Innovation & Job News

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Renaissance Venture Capital Fund CEO named finalist for regional Entrepreneur of the Year award

Chris Rizik, CEO of Ann Arbor's Renaissance Venture Capital Fund, was recently named a finalist for an Entrepreneur of the Year award for the Michigan/Northwest Ohio region by the global accounting and professional services firm EY (formerly Ernst & Young).


Rizik is one of several Ann Arbor-area nominees for the award, along with Jan and Sassa Akervall of Akervall Technologies, Phil Brabbs of Torrent Consulting, and Doug Armstrong of North Star Reach. Award winners for the region will be announced during a June 21 event at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and regional winners can go on to be considered for a national award.


Rizik was nominated by a colleague and then interviewed by a panel of independent judges who were impressed not only by Renaissance's commitment to Michigan but also by the fact that Rizik started his venture capital business in 2008 when the economy in Michigan was at one of its lowest points.


Rizik says the nomination is flattering to him personally. But more importantly, he's glad it will shine a light on what Renaissance is doing to help Michigan's entrepreneurial community. He describes Renaissance as "a fund of funds with a mission."


"We invest in venture funds around the country under the condition that they come get engaged in Michigan," Rizik says.


Rizik came to venture capital with a background as a lawyer. He then started working in venture capital and says he saw a lot of missed opportunities.


"There was this great research coming out of universities in Michigan, a high concentration of engineers, lots of talented people, but we still couldn't seem to shake out of being a middle-of-the-pack state," Rizik says.


He saw too many startups unable to grow due to lack of funding, and great talent and technology leaving the state.


"I thought that leading this new fund that would try to do something innovative was a mission I could really get behind," he says. "I felt from my experience it could work, even though nobody had done it before, and it has been exactly what I hoped."


Rizik says Renaissance's business model is now being replicated in other parts of the country, and Michigan is breaking out of that "middle-of-the-pack" position. Compared to about 10 or 15 years ago, startups today have nearly 10 times as many venture capital firms to seek funding from.


"Every year, we see Michigan becoming more and more important as a national venture capital hub," Rizik says.


Another aspect of Renaissance's mission is to help connect small startups with larger corporate players. Renaissance helps startups get meetings and customer relationships with big companies, and the major companies get exposed to innovation they wouldn't otherwise see, he says.


"I love getting up every day for work and looking at the impact we're having," Rizik says. "Everybody involved is making good money and at the same time really helping Michigan."


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

Photos courtesy of Renaissance Venture Capital Fund.

Barracuda to fill downtown Ann Arbor office with 115 new hires

Barracuda Networks has plans to add staff and completely fill its downtown Ann Arbor office space in its newest wave of expansion.


The information technology security company, based in California with a large office in Ann Arbor, recently announced plans to add 115 new employees here over the next four years, including software engineers, quality assurance and sales staff, and tech support engineers. The company currently employs 226 in Ann Arbor.


Barracuda will be expanding with help from Ann Arbor SPARK and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). SPARK plans to help Barracuda fill those positions via SPARK's jobs portal and through highlighting Barracuda jobs in its weekly newsletter, as well as providing talent scouts to help identify prospective hires. Barracuda also received a $750,000 grant through the Business Development Program, available through the Michigan Strategic Fund in cooperation with the MEDC.


Rod Mathews, senior vice president and general manager of data protection at Barracuda, says downtown Ann Arbor was the "most appealing place" to add new employees, because Barracuda already has a "critical mass of people working on email archiving and cloud solutions." Additionally, Mathews says current employees like the restaurants, shops, and general atmosphere around downtown Ann Arbor.


Mathews says when Barracuda Networks moved into the former Borders Books headquarters on a long-term lease, the company was already planning to grow to fill the available space.


After the 115 new employees are hired, the building will be full. If Barracuda wants to expand again, the company might need to look into moving, but for now the space at 317 Maynard St. is adequate, Mathews says.


Mathews says the company made the expansion because its business is growing overall as more businesses turn to cloud-based solutions such as Office 365 and Microsoft Azure.


"We're in a great position in the market as people transition to the cloud because our solutions are unique in the marketplace," Mathews says.


Mathews says Barracuda is already one of the largest tech employers in Ann Arbor's downtown and the company is committed to staying in the downtown area.


"We worked with the MEDC to identify incentives the state has for hiring people from Michigan," Mathews says. "We really like the state and the educational institutions around the state that we hire people from."

This piece is part of a series highlighting local business growth in the Ann Arbor area. It is supported by Ann Arbor SPARK.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at
Photos courtesy of Barracuda Networks.

Ann Arbor "Woman in Tech" award nominee discusses challenges of being a female tech leader

Two Ann Arbor companies, Warmilu and Workit Health, are finalists for Techweek Detroit's "Woman in Tech" award. Techweek events across the U.S. host "Elite Eight" awards celebrating the top leaders in tech for each community. Both Warmilu and Workit Health are finalists in the "Rising Startups" category for Michigan.


Workit Health is a private, online program for helping users beat addiction, from caffeine to workaholism to gambling addictions. The company was co-founded by Lisa McLaughlin and Robin McIntosh.


Warmilu creates non-electric warming technology intended to reduce deaths from hypothermia. The company's first product, a heating pack created with phase-change materials combined with a thermal buffer that creates safe and long-lasting heat, was designed for premature infants in resource-scarce regions. However, the technology can be used in other applications, including stadium seat warmers.


Warmilu founder and CEO Grace Hsia says dismissive attitudes towards herself and her female-led team actually prompted her decision to manufacture in-house. When she experimented with contracting out manufacturing, Hsia says it was sometimes difficult to convince suppliers that she was the head of Warmilu and that her company should be taken seriously.


"I'd be on a phone call with a supplier, and they'd say things like, 'Okay, little lady,' or call me honey or darling, or they'd even say, 'Let me talk to your CEO,'" she says.


Warmilu finished clinical trials in 2013 and the company was supposed to start filling an order for 1,000 packs in fall 2014. But the week before Thanksgiving, Warmilu's manufacturer said it would not be able to fulfill the order for another six months.


"They hadn't dedicated as many resources to our packs because they weren't convinced we'd succeed as a woman-owned company," Hsia says.


That manufacturer may regret that decision now. After making a small profit on the order of about $5,000 per year starting in 2013, the company is on track to make $300,000 in total sales in 2017.


Hsia says she is in good company with TechWeek's other finalists. Detroit corporate communications technology company Backstitch, cofounded by Stephanie Warzecha, is also nominated for Detroit's "Woman in Tech" award.


"The other female business founders inspire me," Hsia says. "They're pushing boundaries for gender equality and showing that women have the ability, with backgrounds in science, technology, and math, to make a difference and push for a better world. I love the women on this list. They are all people I look up to."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at
Photos courtesy of Grace Hsia.

New Vinology head bartender returns home from Colorado with bartending trends on the brain

Ian Youngs, the new head bartender at Ann Arbor wine bar Vinology, could make you a drink off the menu, but he'd prefer to make something unique.


"Someone might come up to the bar and ask if I can make a Cosmopolitan," Youngs says. "Sure, I can make that, but why don't I make you something strange, something that fits your palate more?"


When creating a custom drink, Youngs says he starts by asking if there's anything the customer hates, and then follows up by asking: "What do you want to dream about tonight?"


Youngs grew up in the Irish Hills just west of Ann Arbor and went to the University of Michigan, where he got serious about food and beverage his junior year.


He left Michigan about two and a half years ago to learn more about his craft in Aspen, Colo., where he soon landed at Hooch, a speakeasy bar with a "darker vibe," Youngs says.


Earlier this year, he moved back to Michigan for personal reasons, to "support family in a time of need."


But if he had to end up anywhere out of necessity, Ann Arbor is "a lovely area" to ply his trade as an expert in wine and cocktails, he says.


Youngs keeps an eye on trends and says Michigan is due to start enjoying the "tiki" vibe and more rum drinks. He says he loves making cocktails with unexpected ingredients, like squid ink for a black cocktail. Youngs says drinks with fire are on the rise as well. But above all, cocktail connoisseurs are becoming interested in unusual liquors and liqueurs from other regions, such as aquavit, a caraway-flavored Scandinavian spirit, or arrack, a south Asian spirit made from the sap of coconut flowers, sugarcane, grain, or fruit.


Youngs shares the credit for Vinology's dynamic cocktail menu with bartender Mark Long.


"We rock this bar out together," Youngs says. "He's a fantastic bartender."


Youngs says he never wants to be a dictator when it comes to creating a drinks menu and running a bar.


"It's not because I'm not able to, but it's my personal philosophy to split the ideas among everyone," Youngs says. "Everyone has a story to tell through their own drinks."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at
Images courtesy of Vinology.

Ann Arbor's Motawi Tileworks and Menlo Innovations named to Forbes' top 25 small companies list

Ann Arbor companies Motawi Tileworks and Menlo Innovations have made Forbes magazine's second annual list of 25 "small giants," featuring outstanding small, privately-owned companies across the U.S.


The Forbes article says it recognizes companies that have "sound models, strong balance sheets, and steady profits." The companies on the list are noted by others in the field as being outstanding, and all give back to their communities in some way.


Menlo Innovations, founded in 2001 by CEO Richard Sheridan and COO James Goebel, is an Ann Arbor-based company that produces custom software. The company was named after Thomas Edison's "invention factory" at Menlo Park in New Jersey and was featured by Forbes for being an innovative model for other companies.


The Forbes article noted that Menlo is so well-respected in its field that people pay to tour Menlo's office and executives pay a premium to spend time there observing the company's business model.


Nawal Motawi, founder of Motawi Tileworks, says she didn't know her company was named to the list until she got the new issue of Forbes in the mail.


"This means more to me than any other business reward I've received," Motawi says. "I'm blown away being in the same list as some of the other companies on the list that I study and revere."


Motawi started her tile business in Ann Arbor 25 years ago, confident in her art but humble about her knowledge of the business end. Art school actually discourages people from changing any of their work just to make a profit, she says.


"In art school, selling art for money is a bad thing," Motawi says. "I knew I didn't know anything about business, and I was very open-minded at the beginning. I sought out what resources were available, like the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, and I read Inc. magazine."


Over time, Motawi grew her business, but profit margins remained low. She made the tough decision to continue selling art tiles at galleries around the country but to pull installation tiles out of showrooms and allow the wholesale side of the business to die off.


"The margins were terrible," she says. "It was fun to be in big trade shows, but the more I studied it, the more I felt it was not making sense."


It was a controversial decision that caused a split between Motawi and her business partner. But several years later, profit margins at Motawi are much better, closer to 10 percent than 2-4 percent.


Motawi says being part of the "Small Giants" club is not just about being small at all costs but about being "human-scaled."


"It's a different attitude than the carrot-and-stick hierarchy in most businesses," she says. "Ordering people around isn't much fun. I rely on my employees to make decisions and give them the information and tools to do that."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at
Photos courtesy of Motawi Tileworks.

Cultivate to host 10-week "Sundays in the Garden" concert series

Cultivate Coffee and Tap House in Ypsilanti holds "craft, community, and cause" as its three core values, and all three will go into its new weekly "Sundays in the Garden" summer music series.


Every Sunday from June 11 to Aug. 20, with a week off July 2, Cultivate will host a free concert in its outdoor beer garden from 6-8 p.m. Featured artists will include local favorites ranging from Chris Dupont to Planet D Nonet. The series echoes summerlong event series like Sonic Lunch or the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, which have both become local entertainment institutions.


Bekah Wallace, director of community and connection for Cultivate, says the seeds for the series were planted several years ago, when her daughter was a year old. She spent a lot of time looking for cool, free things she and her family could do locally.


"I noticed that live music events were a good way to find out what's going on in the community, get connected, meet people, and give back," she says.


After opening the beer garden last summer, Cultivate brought in musicians on an irregular basis, but Wallace felt that a bigger, more regular series was in order.


Each Sunday will feature a local musician, a local charitable cause, and a Michigan beer on tap. A rep from each community nonprofit will speak onstage about the organization's mission, and each will have a table where patrons can learn about volunteering, food or fund drives, and other ways to help. Cultivate will also donate $1 from the purchase price of each beer from the featured brewer to the featured charity.


Wallace says Cultivate's mission is to eradicate hunger by 2030, and many of the nonprofits chosen for the series contribute to that effort either directly or indirectly.


"We are working on how we can strengthen our community and address hunger at a root level," Wallace says.


Featured nonprofits will be Ypsi Meals on Wheels, Michigan Ability Partners, The Agrarian Adventure, SOS Community Services, Dawn Farm, Hope Clinic, Washtenaw ID/WICIR, Ozone House, Growing Hope, and Food Gatherers.


Featured breweries will include HOMES Brewery, Transient Ales, and Bell's Brewery.


"We wanted to feature cool, upcoming breweries but also other breweries that are Michigan favorites," Wallace says.


Wallace says Ypsi already has lots to be proud of, and the series is supposed to be a celebration of "the good things going on and the community organizations we love."


Concerts will be held rain or shine, unless there is a severe weather warning. A tarp system will shield musicians and their instruments in case of light rain, but audience members will "have to be up for the adventure" if it rains, Wallace says.


More information and updates about rain delays or cancellations will be available on Cultivate's Facebook page. A full lineup of bands and beers is available at Cultivate's website.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at
Photos courtesy of Cultivate Coffee and Tap House.

Ann Arbor tech company TrueJob aims to eliminate online job-hunt headaches

Anybody who's been frustrated trying to use a clunky job-search website will appreciate the mission of TrueJob, an Ann Arbor-based company that has built a different kind of site to match employers with new employees.


Founder Scott Goci graduated from the University of Michigan in 2009, and says the combination of a tough economy and his impractical psychology degree led to difficulty finding a job. Job-seeking websites that hadn't changed much in 20 years didn't help the process.


"I tried Indeed and and a bunch of other sites, and they were all bad," Goci says. "An article at the time from TechCrunch noted that job websites were bad, and that was written in 2009. Even today, job sites haven't evolved in a long time."


Goci says a typical job-search site asks for information that doesn't actually help pinpoint the best job matches.


"They focus on locations and job titles, but that was not how I was searching for jobs, and I wanted to find something better," he says.


Goci wanted to create a job-search site that was based on analytics. It would give feedback to job seekers on how they could improve their chances and give information to companies about how potential employees conduct their career searches.


Goci spent a few years learning coding and systems administration and getting some startups off the ground before he felt ready to build a better job-search website. He met co-founder Mike Kling through the Ann Arbor Coffee House Coders meetup group and brought him on board to create TrueJob in 2015.


Goci compares the job site's technology to internet radio station Pandora. Like Pandora, Netflix, or other sites that tailor recommendations based on user feedback, TrueJob mines a user's profile and resume to suggest matches. It then allows users to give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down to job matches, and the program uses that information to tailor better job recommendations for users.


TrueJob's most recent public success was partnering with Ann Arbor SPARK to revamp SPARK's free job portal.


Goci says that beyond helping job seekers figure out how to improve their resumes and applications and providing data to employers, TrueJob can provide analytics to economic development organizations like SPARK to help them spot employment trends in their area.


"Economic development organizations need to provide analytics to show their value to the communities they operate in," Goci says. He says SPARK staff noticed that their job portal got plenty of traffic, but not necessarily participation and engagement, and they wanted to know why.


"It was mostly a filtering problem," Goci says. "If users can start 'liking' jobs and getting better job recommendations, there will be more engagement. SPARK really wants to use these analytics to provide insight into how job seekers find jobs, how employers find employees, and a lot of other things it couldn't track before."


Goci says the technology is applicable to other areas such as industry associations.


"Say you have an airline with a union and they have a job board. They might want to see how membership in the union impacts how people are hired," he says.


Goci says that in the future he'd like to focus on working with other economic development organizations, from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to TechTown to entities outside Michigan's borders.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at
Mike Kling and Scott Goci photo courtesy of Scott Goci.

Ann Arbor's GDI Infotech celebrates 25 years in business

After two economic downturns, a major shift in corporate focus, and the spinoff of a successful second company, GDI Infotech will celebrate 25 years of growth in Ann Arbor this year.


Founder Bhushan Kulkarni grew up in India and moved to the United States to study engineering. After an internship at Ford Motor Co., Kulkarni moved to Ann Arbor and started two other companies before launching GDI Infotech (originally Global Dynamics Inc.) as an engineering consulting firm in 1993.


The company was thriving and adding employees, but the internet started changing the way companies managed data and promoted collaborative workflow, so GDI Infotech's emphasis shifted to software and information technology.


"But we never really left our engineering core, and now things have come full circle, and we're working on things like mobility and autonomous vehicles," Kulkarni says. "In the future, I think a lot of growth for GDI will come from skills associated with both IT software and engineering and advances happening around us in intelligent mobility."


While focusing on creating workflow automation and collaborative platforms at GDI, Kulkarni saw an opportunity to spin off a separate company, InfoReady, in 2010. Kulkarni says InfoReady grew out of observing several GDI customers' struggles with information overload. They needed to find information, act on it, and track actions to get results.


Kulkarni created a matchmaking algorithm platform at GDI and started applying it to different problems for a variety of clients, first helping universities match with appropriate grants.


"It just so happened that we had the University of Michigan in our backyard looking for ways to fast-track their grant cycle, attracting more grant revenue, and getting through the process of deciding what grants to apply to rapidly," Kulkarni says. "I thought if this 800-pound gorilla in Michigan has this need, how is the whole sector doing?"


InfoReady's second project was InfoReady Thrive, a platform that helps match college students with internships, fellowships, study-abroad programs, and other extracurricular learning opportunities.


Kulkarni's current focus is on running InfoReady, and he has left day-to-day operations of GDI Infotech to his "two lieutenants," his wife and business partner Swatee Kulkarni and technology solutions expert Madhuri Deshpande.


Kulkarni says he has learned many lessons through the ups and downs his companies have experienced.


"First there was the dot-com bubble bursting – that was just crazy," he says. "I think we were better prepared for our latest economic downturn, but it still hit us to some extent. But other than those two major downturns, we've been steadily growing 15 to 20 percent every year on average."


Kulkarni attributes his companies' successes to the "ecosystem of people" around him, saying he likes to surround himself with smart people who know more than he does.


"Living in this community is a great opportunity to connect with many folks that are passionate about the community, from Ann Arbor SPARK to the Ann Arbor Chamber," he says. "I meet a lot of great people who become my role models, and I've learned quite a bit from them."

This piece is part of a series highlighting local business growth in the Ann Arbor area. It is supported by Ann Arbor SPARK.

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

Photos courtesy of Bhushan Kulkarni.

Three Ann Arbor firms named in "50 Michigan Companies to Watch" list

Ann Arbor's J Keller Properties, McCreadie Group, and Torrent Consulting were among the "50 Michigan Companies to Watch" honored during the 13th annual Michigan Celebrates Small Business (MCSB) awards gala May 4 in Lansing.


Jennifer Deamud, executive director of MCSB and associate state director of the Michigan Small Business Development Center, says the awards ceremony is intended to be the Academy Awards for small business in Michigan.


MCSB launches a call for nominations in fall each year, and companies can nominate themselves or have their name put forth by a community member. Nominated companies are notified and encouraged to complete an awards application.


Winners must have between six and 99 employees and between $750,000 and $50 million in sales the year they apply. Applicants must show a history of sales and employee growth over the previous five years, and explain how they plan to grow their companies in the next few years.

"We're looking for a justification for why they are on a growth path," Deamud says. "Are they diversifying their product and service line? Are they expanding to new markets? Are they leveraging technology to streamline their processes? We also look at how the company engages with community and their employees, and at their workplace culture."


Representatives of Michigan entrepreneurial service organizations choose the winners in a two-round judging process. Deamud says MCSB tries to compile a diverse set of winners every year, and that shows in the recipients from Ann Arbor.


J Keller Properties is a property management group, McCreadie Group develops software for pharmacy schools and healthcare providers, and Torrent Consulting helps businesses figure out how to best use cloud computing and mobile technologies to serve customers.


Deamud says many people expect tech companies to dominate these types of awards, but that isn't the reality.


"As you see in Ann Arbor and in all 50 honorees, there is a nice diversity of industries represented," she says. "It goes to show that we're not looking for manufacturing or other specific industries, but just companies that are on a growth path. With just over 400 nominations this year, that shows that companies here in Michigan are on a growth path."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at
Torrent Consulting and McCreadie Group photos courtesy of Michigan Celebrates Small Business. J Keller photo courtesy of J Keller Properties.

See which companies were recognized for up to a decade of 20% annual growth at FastTrack Awards

Ann Arbor SPARK has presented its annual FastTrack Awards to 18 area companies showing above-average growth, including software company Llamasoft, which has now received the award for 10 years in a row.


FastTrack Awards go to Washtenaw County companies that had certified revenue of at least $100,000 in one year followed by annual growth of 20 percent for the following three years.


Because the awards used to be part of a larger business event ("Deals of the Year") that has been discontinued, SPARK named 2016 and 2017 award winners at this year’s ceremony during SPARK's recent annual meeting.


SPARK president and CEO Paul Krutko says that while many of the awards went to high-tech companies, the winners span a variety of sectors, including real estate and property management, business consulting, and manufacturing.


"SPARK is oriented to a mission of supporting companies that are tech-based, particularly early-stage technologies, but our mandate from local government funders is that we also do traditional economic development with existing companies," Krutko says.


He adds that helping all kinds of businesses is important for growing the larger economy and making the region attractive in terms of personal and family life so that companies will want to locate here.


Krutko says Llamasoft's 10-year track record of success goes beyond revenue growth to include job growth, helping to concentrate IT talent in downtown Ann Arbor, and adding to the city’s tax base.


Other companies came close to matching Llamasoft's FastTrack winning streak. Ann Arbor’s Caelynx and Online Tech marked their ninth and eighth winning years, respectively. Krutko says Online Tech’s growth is due to the company's important role in supporting other tech companies with cloud servers, data management, disaster recovery, and offsite backup.


"Their growth is reflective of the larger growing economy here, the need for this kind of service," Krutko says. "Because they are approaching it in a way that is best in class, they have gained a lot of customers and market share."


Krutko says the companies that win these awards all have exemplary corporate culture, but their growth also shows that the Ann Arbor area is "a good environment for a company to thrive in."


"The fact that they can have this kind of growth in Ann Arbor means that the resources they need to be successful are available to them and they can maximize those resources," he says.


The complete list of FastTrack winners follows:


10-year award winner:



Nine-year award winner:



Eight-year award winner:

Online Tech


Five-year award winners:

Menlo Innovations

Oxford Property Management


Four-year award winners:

Human Element

InfoReady Corporation

McCreadie Group


Three-year award winner:

CEI Composite Materials


Two-year award winners:

Arbor Assays


J Keller Properties

Torrent Consulting


One-year award winners:

Ability to Engage, Inc.

Akervall Technologies, Inc.

DNA Software, Inc.

H3D, Inc.

UIS Holding


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

Photos by Doug Coombe.

Zingerman's Creamery cofounder to open cheese shop in Saline

John Loomis grew up thinking Velveeta and canned brie were the last word in cheese, but he's come a long way in his career as a professional cheese-maker. After 30 years of making cheese, including co-founding Zingerman's Creamery in Ann Arbor, Loomis and his wife Ruth will open their own cheese shop in Saline this summer.


Loomis recently signed a lease for the building at 98 N. Ann Arbor St. in Saline, formerly the home of Oxygen Plus. He hopes to be open for business in late June or early July.


The Cheese Shop of Saline will offer a variety of cheeses, along with accompaniments like cured meats, olive oil, bread, wine, and craft beer. Loomis also plans to offer cheese tasting classes and cheese-making workshops.


Loomis' connection to dairy goes back to his childhood. He grew up working jobs in Detroit's dairy industry but later moved away to Chicago to pursue work in theater and advertising.


"I celebrated the fact that I would never set foot in a dairy again," Loomis laughs.


After spending several years in Chicago, Loomis moved back to Michigan. He was living in Oakland County when his brother called him and asked if he was interested in starting up a creamery to produce artisanal cheeses.


"I thought it was a stupid idea," Loomis says. But his brother persisted, explaining how different small-scale artisan cheese-making is from the huge dairy plants Loomis had worked in as a youth.


Loomis and his brother went to Zingerman's in Ann Arbor to learn more about the world of cheese, and Loomis ended up sampling cheeses he'd "had no idea existed."


Loomis spent time visiting artisan cheese-makers around the U.S. but wasn't impressed. He went through a list of European cheese-makers, asking to be taken on as an apprentice, but most of them thought he was crazy.


Loomis lucked out when a crusty Englishman making cheese in Wales agreed to a two-week visit. Then those two weeks ended up turning into two years.


When he came back to the U.S., Loomis began a small raw milk cheese business, and Zingerman's was his biggest customer. After a few years, he, along with Zingerman's co-founders Ari Weinzweig Paul Saginaw, established Zingerman's Creamery, which became immediately popular with Ann Arbor-area residents.


Loomis says he learned a great deal about giving spectacular customer service through his time with Zingerman's, but ironically the creamery's success meant that Loomis was drawn away from the part of the business he liked the most: spreading the good word of good cheese.


Opening up his cheese shop in Saline will allow him to interact more closely with customers and work with his wife, he says.


One of his biggest goals for the cheese shop is to make sure nobody goes home with a cheese they don't like.


"I want to make sure everybody tastes before they buy," he says.


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


John and Ruth Loomis photo courtesy of the Loomis family.


98 N. Ann Arbor St. photo courtesy of Swisher Commercial.


Online Tech expands Midwestern reach with Kansas City acquisition

Online Tech, an Ann Arbor company providing cloud, backup, and disaster recovery services to a variety of clients, is reaching into new markets and diversifying its data centers with the April 19 acquisition of Kansas City, Mo.-based Echo Cloud.


The Ann Arbor company began talks about an acquisition in January but needed several weeks to walk Echo Cloud’s clients through the transition. Online Tech CEO Yan Ness says making the acquisition a seamless process for Echo Cloud’s clients was important.


Ness says the acquisition made sense for both sides for a number of reasons. Ness says the main advantage for Online Tech is that it gets access to a new market in the Kansas City area, as well as Echo Cloud's "robust" data management product.


The advantage for former Echo Cloud customers is that Online Tech has a much broader range of products to offer Kansas City clients, including data hosting that is compliant with health care and credit industry standards of security. Echo Cloud’s existing clients will now be able to access their accounts through Online Tech’s portal.


With the addition of Echo Cloud’s two Kansas City-area data centers, Online Tech now has seven data centers spread across Missouri, Indiana, and Michigan, and that geographical diversity is another big advantage.


"When you’re doing disaster recovery, companies want some distance between centers, so they’ll be on two different power systems and experiencing two different weather systems," Ness says.


Companies can store their data on one system in one of the company’s Great Lakes data centers and have a secondary system in Kansas City, or vice versa.


"When they’re located a good chunk of miles away from each other, there’s confidence that you can handle a lot of different kinds of disasters," Ness says.

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

HOMES brewery opens, spotlighting sour beers and Asian street food

After multiple delays due to red tape and building renovations, HOMES Brewery will finally open for business on Ann Arbor's west side at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, April 19.


"It’s pretty common for breweries to run into normal building code issues, plus we had to deal with licensing because we’re producing alcohol," says head brewer Nick Panchame.


The HOMES building at 2321 Jackson Ave. formerly housed the Culligan water company and a skate shop. Panchame, HOMES owner Tommy Kennedy, and a crew of workers have been renovating the space for just over a year.


Before deciding to start a brewery, Kennedy ran a home health care company with his brother. After coming up with the concept for HOMES (a popular mnemonic device for remembering the names of the five Great Lakes), Kennedy connected with Panchame through a brewing industry website. Sensing a great opportunity, Panchame moved to the Ann Arbor area to brew for HOMES.


Unlike Kennedy, who has switched careers, Panchame has always been interested in food and drink. He went to culinary school and interned at a brewery in New Jersey, served as assistant brewer at a brewpub in Manhattan, and then served as head brewer at Right Brain Brewery in Traverse City before coming to Ann Arbor.


HOMES is Ann Arbor's ninth brewery. Kennedy and Panchame plan to set themselves apart from the rest through a strong emphasis on community building as well as a focus on unique beers and unusual bar food.


For the food menu, the brewery has partnered with Noe Hang, head chef of Ann Arbor’s No Thai! Restaurant.


"Most breweries feature burgers, pub food, or pizza, but we’ll have an Asian street food menu," Panchame says.


Panchame believes his culinary background gives him an advantage when it comes to designing beer recipes. He plans to offer 10 different beers to start with, expanding taps as business picks up. HOMES will offer a variety of beers including a stout and a session ale, but the brewery will focus on sour beers and hoppy beers, he says.


"The barrel-aged sours take one to two years to be ready, so we have nothing like that on tap right now, but kettle sour beers are a much faster process, so we’ll have some of that on tap," he says. "They are tart, easy-drinking beers."


The community aspect of the brewery’s mission is already taking shape.


"We wanted to build this business to be a meeting place for people, where they can plan small charity events or start a dart league night," Panchame says. "We already have a road bike team that plans to meet here weekly."


Brewery hours are 4 p.m.-midnight Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. The brewery is closed on Mondays.

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

All images courtesy of HOMES Brewery.

Quantum Signal seeks test subjects for USDOT-funded driver education simulator

Drivers fresh out of training understand the mechanics of navigating in an automobile but don’t have the real-world experience that helps seasoned motorists avoid hazards. That’s where a new driving simulator called LookOut, developed by Saline-based Quantum Signal, comes in.


The company has developed the PC-based, game-like simulator with grant funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). Quantum Signal is collaborating with the USDOT’s Volpe Center on the project.


Quantum Signal has been in business about 17 years, providing technology-based solutions to problems ranging from autonomous robot navigation to improving car safety. The company has previously built a tactical driving simulator for the Secret Service, so LookOut is a natural extension of Quantum Signal's work.


Quantum Signal CEO Mitchell Rohde says the simulator helps prepare new drivers for common hazards – such as people or animals who may suddenly appear from behind a row of parked cars.


"Folks familiar with driving would be careful, knowing that parked cars could obscure their view. People who aren’t experienced won’t recognize that and will drive by at full speed," Rohde says.


Quantum Signal has spent about three years developing LookOut, and it’s now in the testing phase. Rohde said Quantum Signal will learn from the data obtained from study subjects and use those findings to improve the tool.


"Once we get a sufficient number of subjects to go through the experiment in the lab, we can measure whether people improve their hazard perception while using the tool," Rohde said. "If it’s shown to be really effective in the lab we will want to see if it will improve folks’ performance in the real world, but there are safety issues with that. So the more we can do virtually, the better off we’ll be."


Quantum Signal is currently recruiting drivers 16 to 18 years old and 65 to 75 years old. Subjects get a gift card for participating in testing, and those who refer someone for the experiment also get gift certificates, Rohde said. Anyone interested in participating may call (734) 890-6550 or email

This piece is part of a series highlighting local business growth in the Ann Arbor area. It is supported by Ann Arbor SPARK.

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

All images courtesy of Quantum Signal.

Report: Ann Arbor still the center of Michigan's growing venture capital ecosystem

The Michigan Venture Capital Association’s (MVCA) 2017 research report has good news for entrepreneurs and investors alike, showing growth both in the number of venture-backed startups and the number of venture capital investment professionals working in the state.


MVCA is an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit whose membership includes 341 investment and entrepreneurship professionals from 95 different organizations. MVCA executive director Maureen Miller Brosnan says the most critical number in MVCA's 10th annual report is 141. That's the number of Michigan companies that venture capital firms backed in 2016, an increase of 48 percent over the past five years.


The report also shows that 54 startups received more than $222 million from Michigan venture capital firms last year, a 42 percent increase over the past five years. Brosnan says these continual increases show that Michigan has a vital, growing venture capital community, unlike other states where venture capital is shrinking.


She says venture firms in Michigan are backing startups in the sectors of information technology, life science, medical devices, and manufacturing.


"These are the types of investments in startups that produce some of the highest paying jobs in Michigan," Brosnan says.


And Ann Arbor is ground zero for many of those high-tech and life science startups.


"Ann Arbor continues to be the largest area for venture capital and startups throughout the state, with Detroit and Grand Rapids running neck and neck for second," Brosnan says. "Ann Arbor continues to lead the way, especially in healthcare and life sciences. A lot of that is coming out of the University of Michigan because they do a lot of research in that area. Their Office of Technology Transfer is very well connected with the venture capital and angel investor communities."


Brosnan says Michigan’s profile is so high in the U.S. venture capital community that for every dollar invested in startups by Michigan-based venture capital firms, $4.61 is attracted from out of state.


That’s a sign that Michigan venture investors are looked at as leaders in the field and experts on recognizing great ideas when they see them, Brosnan says.


"An investor from out of state feels more confident knowing there’s a Michigan partner at the table, and people are confident with the resources in Michigan to sustain growth in startups," she says.


The full 2017 report is available here.

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

All images courtesy of Michigan Venture Capital Association.

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