee its first commercial pilot with his previous employer, Evangelical Homes of Michigan, in fall 2015.

Hopkins brings more than 10 years of healthcare industry experience to Curo from his own private consulting business and previous role as chief operating officer for Evangelical Homes of Michigan.

If things go as planned, Hopkins plans to double Curo's staff of four in the next six months as he hires software developers and a business development support team to work out of the new office.

This year the company is focused on generating massive amounts of data to help identify trends in senior health and wellbeing, and proactive ways that data can be used.

Curo is sold directly to care centers and other businesses for now, and it will likely be at least a year before consumers can start purchasing it directly here in the United States.

Curo continues to maintain a presence in Australia, including six commercial pilots underway there now. It also recently received a $1 million investment from Australian-based health insurance company HCF.

Curo is the second international company to make a "soft landing" at SPARK Central. It joins Germany's iTiZZiMO, which launched its first U.S. office at the nonprofit business incubator's downtown space over the summer.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
 

Ann Arbor human trafficking conference promotes collaboration

"The victims of human trafficking are right in front of our noses, but they're invisible," Peg Talburtt says.

As a member of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force and founding co-chairperson of the Washtenaw Anti-Trafficking Alliance, the Ann Arbor resident has been working to help change that here.

Talburtt and other Washtenaw County representatives joined nearly 200 social service workers, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, victims' advocates, and community activists from across the state last week in Ann Arbor for the Michigan Human Trafficking Commission's first conference on human trafficking.

State Attorney General Bill Schuette and the trafficking commission hosted the one-day conference at Weber's Inn, along with the State Court Administrative Office and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Human trafficking is the second-largest and fastest-growing criminal industry in the world after drug trafficking, according to Schuette's office. The U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 2,515 human trafficking incidents were recorded nationwide between January 2008 and June 2010. Of those incidents, 1,016 involved sexual exploitation of children, 1,218 involved sexual exploitation of adults, and 350 involved labor trafficking.

Ann Arbor was chosen as the conference site for its central location between southeast Michigan and Lansing, according to Schuette's deputy press secretary, Megan Hawthorne.

"The conference was an opportunity for groups who had not been able to collaborate previously to do so," she says.

The conference included first-hand testimony from a trafficking survivor and a keynote presentation by an Ohio judge who oversees a program that helps trafficking victims struggling with drug addiction.

For Talburtt, it was an opportunity to network with representatives from other organizations and share perspectives across regions and sectors.

"We're very lucky as a county to have some unique resources here, but we also can take some lessons from other states," she says.

Among those resources are the University of Michigan (U-M) Law School's Human Trafficking Clinic and the Washtenaw County Human Trafficking Specialty Court.

Elizabeth Campbell, clinical assistant professor at the U-M trafficking clinic, helped develop the specialty court, which opened in Ypsilanti two years ago. The court's goal is to rethink how the legal system handles cases that might be linked to trafficking, such as prostitution arrests.

Campbell gave an overview on human trafficking and also participated in a panel discussion on implementing Michigan's legislative approaches to protecting adult victims. Following the conference, she said she was particularly encouraged by Health and Human Services' participation in the event.

While the trafficking industry is growing quickly, anti-trafficking efforts are doing the same. Since forming a little more than a year ago, the Washtenaw Anti-Trafficking Alliance has grown from three to about a dozen regular attendees at monthly meetings, with about twice as many members on its email list. The volunteer group's current projects include a campaign to increase local visibility for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline and developing protocols for local 211 responders to identify and help potential trafficking victims.

Talburtt notes that while more than 20 new Michigan trafficking laws have taken effect in the past year, there's still a lot of work to do if they're going to help the people they are meant to.

"If you don't have the laws, you don't have anything," she says. "But now we've got to add substance and teeth to the procedures and the protocols for the implementation of those laws, and then for the services that really take those laws down to the people who need protection and who need to be represented fairly in the legal system and also in the health and human services system."

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

 

Henry Ford Health System chooses Ann Arbor-based software to manage clinical trials

Research pharmacists at Detroit's Henry Ford Health System (HFHS) should soon be able to spend more time supporting clinical trials of cutting-edge drugs and less time pushing paper thanks to automation software from Ann Arbor's McCreadie Group.

The research hospital recently chose McCreadie's Vestigo system to manage its Investigational Drug Service (IDS) for clinical trials as it looks to increase its number of active studies over the next few years.

HFHS spokesperson Brenda Craig says an initiative to expand the hospital pharmacy's offerings, and a new cancer center planned to open in 2018, will drive the uptick in clinical trials.

"Vestigo is a necessary tool for that expansion," Craig says. "[It] will increase efficiency through the use of automation for many of the day-to-day activities in our [IDS], including dispensing, drug accountability, and revenue generation."

While Vestigo had all the functionality the hospital was looking for, not having to look very far for it didn't hurt. Craig says McCreadie's close proximity to Henry Ford made it easier to talk about the project and see the system in action.

"We have also collaborated with the McCreadie Group for other systems in the past and have maintained a great working relationship with them," she says.

Launched in 2005, Vestigo is a web-based software designed specifically for hospital pharmacies that do clinical research trials. By providing a standardized workflow, simple user tools, and accurate data collection, Vestigo automates labor-intensive processes and helps keep pharmacies compliant with regulations. And since Vestigo is a web-based application, there's no hardware or software to maintain.

HFHS is McCreadie Group's second Michigan client for Vestigo; the first was the University of Michigan Health System. Vestigo is used by more than 70 clients nationwide.

Michael Schlesselman, McCreadie Group's director of research products, says Vestigo will provide HFHS with flexibility and efficiency as it grows its pharmacy program and involvement with clinical trials.

"It allows the hospital pharmacy to focus on providing great service to the clinical research team and patient rather than manually completing required paperwork," he says.

LLamasoft welcomes Local Orbit as officemate in former Google space

Still settling into its new McKinley Towne Centre digs, Ann Arbor supply chain management firm LLamasoft welcomed a new officemate when local supply-chain startup Local Orbit moved in earlier this month.

Sharing Google's former downtown office space with an up-and-comer helps the veteran firm maintain entrepreneurial roots that are part of its corporate values, according to LLamasoft CEO Don Hicks.

"We welcome the opportunity to work closely with organizations that are offering emerging and disruptive technologies, so that we can innovate and further the field together," Hicks says.

Since launching in 1998, LLamasoft has opened offices on six continents and employs about 400 people worldwide, more than 150 of them in Ann Arbor.

Over the past three years, the company has grown by more than 130 percent. It made the move to 201 S. Division in June, where open and collaborative workspaces left behind by Google were a natural fit for LLamosoft's workplace philosophy.

"The new office allows us ample space to continue to grow our team, especially as LLamasoft expands our technologies and solutions throughout the remainder of 2016 and into 2017," Hicks says.

LLamasoft's software and solutions help large, complex organizations realize savings in cost, service, sustainability, and risk within their supply chain network.

Founded in 2011, Local Orbit's nine-person team offers software and solutions that help food service buyers and suppliers support their supply chains with a focus on locally-sourced and sustainable foods.

"The food and beverage industry is a key area of focus for LLamasoft, and one that, much like retail, is facing a number of changes with the evolution of customer needs," Hicks says. "By working together we expect to discover new ways to approach common challenges and foster innovation."

Upcoming collaborations between the companies include a November workshop on local food economies hosted by Local Orbit at LLamasoft's event space. The event is expected to draw attendees from around the country and will feature a panel discussion including LLamasoft's executive vice president Toby Brzoznowski.

Photo by Doug Coombe.

RetroSense's sight restoration therapy moves forward with Allergan acquisition

Six months after its first clinical trials on human patients, Ann Arbor biotechnology company RetroSense Therapeutics has been purchased by one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.

Earlier this month, Allergan, Plc announced it had bought the startup for $60 million, plus payments to be made as RST-001, RetroSense's lead gene therapy program for sight restoration, meets regulatory and commercial milestones.

Launched in 2009, RetroSense is developing a novel gene therapy to restore vision in patients with retinal degenerative diseases. Using technology licensed from Wayne State University, the company plans to use genes extracted from blue-green algae to regenerate photoreceptors in the human retina.

In 2014, RetroSense received orphan status for Wayne State's technology, which protects RetroSense's rights to research as it works toward commercialization. Clinical trials were launched last spring and should wrap up next year.

RetroSense CEO and founder Sean Ainsworth says the Allergan buyout allows his four-person development team to focus on preparing their technology for the market while remaining in Ann Arbor.

"My role will be much more focused on clinical development than the myriad things a startup CEO is tasked with," he says. "Allergan brings the resources to bear, which will ensure opportunity to develop our programs optimally, and I am excited to continue leading those efforts under the Allergan umbrella."

Ainsworth and his team shopped the business to "all of the major players in ophthalmology" before coming to terms with Dublin-based Allergan.

"Allergan is the world leader in the space and was a great fit for us," he says.

Ainsworth credits RetroSense's success to its team of officers, advisors, and board members, as well as support from nonprofit business incubator Ann Arbor SPARK.

"We had some of the foremost experts within RetroSense, which enabled us to secure the capital needed to develop our programs," he says.

That capital included $250,000 from the Michigan Pre-Seed Fund, which SPARK helped connect the young company with early on.

Ann Arbor startup reveals AI financial assistant

Questions like "When do I get paid next?" and "Can I afford this?" plague most of us daily, but a new artificial intelligence assistant from an Ann Arbor startup puts the answers at mobile users' fingertips.

Tech startup Clinc launched its voice-activated personal finance and banking assistant, Finie – think "financial genie" – last week at the Finovate fall conference in New York.

Built on the foundation of Clinc's open-source artificial intelligence technology, Finie lets users ask conversational questions and learns their behavior to offer personalized financial and banking advice with speech and graphics.

Users can get answers on topics like spending history, account balances, transaction history, income, and nearest bank and ATM locations. They can also carry out tasks like transferring funds between accounts and ordering new checks.

Jason Mars, Clinc's cofounder and a professor at the University of Michigan, says Finie helps achieve Clinc's goal of bringing cutting-edge AI and systems research to people around the world. According to Mars, the assistant also tackles a modern problem of financial identity.

"As our society has moved away from physical currency toward credit cards and digital payments, our ability to know and understand the state of our financial selves has become ever more complex and laborious," Mars says. "Finie eliminates the friction we experience in understanding our financial status."

Mars says Finie works seamlessly with existing mobile apps for banks, financial institutions, and personal finance managers. Since the platform integrates into existing apps, no personal information is stored by Clinc and security is provided by the "parent" app.

"Finie is deployed with the strongest security protocols and adheres to compliance policies of each respective financial institution," Mars says.

Forming financial industry partners is now Clinc's top priority, but Mars hints that more specialized AI assistants could be on the way.

"The core technology that underlies Finie can be applied to other domains," Mars says. "You’ll have to stay tuned."

Photo by Doug Coombe.

 
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