Innovation & Job News

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Akervall Technologies' mouthguard sales spike, staff grows

Akervall Technologies won the advanced materials category at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition earlier this week for the second year running. But that's the least of what the startup is excited about these days.

The Saline-based mouthguard manufacturer has spiked its sales by 60 percent over the last year and it’s on pace for similar growth in 2016. It is also looking at launching a handful of new products to help it grow even more.

"We think we can sustain our growth rate," says Sassa Akervall, CEO of Akervall Technologies. "We are the bottom of the hockey stick and it (the company's growth) is about to take off."

The 6-year-old company’s primary product is the SISU Mouth Guard, which is marketed toward athletes as a stronger alternative that is both lighter and less obstructive that traditional mouth guards. SISU is a popular word in Finland that roughly translates to "determination, strength, resilience." Other products include the SOVA mouth guard which is designed for people who grind their teeth in their sleep.

Akervall Technologies has been based out of Sassa Akervall's basement in Ann Arbor until about a year ago when it took over a light-industrial space in Saline. It now employs a staff of 17 people and a summer intern. It has hired five people over the last year, including research scientists and marketing professionals.

Akervall Technologies made the finals of this year's Accelerate Michigan, the state’s largest business plan competition for startups. Winning the advanced materials category comes with a $25,000 cash prize, which Akervall Technologies plans to use to help purchase production equipment.

"It just sharpens your mind," Akervall says of Accelerate Michigan. "If helps you figure out how other companies think."

Akervall Technologies plans to launch its next-generation version of the SISU Mouth Guard that is stronger than the current version in the first quarter of next year. It is also planning to launch some other products later in the year.

Source: Sassa Akervall, CEO of Akervall Technologies
Writer: Jon Zemke

The Whole Brain Group grows through customer service, added services

The Whole Brain Group has been adding clients by focusing on itself over the last year. The Ann Arbor-based digital marketing agency has moved into a bigger home, beefed up its technical expertise, added staff, and expanded its services. That cleared the way for it to grow its revenue by 20 percent in 2015 and aim for 30 percent growth in 2016.

"We are trying to offer a well-rounded set of services," says Marisa Smith, head brainiac at The Whole Brain Group. "A lot of our clients are growing companies that are looking to scale their growth."

The Whole Brain Group has added a number of new clients, including a RV dealership in upstate New York, Arborlight (an Ann Arbor-based lighting startup), and Great Lakes Scrip out of Grand Rapids. That new work has allowed The Whole Brain Group to add two new jobs, expanding its staff to 14 people. The firm moved to a new office near Briarwood Mall and plans to stay put for the next few years.

"We are going to stay in our same space because there is room to grow," Smith says.

The Whole Brain Group also recently achieved platinum partner status with HubSpot, a digital marketing platform used by businesses around the world. The status is the second to top tier for HubSpot, making The Whole Brain Group only one of two in Michigan to achieve it.

"We have attained a certain level of expertise and a number of clients who use that software," Smith says.

Source: Marisa Smith, head brainiac at The Whole Brain Group
Writer: Jon Zemke

Arborlight shines a light forward as it ramps up revenues

When Michael Forbis thinks about sales he doesn't have to worry about setting sales goals at his startup, Arborlight.

"We have shipped more than $100,000 in product in the last four months," Forbis says. "We have a pipeline of $1.3 million in sales opportunities right now. It just keeps growing every single day."

Arborlight, which spun out of the University of Michigan, makes a LED light that emits a sun-like light. What the company is branding as a "daylight emulation system" can be used in both residential and commercial settings, imitating sunlight in both color, temperature and even exposure based on the weather or time of day.

"Our clients really care about the health and well being of their workers because it impacts their productivity," Forbis says.

The 5-year-old startup has hired six people in production, accounting and marketing, among other fields in the last year to help it meet rising demand for its products.

"We have tripled in (staff) size over the last year," Forbis says.

Arborlight closed on a $1.7 million seed round last spring. It also won the alternative energy category at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition, the state's largest business plan competition for startups. The $25,000 in cash prize for winning will go toward Arborlight's efforts to raise a Series A late next year.

"We have seen a lot of demand for our product," Forbis says. "We want to take advantage of that opportunity."

Arborlight has enjoyed most of its growth with orders from large businesses, including a couple of Fortune 500 companies. It plans to target institutions in the education sector (K-12 schools and universities) in 2016 as it continues to grow.

"We think we can hit $4 million in sales," Forbis says.

Source: Michael Forbis, CEO of Arborlight
Writer: Jon Zemke

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HealPay spikes in revenues and clients, looks to expand

HealPay is locking down clients from a broad variety of industries, and the Ann Arbor-based startup has plans to pursue the biggest ones next year. The tech startup's platform helps bill collectors increase their accounts receiving by enabling users to pay what they owe faster and more efficiently. It started off by helping creditors collect debts owed through its Settlement mobile app. Now it is expanding to a broader range of billing agencies, such as landlords.

"We have widened our scope to include family law firms and bankruptcy attorneys," says Erick Bzovi, CEO of HealPay. "We have expanded more horizontally."

Which has allowed it to spike its revenue and number of clients. HealPay currently does about $10 million in transactions a month, which is double its amount from last year. It is also enjoying a consistent 10 percent bump in transaction per month. That growth has allowed the company to hire two software engineers, expanding its staff to six employees and a couple of independent contractors. HealPay is also looking for an intern.

Bzovi expects those numbers to spike even harder next year. HealPay is currently in talks with municipalities and utilities to handle billing for them as the startup continues to go after larger and larger clients.

"We are slowly getting into new verticals," Bzovi says. "Anybody who does billing would fit."

Source: Erick Bzovi, CEO of HealPay
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ann Arbor startups score big wins at Accelerate Michigan

When Steve Schwartz went up to collect the ceremonial $100,000 check for taking second place at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition last week, he was surprised but not shocked. The CTO of Genomenon didn’t expect to win big, but he knew the Ann Arbor-based startup’s team has a lot of potential when it comes to the fight against cancer.

"We all know someone in our lives who has been impacted by cancer," Schwartz says. "We're all passionate about it."

Genomenon is a life sciences company developing a technology platform focused on personalized medicine with simplified genome interpretation software. The University of Michigan spinout's platform tackles the challenges of analyzing DNA sequencing data, including gathering, organizing and interpreting the results. This is process is called tertiary analysis and typically requires extensive manual review that can be frustratingly inefficient and error-prone. Genomenon’s software accelerates tertiary analysis so it can treat patients and publish findings faster.

The 1-year-old startup’s team of seven has built out the product and has begun introducing it to its first paying customers. A larger product roll-out is planned for next year.

"We are now in the process of raising a seed round," Schwartz says. "This (the Accelerate Michigan win for $100,000) is a nice little bump for our seed round."

Five other Ann Arbor-based startups, all of which receive help from Ann Arbor SPARK, also walked away from Accelerate Michigan with $25,000 in prize money. Those include Akervall Technologies (winning the advanced materials category), Arborlight (alternative energy), FlexDex (medical device), Workit Health (IT), and PicoSpray (Advanced manufacturing).

Accelerate Michigan is Michigan's biggest business plan competition. It awards more than $1 million in prizes each year. Ann Arbor-based startups normally dominate the winners circle each year.

Source: Steve Schwartz, CTO of Genomenon
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Ann Arbor's SkySpecs preps to launch drone technology

SkySpecs is gearing up to launch its drone technology early next year. It's on the brink of raising a significant amount of seed capital and already testing its product with customers.

The Ann Arbor-based startup is developing aerial drone technology that uses artificial intelligence to inspect infrastructure in dangerous locations, such as the blades of wind turbines. It's WingMan platform allows the aircraft to hover near an object without fear of hitting it. Check out a demonstration of the company's WingMan technology here.

"Our first field prototypes are working well," says Danny Ellis, CEO of SkySpecs. "We have customers who are working with them in the field. We’re planning a full roll-out in 2016."

SkySpecs got its start three years ago with aspirations of making drones in the rapidly growing industry. That focus shifted to creating technology that makes sure drones can avoid running into objects they are buzzing around, such as wind turbines or hard-to-reach parts of bridges.

Now SkySpecs has shifted again to offering an end-to-end solution for its customers, equipping drones with its technology so operations are turn-key for its customers. Ellis noticed many of SkySpecs potential customers loved the technology but didn’t know much about drones.

"It was extra work for us," Ellis says. "They would come to us and ask us which drones to buy."

SkySpecs won the grand prize worth $500,000 from last year's Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition and is part of the Techstars accelerator in New York City. It currently has a team of eight people mainly based in Ann Arbor after hiring a couple of engineers and a business development professional over the last year.

The seed capital raise is expected to help SkySpecs grow out its team rapidly next year as it begins to roll out its technology on a national scale. It currently has two enterprise customers but Ellis doesn’t expect that his client list to remain that short for long.

"We have more in the pipeline," Ellis says.

Source: Danny Ellis, CEO of SkySpecs
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Mountain Labs brings big data muscle to healthcare industry

Healthcare is known for its seemingly insurmountable bureaucracies and mountains of data. Mountain Labs wants to simplify that. The Ann Arbor-based startup recently launched a public health surveillance platform called "Symport" that helps hospitals and medical researchers simplify big data and complicated processes. The end goal is to streamline the healthcare system.

"We're tracking clinical data to alert hospital administrators what they are doing that works," says Alex VanDerKolk, president of Mountain Labs. "It also helps clean and classify data sets."

Mountain Labs counts the University of Michigan and Henry Ford health systems as customers, along with a smattering of other research health systems across the Midwest. It raised a $200,000 angel round last year and is in the process of securing more capital.

"We raised another $350,000 on top of the seed round," VanDerKolk says.

The 1-year-old company currently employs a team of eight people. VanDerKolk expects his staff to continue to grow as it targets more health systems as customers.

"We are growing quickly," VanDerKolk says. "I'd like to have a presence in every state in the Midwest by the end of next year."

Source: Alex VanDerKolk, president of Mountain Labs
Writer: Jon Zemke

First electric scooters roll off GenZe's Ann Arbor assembly line

Michigan is famous for putting the world on four wheels in the 20th Century. Now Ann Arbor is making its mark in the world of two wheel vehicles. The first electric scooters are rolling off Ann Arbor-based GenZe production lines this month. Although the first order is just a few scooters, the company expects to hit its production goal of 3,000 scooters by next year.

"We're going to ramp up pretty quickly," says Yesim Erez, head of marketing for GenZe.

GenZe makes an electric scooter and an electric bike. The GenZe 2.0 electric scooter aims to make urban commuting more convenient by combining smart design with new technology. For instance, the scooter can recharge by plugging into a normal outlet but is equipped with a touch pad control center in the handlebars and mobile app so users can monitor power levels and travel plans through GPS. It has enough cargo to carry small loads, like groceries, but is small enough to fit in an elevator. 

?Check out a video on it here.

"They have the built-in capacity for urban commuting," Erez says. "It can satisfy the urban commuters needs throughout the day."

GenZe plans to start retailing its electric scooters for $2,999. It's targeting markets in Portland, San Francisco and Michigan to start, but plans to expand in urban areas across North America over the next couple of years.

GenZe, formerly Mahindra GenZe, opened a tech center in Ann Arbor in 2014. It has since expanded that presence to include a manufacturing facility. It currently employs 36 people, including 10 new hires. The number of staff is expected to increase with sales over the next year.

"We have been hiring as we ramp up production," Erez says. "We plan to continue to build out our staff."

Happy hour startup DrankBank capitalizes on 4 years of growth

Jordan Eckstein, Ian Sabbag and Brian Shepanek were working in digital marketing five years ago when the trio of recently graduated University of Michigan students stumbled upon a business idea: centralizing happy hour specials on the web.

That idea launched DrankBank, an Internet startup that helps people find the best happy hour in their city. It started in Ann Arbor in 2011 and has grown to include major cities across North America from Portland to Chapel Hill. All of these dozens of cities shared one thing in common.

"The happy hour information wasn't available," Sabbag says. "It wasn't easy to find."

Most of the time people go to happy hours at bars they like to frequent or ones friends mention in passing. There wasn't a real option to find new ones outside of that person's regular orbit. DrankBank does that by collecting and centralizing happy hour information for bars and breweries across several major metropolitan areas.

DrankBank has grown about 20-30 percent each year since its launch. The number of visitors has increased each month since its launch. The DrankBank team wants to grow it further by collaborating with some major alcohol brands to expand its reach and sharpen its offerings to users.

Despite all of this growth, DrankBank is still an offshoot of the trio's digital marketing firm, Handprint Digital. The downtown Ann Arbor-based company calls an office in Nickels Arcade above Comet Coffee home. However, Eckstein, Sabbag and Shepanek believe they can turn DrankBank into its own standalone business in the not-too-distant future via its current growth curve.

"We're profitable because we have a low-cost model," Eckstein says. "We want to make it into an viable business in the long run."

Source: Jordan Eckstein and Ian Sabbag, co-founders of DrankBank
Writer: Jon Zemke

Akadeum Life Sciences scores $1M in investment

Akadeum Life Sciences has landed seven figures worth of seed capital thanks to recently announced $1 million seed round for the Ann Arbor-based life sciences startup.

"It will help us build out our team," says Brandon McNaughton, CEO of Akadeum Life Sciences.

The 1-year-old startup spun out of the University of Michigan by developing a platform that helps researchers prepare research and diagnostic samples faster and more efficiently. The buoyancy-activated cell sorting technology uses tiny floating spheres, which Akadeum is describing as "microbubbles," to acquire target cells from biological samples. Check out a video describing it here.

"Our product goes into biological samples, like blood, and pulls out specific cells to improve research diagnostics," McNaughton says. "We do that using microbubbles."

Akadeum Life Sciences raised $150,000 from Michigan eLab, an Ann Arbor-based venture capital firm, last year to kick start development. Michigan eLab led this latest $1 million seed round. Detroit InnovateInvest Michigan, and University of Michigan MINTS also participated in the round. Akadeum Life Sciences plans to raise a Series A next year.

Michigan eLab has pushed Akadeum Life Sciences to adapt lean startup methods, which is not normal practices for life sciences startups. That means Akadeum Life Sciences iteratively built its products to meet the needs of its users, working directly with them to develop products that address their specific problems. The startup is currently selling its technology to pharmaceutical and biotech firms, along with teams from research universities.

Akadeum Life Sciences currently employs four people, but McNaughton expects that number to grow over the next year. The startup plans to build out its sales and business development team as it grows.

Source: Brandon McNaughton, CEO of Akadeum Life Sciences
Writer: Jon Zemke

Saline-based Imetris to launch HR management software

Imetris is expanding beyond its normal IT work to launch a new software platform later this year. The Saline-based company has been working on a human resources management software platform for small businesses. It would track recruiting and hiring efforts, helping companies streamline the process. The first module for it is nearly done and the company is preparing for a launch later this year or early next year.

"We are testing it within the company right now," says Chandru Acharya, president of Imetris. "We will be offering it to a select few customers and take it from there."

He adds that Imetris first became interested in building a HR management software platform after noticing there was a growing demand for it among small- and medium-sized businesses. He also noticed there wasn’t much in the market to satisfy that demand.

"There are not many products our there," Acharya says.

Imetris' core business consists of tech services in IT and data management, specifically managing data storage area devices for large corporations. Its revenue has grown 8 percent over the last year, mostly from work from new clients. That allowed the company to hire 10 people, expanding its staff to 110 people.

Source: Chandru Acharya, president of Imetris
Writer: Jon Zemke

Q LTD transforms contractors to employees to fill out staff

Rounding out a creative team with independent contractors has been a popular strategy for boutique firms trying to find a balance between adapting to a flimsy economic recovery and staffing up for projects.

Q LTD is moving beyond that practice, hiring the last of its 1099 workers to become full-time team members this fall. The digital strategy firm has been growing incrementally for years now and making this last handful of hires was the right move for its growing amount of work.

"For us it's a nice, normal pace of growth," says Christine Golus, managing director of Q LTD. Paul Koch, a creative strategist for Q LTD adds, "Our goal is controlled steady growth."

The downtown Ann Arbor-based firm has hired four people over the last year, including the two former independent contractors. It now has a staff of 14 employees and one intern.

"All of the people are working full-time," Golus says.

And working on a number of projects. Q LTD has helped human resources at the University of Michigan design a new website. It also put together conference programs from the American Dental Association. Currently, Q LTD is working on a website redesign for The Kresge Foundation.

"The work indicates we will need that many more people," Golus says. "It's why we are hiring them on."

Source: Christine Golus, managing director of Q LTD, and Paul Koch, a creative strategist for Q LTD
Writer: Jon Zemke

Library of Congress work helps power re:group's growth

Soon web surfers will be able to go to the website for the Library of Congress and click on the retail catalog for its e-commerce platform. They'll be able look for the work of re:group, but perhaps can't find the products from the downtown Ann Arbor-based firm at first glance? They will be able to take a step back and look at the whole catalog. Then they can can see it.

The 12-year-old digital marketing agency recently created the online retail catalog for the Library of Congress, which should go live later this fall. Its part of a bump in work from some big names, which include Taubman, the global retail development firm based in metro Detroit. The Tilted Kilt, a national restaurant franchisee, also named re:group as its agency of record.

That work has added up to a 5 percent bump in revenues for re:group, which has allowed the company to hire four people in the last year, expanding its staff to 34 employees.

"We'd like to grow 10 percent," says Carey Jernigan, vice president of development for re:group. "It's a little more than we did last year but we don't want to grow too rapidly. We don't want to disrupt the service we are giving our clients."

Much of that growth has come from referrals. It is also coming from re:group's work with franchise businesses. It has steadily grown its business bringing on more and more franchisee clients, like the Tilted Kilt. That is why it's continuing to host a quarterly conference, Franchise Business Update, for franchises in Ann Arbor with the next one happening next week in downtown.

Source: Carey Jernigan, vice president of development for re:group
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Goldman Sachs invests $50M in Ann Arbor's LLamasoft

Goldman, Sachs & Co is placing a big bet on LLamasoft, a downtown Ann Arbor-based startup that has been growing rapidly for years. The New York City-based investment banking firm is sinking $50 million into LLamasoft as part of its Series B in exchange for a minority investment and a seat on LLamasoft's board.  

?Company leadership says it has been meeting with a who's who of private equity firms to further fund its growth and at the end of the day partnering with Goldman Sachs made sense because of the culture fit, the people working the deal, and access to large amounts of capital for future growth.

"We felt the most comfortable with Goldman Sachs in the end," says Toby Brzoznowski, co-founder & executive vice president of LLamasoft.

The 12-year-old company specializes in supply chain software that help optimize logistics for large corporations and organizations. Its customers include multi-national corporations in a large variety of industries, ranging from aerospace to pharmaceuticals.

The $50 million from Goldman Sachs will help fund numerous technology development and growth initiatives, such as investing in supply chains analytics and developing new applications for its customers. All of that is expected to spike LLamasoft's growth in the near term.

"We have averaged 50 percent growth over each of the last five years," Brzoznowski says. "That's revenue growth but you can’t do it without the people. We're adding a good deal of people every month."

LLamasoft has hired 75 people over the last year, expanding its employee base to a little more than 300 people worldwide. Just under 200 of them are based in downtown Ann Arbor, and about 60 percent of its new hires work in Ann Arbor. Brzoznowski is optimistic those number will remain consistent, if not increase in the not-too-distant future.

"We continue to add people at a rapid pace," Brzoznowski says.

Source: Toby Brzoznowski, co-founder & executive vice president of LLamasoft
Writer: Jon Zemke

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Municipal admin services power Carlisle/Wortman Associates growth

Carlisle/Wortman Associates got its start offering civic planning services, such as helping local municipalities figure out zoning issues or plan for community growth. It built a respected brand around that work over the years. Today the Ann Arbor-based firm is increasingly known for more than that.

Carlisle/Wortman Associates is generating more and more of its revenue from offering administrative services for local municipalities. Those typically include running community development departments or building departments. Last year it opened an office in Oakland to help facilitate such work. Today 40 percent of Carlisle/Wortman Associates' staff focuses on providing municipal administrative services, which is up from 30 percent last year.

"It's becoming a much bigger part of the business," says Dick Carlisle, president of Carlisle Wortman Associates.

The firm got its start offering municipal administrative services about 10-15 years ago at the specific request of its customers. The side business started out innocently enough but soon turned into something that needed to be paid attention to.

"The more we did it the more we realized this is something we need to purposely try to do," Carlisle says.

Today Carlisle/Wortman Associates employs a staff of 26 employees and an intern. It has hired two people over the last year, including a building inspector and a landscape architect. Carlisle expects those hires to continue as its municipal administrative service continues to grow.

"I think its highly possible (municipal administrative services could equal half of the firm's work in the near future)," Carlisle says. "That part of the company is growing at a much more rapid rate than our core business. But it's only growing because of our core business."

Source: Dick Carlisle, president of Carlisle Wortman Associates
Writer: Jon Zemke
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