Innovation & Job News

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Akervall Technologies makes Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies


Akervall Technologies started out slow and steady, but a recent growth spurt has landed it a spot on Inc. Magazine's latest Inc. 5000 ranking of the fastest-growing private companies in America.

The Saline-based mouthguard manufacturer came in at No. 1,130 on the 2016 list, released last week, with a three-year growth rate of 342 percent and $2.5 million in revenue for 2015.

Sassa Akervall, CEO of Akervall Technologies, says the ranking helps tell the story of the business and its products.

"Getting recognition this way is beyond fantastic and a great way of getting the word out that we are a company in it for the long run," she says.

Akervall's husband, Jan Akervall, got the idea for the company's flagship product, the SISU mouthguard, while working his day job as an ear, nose, and throat specialist. Unimpressed with the guards used to protect patients' teeth in the operating room, he wanted to find something better and ended up designing his own.

After launching in 2008, the Akervalls kept overhead low early on by operating out of their basement and requiring payment up front from retailers and distributors. Sassa Akervall attributes the company's tremendous growth to a number of factors: recent award wins (including 50 Companies to Watch in Michigan in 2014 and Accelerate Michigan's advanced materials track in 2014 and 2015), creative marketing and sales efforts, and product research and innovations.

"I always say that we grew very slowly and very mindfully," Sassa Akervall says.

The Akervalls permanently relocated their family to Ann Arbor from Sweden in 2004. They fell in love with the area a few years before that, when they had moved here temporarily for Jan's post-doctoral work at the University of Michigan. A job offer in the area helped bring them back, but launching a startup wasn't part of the original plan.

Today Akervall Technologies is run from its own facility in Saline with a staff of 20 and openings for an electrical engineer, accounting assistant, and more production workers. There are also new products on the way, with the first of them launching this fall. Sassa Akervall says the company is planning to expand its facility in the near future to accommodate continuing demand for its product.

Photo by Doug Coombe.

 

Landline Creative Labs receives $56,000 grant from Ann Arbor SPARK

Landline Creative Labs' plan to create a complex of nine low-cost creative studio spaces in Ypsi has received a big hand from Ann Arbor SPARK in the form of an Innovate Ypsi grant.

Mark Maynard, cofounder of the $650,000 mixed-use development in downtown Ypsi, says the $56,000 performance-based grant will help with the costs of getting the project up and running. The Landline team has completed demolition in the former Michigan Bell building the project will occupy, and is now turning towards building out studio spaces.

“It'll help tremendously, and it's really helped us to move quickly,” Maynard says. "Today we have carpenters in the space, a historic window restoration team, plumbers, and electricians."

Expected to open in early fall, Landline will complement the SPARK East Incubator in Ypsi, according to Jennifer Olmstead, a senior business development manager at SPARK who oversees the Innovative Ypsi program.

“In order for downtown Ypsi to be successful, it needs to develop a critical mass of successes and a mix of businesses, retail and residents,” Olmstead says.

SPARK's support for the project isn't necessarily limited to providing funds. SPARK has also helped Landline secure a tax incentive from the city of Ypsilanti. Olmstead says SPARK is committed to helping Landline, and similar efforts in the area, succeed through access to its range of development and talent services.

"The success of Landline Creative and the momentum it is building in Ypsi is an important next step for downtown Ypsi, and certainly a story that Ann Arbor SPARK can use to highlight the types of businesses that can achieve success in Ypsi," she says. "Entrepreneurs at all levels...are looking for communities that provide a sense of place and affordable rents and downtown Ypsi has all of these ingredients."

Photo by Doug Coombe.

German tech company opens first U.S. office at Ann Arbor SPARK

A German tech company specializing in streamlining business apps and digital processes says opening its first U.S. office in Ann Arbor was a simple decision.

iTiZZiMO, creator of a tool called the Simplifier, recently expanded its operations into the United States, setting up shop in Ann Arbor SPARK's business incubator.

"Ann Arbor really is the next hot spot when it comes to high tech," says Anne Prokopp, a spokeswoman for iTiZZiMO. "People are highly educated and talented. In addition, Ann Arbor is a great place to live."

Having a nonprofit business development organization like SPARK as a resource to get started here also helped.

"The mix of great support, family-like attitude and great potential of the Ann Arbor area convinced us," Prokopp says.

So what is the Simplifier? Prokopp describes it as a tool for bringing together the different systems and data a company uses and builds up over time, without having to program code to make them talk to each other, so to speak. She says conventional programming requires hundreds of hard-coded interfaces between those systems that are difficult to change.

"With the Simplifier, you connect all systems to the platform itself, so you can use all data from every source you want," Prokopp says. "This can be systems, but also machine sensors, geodata from mobile devices, and everything else."

Today the company's U.S. presence is modest, with one employee in Ann Arbor and a CIO in Germany charged with establishing the company's operations here. Once settled in, the company hopes to eventually hire more staff – sales and account management to start, and eventually a small team of developers – from the Ann Arbor area.
 

FlexDex lands $5M investment to develop surgical device

FlexDex Surgical has landed $5 million of investment from a Series B round. It plans to use the capital to turn its laparoscopic surgery tool into the go-to instrument for doctors everywhere.

The Brighton-based's principal product is the FlexDex Needle Driver, a minimally invasive surgical instrument that can be used during laparoscopic surgery. The first generation of the product proved it’s effectiveness. The Series B money will be used to develop the second generation iteration of the tool, which will be a more commercially viable product.

"The (first generation) product is used and then disposed of," says Tom Davidson, chairman & CEO of FlexDex. "The second generation device will have have a disposable shaft but the handle, which has all of the mechanicals in it, will be reusable."

FlexDex was developed at the University of Michigan by co-founders Shorya Awtar, Sc.D., James Geiger, MD and Greg Bowles over the last decade. The idea was to make laparoscopic surgery easier for everyone involved.

Laparoscopic Surgery is the minimally invasive approach to abdominal surgery during which the abdomen is inflated with gas to create an operating space. Small incisions are made to accommodate an endoscope for visualization and long narrow surgical instruments. The FlexDex platform technology enables highly intuitive, one-to-one mapping of the surgeons arm and hand motions to the articulating instrument inside the patient’s body.

FlexDex Surgical raised a $2.3 million Series A at the end of 2014. Since then it has built out its staff to a dozen people, oncluding hiring four people in director and engineering positions. It’s looking to hire two more mechanical engineers right now as it works to launch the second generation of the FlexDex Needle Driver.

"Our goal is to be a product development powerhouse," Davidson says. "That's why we're hiring so many engineers."

Source: Tom Davidson, chairman & CEO of FlexDex
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

ShapeLog brings data analytics tech to strength training

Brian Hayden and Nolan Orfield both enjoy lifting weights. However, the two Ann Arborites became frustrated when there wasn’t an option to measure their progress with new technology.

"There is no Fitbit for strength training," Hayden says.

So the friends decided to do something about it and launch their own startup, ShapeLog. The Ann Arbor-based company has designed a technology that utilizes sensors that help bring data analytics to weight rooms, gyms and rehabilitation centers. The device is attached to the strength training equipment and is can measure everything from repetition speed to tension on the weight bar or belt.

"When you pull that information you can see everything about that workout," Hayden says.

The falling price of sensor technology makes this possible for ShapeLog. The technology stays on the equipment so there is one less thing for the user to wear during the workout.

"We're betting people don't want to carry this around," Hayden says. "It should be seamless for the user. ... We don't think people want another gadget. We think people want more information that helps them better understand themselves."

ShapeLog is currently working on creating a class/coaching model for its technology instead of selling it as a consumer product. It’s aiming to launch a pilot program for it in a local gym this fall. The startup has also joined Automation Alley's 7Cs program to help it develop and scale its product and business model.

Source: Brian Hayden, CEO of ShapeLog
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Sweetwaters grows to 7 locations with new cafes in Ann Arbor, Canton

Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea is on the precipice of opening its sixth and seventh cafe this summer, an expansion that will cap its 23rd year of growth in the Ann Arbor area.

Wei and Lisa Bee opened the first Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea coffee shop in 1993 not long after they graduated from the University of Michigan. Since then they have steadily opened more locations on their own and through franchisees. Many times those opportunities sought out the Bees.

"It was something our regular guests were asking us about," Lisa Bee says.

The second Sweetwaters cafe opened in Kerrytown about 10 years ago. It now has cafes open there and in Ypsilanti, on U-M’s campus, and in Plymouth Green Crossings on Ann Arbor’s northeast side. The next two stores are set to open in the Westgate Shopping Center and in Canton by the end of this summer. Each will have the feel of the original Sweetwaters cafe but with its own unique aspects.

"Every one of our Sweetwaters looks a little bit different," Lisa Bee says. "We try to make each location unique to the community."

The Sweetwaters cafe in the Westgate Shopping Center on Ann Arbor's west side is going inside the Ann Arbor District Library branch. There will be a coffee car inside the library but no seating. The library itself will serve as the cafe's seating. It will be Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea's third corporate store and is on target to open by late August or early September. The library cafe is coming about because the Bee family's kids are active members of the local library community.

"We are very familiar with the Ann Arbor District Library," Lisa Bee says. "We love it."

The Sweetwaters in Canton is set to open by the first week of August. That is location is being opened as a franchise. It's located in a small strip mall at 302 N Canton Center Road. The 1,600-square-foot space will be able to hold 50 people.

Source: Lisa Bee, co-founder of Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

InfoReady’s software becomes platform of choice for higher ed

InfoReady got its start five years ago as a tech startup with grand ambitions spinning out of a establish tech firm. Today it’s starting to realize those ambitions as it becomes a household name in its space.

"We now have a national footprint," says Bhushan Kulkarni, CEO of InfoReady. "We also have a 15 percent market share when it comes to higher education."

The Ann Arbor-based company’s software helps clients streamline and digest their information overload. That means they can help everyone from businesses looking to hit milestones to research teams in higher education manage grant applications, internal funding requests, candidate selection, scholarships, and tenure and promotion applications.

Today that platform for higher education, InfoReady Review, is now being used in 100 research departments in universities across 35 states. Its customers include the state university systems in Texas, Indiana and California.

"It's being implemented across the system in California," Kulkarni says.

More than half of its clients have come onboard over the last year. That client base encompasses 50,000 faculty members.

"More importantly we have had 100 percent client retention," Kulkarni says.

That has allowed InfoReady to grow its staff to 25 people, including six hires over the last year. Those new jobs include a chief growth officer and a client services head. Kulkarni expects that growth to continue this year and next, and more importantly he wants to keep the company’s client retention rate at 100 percent.

Source: Bhushan Kulkarni, CEO of InfoReady
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Vanguard grows in newly renovated Whitmore Lake digs

Vanguard is growing its presence in North America by investing in its Whitmore Lake headquarters. The photography-equipment company is in the midst of expanding its product portfolio, hiring more employees, and just finished a renovation of its offices.

"It didn't have the look or feel of what you see online with Vanguard," says Josh Pawlak, director of marketing for Vanguard.

Since 1986, Vanguard has made a name for itself with its high-quality camera accessory products. It got its start with camera tripods and now offers a broad range of photography equipment through its worldwide operations. It currently employs 20 people in Whitmore Lake after hiring five people, including two managers, over the last year.

To help accomodate that growth the company renovated its offices, turning the 5,000 square feet of office space into a more open, collaborative environment. The work, which began in January, wrapped up in April.

"It's definitely a family environment," Pawlak says. "Most of the people who work here have been here for 15-20 years."

Vanguard's products can be purchased in 76 countries around the world. It has steadily clocked more than $15 million in sales in recent years. It has also pumped up its product portfolio by 25 percent, adding a new travel collections that includes freshly designed tripods and photobags.

"They’re designed for the people who love to travel," Pawlak says.

Source: Josh Pawlak, director of marketing for Vanguard
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Strata Oncology lands $12M investment for precision medicine tech

Another Ann Arbor-based startup has landed another large round of venture capital investment. This time it’s Strata Oncology's turn to secure a Series A investment. The $12 million infusion will allow them  to further develop their tumor sequencing technology.

Strata Oncology is currently conducting clinical trials for Strata Trial, which will provide no-cost tumor sequencing for 100,000 cancer patients that will characterize the mutations that caused their cancer. The company will then use that information to offer a portfolio of precision-medicine clinical trials that target a wide range of these mutations, with the goal of maximizing the chances that a patient matches to a trial.

"For most cancer patients in the U.S., tumor sequencing is not standard of care, so patients remain unaware of their eligibility for promising precision medicine clinical trials," says Dan Rhodes, co-founder and CEO of Strata Oncology. "By providing no-cost tumor sequencing for 100,000 cancer patients, Strata intends to be the catalyst, helping patients find the right trials and helping pharma find the right patients."

Strata Oncology aims to dramatically expand late stage cancer patients' access to tumor sequencing and precision medicine trials and to accelerate the approval and availability of breakthrough cancer medicines. The idea is to maximize the patient's chances of survival.

Ann Arbor-based Arboretum Ventures and Baird Capital co-led Strata Oncology's Series A. Ann Arbor-based Michigan eLab also participated in the funding round.

Source: Strata Oncology
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

ContentOro scores 1st clients, $1M-plus in seed capital

Last year ContentOro had an employee, a customer and new marketing platform it was trying to get off the ground. This year, it has a number of clients and more than $1 million in seed capital with an eye on closing a multi-million-dollar Series A.

"A lot happens in a year for a startup," says Bob Chunn, founder & CEO of ContentOro.

The Ann Arbor-based startup sees a big problem in modern marketing: a lack of authoritative content. Its solution is providing marketeers with that authoritative content by making the information in books more easily accessible on the Internet.

Clients and publishers are starting to flock the idea. ContentOro currently has five paying customers and 30 publishers making content available to it. The company's goal was to recruit 20 publishers by the end of the year.

"The publishing community has been very receptive to our business model," Chunn says. "We have gotten a great response from them."

ContentOro has raised $1.5 million in pre-seed capital including a convertible note. The company wants to close on its Series A by October. ContentOro has also hired eight people this year, expanding its team to nine people.

Source: Bob Chunn, founder & CEO of ContentOro
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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