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U-M launches nonprofit to help entrepreneurs in developing countries

The University of Michigan (U-M) has launched a new nonprofit institute focused on helping entrepreneurs in developing countries.

 

The Michigan Academy for the Development of Entrepreneurs (MADE) was created through a partnership between U-M's Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies (ZLI), U-M's William Davidson Institute (WDI), and Aparajitha Foundations. Entrepreneur Mike Pape will serve as executive director.

 

WDI is an independent, nonprofit research and educational organization focused on providing private-sector solutions in emerging markets. Aparajitha Foundations, a part of Aparajitha Group, is a charitable trust with the objective of supporting the less privileged mainly in terms of education and health.

 

Stewart Thornhill, executive director of ZLI, says the idea behind MADE grew out of U-M's MBA curriculum. In the last half-semester of their first year, usually in March and April, all classes for first-year MBA students form teams to complete Michigan Action-Learning Projects. Teams spend two to seven weeks on site working with corporate clients on projects, developing recommendations, and presenting ideas to the board or CEO.

 

"They can use it as an opportunity to provide value to the client as well as learn the process of dealing with real-world, messy situations instead of the clean classroom problems they've been encountering," Thornhill says.

 

WDI also supports student teams working with nonprofits in emerging economies. Over time, Thornhill says the two U-M programs had inadvertently created a network of international partners.

 

"We decided we could do more to leverage this network," Thornhill says. "We could learn from each other and take advantage of these preexisting relationships and find a way to become more than the sum of our parts."

 

MADE's initial focus is on India, but the nonprofit will also build on past work in Vietnam and Kosovo, with plans for future expansion into other areas.

 

Executive director Pape will be helped by a team of students doing a four-credit course that will help formalize the nonprofit's business plan and make sure it can remain a sustainable, ongoing enterprise, Thornhill says. He says he believes the nonprofit will have solidified its model and will become self-sustaining within two to three years.

 

Thornhill says MADE isn't about people from the U.S. going to another country thinking they know what's best for these emerging economies, but rather about mutual learning.

 

"There are things that we teach and learn here in the U.S. that don't apply in other countries, because they don't have the same property rights and legal structures or things we take for granted in terms of infrastructure," Thornhill says. "Step one is learning from successful entrepreneurs in these countries about what works and what doesn't. Maybe you can take someone working in rural India and have them learn from someone in Vietnam, and then transfer that knowledge to someone in Morocco. We're here to learn and then to spread the knowledge."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of MADE.


Platform for hiring camp counselors wins $25,000 SPARK Boot Camp award

Having managed a summer camp in Michigan's Lower Peninsula, Curtis and Brooke McFall know the pain of trying to recruit suitable camp counselors. That experience led the Ann Arbor couple to create CampGig.com, an online platform to match camp counselors with camps, which recently won the $25,000 "Best of Boot Camp" prize from Ann Arbor SPARK.

 

Boot Camp is a multi-week SPARK program designed for entrepreneurs who need help assessing the feasibility of their business concept, building a business model, and finding customers. The entrepreneurs receive mentorship and exposure to potential early-stage investors. Breath of Life, a company that makes an app to help users with meditation and relaxation, won the $10,000 runner-up prize.

 

The McFalls developed their business idea after talking to other camp administrators and realizing that hiring staff every year was a pain point for all of them. Camp counselors can be recruited through college job fairs or job postings online, but those avenues take up a lot of administrators' time. Alternately, counselors can be recruited through international placement agencies, but Curtis McFall says those are expensive.

 

"We decided we needed to make something similar to the international placement agencies, but for domestic staff," McFall says.

 

The McFalls conceived the idea this January and started seeking developers to create the platform in February.

 

"The concepts were already there with the international placement agencies, but we wanted to tweak and update the concept for our site," McFall says.

 

McFall says SPARK's Boot Camp was "an invaluable experience," and he was pleasantly surprised at the amount of engagement and energy mentors put into the process. He felt Boot Camp was particularly valuable in the area of finding potential customers.

 

"Everybody knows this, but you need to be doing as much customer discovery as possible," McFall says. "That's what a lot of Boot Camp participants' success will hinge on."

 

He says the Boot Camp experience also made him and his wife rethink pricing. Staff can sign up and look at job listings for free, but camps have to pay for a membership. Boot Camp made the McFalls revise their pricing model, how camps pay, and what they get for their fee.

 

McFall says the cash prize will help his company recruit staff and get more candidates in the system before the McFalls start marketing to camps. The site currently has about 200 profiles, but the McFalls want to have a minimum of 1,000 profiles on the site before doing a marketing push so there is a robust candidate pool for camps to choose from.

 

"That's what we found out during customer discovery: if we have the candidates, the camps will come," McFall says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo of check presentation courtesy of Jenn Cornell. Brooke and Curtis McFall photo courtesy of Curtis McFall.


Ann Arbor's Midwestern Consulting opens first satellite office in Detroit

Midwestern Consulting, an Ann Arbor engineering services firm, has opened a satellite office at 1420 Washington Blvd., suite 301 in Detroit.

 

Established in 1967, the Ann Arbor office offers consulting services for civil, environmental, and transportation engineering projects along with surveying, planning, and landscape architecture.

 

The firm has a total staff of 48 between the Ann Arbor and Detroit locations. Brandon Walker, Midwestern's project manager and laser scanning expert, will split his time between the two offices and serve as manager of the Detroit office. Two other employees are currently staffing the Detroit office along with Walker.

 

Walker says the firm has serviced Detroit-based clients including Verizon Wireless and Neumann Smith for many years, and it was time that the company established an office in Detroit.

 

"We've experienced great success in Washtenaw County, and we were looking to expand organically, and the Metro Detroit area was a natural fit," Walker says. "We've done 35 projects in the last two years in or around the city of Detroit, and we're following up with a few more."

 

Walker says he thinks it's possible to serve Detroit customers from Ann Arbor, but a presence in the city of Detroit will make it easier for Midwestern to do projects with the city of Detroit and other nearby municipal clients, Walker says.

 

"We felt we really need a presence in Detroit, and after a few discussions, we decided it was something we wanted to make happen," he says. "I love the feel of Detroit already. We've received a very warm welcome."

 

Walker says the time between deciding to open an office in Detroit and opening for business on Washington Boulevard was about three months, helped by the fact that Midwestern chose a location that had "ready-made" office space.

 

The Detroit office will be doing a lot of the same things as the Ann Arbor office, but it will focus largely on wireless communication, laser scanning, and land development, while the Ann Arbor office will handle more traffic engineering and other specialities.

 

"We're excited about this," Walker says. "We still call Ann Arbor home, but great things are going on in Detroit, and we hope to make it a great extension of the Ann Arbor office."

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 southeast Michigan. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Midwestern Consulting.


Ann Arbor creative agency Phire Group adds staff, expands offices in recent growth spurt

Phire Group, an Ann Arbor branding and creative agency, is celebrating growth on multiple fronts as it closes out 2017.

 

The company hired new digital creative director Mike Gatto and three other employees this year, bringing the agency's total headcount to 26. Phire Group also recently expanded from occupying just the first floor of 111 Miller Ave. in Ann Arbor to filling the entire two-story building.

 

Owner and principal Jim Hume says his philosophy since the agency's founding in 2004 has been to build an "anti-agency" that looks beyond the traditional methods of many public relations and marketing firms.

 

"Many agencies and marketing firms come to a client with a specific thought in mind of how they're going to spend the client's money on traditional media," Hume says. "I've been more about the mindset of building community, building a culture, and creating brands that will last."

 

Hume says Phire Group spends a lot of time talking to employees in the company as well as clients and competitors in the industry to collaboratively come up with "truly authentic stories that build on the best of organizations, and build brands around that."

 

Putting those philosophies about branding into practice has led to slow but steady growth.

 

"We've continued to grow every year since our inception," Hume says. "We've really grown in both capabilities as well as the talent level. We're aiming to be not just the top agency in town, but the top agency in the Midwest."

 

Hume says the agency already has "the strongest design team around," but believes that Gatto, who has 20 years of experience working at digital design firm Perficient, will take the firm to the next level, focusing even more on the digital side of branding and making Phire Group a viable choice for large, national brands.

 

Phire Group already services large national clients such as Masco and local clients such as the University of Michigan and the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. The agency is also seeing more interest from large companies with large footprints across the globe, Hume says.

 

"We're starting to see tremendous growth nationally and even internationally," Hume says. "We consider ourselves transformational in terms of what we can do for clients, whether that's finding breakthroughs for sustainable, community-owned solutions to problems or elevating companies that are doing a good job and could be doing a great job."
 

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Photos courtesy of Phire Group.

Event-planning platform for Hispanic community wins $100,000 in Accelerate Michigan competition

Mi Padrino, an Ann Arbor-based company that hosts an event-planning and fundraising site aimed at the Hispanic community, was named first runner-up in the 2017 Accelerate Michigan innovation competition, taking home a $100,000 prize.

 

The final round of the annual competition took place Nov. 16 at the Detroit Masonic Temple. The grand prize of $500,000 went to Orbion Space Technology in Houghton. Other Ann Arbor-based winners were Spellbound, which won the People's Choice award and a $10,000 prize, and Canopy, a University of Michigan startup that won $6,000 and a grand prize in the competition's grad-level student track.

 

Though she didn't take home the top prize, Mi Padrino CEO and founder Kim Gamez says it felt just as good to be named first runner-up.

 

"I was thinking I had no chance of winning here," Gamez says. "I mean, there was an actual rocket scientist competing."

 

After marrying a Mexican native, Gamez became fascinated with many parts of Hispanic culture. She built her business around a facet of Latino culture that involves asking for help when organizing big life events like weddings and quinceañeras (15th birthday parties for girls, similar to the "Sweet 16" tradition). In Spanish, "padrino" can mean a godfather, a best man, or a sponsor.

 

"As part of the padrino tradition, families will reach out to sponsors or godparents to pay for different events, and I love the fact that the whole community comes together to put together an event for the person honored that day," Gamez says. "Until recently, that was all done manually, with a handwritten list and exchange of cash checks. I love this part of the culture, but I hated the process."

 

To remedy that, she built a platform that combines event organizing with crowdfunding. Those planning a 15th birthday party, for instance, can list items like a dress or the venue that need to be purchased, and padrinos can pay for them with a credit card online. The site also includes event planning tools.

 

The concept caught on so quickly that it amazed both Gamez and her husband. She says she was hoping for 600 users by the end of 2017, but the platform has already surpassed the 50,000-user mark.

 

Gamez says the company, which makes its money on a small platform fee for online payments, has been losing money to date, and the $100,000 prize will allow the company to turn its finances around. Gamez says she also hopes to add four more full-time employees to the existing two full-time employees.

 

In addition to the cash prize, Accelerate Michigan winners' packages include free legal and accounting services and other in-kind services donated by Michigan-based sponsors.

 

Accelerate Michigan is operated by Invest Detroit Ventures with the support of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Ann Arbor SPARK, Invest Michigan, Spartan Innovations, the Michigan Small Business Development Corporation, and JR Turnbull. A full list of competition winners is available at the Accelerate Michigan website.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Mi Padrino.


Aubree's to serve free Thanksgiving meals at Depot Town location

Aubree's Pizzeria and Grill is bringing free Thanksgiving meals to its Ypsilanti location and hoping to continue doing so for years to come.

 

Anyone is welcome to enjoy a free meal at Aubree's Depot Town location, 39 E. Cross St., from 12 to 4 p.m. on Nov. 23, Thanksgiving Day. Volunteers will serve traditional Thanksgiving fare like turkey, dressing, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie.

 

Aubree's offered free Thanksgiving meals at its Marquette location for the first time last year. Members of the French family, who own the Aubree's brand and several restaurant locations across Michigan, wanted to expand the offering to Ypsi and Adrian this year. They decided to make it happen after identifying enough family members, friends, staff, and residents who were interested in volunteering at each location.

 

The three Aubree's locations will serve 350 pounds of turkey, plus a variety of side dishes. Hope Clinic is allowing the Depot Town location to use its commercial kitchen to cook the turkeys because the restaurant doesn't have enough ovens to handle the turkeys that will be served up in Ypsi. The restaurants will have backup pizzas ready to serve in case they run out of Thanksgiving fare.

 

Aubree's president Andy French anticipates the free Thanksgiving dinner will become an annual event. He says he and his family are excited about the idea of the offering becoming part of their tradition every Thanksgiving.

 

"Our intention is to just give back, especially in Ypsilanti. That’s where we started and the town has supported us for 46 years," French says. "We’ve been very grateful and we have a history of giving back to the community. This is just another way we can continue to do it and we’re excited for it."

 

Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.


Photo by Doug Coombe.

Tech Homecoming connects out-of-towners with Ann Arbor tech industry on Thanksgiving Eve

Ann Arbor SPARK's annual Tech Homecoming event is billed as a way for out-of-towners to connect with Ann Arbor's tech industry while they're in town for Thanksgiving, but the event is also just a lot of fun.

 

"If I go to a dreary networking event, I don't go back," says John Fisher, managing partner in software company Atomic Object's Ann Arbor office. "Last year's event was well-attended and fun, and it tells you something that we're going back."

 

The 2017 Tech Homecoming event takes place from 4-7 p.m., Nov. 22, at Fred's, 403 E. Washington St. in downtown Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor SPARK organizes the happy hour-style event on the night before Thanksgiving, generally known as the biggest bar night of the year. Fisher and two other Atomic Object employees attended their first Tech Homecoming last year, and Fisher says it was a great way to establish and strengthen connections.

 

Last year, Fisher and his co-workers ran into the head of a company they'd worked with before, and that gave them an opportunity to catch up and strengthen the ties between the two companies. Fisher says it's also nice to commiserate with other business owners who have many of the same challenges.

 

While Atomic Object hasn't recruited any employees from the event, Fisher says he thinks Tech Homecoming presents a strong pool of candidates to draw from.

 

"On the recruiting side, it would be valuable if we just find the one right person," Fisher says. "A lot of students are attending the event with the intention of returning to or staying connected to Ann Arbor. That's really valuable with how competitive hiring is in the development field, to find people who want to stay in southeast Michigan long-term."

 

The event is free, but organizers request that participants register at the Eventbrite page for Tech Homecoming.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of John Fisher.


Ann Arbor's first meadery to open in 2018, featuring Michigan-made ingredients

Ann Arbor's first meadery, Bløm Meadworks, is aiming to fill a niche for gluten-free drinkers as well as hardcore craft beer drinkers who are looking for something different.

 

Co-founder Matthew Ritchey will combine his brewing and finance experience with co-founder Lauren Bloom's interest in local food systems to open the downtown mead and cider business in 2018. The pair took possession of retail space on the first floor of 100 S. Fourth Ave. in downtown Ann Arbor in early November and are hoping to open for business in early 2018 after a round of construction is completed, Bloom says.

 

The name of the business is both a nod to the product and to Bloom's family name.

 

"We liked the idea of a bloom, which is tied into our business, because it's dependent on honey and fruit and the bee population," Bloom says. "But it's also inspired by my family name, and we did a little riff on that as a nod to my surname as originally spelled and mead's Scandinavian roots."

 

Ritchey has a background in finance and spent some time as head brewer and co-owner at Begyle Brewing Co. in Chicago, while Bloom worked in the nonprofit sector helping organizations that focus on local foods.

 

Ritchey's discovery that he had a gluten allergy, combined with the fact that both honey for mead and apples for cider can be sourced locally, led the pair to create Bløm Meadworks.

 

"Both apples and honey have such incredible flavors and aromatics," Bloom says. "Our brewing and fermentation happen at a lower temperature [than beer] so you can retain those amazing flavors and smells."

 

Bløm's meads will differ from most common meads by being less sweet and lower in alcohol, in the range of 5-7 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) instead of the 12-13 percent ABV typically found in meads.

 

"They're on the drier side, carbonated, with a brighter and lighter feel," Bloom says.

 

Bløm Mead's space on Fourth Avenue will contain both a production area and a tap room, and four types of mead will be available in cans for retail distribution. One is a standard mead, made simply of honey, water and yeast. Another is a "ciser," or half mead and half cider. A third is hopped with Michigan hops, and a fourth is a "gin botanical mead," flavored with lavender and juniper.

 

Bloom says it was important to both owners that all ingredients be sourced from Michigan. They have already built relationships with local honey producers for the mead, King Orchards in northern Michigan for cider apples, and Hop Head Farms for the hops in their hopped mead.

 

Updates on the opening of the business will be posted to the Bløm website as well as to the business's Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Tonwship. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of Bløm Meadworks.


GenZe builds smart, connected electric bicycles in Ann Arbor

An electric bicycle that can track physical effort and distance covered, or alert its owner if it's stolen, is being built in Ann Arbor.

 

The 200-series e-Bike is the newest product from GenZe, a Silicon Valley-based company with manufacturing operations in Ann Arbor.

 

GenZe, a division of the the global company Mahindra Group, began operations in Ann Arbor in late 2015, first putting electric scooters on the market. The company also put out an earlier model of the electric bicycle, but those were not connected via Bluetooth to a smartphone app in the way the 200 series bikes are.

 

Terence Duncan, vice president of design and product management for GenZe, says the smartphone app enhances the experience of bicycling, no matter what you're using the bike for.

 

"People buy bikes for different reasons, like community, recreation, and fitness," Duncan says. "A strong aspect of the app allows you to track the amount of exertion you're putting into the bike. The bike has an electric assist, but you can choose how much assist you want."

 

Riders commuting to work might want lots of electric assist so that they don't end up sweaty and disheveled when they arrive, but might choose a lower amount of assistance on the way home so they can get more exercise. Riders with low fitness can also start with a high level of electric assistance and gradually lessen that assistance as they get in better shape.

 

Duncan says the app connection is likely to prove popular with people who already like personal activity-trackers like the Fitbit.

 

"You can look over the data from the last two months and see how many miles you've ridden and how much effort as a human being you've put in versus the electric motor," Duncan says.

 

The bikes can also be programmed to alert their owners if they're taken out of a certain area or tipped over. They can also be used in "walk mode," in which the electric bike runs at about one mile an hour to help a rider move the bike up a set of stairs, whether that's a few steps encountered during a commute or a longer staircase.

 

Tom Valasek, chief marketing officer for GenZe, says it might seem odd to have a headquarters in California and manufacturing operations in the Midwest, but Ann Arbor was an ideal choice because of the automotive expertise in metro Detroit and the engineering talent coming out of the University of Michigan. Southeast Michigan already has a "sophisticated" vehicle industry in place, he says.

 

"The company was conceived in Silicon Valley, but when it comes to manufacturing prowess and engineering, that talent is coming out of Michigan," Valasek says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of GenZe.


Community partnerships to expand college scholarships for Ypsi students

The Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation (AAACF), the Ypsilanti Area Community Fund (YACF), and Bank of Ann Arbor have announced that they're partnering to expand an existing scholarship benefiting low-income, minority, or first-generation college students graduating from Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS).

 

An event announcing the extension of the Mary Williams Gillenwater Scholarship and a separate partnership between YCS and the National Association of African Americans in Human Resources (NAAAHR) was held Tuesday evening at the Eagle Crest Resort and Golf Club, 1275 S. Huron in Ypsi Township. The event was sponsored by Bank of Ann Arbor.

 

Shelley Strickland, vice president for development at the AAACF, announced the Gillenwater Scholarship's inclusion into the AAACF Community Scholarship Program. The scholarship is named after a late Ypsi resident, Mary Williams Gillenwater, whose estate has provided the opportunity for YCS high school students to pursue a college education.

 

The assets of the Gillenwater Trust are available for the scholarship in perpetuity and will now be managed by Bank of Ann Arbor. The scholarship will now also be supported by donors who are able to make contributions to the new Gillenwater Legacy Fund. YACF co-chair Greg Peoples announced that an anonymous donor has contributed $10,000 to the fund and agreed to a dollar-for-dollar match of up to an additional $10,000. Multi-year scholarships will now also be available through the program for the first time, and a college success coach will be available to scholarship recipients.

 

"As a professional educator, I know through research that there's nothing stronger to help students succeed than partnerships with nonprofit organizations," Peoples said. "Our local schools need the public, the private, and the nonprofit sector to collaborate to help our students succeed."

 

NAAAHR founder and chairman Nathaniel "Nat" Alston also spoke at the event about his organization's partnership with YCS as a result of NAAAHR's decision to bring its national conference to the Ann Arbor Marriott Ypsilanti at Eagle Crest in late September 2018. Alston decided to support YCS by lending the organization's time and talent after meeting with superintendent Ben Edmondson in September.

 

"After listening to Dr. Edmondson and his vision for Ypsilanti schools, I said to our board, 'We have got to get involved,'" Alston said.

 

NAAAHR will provide pro bono services to YCS in helping the district adapt educational best practices from Howard County, Md.'s highly ranked public school system. Other collaborations between the two organizations are expected as the relatively new partnership develops.

 

Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

 

Photos courtesy of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.


Aquaro Histology raises $9.8 million to launch technology automating microscopic tissue study

Studying tissue samples under a microscope might not seem a particularly high-risk profession, but by some measures it's an unusually difficult and dangerous job.

 

Greg Krueger, vice president of sales and marketing for Ann Arbor-based Aquaro Histology, says histologists – who study the microscopic anatomy of tissues – might turn the crank on a tissue-slicing microtome half a million times per year.

 

"There's a mantra in histology that it's not if you'll have a repetitive motion injury, but when," Krueger says.

 

Aquaro recently completed a $9.8 million fundraising round that will allow the company to launch its first product, the Aquaro ASM, which Krueger says is designed to make that repetitive process "a little safer."

 

The Aquaro ASM, which stands for automated section mounting, automates the process of cutting cells from a tissue sample and mounting them on a slide. Vince Alessi and Nolan Orfield founded Aquaro, inspired by Alessi's college experience in a histology lab.

 

"Vince had to do thousands and thousands of slides, and he was always nicking his finger on blades," Krueger says. "He thought there had to be a better way, and he spent his time finding a better way to do it." The result of that search was the first iteration of Aquaro ASM.

 

Krueger says ASM is more revolutionary than it sounds. There have been other advances in histology, but cutting and mounting has been done the same way for the last 70 years with no major changes until now.

 

Since Alessi's first model, the company has refined the product based on feedback from beta testing. That feedback led to a switch from multiple buttons for inputting commands to a touch screen, and a change from storing slides horizontally to vertically.

 

The latest round of funding will allow Aquaro to expand its sales staff and research team, create add-on products, and send the latest iteration of the tool, now refined from that early feedback, to market.

 

"We expect to make our first sales before the end of the year," Krueger says.

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Images courtesy of Aquaro Histology.


By the Sidewalk food tours offer new way to experience Ann Arbor's culinary scene

Ann Arbor has increasingly become known as a foodie haven, and this November a food tour business called By the Sidewalk will begin offering newbies and townies a new way to experience the city's culinary destinations.

 

By the Sidewalk owner Aniruddh Gala moved to Ann Arbor from Raleigh, N.C., in July, but he had been making culinary excursions to the city with his girlfriend for many months before that. Gala had been working as a supply chain engineer but was looking for an opportunity to start a business of his own when he took his first food tour in Montreal.

 

"It struck me instantaneously that it was a good way to spend some time, get to know the area better, and eat a lot of good food," Gala says.

 

He chose to run his tours in Ann Arbor because the city had all the right elements to make a walking food tour a success.

 

"The food scene is thriving, there's a bustling downtown, and wonderful, energetic foot traffic. Conditions are ideal," Gala says.

 

The first few tours will take place at lunchtime on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays and will focus on Kerrytown and downtown Ann Arbor. "Classic Ann Arbor" tours cost $47, all-inclusive, and last about two-and-a-half to three hours. Private and customized tours can be arranged as well. Once he grows his customer base, Gala says he'd like to expand to other areas and offer tours with other themes, as well as expanding tours to Tuesday through Thursday.

 

He says his tours will be appealing to first-time visitors as well as people who have spent their whole lives in the Ann Arbor area. Gala emphasizes that the tours are centered around food but are designed to give "a taste of everything Ann Arbor has to offer."

 

"We're going to include the history, architecture, culture, and trivia behind the Tree Town," Gala says. He plans to include both eateries and non-food-related Ann Arbor landmarks on the tour. Notable local food businesses including Zingerman's Deli, Argus Farm Stop, and Isalita are listed as "food partners" on By the Sidewalk's website, but in order to maintain the "element of surprise" Gala won't reveal tour destinations in advance. He says he hopes to provide "moments of unexpected discovery, even for local people."

 

Tours will be capped at 16 people so that everyone gets a bit of personal attention, and attendees should plan on walking one to two miles over the course of the tour. Most stops include both vegetarian and omnivore options. Food allergies and dietary restrictions can be accommodated if noted during registration, Gala says.

 

For more information or to sign up for a tour, visit By the Sidewalk's website or call (734) 548-9532.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of Aniruddh Gala.


U-M tech commercialization programs receive $2.66 million in state funding

A recent funding renewal will allow two University of Michigan (U-M)-administered programs to continue their mission of supporting collaboration among state universities and spinning off technologies developed at universities into startup businesses.

The Michigan Strategic Fund – an oversight board for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) – approved $1.4 million for the Michigan Corporate Relations Network (MCRN) and $1.26 million for Technology Transfer Talent Network (T3N), funding each program for another year.

 

"The state continues to fund these programs because they show results," says Stella Wixom, executive director of the U-M Business Engagement Center and principal investigator of the MCRN grant.

 

MCRN started in 2011 as a collaboration between six state universities but has since expanded to include all 15 state universities. T3N, also created in 2011, was started with help from the MEDC to provide talent programs and resources to support the commercialization of university projects.

Talent resources provided by T3N include a fellowship program, a mentors-in-residence program, university post-doctoral fellowships, and a statewide talent resource network.

 

"These programs touch on three key areas that are integral parts of commercializing technology: business engagement, technology transfer, and research," says Denise Graves, MEDC university relations director. She says the renewed funding will allow both programs to "expand and refine" the work they're doing supporting all 15 public universities across Michigan.

 

While the focus of both programs is on finding commercial channels for university-created technologies, much of the work they do is about "building relationships," Graves says.

 

That relationship-building includes setting up mentorship programs and getting interns into small and medium-sized businesses.

 

Graves says mentors with "deep industry knowledge" are matched with faculty to help them commercialize technology, get first customers and funding, and provide feedback to faculty on what they need to do to make the technologies viable in the marketplace.

 

Wixom says the state is interested in exposing students to small and medium-sized companies that students might otherwise overlook. The grant money will help students get internships in those smaller companies.

 

"A lot of those companies are thrilled with the talent and convert those internships to full-time positions, and the students are more interested in staying after having hands-on experience at those companies," Wixom says.

 

Wixom says it's important to note that the collaborations among state universities to create technology spinoffs is "a really unique offering."

 

"It makes us competitive in the country in terms of companies locating here," Wixom says. "I've talked to folks in Texas and Mississippi who are trying to emulate this model. The partnerships and support from the state make us attractive and friendly to businesses."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of MCRN and MEDC.


Pittsfield Township solar lighting company wins Pitch Ypsi $5,000 competition

A Pittsfield Township-based company that creates customized solar lighting solutions, Solartonic, was the winner of the second Pitch Ypsi $5,000 business competition on Oct. 26.

 

Entrepreneurs in eastern Washtenaw County who have an idea for a new business or for growing an existing business were invited to submit a pitch at the Pitch Ypsi website, and organizers winnowed the field down to the four best entries. Finalists then pitched their ideas to a panel of judges during the finale at the downtown Ypsilanti Farmers Market, 16 S. Washington St. The other finalists were Gutland Games, Star Studio by Angel, and Tinker Tech Consulting.

 

Solartonic co-founder Brian Tell says his company has participated in other pitch competitions, but those events were usually either focused on technology or more specifically on solar innovations. The diverse Pitch Ypsi format was new to his company.

 

"It was an unusual event. This was the first competition where we were going up against a hairdresser, a therapist, and a guy creating board games," he says. "I thought it was a blast, but it was a little bit of a mystery what the Pitch Ypsi team would be looking for."

 

In addition to the cash prize, Solartonic won marketing services as well as law services from Varnum, Attorneys at Law, one of the sponsors of the competition.

 

"For a small company like us, those two in-kind prizes are as valuable, if not more so, as the financial award," says Tell. "It's timely, and we can really utilize those services."

 

Solartonic currently consists of Tell, his co-founder Harry Giles, and a few others who are "in it for the sweat equity," Tell says. The company hires people on a temporary basis for big projects, but Tell says he expects the company to start hiring full-time staff soon.

 

The two founders met in 2009 and shared a vision of wanting to make solar technology products that were "cool-looking and not ugly, of high quality and high design," Tell says. In 2012, they got the chance to do that by building solar modules that wrapped around a light pole and powered the light, a product unlike anything already on the market.

 

Eventually, the team decided they needed to offer a complete solution that included the solar panel, the light pole, and smart controls. Solartonic has since created custom lighting solutions for a number of companies, including a project in Dallas and a demo project in Detroit for NextEnergy.

 

Tell says the Pitch Ypsi win will allow Solartonic to grow its Ypsi operations and possibly expand into a larger building on its current site, as well as supporting a new sales office the company just opened in London. Tell says the company plans to build on its current momentum and open a small sales office in the southwest of the United States, possibly in Phoenix or Dallas.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Solartonic.


Ann Arbor joins national "10-minute walk to a park" campaign

Ann Arbor has joined 133 other cities and towns across the United States in the "10-Minute Walk" parks advocacy campaign started by The Trust for Public Land, the National Recreation and Park Association, and the Urban Land Institute.

 

The goal for the initiative is that all residents should live within a 10-minute walk (about a half-mile) of a park or green space. The U.S. Conference of Mayors also recently passed a resolution urging all mayors to actively pursue the goal.

 

Ann Arbor already meets this goal in nearly every neighborhood, according to Colin Smith, parks and recreation services manager for Ann Arbor. There are a few places where the University of Michigan owns a large chunk of land, and in those areas, the walk to the nearest park may be a little over 10 minutes, Smith says.

 

The Trust for Public Land is currently mapping park access in cities across the country. Starting in 2018, the campaign organizers will start working with selected cities on strategies and policies to promote the 10-minute walk goal. Reaching the goal is expected to involve changes in how parks are financed and constructed, along with zoning changes and making sure park access goals are included in each city's master plan.

 

Before it joined the initiative, Ann Arbor already had a goal in its master plan for having a park within a quarter-mile of every residence, and this distance is walkable in 10 minutes for most people, Smith says.

 

The Trust for Public Land says that having easy park access for all residents is important for a number of reasons, ranging from physical health benefits to a sense of building community as neighbors meet and socialize in nearby parks.

 

"Ann Arbor certainly recognizes and appreciates the value a park can bring to a neighborhood," Smith says. "Supporting this 10-minute walk idea nationwide is important, because a lot of things a park can provide are a great benefit for any community."

 

Information and maps for each of nearly 160 parks in Ann Arbor can be found at the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation website.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Image courtesy of 10-Minute Walk campaign.

Zingerman's to open new retail candy shop this weekend

Zingerman's latest standalone business, the Zingerman's Candy Manufactory, will mark its grand opening with treat samples and candy-making demonstrations on Oct. 28 at 3723 Plaza Dr., Ste. 3, in Ann Arbor.

 

The Candy Manufactory has been running as a wholesale business since 2009 out of a space inside Zingerman's Bakehouse, with products being sold at retail stores around the country and through the Zingerman's mail order business. However, the candy manufacturing business ran out of production space in recent years. Staff had been discussing moving for almost two years, says retail store and marketing manager Allison Schraf.

 

The company moved into its new location between two other Zingerman's businesses — Zingerman's Coffee Co. and Zingerman's Creamery — in May, with a "soft opening" of retail operations in late August.

 

Schraf says the community response to the announcement of the candy store's opening has been "amazing" and proves that the company's idea to open a retail space was a winner.

 

"Nothing substitutes for people being able to walk in and hear about our candy, taste it, and see it being made," Schraf says.

 

The store will offer Zingerman's marshmallows, candy bars, roasted nuts, and other products such as bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup. But 30 percent of the inventory will be hard-to-find candies from other manufacturers around the globe, like French Broad chocolates, Shraf says.

 

The candy store will host a grand opening celebration from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28. Guests are invited to watch the candy production process, sample various sweet treats, and enter a drawing for a collection of candy valued at $200. Children who visit will be given a free Halloween-themed book, and all visitors are eligible for a 20 percent discount on purchases all day.

 

"We think the grand opening and the discount will be a great way to thank the people who have been supporting us and buying our candy for so many years," Schraf says. "We want to make it a big, fun party and show that we put our heart and soul into everything we make and all the service we give."

 

More information about the grand opening is available at the Zingerman's website.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Zingerman's.


How empathy carried Duo Security to a $1 billion valuation

Asked what recently propelled Duo Security to a valuation over $1 billion, chief technology officer Jon Oberheide mentions a concept that isn't often associated with high-tech businesses: empathy.

 

He notes that when a large company has a prominently reported security breach, other cybersecurity companies engage in the software industry's version of "ambulance-chasing," calling or emailing the company's security team to try to sell their product immediately.

 

In contrast, Duo's sales team sends pizzas and energy drinks to the company's security team with a note expressing empathy for their pain and inviting the company to call Duo when they come up for air.

 

The Ann Arbor-based cybersecurity company's approach certainly seems to be paying off. Duo raised $70 million in a recent round of financing, placing the company among the small handful of venture-backed private companies worth $1 billion or more. The company also recently celebrated another milestone, exceeding 10,000 customers worldwide.

 

Oberheide and his co-founder Dug Song began the company in 2009 with the intention of staying in the Midwest.

 

"We knew we wanted to start a company together and stay in the Midwest, and specifically in Ann Arbor, given the talent pool available in our backyard," Oberheide says. "We set out to solve the biggest problem in the world at that time, cybersecurity."

 

The company currently has more than 500 employees, with about 350 in Ann Arbor and the rest in San Mateo, Calif.; Austin, Texas; and London.

 

Oberheide says the company's good reputation and credibility make it stand out to investors. At this point, Duo doesn't need to seek out investors because investors are seeking them out instead. It's the company's empathy with both tech staff and end users that makes Duo's product so user-friendly as well, Oberheide says.

 

"It's a back-to-basics story for us," Oberheide says. "Other companies build security for networks of systems. We build security for people. Security is the fundamental problem that organizations of all shapes and sizes face, and we focus on doing that very well in a highly useable way."

 

Oberheide says this latest round of funding will allow the company to develop new products and expand into other industries and geographic regions. The team will also expand as the company gains new clients.

 

"We're always expanding the team," Oberheide says. "For the past eight years, we've doubled in size every year, so it's a brand new company every year, a new set of teammates. But that means we grow faster and learn faster, and I expect that to continue in the future."

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Duo Security.


Ann Arbor's second annual Atomic Games challenges programmers to build an AI in a weekend

Daniel Michelin, a senior at Kalamazoo College, was the clear winner in the 2017 Atomic Games Ann Arbor, a computer programming challenge that requires participants to create an artificial intelligence (AI) over one weekend.

 

Custom software company Atomic Object has hosted the games for three years in Grand Rapids, and for two years in Ann Arbor. The games help the company identify talented programmers and to occasionally recruit participants who do well.

 

"Atomic Object, over its 16-year history, has had difficulty hiring developers straight out of college," says Jonah Bailey, a managing partner in the Ann Arbor office who organized the Ann Arbor games. "What college teaches is a highly theoretical base that will serve them well throughout their career, but what they often lack are technical skills and a chance to apply that theory in practice."

 

The Atomic Games require contestants to log into a server where a "boilerplate" game is uploaded. Last year's game was a version of Connect Four, while this year's game was similar to the popular strategy game Starcraft. Over one weekend, participants program a real-time strategy AI to play the game. The contestants' AIs then face off against each other, and the winning developer takes home a $500 prize. Seventeen programmers competed for the prize in Ann Arbor last year. This year 21 participated over the long weekend of Oct. 20-23.

 

Bailey says Michelin won "pretty resoundingly." He says Atomic Object doesn't just look for winners but also looks for participants who get up and running quickly, who offer to help others, and who generally show "outstanding leadership abilities."

 

Bailey also says students who had a passion for programming before they entered college often do well in the games. That was the case for Michelin, who took a programming course in middle school and went to summer camp for programming during high school.

 

Once in college, Michelin initially thought he would study political science but switched to computer science and math his sophomore year. While studying at Kalamazoo College, Michelin has participated in other coding challenges and even runs a few coding competitions with fellow students.

 

"I really like being challenged to think a lot in the span of a little bit of time," he says. "But I have only taken one machine learning class and have never done anything with AI, so I actually thought I was going to get my butt whipped by kids from the University of Michigan. I was surprised that I won."

 

He attributes his success in the Atomic Games to the fact that he plays a lot of chess and other strategy games, which helped him during the programming challenge.

 

"He really got the game, understood it, and worked hard over the weekend," Bailey says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Atomic Object.


Ypsilanti Community Schools hosts "Girl Magic" event to empower middle-school girls

Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) hosted a daylong self-empowerment event this week to teach middle-school girls about inner and outer beauty, wellness, girl power, and more.

 

About 90 girls participated in the event, called Girl Magic, on Tuesday, Oct. 17, at Ypsilanti Community Middle School. The day began with opening remarks from Lips and Hips founder Yodit Mesfin Johnson and ended with closing remarks from Dyann Logwood and Nyambura Njee of the Women's and Gender Studies Department at Eastern Michigan University. In between the opening and closing remarks, groups of about 15 girls rotated through six breakout sessions, which were led by female community leaders.

 

Ypsilanti Community High School assistant principal Djeneba "DJ" Cherif taught the girls how to dress appropriately in different situations during a session called "Fashionista: Dress to Impress." Another session called "Fashion on the Fly," hosted by Vanina Gilmore of Indigo Forest, focused on sewing, hemming, and repurposing clothing. The girls learned how to admire and care for natural hair during a session called "Moxie Magic," led by Original Moxie owner Rachel Blistein.

 

A session called "Beauty and Power," hosted by Johnson of Lips and Hips, taught girls about the importance of self-affirmation and inner beauty while they learned how to make organic lip gloss. Theresa Arnold-Robinson of the Regional Alliance for Healthy Schools taught the girls about positive coping skills, reframing negative thoughts, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral therapy skills during a session called "#HealthyMindsMatter." Another session called "Girls Talk: Courageous Conversations," hosted by Morghan Williams of the Corner Health Center, focused on wellness, hygiene, body changes, and body images.

 

Kharena Keith, coordinator of wellness and community partnerships for YCS, says Girl Magic gave middle-school girls the opportunity to receive non-academic support that they usually couldn't get during a regular school day. She says the event also allowed them to learn about some of the resources available to them in their community.

 

"The K-12 educational system does not really teach the whole child," Keith says. "We don't cater to everything that a young person really needs to succeed in school and in life, so it's up to the schools to supplement and support students and offer them extra enrichment opportunities. If we all recognize as staff and as a community that young ladies are not getting vital information that they need then it's up to us to coordinate opportunities for them to get that information. So that's what this is about to me, is to take a day and talk about the power that exists in you and the resources that exist in the community."
 

The community partners came together organically for Girl Magic because Keith works with some of them in different capacities through her role at YCS and some of them are part of a community of female entrepreneurs. A few of the community partners, including Original Moxie and the Corner Health Center, had been talking to Keith about doing an event for young female students for about a year. But the idea really started to come to fruition over the summer after Blistein reignited the conversation through an email to Keith.

 

"That’s one of the things I'll say I love about businesses in Ypsi. ... So many of them are really interested in figuring out how they can give back," Keith says.

 

YCS officials hope to continue hosting Girl Magic as an annual event and to expand it to Ypsilanti Community High School. The middle-school girls who participated in the event filled out evaluations so the administrators and the community partners can figure out how they can make improvements for next year.

Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

Photos by Taryn Reid.


Ypsi Bike Co-Op nears end of successful first season

The Ypsi Bike Co-Op is wrapping up its first season of offering free bike tune-ups and repairs at the Ypsilanti Farmers Market in Depot Town.

 

The co-op's goal is to help those who rely on bikes for transportation, as well as showing them how they can fix their bikes and keep them in working order on their own. Sometimes a visitor will grab a screwdriver and work on his or her own bike with guidance from an Ypsi Bike Co-Op member.

 

"A lot of the folks that we really like to help are folks who ride their bikes for transportation, like they need it to get to school or a job, and we really want to keep that population rolling on safe bikes and help teach them to do it themselves," says Georgina Hickey, a co-founder of the co-op.

 

Ypsi Bike Co-Op has been at the Depot Town farmers market every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. since mid-May. The group's presence will continue until Oct. 28, the last Saturday before the market closes for the season. The group plans to take some time over the winter to plan and prepare for next season. The co-op is considering hosting workshops on specific bike repair tasks (like repairing a flat tire or lubricating a bike chain), as well as the possibility of maintaining a booth at the downtown farmers market on Tuesdays next summer.

 

Hickey says the co-op had repaired 310 bikes at the market as of Oct. 14. The group doesn't charge people for tune-ups or repairs, but it encourages donations to help pay for bike parts and materials so the effort can continue.

 

The Ypsi Bike Co-Op is affiliated with Bike Ypsi, a 10-year-old community group that advocates for local cyclists by promoting bicycle awareness and cycling safety, and hosting cycling events. Some members of Bike Ypsi, including Hickey, started talking about forming a co-op about three years ago and finally decided to do it this year. Hickey says the two groups complement one another because Ypsi Bike Co-Op is focused on bikes and Bike Ypsi is focused on rides.

 

The co-op is always looking to connect with people who want to donate old bikes or get involved in the group. Hickey says the group operates under a "peer model" through which members of the group share bike expertise with each other. Throughout the season the group has accumulated several new members who have helped man the booth and teach repair or tune-up techniques with other group or community members.


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

Georgina Hickey and Nathan Voght photo by Brianna Kelly. All other photos by Christine Gibler and Ryan McGavock.

4 Ann Arbor firms, individuals among nominees for Michigan Venture Capital Association awards

Ann Arbor individuals and firms are well-represented in the 2017 list of nominees for the Michigan Venture Capital Association's (MVCA) annual awards dinner. This year marks the MVCA's 15th anniversary.

 

The winners in each category will be announced at the awards dinner Nov. 15 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit – a change from previous years, when winners were announced ahead of time.

Ann Arbor's Dug Song and Jon Oberheide, founders of cloud-based cybersecurity company Duo Security, are nominated for "Entrepreneur of the Year."

 

"[Duo is] an exciting company that a lot of folks in Ann Arbor and throughout Michigan have been watching," says MVCA executive director Maureen Miller Brosnan. "Dug has been recognized before for work in industry, so it's nice to be able to recognize Dug and Jon together as builders of such a fast-growing company."

 

The other two nominees in this category are Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans Inc., and Kaylan Handique, a founder of life sciences startup Celsee Diagnostics.

 

Two Ann Arbor firms, Deepfield and LLamasoft, are represented in the "Capital Event of the Year" category.

 

Deepfield, an information technology startup, started at the University of Michigan, secured early-stage investments, and added 65 employees in five years before being acquired by Nokia in 2017. LLamasoft, a supply chain modeling and design software firm, recently announced an investment and partnership with TPG Capital, the global private equity fund of leading alternative asset firm TPG.

 

The third nominee in this category is Cirius Therapeutics, a life science startup with research and development operations in Kalamazoo.

 

Ian Bund, senior advisor and founding partner of Plymouth Growth Partners in Ann Arbor, is nominated in the "Lifetime Achievement" award category.

 

"Ian Bund is legendary throughout Michigan," Brosnan says. "He's been a huge asset in helping to shape Michigan's venture capital community. He's been crucial to the success of a number of firms in the state, not just Plymouth Growth Partners."

 

Bund was recruited to Michigan back in 1976, when Michigan's venture capital community was much smaller than it is today.

 

"He's one of those people who have been there from the very beginning, and you'll see his name pop up associated with many venture capital events every year," Brosnan says.

 

The other nominees in the "Lifetime Achievement" category are investor and entrepreneur Mike Jandernoa, and investor Jody Vanderwel.

 

Also new this year is a "Community Impact Award." Nominees in this category are individuals, organizations, or events that create connections and build community in the entrepreneurial and venture capital ecosystem.

 

Nominees in this category are the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition, which awards $1 million in cash and in-kind prizes through its pitch competition; the Michigan Growth Capital Symposium, connecting early-stage companies with venture capitalists and strategic investors from Michigan, the Midwest, and across the U.S.; and Techstars Mobility, a mentorship-driven accelerator program focused on the future of mobility and transportation.

 

In general, Brosnan says that when choosing nominees, MVCA members are looking for "people willing to take risks."

 

"They are people who work hard to foster a vibrant entrepreneurial community and set the stage for the next generation," she says.

 

More information about all nominees and the awards dinner is available at MVCA's website.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of MVCA.


SAHI Cosmetics wins $100,000 investment in AOL founder's Rise of the Rest competition

SAHI Cosmetics' win in the Oct. 11 Rise of the Rest competition in Ann Arbor, netting the company an investment of $100,000, is just the latest triumph for SAHI founder Shelly Sahi.

 

SAHI focuses on makeup products aimed at Arab, Latina, and Indian consumers with "medium" skin tones that may have yellow or olive undertones.

 

"Rise of the Rest is a very interesting competition, with the founder of America Online (AOL), Steve Case, investing in your company if you win," Sahi says. "Just that name alone, having someone so sought after in the technology and entrepreneurial world — it was an honor to be chosen as a semi-finalist."

 

Sahi's main concern was that Case is from a technology background, and she wasn't sure he would take her makeup company seriously.

 

"But Steve was really happy with my business idea," Sahi says. "He saw that it was scalable and profitable, and the judges thought I was a credible leader who could lead the company to success."

 

SAHI was one of eight local companies who pitched to Case at the Michigan Theater last week. The other competitors were SkySpecs, Pitstop, Genomenon, Inmatech, Warmilu, SurClean, and Civionics. The pitch competition capped a day in which Case toured Ann Arbor accompanied by local public figures including Michigan governor Rick Snyder, Ann Arbor mayor Christopher Taylor, and Rock Ventures founder Dan Gilbert.

 

Sahi brainstormed the idea for her company while still an MBA student at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. She started working on the company full-time in December 2016, making SAHI one of the youngest companies to make the list of finalists in the Rise of the Rest competition.

 

SAHI has had several early successes. In February, Sahi won a $25,000 prize for best business in the Michigan Business Plan competition, plus an additional $2,000 for her outstanding presentation. In August she received a $100,000 investment from the Zell Founders Fund. She also got major exposure when Marie Claire published an article about her business this September.

 

When asked during the competition about how she handles struggles and hard decisions, Sahi shared that she had a chance to put her products on a website that sells products on discount.

 

"We could have made a lot of sales from that, but I knew that, ultimately, our strategy is to position SAHI as a luxury brand, so we couldn't have it discounted the first time somebody encountered our brand," Sahi says. "We could have made money in the short run, but it didn't fit our long-term strategy."

 

Sahi's plan for the new investment is to continue to build brand awareness.

 

"We need more people to find out about SAHI and try our products," she says. "I know they'll be satisfied and will come back for our newer products."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Shelly Sahi.


Genomenon offers free edition of genomic search engine for clinical, research, and academic clients

Genomenon, a spinoff company from the University of Michigan that makes software for genetic analysis, recently announced that it will offer a free edition of its Mastermind Genomic Search Engine to academic institutions, clinicians, and researchers.

 

"Using a Google search or even Google Scholar to search the literature is like searching for a needle in a haystack," says Genomenon CEO Mike Klein.

 

When a researcher searches for a specific genetic mutation that may cause cancer or another genetic disease, a search engine will return documents that range from patents to journal articles on biology. Even a well-trained researcher will have to spend hours hunting through thousands of articles to see if a document is clinically relevant.

 

"There were half a million papers related to genomics published just last year," Klein says. "That's a lot of new knowledge emerging around DNA diseases and diagnoses."

 

The professional version of Mastermind has been in use for six months, and helps researchers and clinicians find relevant studies and papers much more quickly.

 

However, Genomenon soon realized that many people who could benefit from Mastermind might not be able to afford the full professional version.

 

"You might have genetic counselors who see patients and want to translate genetic reports for patients," Klein says. "They might not be able to afford the professional edition, but a lot of value is provided in the free edition, and they could do some research before they counsel those patients."

 

The release of the free edition is meant as an altruistic move that will benefit the entire field of genetic analysis, but wider use of the search engine will also be beneficial to Genomenon as it tweaks Mastermind and gets ready to distribute it more widely.

 

Genomenon continues to offer a professional edition of Mastermind with enhanced data and clinical capabilities, data access tools for workflow automation and analyzing large sets of genomic data, and professional genomic data analysis services.

 

Klein says he's already heard reports from clients who have changed a diagnosis for a patient after using Mastermind.

 

"We're able to sequence DNA more cost-effectively right now, but the bottleneck is how to figure out what that data means," Klein says. "We're helping doctors get a faster diagnosis and make sure doctors never miss that important information that could save a patient's life."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Genomenon.


Free workshops invite Ypsi residents to create luminaries, costumes for ypsiGLOW

Ypsilanti community members are invited to participate in weekly free workshops to create glowing costumes and luminaries for the second annual ypsiGLOW, a nighttime festival in downtown Ypsi.

 

Drop-in "GLOWorkshops" will be held at Riverside Art Center's Off Center, 64 N. Huron St., every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. until ypsiGLOW takes place on Oct. 27 on North Washington Street in downtown Ypsi. All ages are welcome, and artist facilitators will be on hand to help community members with their creations. WonderFool Productions, creator of Ann Arbor's FestiFools and FoolMoon, is hosting the ypsiGLOW workshops and event.

 

There's a big emphasis on making ypsiGLOW inclusive and accessible to everyone in the community. WonderFool Productions producer Adriana Zardus says one of the reasons for hosting the event is making art accessible to diverse segments of the community and getting them involved in ypsiGLOW.

 

Zardus says WonderFool Productions staff serve as the "creative enablers" that provide the platform and resources for ypsiGLOW, but artists and community members decide what they would like to create for the event. She says WonderFool Productions doesn't dictate or prescribe what the event will look like, so the creative vision is in the hands of the artists and community members who participate.

 

"One of our strategies for achieving this core goal of inclusivity was to activate other nonprofits and community groups in making their own 'glow' to bring to the event," Zardus says.

 

WonderFool Productions facilitates satellite workshops for specific organizations, like the Ypsilanti District Library and Ypsilanti High School, that are playing particularly active roles in ypsiGLOW. Members of the participating organizations come together at the satellite workshops to work on a cohesive project.

 

For example, a group of kids from Ozone House has been working with the new program director of Riverside Art Center, Trevor Stone, to design blacklight-reactive hoodies that represent what the nonprofit means to them. The kids will wear the hoodies at ypsiGLOW and then continue to wear them during the colder months. Stone also will help the kids make blacklight-reactive masks using cardboard and neon tape.

 

Another workshop will be held at Cultivate, 307 N. River St., beginning at 5 p.m. on Oct. 27 until the ypsiGLOW festivities begin. There will be music, face painting, and costume making for community members who want to participate in the event but weren't able to attend one of the drop-in workshops. A glow-in-the-dark processional led by musicians from the Music and Arts Guild will start at Cultivate and go through Riverside Park to North Washington Street.

 

The main event on North Washington Street will include dancing, street performances, multimedia projects, art installations in storefront windows, interactive art activities, and more. All of the festivities incorporate some kind of spontaneous design or performance art that presents a sense of discovery for the participating community members to experience.

 

"There’s going to be a lot of hidden gems up and down the street that beckon event-goers to explore and create," Zardus says. "What we really try to foster at our events is a sense of participation and engagement."

 

Several local businesses, including Bona Sera, Ziggy’s, and Tap Room, will host gatherings with music and dancing after ypsiGLOW. Some of the businesses plan to create special glow-in-the-dark food and drinks for the event.

 

For the past two years, ypsiGLOW has primarily been funded by the Washtenaw County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. But it's uncertain where funding will come from for future ypsiGLOW events, so a Kickstarter campaign is being held in an effort to raise $3,000 to ensure it will continue.

 

"The only reason why we were able to grow this event so quickly is because this community was able to get behind this crazy idea that didn't even exist yet," Zardus says. "They just totally bought it and owned it. There's not many communities that you can go into and create a brand new community art event and have people buy in and just show up in costumes."

 

Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

 

All photos by Brianna Kelly.


Entrepreneurship program for kids to launch in Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor entrepreneur Debra Power wishes she had been able to attend a course or summer camp about starting a business when she was a kid. To make that dream come true for Washtenaw County children, she's started an entrepreneur education program for middle and high schoolers called Running Start.

 

"When I was a kid, I did every camp you could imagine," Power says. She attended space camp, civics camp, and leadership camp, but didn't have the opportunity to learn about building her own business.

 

"I'm really passionate about entrepreneurship and youth," she says. "I am also interested in demonstrating that, in this community and really all of Michigan, there are opportunities to build a business, to grow, to stay, and be successful."

 

Power says the idea for Running Start also came from an experience with grade-school girls who were developing their entrepreneurship skills.

 

"Earlier this year, I was doing a badge workshop for Girl Scouts, and I was watching third-graders come up with business ideas," she says. "I was surprised how sophisticated youth are about entrepreneurship."

 

Power is an entrepreneur herself, having founded Power Marketing Research about 16 years ago. She's made many contacts in her years as a business owner and she received nothing but positive responses after asking her network for feedback on her brainstorm of hosting workshops for young entrepreneurs. She has since recruited many of those contacts to serve as mentors in the program.

 

In a series of four weekly mentor-led workshops, children will develop, test, market, and pitch a business idea. The workshops will have room for 25 middle school students for the morning session and 25 high school students for an afternoon session.

 

Power says she knows that not everyone will become a business owner, but entrepreneurial skills are important in any workplace.

 

"Today, people aren't sitting isolated in a cubicle doing their job," she says. "These days, most workers are asked to come up with new business concepts, to engage in new ways, to think creatively like a business owner."

 

The program launches Oct. 21 with an informational meeting for parents from 1-2 p.m. at GO Where Meetings Matter, 4735 Washtenaw Ave. After a sign-up period, workshops will run from Feb. 24 to March 17, and then another session of four workshops will start up April 21.

 

The series of four workshops cost $199, but scholarships are available. More information is available on the Running Start website.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of Debra Power.


13-year-old entrepreneur among speakers at Ann Arbor's fourth annual WordCamp conference

A 13-year-old web design entrepreneur from Westland will be among the speakers at the fourth annual WordCamp conference in Ann Arbor, which brings together Michigan businesspeople to promote good web development practices.

 

The conference will be held Oct. 13-14 at the University of Michigan Rackham Building, 915 E. Washington St. It includes time for entrepreneurs, students, and others to learn more about building websites and promoting their businesses online with the WordPress publishing platform.

 

The conference kicks off with a half day of panels and workshops Oct. 13, with many programs geared toward newer users. A full day of programming Saturday wraps up with a party Saturday evening.

 

This year's event features a number of speakers including 13-year-old Emerson Jeffries, who has a web design business called Emerson DSign, Inc. Jeffries has built or modified WordPress sites for more than 50 individuals and small businesses, all while continuing to attend school and being involved with the youth theater program Mosaic.

 

"It's actually a pretty funny story how I started off," Jeffries says. "My interest in building websites came out of me playing school in my basement."

 

All his pretend students had to go to a website to get their homework assignments, and Jeffries began building websites with Weebly, soon switching to WordPress.

 

His first paid job was for a friend of his father's who is an attorney. She initially asked him to create business cards for her, and when he said he didn't do that but that he did build websites, she said she needed a website as well.

 

"That was the day I was established as a small business, and soon after that, I registered my business with the state," he says.

 

Jeffries says he picks up some of his work through freelance marketplaces like Fiverr, but most of his business comes in via word of mouth. He says he hasn't really found it challenging to get clients to take a 13-year-old entrepreneur seriously, but his status as a minor does create legal hurdles when it comes to opening bank accounts or registering as a business.

 

Jeffries will give a talk at WordCamp on the topic of "How to Own Your Business as a Young Entrepreneur." He will cover time management, creating content, discovering your audience, and marketing.

 

"The most important one is time management," he says. "As a kid, you have school and you have to manage household chores and after-school activities. But you still have to impress your clients so they will take you seriously."

 

Admission to the WordCamp conference is $36. Ticket and conference information is available at the WordCamp Ann Arbor website.
 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of Emerson Jeffries. Cory Miller photo courtesy of WordCamp Ann Arbor.


12 Ann Arbor companies named semifinalists in Accelerate Michigan competition

The Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition recently announced its 2017 semifinalists, and 12 Ann Arbor-area businesses made the list.

 

Accelerate Michigan is the state’s largest gathering of high-growth, high-tech companies and venture investors. The competition awards $1 million in prizes, including a $500,000 grand prize. Accelerate Michigan is operated by Invest Detroit Ventures with the support of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Ann Arbor SPARK, Invest Michigan, Spartan Innovations, the Michigan Small Business Development Corporation, and JR Turnbull.

 

All semifinalists will pitch during the morning and afternoon of Nov. 16 at the Detroit Masonic Temple. The top 10 finalists will pitch that evening during a gala awards dinner, when the grand prize is announced.

 

Among the Ann Arbor semifinalists is Soft Lesion Analytics, a firm whose technology allows patients and healthcare providers to speed up diagnosis by ensuring that enough cells are collected during fine-needle aspiration biopsy procedures.

 

"It basically comes down to biopsy quality control," says CEO and founder Michael Moore. "One out of five biopsies come back as inconclusive because they don't have enough tissue to test and say for sure if it's cancer."

 

That wastes the healthcare workers' time and increases patients' stress when they have to come back for another biopsy before getting a definitive diagnosis. Soft Lesion Analytics' technology does a cell count, so the healthcare team knows immediately if they have enough tissue for a diagnosis.

 

Moore says winning the Accelerate Michigan competition could "change things dramatically" for his company, which is still in an early stage. The prize money would help the company fund a clinical validation study it has scheduled for spring of 2018.

 

Moore says that just being named a semifinalist is an honor.

 

"It's an opportunity to start building a brand presence and get connected on a larger scale," he says.

 

Building that brand presence will include converting to a C corporation in the next few months and changing the company name to "Medkairos," derived from a Greek word for "opportune moment," Moore says.

 

Other semifinalists from Ann Arbor include:

 
  • Circadian Risk Inc., a company that has created a vulnerability assessment app and allows companies to create remediation plans to mitigate risk.

  • Foodstand, a company building an app that helps motivate good eating habits through community health eating challenges.

  • Kulisha, which uses insects for eco-friendly and sustainable livestock feed.

  • Mi Padrino, a crowdfunding platform for organizing, planning, and funding traditional Latino events.

  • Parabricks, a technology company providing high performance genomic analysis.

  • Plinqit, which creates a mobile app to encourage people to set financial goals to build their savings accounts.

  • Ripple Science, a company that builds web-based software to facilitate the recruitment and management of participants for clinical and translational studies.

  • Slideless, a technology company that aims to help health providers switch from glass microscope slides to digital pathology.

  • SpellBound, an augmented reality company that helps sick children deal with trauma and hospitalization.

  • TechStak, An online platform helping small businesses find technology solution providers for their outsourced technology needs.

  • Uru, an online platform that connects athletes with teams and playing opportunities all over the world.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Michael Moore.


Blogger creates community project to document life in Ypsi this weekend

Ypsilanti blogger Mark Maynard is encouraging other residents to join him this weekend in a somewhat spontaneous effort to document everyday life in Ypsilanti.

 

Maynard published a post on his blog last week announcing the project, called #DocumentYpsi2017. He hopes other Ypsi residents will help him take photos, videos, and audio recordings of little things around Ypsi that often go unnoticed, change frequently, and might be of interest years from now, like the drink menu at Haab's Restaurant or the marquee at Deja Vu. He's asking residents to take photos from Oct. 6 to 8 because he figured lots of people will already be out and about for First Fridays Ypsilanti.

 

Anyone who participates should share on social media using #DocumentYpsi2017. Maynard plans to upload some of his favorite submissions to his blog, while the rest will be accessible on social media as a virtual archive through the use of the hashtag. He envisions the hashtag being used years from now as an easy way to remember what life in Ypsi was like in 2017.

 

"It's something that I've thought about for a while, but it's just one of those things you put out there and see what happens," Maynard says. "I said, 'Well, maybe it'd be kind of cool if we just picked a weekend and we all took pictures and put them online and see what happens,' and thankfully people liked the idea and started to do something with it."

 

Ypsilanti High School art teacher Lynne Settles wants to get her students involved in the project, so she's encouraging them to take photos on their cellphones over the weekend. While they were in class, the students discussed Maynard's blog post on #DocumentYpsi2017 and brainstormed things they could photograph. The students who opt to participate will send their photos to Settles and share them on social media using #DocumentYpsi2017.

 

Ozone House's Drop-In Center, located at 102 N. Hamilton St., is also getting involved in the effort. Executive director Katie Doyle saw Maynard's blog post and decided to purchase disposable cameras to hand out to kids for them to use over the weekend. Youth opportunity director Colleen O'Brien also talked to the kids who participated in Ozone House's peer outreach worker training last week and they were really excited about the project. Ozone House plans to post the photos on its Facebook page and share them with Maynard.

 

Maynard hopes the project will generate enough interest to continue doing it every year and get more people and organizations involved. He foresees the possibility of Riverside Arts Center hosting a one-day art show to display some of the photo submissions or the Ypsilanti District Library making an archive of the audio recordings.

 

"Hopefully it'll be easier for people in the future [if they think,] 'I wonder what things were like in Ypsi in 2020,'" Maynard says. "They can put in #DocumentYpsi2020 and start flipping through thousands of photos of what life was like here. That would be kind of cool, I think."

 

Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

 

Photo by Doug Coombe.


Ann Arbor businessman's $185 million deal featured in sequel to bestselling business strategy book

The authors of the best-selling business how-to book Blue Ocean Strategy found a 2008 Ann Arbor business deal so noteworthy that they decided to feature it in their new book, Blue Ocean Shift, released Sept. 21.

 

Just as the American housing market was collapsing and the economy was entering a recession, Ann Arbor businessman Ted Dacko turned around a struggling healthcare industry consultancy called HealthMedia and sold it for a profit to Johnson and Johnson at a price of $185 million. Impressive at any time, the feat was highly unusual in 2008.

 

In Blue Ocean Shift, authors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne explore concrete examples of companies across various industries that succeeded by implementing the first book's strategy. Dacko's deal is cited as an example of using the Blue Ocean Strategy of creating "uncontested market spaces" in the healthcare sector.

 

Dacko says HealthMedia created those market spaces by finding the sweet spot between expensive but highly effective telephone or in-person coaching and ineffective but inexpensive generalized content such as websites and brochures.

 

But before that innovative new model of delivering health coaching could hit its stride, the NASDAQ crashed and venture capital dried up. HealthMedia's board offered Dacko a chance to turn the company around.

 

He chose to radically slash the staff from 85 to 18 and lived "hand to mouth," barely making payroll, for almost two years.

 

It was during that two-year period that the company published a randomized controlled study with Kaiser Health, proving that the HealthMedia model was promising, and Dacko first read about the Blue Ocean Strategy.

 

"The study showed we could really impact membership in terms of savings," Dacko says. "We could provide the efficacy of coaching at the cost structure of building a website, which was revolutionary at that time."

 

Dacko used the Blue Ocean principles to grow the company, and by the end of 2007, Dacko says the phone was "ringing off the hook" with venture firms that wanted to invest in the company.

 

The revival of HealthMedia ultimately led to the profitable sale to Johnson and Johnson, where Dacko continued to work for more than a year after the sale.

 

Today, Dacko's consulting firm, Arbor Dakota, shows other companies how to implement Blue Ocean Strategy and stand out from the competition.

 

His passion is helping to build CEO talent in the Ann Arbor area.

 

"In Ann Arbor, we have a number of great companies and great product ideas," he says. "The founders are people who know how to build a product but don't know how to build companies around those products."

 

He says that companies can't attract venture capital unless they have strong leadership.

 

"I find many founders don't know what a CEO does and when they find out what a CEO does, they want the title but don't want to do the job," he says. "It's a struggle to make them understand that, unless they transform from a founder to a CEO, the company isn't going to make it. Building a company requires more than a single skill."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Ted Dacko photo courtesy of Ted Dacko.


New door-to-door ridesharing service expands public transit options in Ypsi Township

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA) has introduced a pilot door-to-door shared-ride program called FlexRide, in addition to launching expanded bus service in Ypsilanti Township.

 

Mary Stasiak, manager of community relations for AAATA, says the portion of Ypsi Township served by FlexRide doesn't have the density to warrant a fixed route. So transportation officials needed to get creative in helping residents in that area get to the Paint Creek shopping center, the Whittaker Road branch of the Ypsilanti District Library, and other destinations in the area.

 

"There are a lot of residents in the area who need access to shopping or medical appointments or to get to work or school," Stasiak says. "It's a pilot service, and we may make adjustments as we go. The idea is to introduce it and see how people are using it."

 

After a bidding process, AAATA chose to partner with Metro On-Demand (MODE), a division of Golden Limousine, to operate FlexRide.

 

Currently, the service operates from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and for limited hours to Lincoln Consolidated schools when school buses are not running. The service costs $1 per trip each way. Discounts are available for students, seniors, and disabled riders.

 

Riders can reserve a ride the day before a trip or at least 45 minutes in advance for same-day rides by calling (734) 794-0377, by visiting MyFlexRide.org, or through the MODE Car app. Walk-ons may be accepted at the Paint Creek Shopping Center connection point if not all seats are full.

 

AAATA has also expanded traditional bus service on Route 46, which includes Huron River Drive and Textile Road, doubling service in the northwest corner of the pilot service area up to Whittaker and Merritt Roads in Ypsi Township.

 

Both the route expansion and the FlexRide pilot program were made possible by the approval of a 2014 transportation improvement millage.

 

Stasiak says the expectation is that FlexRide will continue to operate for the term of the millage, and possibly beyond, if voters choose to renew the millage in August 2018. As AAATA sees how riders use the service, the authority may tweak the hours and the pilot program could be expanded.

 

"We hope the service will do well and we can translate it to other areas as well," Stasiak says.

 

Stasiak says the transportation authority doesn't feel threatened by the rise of transportation options like Uber and Lyft, adding that she welcomes collaborations with other organizations.

 

"That's why we're working with MODE on this service," Stasiak says, adding that collaborations create "a future that has many new ways of providing transportation."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Ann Arbor's Leon Speakers celebrates 20th anniversary with public event

Ann Arbor's Leon Speakers will celebrate Michigan-made audio products and its 20th anniversary in a special public event called "Michigan Made HiFi" on Oct. 6 from 4-8 p.m.

 

The event has been organized in conjunction with two other Ann Arbor companies, Paragon Sight and Sound and MoFi Electronics. It will take place at Paragon, 3780 Jackson Rd., Ste. H.

 

Several new products will be on display, with demonstrations by Leon Speakers founder Noah Kaplan, and visitors will have a chance to see the restored 1967 Airstream trailer that Leon Speakers staff use to travel to a large industry trade show.

 

The event will include live acoustic sets by musician Camila Ballario, pizza from the Bigalora food truck, and Michigan craft beer provided by Tippins Market.

 

Kaplan says Leon is partnering with the two other companies because Paragon was one of the first companies to carry Leon products. Ann Arbor-based turntable maker MoFi also was another obvious partner for the event.

 

Kaplan says he aims to network with other local businesses that focus on handmade and locally made products and to create a "creative campus" of like-minded companies doing things related to sound and art. That includes creating a venue for live music called the Leon Loft.

 

"We're trying to put Michigan on the map as people who care about quality and craft," Kaplan says.

 

Despite the fact that music is more easily accessible in various digital formats than ever before, Kaplan says vinyl is "fully on the way back." However, he disputes the idea that the trend is all about nostalgia.

 

"People are buying and trading vinyl because it speaks to people's personalities," he says. "People crave things they can touch, and they want to buy products they can see and touch and to collect something tangible."

 

At the same time, he doesn't shun technology and thinks that the future of buying and consuming music will be a "hybrid."

 

"Sometimes people will stream music on their phone, sometimes they'll play it through speakers, sometimes through headphones," he says. "I think it will be a mix of everything — a little bit of digital, a little bit tangible. It goes along with our vision at Leon Speakers of mixing design with technology."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Leon Speakers.


Ann Arbor-area flower growers band together to form Michigan's first flower co-op

As the consumer trend toward buying local flourishes, a new wholesale flower co-op in Ann Arbor is aiming to expand that idea to include locally-grown flowers.

 

A group of 11 local flower growers banded together to create the Michigan Flower Growers' Cooperative, the only flower co-op in Michigan. Members host a wholesale market on Wednesdays for area florists and designers who would like to support local Michigan flower growers.

 

They launched their new co-op in July at Passionflower, a studio florist shop owned by Susan McLeary at 2401 S. Industrial Highway in Ann Arbor.

 

The three co-owners of the co-op are all farmers from the Ann Arbor area: Alex Cacciari of Seeley Farm, Trilby Becker of Sunseed Farm, and Amanda Maurmann of Gnome Grown Flower Farm. Maurmann also serves as market manager.

 

"We're lagging a little behind the local food movement, but it's the same intention," Maurmann says.

 

Maurmann says she hopes the co-op will inspire Ann Arbor-area consumers to consider the source of their flowers as they are increasingly doing with meat, eggs, and produce.

 

"People may see a flower stand at an airport stand and grab them without thinking twice about who grew those flowers," Maurmann says. "I'd love for people to start paying attention to where their flowers come from. If you see someone at the farmers market, for instance, selling a local bouquet, grab that instead of roses from Ecuador and you'll be contributing to Michigan's economy."

 

Maurmann says year-round production is not practical due to Michigan's climate, but the co-op hopes to expand its selling season next year by opening much earlier.

 

"We're aiming to get the biggest bang for our buck in the longest season possible," Maurmann says. "So next year, we plan to open in April with that first round of flowers that bloom in spring, like anemones."

 

The market takes a 30 percent commission on sales, but reducing the marketing and transportation costs for small farmers and providing them with a robust list of customers should mean that local flower farmers still come out ahead, Maurmann says.

 

Currently, about 20 buyers are showing up regularly at the Wednesday wholesale market, but Maurmann says that number grows by a few buyers each week.

 

Though this is the first flower co-op established in Michigan, Maurmann says she hopes it won't be the last.

 

"We hope that more will pop up," she says. "Michigan is a huge state, and third in the country for agricultural goods. I'd love it if other growers in Grand Rapids or Traverse [City] would start up their own flower co-ops."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

All photos courtesy of the Michigan Flower Growers' Cooperative.


National accounting and business consulting firm establishes Ann Arbor office

UHY LLP, a national certified public accounting and business consulting firm, has established an Ann Arbor office, the company's first location in Washtenaw County.

 

The Ann Arbor office, located at 455 E. Eisenhower Parkway, Ste. 102, opened for business Sept. 18 after extensive renovations. Jerry Grady serves as managing partner of the Ann Arbor office.

 

UHY has three other Michigan offices in Detroit, Farmington Hills, and Sterling Heights, with over 380 employees between them. UHY has also opened offices in Houston, West Hartford, Conn., and Miami this year.

 

Grady says UHY had intended to expand into Washtenaw County for a long time. The company has been serving clients in Ann Arbor, Chelsea, and Dexter, and the company recruits many of its employees from Eastern Michigan University, so opening an office in Washtenaw County made sense.

 

"Another reason is that we work a lot with Ann Arbor SPARK and private equity funds out here, and we have a lot of clients in Washtenaw County. We knew that by putting an office out here, it would allow us to continue our growth," he says.

 

The office currently has a staff of eight, with three more employees who split their time between the Farmington Hills and Ann Arbor offices.

 

Grady says the office space on Eisenhower Parkway made sense for several reasons. One reason is that it is close to I-94 and US-23, making it easier for employees to commute to other UHY locations.

 

Another reason is that the space is bigger than the company currently needs but just the right size for its expansion plans. Grady says UHY expects to add two more staffers to the Ann Arbor office in 2018, with total staff growing to between 25 and 30 in about five years.

 

Grady says he's looking forward to getting UHY staff involved in the Ann Arbor community and doing charitable work ranging from serving on foundation boards to running charity drives to recruiting young people for a summer leadership program.

 

"We've been in the area for a long time, and now we're looking to expand our footprint in the area, plant an office here, and be strongly supportive of the Ann Arbor community by getting involved in charitable organizations," Grady says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of UHY LLP.


Ann Arbor software firm InfoReady makes Inc. 5000 list

Ann Arbor software firm InfoReady has been ranked No. 313 on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the United States.

 

The company, which was founded in 2010 as a spin-off of GDI Infotech, had revenue of $2.1 million in 2016 and showed three-year growth of 105 percent.

 

InfoReady president and CEO Bhushan Kulkarni says the company originally focused on a product called InfoReady Review that helps universities streamline the grant application process. However, universities started using the software for other workflow applications, and Kulkarni says that's where "the growth really occurred."

 

The company recently added another product, InfoReady Thrive, which helps universities create a marketplace or one-stop shop for opportunities ranging from scholarships to fellowships to study-abroad programs and internships.

 

InfoReady had six customers in the first year of launching the product, and grew its customer base to 18 in the second year. By the end of the third year, Kulkarni says he expects to have about 100 customers coast-to-coast across the U.S.

 

InfoReady currently has a staff of about 20, but Kulkarni expects that to change.

 

"We're having natural employee growth to support the product," he says. "We need marketing staff and salespeople, and we expect that over the next year we'll be expanding our marketing department."

 

Kulkarni says InfoReady's products are appealing because they aggregate all opportunities on one site. The platform helps administrators put out the word about these opportunities and target faculty who can then target students who would be a good fit.

 

"It has become a platform for student engagement, success, and retention," Kulkarni says. "All this information is in one place, instead of having to visit 100 different sites to see what is available."

 

Kulkarni also notes that the platform is easy to implement and use, requiring little effort from university tech departments.

 

"Most of our growth is happening because we are providing the tools and product customers can use quickly and expand and scale their programs quickly with the help of technology," he says. "The ease of use and the fact that it requires no training is what's driving the growth."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of InfoReady.


Ypsi Township's SensiTile continues slow but steady growth

SensiTile, an Ypsilanti Township-based company that combines art and technology to create products for use in architecture and interior design, is experiencing slow and steady growth, boosted by word of mouth.

 

Founder Abhinand Lath started the company in his basement while he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, working on his master's thesis about using materials that bend and manipulate light.

 

"He made some prototypes while he was at the university, and that was the start of it all," says his wife, Vanika Lath. "He spent hours creating these prototypes and being the only person responsible for product design and gaining customer interest. It was a one-man show."

 

The company now manufactures custom architectural and design products from resin, glass, and terrazzo materials that interact with either embedded LED lights or ambient light.

 

Vanika Lath was trained as a physician but came on board her husband's company to help. She doesn't yet have an official title in her work with SensiTile and says she works on whatever needs doing at the time.

 

A few years after its founding, the company moved out of the Lath family's basement and into a rented space in Detroit, where their first big commission was designing materials for car-maker Saturn to use in a booth at the North American International Auto Show.

 

By 2008, however, the company was feeling cramped in its Detroit location and moved to its current location at 1735 Holmes in Ypsi Township.

 

The building had been foreclosed upon and was in a "sorry state," Lath says, with trees growing out of the dock. In other ways, though, it was a great find.

 

"The location is ideally suited to SensiTile's needs because we have two very distinct processes," Lath says. One process needs a very clean space, while mixing terrazzo creates a lot of dust, she says. Having a spread-out manufacturing space means the clean processes and the dusty processes can be separated.

 

Lath says that, at first, they wondered how they could use all the space they'd acquired. But today SensiTile may need to expand its footprint again, as well as adding on a few employees with a special set of skills that include both conceptual design and hands-on craftsman skills.

 

Lath says the company does very little advertising and thrives on word of mouth. This low-key strategy has resulted in a portfolio of clients from the University of Michigan to Marriott and Calvin Klein. These clients use SensiTile products in flooring, privacy screens, countertops, and more.

 

"Our fear earlier was what [would happen] if we get all this work and are unable to fulfill the orders, but we have now scaled up our processes and created efficiencies," Lath says. "We are hoping that a strategic and consistent inflow of projects will help support our next steps."

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of SensiTile.


Ann Arbor's Akadeum Life Sciences secures $1.5 million to develop microbubble technology

A recent funding round that netted almost $1.5 million will allow Ann Arbor-based bioscience company Akadeum Life Sciences to develop and market more products and double its staff.

 

The Ann Arbor company closed its latest round of financing Sept. 8, with Silicon Valley-based BioInfleXion Point Partners leading the financing round. The fund typically invests in the Bay Area, but said in a press release that the combination of the company's innovative technology and the strong team at Akadeum made the investment attractive. The core idea behind Akadeum's technology is sorting biological samples with microbubbles that target specific cells and float them to the surface to be collected.

 

Other investors include 5 Prime Ventures, the University of Michigan’s MINTS (Michigan Invests in New Technology Startups), Detroit Innovate Fund (part of Invest Detroit), and local angel investors.

 

Akadeum was founded by CEO Brandon McNaughton and CTO John Younger not long after they met by chance at a conference about seven or eight years ago. Later, when McNaughton was working at a startup and Younger was working as a professor at the University of Michigan, a mutual friend suggested they start talking with each other.

 

"We had a meeting, and I think both of us shared early on our interest in making an impact through innovation, developing something in the lab, and then putting it to work," McNaughton says.

 

They also agreed on a "lean startup" method that involved putting microbubbles in users' hands early in the development process.

 

"So we were basically doing development and marketing at the same time," says McNaughton. "For the life sciences, it's unusual to start getting early users before you're even done with development. In a lean startup, customer needs drive development, so you're not spending money or time on things they don't need."

 

Younger explains the microbubble technology that he and McNaughton have built their company on.

 

"When users have samples of cells, say from a clinical sample or from a patient, all the cells are like a big bowl of M&Ms," Younger says. "For the user, there's only one color they want, and they want to get rid of the rest. The technology lets us grab just the blue ones, or grab everything that's non-blue and throw it away so only the blue ones remain."

 

McNaughton says this latest round of funding will allow the company to launch a few products into a wider market.

 

"The last two years, we've focused on manufacturing microbubbles for cell separation, and now we need to decide what products we want to release," McNaughton says. "We're planning on releasing several of them. We're going to continue what we're doing, putting our products early on into user hands, and building the company."

 

To help with that expansion, Akadeum plans to move to a new facility at MI-HQ in Ann Arbor by the end of September and double its team from five to 10.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Akadeum.


Detroit's Veronika Scott on embracing "entrepreneur" label and what Ann Arbor can learn from Detroit

The University of Michigan (U-M) will host its annual day-long Entrepalooza symposium Friday, Sept. 22, at the Michigan League, featuring socially-minded Detroit entrepreneur Veronika Scott as keynote speaker.

 

Scott built a nonprofit called The Empowerment Plan around the idea of designing a coat specifically for the homeless and employing workers who have experienced homelessness.

 

Scott came up with the idea for a self-heated waterproof coat, which functions as a sleeping bag at night or a carrying bag during the day, while she was a student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

 

"It's always, from the beginning, been the plan to hire people from shelters. That's really the most important part of our business," Scott says. "The coat is just a bandage for systemic issues with unemployment and poverty."

 

Scott says the idea is to hire formerly-homeless people to make a product they will hopefully never have to use. So far, she says every employee hired from a shelter has been able to move into permanent housing within four to six weeks of starting work at The Empowerment Plan, with zero recidivism.

 

Even though Scott was running her own business before she even graduated college, she says it has been difficult to embrace the label "entrepreneur."

 

"Growing up, nobody in my family had ever started a business," she says. "I thought entrepreneurship was something for people from the higher classes, people with wealth and connections. It took me a long time to settle into that 'entrepreneur' title."

 

Scott will address that struggle with identifying as an entrepreneur during her keynote speech. She says many women have a "side hustle" ranging from baking to doing hair, but don't see themselves as entrepreneurs.

 

"Women usually wait until they've completed something, while men will often start talking about themselves as entrepreneurs after they get the idea," she says.

 

Scott says she is deeply involved in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Detroit, and one thing that stands out about it is how most small business owners collaborate and help each other out. She thinks Ann Arbor and other entrepreneurial hubs could learn from that example.

 

"Everyone supports each other, because they know everyone needs to rise with the tide," Scott says. Repairing the economy in Detroit is something that needs to be done collectively, not by one person or one company, she says.

 

As a nonprofit, sometimes a funder won't make sense for The Empowerment Plan, but Scott will pass on the funder's information and connect them to other entities that are a better fit.

 

"I don't see that happening in many other cities across the U.S." she says. "It doesn't work to be isolated and protective of your network and your connections and other things you see as valuable."

 

In addition to the keynote address, Entrepalooza includes opportunities for networking and workshops on a variety of topics led by members of the U-M and local entrepreneurial community, including representatives from Ann Arbor SPARK, Grand Circus Coding Bootcamps, Bodman PLC law office, and the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship.

 

The symposium is co-hosted by the U-M Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship at the College of Engineering, the U-M School of Public Health's Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship program, the U-M School of Information's Entrepreneurship Program, the U-M School of Music Theatre and Dance's EXCEL Program, and Innovate Blue.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 
Photos courtesy of The Empowerment Plan.

Ann Arbor startup's technology used to predict damage from hurricanes Harvey and Irma

Ann Arbor startup EigenRisk's risk analytics technology is being put to the test in tracking and assessing natural disasters, including hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

 

The company's EigenPrism software is a real-time event monitoring and notification service for natural disasters from earthquakes to hurricanes to landslides. Users in the risk management community, such as insurance companies and corporate risk managers, can use the system to receive notifications of loss estimates while catastrophes are in progress.

 

One of the first tests of the new technology happened during Hurricane Harvey, when global insurance company Lockton used the platform to quickly estimate its insured loss, both personal and commercial, within hours. Previously, these types of loss estimates could take weeks to compile.

 

The software is being used to track losses in Hurricane Irma and damages from the recent earthquake in Mexico as well.

 

"The footprint of the earthquake in Mexico was available within one hour," says EigenRisk co-founder and president Deepak Badoni.

 

EigenRisk is rooted in Badoni's 20-plus years in insurance. He has worked with insurance companies and large brokerages, and more recently with companies that specialize in computer models for risk management.

 

"We started the company about three years ago when a bunch of us who worked together saw that there's a gap in the industry," Badoni says.

 

Insurance companies need decisions fast, and sophisticated models for pricing already existed, but there was little in the way of technology for real-time monitoring. Badoni says technology has advanced enough that analytics can be gathered within minutes instead of weeks.

 

"Basically, we're a tech company bringing together the best-of-breed models from multiple players, together with data from clients such as risk managers and insurance brokerages, to create actionable insights," he says.

 

EigenPrism gathers information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other sources to track wind speeds during hurricanes, and earthquake data from the United States Geologic Service and other partners to quickly create estimates of damage, loss maps, and alerts.

 

Badoni says it's an exciting time for the company right now, as it's getting national attention.

 

The concept for the platform has been put to the test, and several companies have been early adopters of the technology. Now, Badoni says, it's time to grow.

 

The company's next steps involve looking for funding and ironing out a few details with the technology and with customer and client support for the software, Badoni says.

 

"We will be growing next year, and we want to add more client-facing resources, because so far we've been far more focused on building out the product," he says.

 

Badoni says he expects to scale the company, which now has 17 employees, in a "much bigger way" in the next two to three years.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of EigenRisk.


LLamasoft aims to improve third-world medical supply delivery via drones

Ann Arbor-based LLamasoft has partnered with Zipline, a company whose autonomous drones deliver medical supplies to remote locations, to optimize drone usage in public health supply chain applications.

 

Zipline, which is based in Half Moon Bay, Calif., has already been using drones to deliver medical supplies in Rwanda and is now expanding its services into Tanzania. LLamasoft's Global Impact Team has worked with the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and Medical Stores Department on supply chain projects to optimize the ministry's transportation routes for nearly four years.

 

"We've been helping the ministries of health answer questions like how many warehouses they need, where they need to put them, [and] how to ensure medicines are in stock at health facilities," says Sid Rupani, regional director for LLamasoft IMEA. "We examine transportation routes, the frequencies of deliveries, the capacities of the trucks, and all these other quantitative questions about how to set up the supply chain."

 

Rupani says he began talking to Zipline founders a couple years ago. He thought the time for a partnership was ripe because Zipline already had supply-chain expertise, and because drone technology was becoming more "mature."

 

"It made sense to model how their technology would fit in with supply chain management and improve the availability of medicines, the speed with which those medicines would be provided, and the impact on cost," Rupani says.

 

Zipline and LLamasoft collaborated for over a year, modeling existing operations in Rwanda so they could make the case for expanding their services into Tanzania in terms of benefits and cost.

 

Rupani says nobody is making the case that drones should replace existing transportation methods completely, now or in the future.

 

"So the question becomes what niches do they fit into, and where do they give a compelling advantage?" Rupani says.

 

In Rwanda, the partners found that delivering blood by drone made more sense than driving to the nearest blood bank. Instead of using three or four hours of an employee's time as well as fuel costs for a round-trip ride, a drone could deliver a few pints of blood in 20-30 minutes.

 

Rupani says delivery of vaccines is likely to be another useful application. Instead of sending one truck around each month to deliver vaccines to various health clinics, which may have power outages that spoil temperature-sensitive vaccines, a drone can deliver smaller amounts more frequently.

 

"It's a nice trade-off, because the cost worked out to be about neutral, but with better performance" and less waste, Rupani says.

 

Rupani says he and others at LLamasoft are working on a white paper with another partner with the aim of determining what niches in the supply chain can best be supplied by drones.

 

"We're looking not just at Zipline's technology but all available drone options currently on the market," Rupani says. "We'll be looking at all these different parameters and examining in which cases it would make sense to deliver by drones."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of LLamasoft.


Riverside Arts Center, FLY Children's Art Center aim to create Ypsi arts hub through merger

Two Ypsilanti arts nonprofits are joining forces in an effort to establish a community creative hub for downtown Ypsi.

 

Riverside Arts Center (RAC), located at 76 N. Huron St., and FLY Children's Art Center started working together more closely at the beginning of the summer and legally merged their operations in mid-August. Both of the organizations recently announced their incorporation in emails to supporters, press releases, and announcements on their websites.

 

RAC started as a nonprofit 21 years ago with the goal of establishing an arts center in an old Masonic temple owned by the Ypsi Downtown Development Authority. It has essentially served as a rental facility for local artists over the years but has lacked its own programming.

 

Emily Tuesday, executive director of RAC, says most nonprofits create a mission and then build a space to fit their programming, but RAC was different because it was mostly organized around utilizing an existing physical space. She says RAC wanted to start offering programming and become a central hub for the arts in Ypsi.

 

"We're in a prime location. Our building has many different avenues for creative expression. We're at a point in our growth where we need to have something else to offer the community," Tuesday says.

 

FLY was founded eight years ago as a mobile program aiming to provide opportunities for kids to utilize their creative intuition. It eventually moved into a space a few doors down from RAC and then relocated last year to the Off Center, next door to RAC at 64 N. Huron St.

 

Kim DeBord, former executive director of FLY and current RAC board member, says the incorporation was the result of serendipitous timing because FLY needed a more permanent location while RAC was looking to add programming. She says the merger is also timely for the Ypsi community in general.

 

"I think this community is really ready to have a hub like Riverside be an active participant in the community and ready to support an arts center," DeBord says.

 

RAC and FLY will undergo a rebranding effort led by Eastern Michigan University design students as part of a class project. The effort will focus on creating a new website for RAC and rebranding FLY from FLY Children's Arts Center to FLY Creativity Lab to better reflect its current mission.

 

FLY Creativity Lab will now be based at RAC but its exact location inside the arts center has yet to be determined. FLY also will continue to operate in a mobile capacity so it can bring its programming to other sites throughout the community.

 

"We're trying to bring the same kind of programs that we want for our kids to all the kids, especially as funding in schools gets cut and all these things that are considered 'extra' get cut," DeBord says.

 

RAC is actively looking to hire a full-time program manager to oversee the continuity and expansion of FLY's programming since the arts center has become a larger organization as a result of the incorporation. Another benefit of a larger organization at the center of Ypsi's creative hub is the ability to support more projects led by members of the community.

 

"If someone's going to take a creative initiative — whether they're an independent artist or a collective or a group — we'd like to be a place that people go, 'Well, first we should talk to Riverside,'" DeBord says.

 

RAC has invited about 60 community members to participate in strategic planning sessions for the arts center on Sept. 18, 19, and 27. The sessions will seek to address feedback collected through a survey that was dispersed more widely throughout the community earlier this year. The survey concluded that Ypsi residents want RAC to serve as a hub for the arts, offer programming, and be more relevant in the community.

 

"Ypsi really does have this potential to be our little mini utopia," Tuesday says. "We have a very diverse community. We have people who are supportive of taking risks. We're coming up with ingenious and creative ways to address issues within our community. That's really unique to this city."

 

RAC is holding a fundraiser titled "Fall for Art" on Oct. 14 during which more details on RAC and FLY's future will likely be announced.

 

Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

 

RAC group photo by Emily Tuesday. All other photos by Anastasia Zein.


Funding and mentorship program for startups comes to Ann Arbor SPARK

Kyyba Xcelerator, Bodman PLC, and TiE Detroit are partnering with Ann Arbor SPARK to bring a program for entrepreneurs called Pitch Club to Ann Arbor on Sept. 27.

 

The mentoring and funding program will be the first of 10 monthly events to be held in cities across Michigan, including Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Lansing. The program's aim is to connect entrepreneurial hubs and SmartZones within Michigan and to provide startups with potential funders and mentors as they grow their businesses.

 

Each event will include a pitch session, as well as unique touches including local keynote speakers and partnerships with local entrepreneurial and economic development organizations, including TechTown and Automation Alley. The keynote speaker at the Ann Arbor Pitch Club will be Don Hicks, founder of Ann Arbor software firm LLamasoft.

 

"We're pulling together amazing people to be judges, to invest, and provide guidance," says Michael Melfi, partner with Bodman and Pitch Club host.

 

Startups who want to present at a Pitch Club event complete an online application form, and those applications are then reviewed by a panel of judges. Those chosen to pitch at the monthly events not only get a chance to earn investments ranging from $25,000 to $100,000, but they also automatically get a $2,000 service provider package with resources for startups, one-on-one coaching with a mentor, and a free pass to the TiECon Detroit entrepreneurial conference.

 

Qualifying companies that receive funding from the TiE Detroit Angels may also have a chance to present to a global program for funding startups, the TiE Global Angel Alliance.

 

Melfi says the panel of judges will be looking for products or services that solve a problem for a large audience. The judges want to see pitches that have mass appeal and that are scalable and profitable.

 

"The way I look at the judging is that we're all optimists, looking for what's possible in the pitches we see," Melfi says. "We're looking for individuals or teams who have the right attitude, skills, and knowledge to succeed as entrepreneurs."

 

Startups interested in pitching at one of these events can apply at the Kyyba Xcelerator website.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of Michael Melfi.


Ann Arbor cosmetics company focusing on minority consumers wins $100,000 investment from U-M fund

SAHI Cosmetics, a startup cosmetics company founded by a University of Michigan (U-M) Ross School of Business graduate, has received a $100,000 investment from the Zell Founders Fund.

 

The U-M student-led seed fund has a focus on funding startups founded by Ross students and recent alumni. SAHI Cosmetics founder Sheleen Sahi is finding success quickly, having been named the best business in the Michigan Business Challenge in February 2017. SAHI products focus on Arab, Latina, and Indian consumers.

 

Sahi says it may seem like business growth is coming quickly and easily, but she spent a lot of time and effort setting up a foundation for success.

 

"What you get is what you put in," Sahi says. "One thing that helped me find success was that I worked really hard to get into a school like Ross and take all the right classes to set me up for success."

 

She says taking courses on marketing, strategy, and entrepreneurship is coming in handy now that she's working on making a future for SAHI Cosmetics.

 

Sahi says she thinks her company is attractive to investors in part because many people are moving toward an "inclusive economy."

 

"We look where there are open spaces, where there are folks neglected by certain industries," Sahi says. "Our brand is all about about inclusivity and celebrating diversity. That's a great, positive message that investors can back."

 

Sahi says members of the growing U.S. immigrant community have higher educational degrees, which means higher spending power, and many of those immigrants are used to spending money on custom goods and solutions.

 

"It's about time people start considering the demands for this particular population," she says. "They have the money to pay for it, and are willing to pay for it, so brands should start to consider the implication of including these other folks into their customer base."

 

Sahi says the Founders Fund investment has allowed her to hire a marketing firm and a PR firm to spread the word about her business and bring more customers to the website.

 

She also hopes to put more revenue into research and development and expand the SAHI line with products that complement her target market's complexion. Sahi is expecting to expand her line of blushes and highlighters next.

 

Her strategy is not to get products into department stores or other retail venues, but to connect with customers directly through the SAHI Cosmetics website.

 

"We're building our brand identity with customers," Sahi says. "We are hoping to get many repeat customers coming back to us and create a good connection with customers."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Sheleen Sahi.


Hero Nation comic con aims to boost minority representation in superhero culture

As a kid growing up in Detroit, Jermaine Dickerson would envision himself as a superhero who could fly over his problems and deflect harsh words as if he were bulletproof. Now the Ypsilanti Township resident has morphed into a graphic designer and artist whose superpower is fighting for representation and combating exclusion in Ypsi and beyond.

 

Dickerson founded Hero Nation, a superhero-inspired community movement, in the wake of last year's presidential election. Hero Nation's first major initiative will be a free comic con taking place on Sept. 9 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Parkridge Community Center, 591 Armstrong Dr. in Ypsi.

 

Dickerson says he founded Hero Nation because he was worried about what a Trump presidency would mean for his friends and family who are LGBTQ or people of color, so he felt compelled to do something "to change and impact lives."

 

Hero Nation aims to extend a platform for creative expression to marginalized groups, especially those who are comic book and superhero fans. Dickerson’s goal is to empower and uplift people who might not be able to identify with many of the characters they see on TV and in movies, so they can be their own superheroes. He wants to create safe spaces where people can escape from discrimination, hate, and bigotry.

 

“Let’s start building bridges," Dickerson says. "Let’s also start having important conversations about intersectionality, about representation, about diversity. ... Right now, more than ever, I think we need to have these conversations considering the social, racial, and political climate.”

 

The Hero Nation comic con will offer a variety of programming, video gaming, free food provided by Marco’s Pizza, vendors, a DJ, and more. Given the amount of low-income families on Ypsi's South Side, Dickerson wanted the comic con to be a free event with lots of giveaways for the young attendees. There will be free toys, school supplies, and comic books for kids. Teens who participate in the video game tournament will have the chance to win a PlayStation 4 or a PlayStation 3.

 

Dickerson funded the event through a combination of fundraisers, a crowdfunding campaign, and numerous sponsorships with local businesses and organizations, including DIYpsi, Go! Ice Cream, Vault of Midnight, Graduate Employees' Organization, Digital Inclusion, and Sanctum Sanctorum Comics & Oddities LLC. He also held a toy drive to collect items to give away to kids at the comic con.

 

The comic con will host presentations from various individuals and groups, including young poets from the Detroit-based InsideOut Literary Arts Project. It will also feature guest artists including Arvell Jones, co-creator of Marvel Comics character Misty Knight, and Andre Batts, creator of Detroit-based Urban Style Comics.

 

A panel titled "Wonder Women of Ypsi," moderated by Gillian Ream Gainsley, will feature panelists Yen Azzaro, Dr. Heather Neff, VicToria Harper, and Lynn Malinoff. The panel will highlight the achievements and stories of women who have deeply influenced the community. A closing ceremony will also be held in which an adult will be named "Hero of the Year" and a child will be named "Rising Hero of the Year."

 

Hero Nation plans to continue hosting community events focusing on diversity and inclusion. Dickerson realizes Hero Nation may evolve after seeing what works and what doesn't, and he wants to make sure it adjusts to the community's needs. He wants the comic con to establish a foundation for an event that could be brought to other cities, like Flint or Detroit.

 

“I know that this world is always in need of more heroes, so let’s build a nation of heroes,” he says. “Let’s establish that nation of heroes so that people can know that heroes exist, and it’s not just about people in capes and tights, or with shields and swords, but the hero can be you.”


Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

Photos courtesy of Jermaine Dickerson, except Go! Ice Cream photo by Nick Azzaro.

Ann Arbor picture frame manufacturer employing former prisoners expands business, moves to Saline

Urban Ashes recently announced a move into the former Johnson Controls factory at 135 E. Bennett St., Suite 15, in Saline in order to make room for an expansion into commercial contract furnishing and OEM picture frame manufacturing.

 

Paul Hickman founded the design and fabrication company in Ann Arbor in 2009 as a social enterprise employing former prisoners to make photo frames with reclaimed wood and non-toxic finish.

 

As the company expanded into other markets, including furniture, it became necessary to find a bigger space. Hickman says the company was "under the gun," running out of time on an extension of the lease at its old Ann Arbor location, when he ran across the Johnson Controls building in Saline. The building was in rough shape and hadn't had any updates in more than five years.

 

"We had to look pretty hard at the space to see the potential there, and luckily the landlord was willing to invest some money in replacing the roof and investing in the building," Hickman says. "We saw the raw space as being a really nice partner with what we do, reviving things and bringing things back to life. We weren't out looking for that, but it fit really well."

 

Hickman says the previous location's layout was "chopped up" on different levels, with wood storage and the shop floor on a different level from the offices and showroom. The new space is almost 9,000 square feet, up from about 3,000 at the old location.

 

"We're working on much larger pieces and higher volumes, so we need more equipment and more space," Hickman says.

 

Urban Ashes' move into commercial contract furnishings means the company will be providing custom-made furniture made from reclaimed wood for restaurants, hotels, health care settings, and other retail and commercial uses, including large conference tables for boardrooms.

 

Urban Ashes has already provided all the furniture for J.B.'s Smokehouse in Canton and large tables for the Detroit Foundation Hotel.

 

Hickman says the term "original equipment manufacturing" usually is applied to automotive firms but it is being used more for other industries as well. The expansion into OEM means that Urban Ashes will make picture frames for other companies who will then use the frames with their products and finishings and sell them under their own brands, rather than under the Urban Ashes brand.

 

Urban Ashes will also continue its focus on custom framing for more than 250 framing stores in 44 states, Hickman says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Urban Ashes.


Pitch Ypsi competition returns with $5,000 prize for entrepreneurs

The inaugural Pitch Ypsi $5000 business competition in March drew so much interest that organizers have already launched a second one.

 

Entrepreneurs in Ypsilanti who have an idea for a new business or for growing an existing business can submit a pitch at the Pitch Ypsi website by Sept. 15. Organizers will winnow the field down to the five best entries. Finalists will then pitch their ideas to a panel of judges at a finale event Oct. 26 at the downtown Ypsilanti Farmers Market, 16 S. Washington St.

 

The person or team with the best pitch gets the cash prize along with free legal services from Varnum - Attorneys at Law, which is one of the sponsors of the competition.

 

"We're looking for businesses or even just ideas that will benefit the Ypsilanti area," says Kristin Gapske, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at Washtenaw Community College and member of the Pitch Ypsi organizing committee. The winning concept at the first competition was Grove Studios' proposal for artist rehearsal spaces made of shipping containers.

 

Gapske says the committee wants all competitors to succeed, so organizers will host workshops and pitch practices for the five finalists after they're chosen. Businesses that don't make it to the final five are also provided with resources for establishing or growing a small business.

 

Gapske says organizers learned a number of things from the first competition, so a number of things are different during this second iteration.

 

"We were surprised that 60 people applied, but so pleased. We are prepared for an even bigger applicant pool this year, so we bulked out our committee group to about 10 to 12 people this time," Gapske says.

 

She says committee members are a "big grab bag of people who want to help Ypsilanti grow," pulling from groups that range from small business owners to entrepreneurial support groups to colleges and universities.

 

The first round used a Facebook page to organize the competition, but this time around, there's a slick new website designed by competition sponsor Do:Better.

 

Organizers hope that the popularity of the competition will continue to grow.

 

"We'd like to get to the point where we're holding three of these a year," Gapske says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo by Haiying Gan.


NewFoundry makes Inc. 5000 list, mulls move out of Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor software firm NewFoundry has made the 2017 Inc. 5000, Inc. magazine's list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.

 

NewFoundry ranked 1,347, with a current revenue of $2.2 million and a three-year revenue growth of 302.9 percent. The company analyzes needs and then creates software and mobile apps for companies in a variety of industries. Clients include the University of Michigan and firms such as Club Car/Ingersoll Rand, Renesas Electronics Corporation, ROUSH Performance, and Sea Ray/Brunswick.

 

In a 2015 interview with Concentrate, NewFoundry CEO Richard Chang said the company's goal was to double its revenue each year, and as of 2017, Chang says that is "working out quite nicely."

 

Chang says that doesn't necessarily mean all the growth is in cash. Sometimes NewFoundry takes a "slice of ownership" in other companies in exchange for their services, he says.

 

While the Inc. 5000 list focuses purely on revenue, NewFoundry is also growing in other ways. NewFoundry's staff has increased from 15 to 19 over the past two years, and Chang says the company is currently trying to hire even more, as it needs more engineers on staff.

 

The company celebrates its fifth anniversary in September, and Chang says he's not sure what another five years will bring for the company, but it will have to be forward-thinking and open to change. He says he expects his company to become more deeply involved with providing software for autonomous vehicle technology and newer energy technology like wind power.

 

Currently located at 1950 Manchester Rd., Chang says he is worried NewFoundry will outgrow its space and be unable to stay in Ann Arbor.

 

"We've done quite a bit to try to stay in Ann Arbor and be a part of the community here," Chang says. In 2015, he considered moving the company to Ypsilanti, but then lucked into finding the current space.

 

"We really wanted to stay in Ann Arbor and support the town that allowed us to grow to the level we are at now, but the space problem in Ann Arbor really needs to be tackled," Chang says.

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of Richard Chang.


Detroit entrepreneur brings 20 small business pop-ups to Briarwood Mall

A popular small business pop-up event that's attracted thousands of visitors in Detroit is making its way to Ann Arbor.

 

The All Things Detroit pop-up will take place Aug. 18-20 at Briarwood Mall, 100 Briarwood Circle in Ann Arbor. Jennyfer Crawford, a Detroit entrepreneur and owner of consulting firm Ask Jennyfer, is organizing the event. It will feature about 20 small businesses from around metro Detroit, showcasing everything from homemade ceramics to T-shirts. This will be Crawford's first such event outside the city of Detroit.

 

"Ann Arbor is a different bank of customers, and it'll help these small businesses build more brand awareness," Crawford says.

 

Crawford says she held her first All Things Detroit events about four years ago in her one-bedroom apartment, but they quickly grew too big for that venue. She moved into Detroit's Eastern Market, at first filling up one shed. After two years, she expanded to rent out the entire market with 250 vendors and more than 12,000 visitors.

 

Crawford says she thinks Ann Arbor, with its love of funky shops and art fairs, will be a good fit for the handmade products on sale at the event. It's also a trial run for expanding All Things Detroit into other areas, including Brooklyn, N.Y., later this year.

 

Visitors to the August event can use an "e-punch system" or a sort of virtual loyalty card through the All Things Detroit mobile app to win prizes and get discounts.

 

Crawford says she reached out to several small businesses in the Ann Arbor area but none had signed up to vend at the event as of early August. Small business owners from Washtenaw County interested in vending during the Briarwood event may reach Crawford at 877-873-5307 or through the Ask Jennyfer website.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Photos courtesy of All Things Detroit.

Swedish software company aims to expand Ann Arbor presence

Modelon, a Swedish-based software company with an office in Ann Arbor, is finding success with a "bottom-up" approach that allows everyone to bring innovative ideas to the table.

 

Modelon was started about nine years ago, and today the company's global operations now employ about 75 people across Europe, Asia, and the U.S. The company creates software tools for "virtual engineering" for a variety of industries.

 

"Back in the day, you'd build a prototype and test it, and then go back and build a new prototype, and that got to be pretty costly and time-consuming," says David Higbie, Modelon's chief commercial officer. "Using technology like ours, engineers can test out lots of different ideas virtually on a desktop computer, then fine-tune design decisions before they even go to prototyping."

 

Modelon expanded its footprint into the U.S. with an Ann Arbor office about four years ago. Currently, Modelon's office at 24 Frank Lloyd Wright Dr. in Domino's Farms has five on staff, but Higbie says he hopes to add three more Ann Arbor staffers within a year or two.

 

He says Ann Arbor made sense as the U.S. hub for Modelon in part because it's a great place to live but also because it's in an automotive technology hub, and the automotive industry is a big part of Modelon's customer base.

 

"The types of employees we're looking for are hard to find," Higbie says. "They have to have the right technology, engineering, and software development background, and Ann Arbor is a great place to find those people."

 

The company recently wrapped up a summer event called One Modelon that brings employees from all over the globe to Sweden, a tradition that dates back to when Modelon was founded.

 

"Back when everyone was in Sweden, you could just talk to someone across the hall, but as the company has grown, they have maintained the commitment to bringing the entire company together as a way to get face-to-face time and building company culture and trust," Higbie says.

 

That is just one facet of Modelon's "bottom-up" corporate culture.

 

"Our culture is one where people are really encouraged to test new ideas on their own," Higbie says. "You have an opportunity to do a ton of different things based on your own personal interests and where you can make a contribution."

 

While employees have flexibility in how they work, the company still keeps a "pretty tight control" on its objectives with a focus on "over-delivering" to the customer, Higbie says.

 

"It's exciting to be in this industry bringing something unique in terms of both the culture and the technology we've developed," Higbie says.

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Modelon.


Summer internship program pairs students with local startups, expert mentors

A digital marketing summer internship program that connects students with both local startups and expert marketing mentors will graduate its latest class of interns today.

 

Now in its third year, the Digital Summer Clinic Internship Program is a partnership between Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) Center for Digital Engagement and Ann Arbor SPARK. This year's program gave paid internships to 24 student interns out of an applicant pool of 79. The program runs for nine weeks each summer, pairing students with startups that need help with digital marketing.

 

Origins of the internship program

 

Bud Gibson, director for the Center for Digital Engagement, runs the summer clinic program and says it grew out of an earlier partnership with Google and local nonprofits, started in 2008.

 

"We started training students in digital marketing and then we'd pair the students with nonprofit organizations, and they'd help those organizations build out Google AdWords accounts," Gibson says.

 

Gibson says the program "evolved substantially," and in 2015 organizers decided to put together the Center for Digital Engagement. They brought SPARK into the partnership, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation funded the first two years of the internship program through a grant.

 

Kimberly Brown, senior marketing manager at Ann Arbor's Duo Security, was involved in the earlier iteration of the program and came back this summer to serve as a mentor in residence.

 

Teachers and advisors reach out to recruit students, and there is a social media campaign to encourage applications as well. SPARK contributes by recruiting the startups who participate.

 

Win-win for startups and students

 

Gibson says the interns "are bringing value directly to the company," and the students, in turn, get hands-on experience applying the lessons they learned in their college courses.

 

Students primarily come from EMU and Washtenaw Community College, but the social media campaign brings in participants from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan as well.

 

Students who apply for the program aren't just marketing majors. They come into the program with majors ranging from computer science to public relations to digital art. They use their skills to help startups with everything from creating blog posts to updating Facebook or Instagram accounts to revamping company websites.

 

"They are not only bringing tangible skills, like building a landing page for the company's website, but they're also developing networking skills and refining their own online presence to increase the chances of landing a job after this," Brown says.

 

Weekly coaching sessions

 

An important component of the program is a weekly "clinic," in which the students must talk about what projects they've been working on and get suggestions and advice. Industry experts are also brought in to give talks or do panel discussions.

 

"The interns get the sort of coaching most people don't get in their day-to-day work at their jobs," Brown says.

 

Nicole Raymond interned in the program and managed the program's PR and digital media efforts this summer.

 

She was paired up with Ann Arbor startup TrueJob, which has created a new approach to job hunting. Raymond's internship involved producing blog posts and updating the company's social media accounts.

 

She says she appreciated getting hands-on experience with the digital side of marketing since that wasn't covered in any depth in her public relations courses in college. She also is glad that the job taught her more about analytics.

 

"The biggest benefit wasn't a certain skill, but more confidence in myself and my abilities," Raymond says. "In PR, you're not going to get this kind of experience anywhere else, and I've learned skills that other people [coming into their first jobs] won't have."

 

Gibson says confidence-building is a big part of why the weekly clinic is part of the program. He adds that industry experts' involvement as speakers and mentors makes the internship stronger and more robust than other internship programs, where students are thrown into a company to sink or swim.

 

"Kim leads the panel discussion and sources our speakers, and we could not do this without the dedication of skilled executives," Gibson says. "At the Center for Digital Engagement, we're a bunch of professors trying to help students, but we couldn't do it without the rest of the community."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Anastasia Bebeshko.


Electric bike company moves from basement operation to Ypsi storefront

H.E.H. Human Electric Hybrids' electric bicycle shop opened just weeks ago in Ypsilanti, but it's already attracted customers from as far as Toronto.

 

The store's owner, Ypsi Township resident Jim Summers, opened his first brick-and-mortar store in mid-July at 25 S. Huron St. after running the business from his basement and garage for several years.
All electric bikes, or e-bikes, can run for at least 10 to 15 miles on a single charge and most of them are capped at 20 mph. Riders don't have to pedal on an e-bike, but pedaling while running the motor helps save the battery.

 

Most of the e-bikes sold at H.E.H. Human Electric Hybrids are factory bikes made by about a dozen other companies, but Summers also builds some of the bikes himself. The shop offers virtually any service relating to both e-bikes and traditional bikes, including conversion, customization, modification, assembly, repairs, tuneups, delivery, and shipment of lithium batteries.

 

Summers has enjoyed riding bikes since he was a kid with a newspaper route. His interest in e-bikes started later in life when he sought out the best way to commute to work after moving into a new home in Ann Arbor, about 20 miles away from his office in Canton. He didn't want to risk sitting in rush hour traffic if he drove a vehicle and he discovered the round trip on a regular bike was too exhausting after a 10-hour work day.

 

Summers bought a small motor to put on his bike, but it didn't work at first and he didn't receive much help with troubleshooting, so he used his background as a control engineer to fix it himself. That's what caused him to begin building e-bikes in the summer of 2012, starting with one for himself, one for his wife, and a third for visitors. He realized there was a demand for e-bikes when people kept asking if they could buy one from him, and he ended up continuously selling his spare bike and building a new one.

 

Summers officially registered his business in early 2013. He and his wife, Kim Mayes, decided to sell their vehicles and buy a company van so they had a way to move bikes around when the business was about a year old. They both try to ride their e-bikes as often as they can instead of driving the van.

 

"For the number of miles we used to drive and the number of miles we've put on the van in three years, we think we've saved 25,000 to 35,000 miles' worth of driving a vehicle by using bikes," Summers says.

 

Summers initially liked e-bikes because they allowed him to get some exercise while commuting to work, but after about a year of building and selling e-bikes, he realized their numerous other benefits, including saving money on gas and reducing the use of fossil fuels. E-bikes also make it possible for people with physical disabilities or impairments to get back on a bike and start riding again.

 

"We've had some people tell us that it's changed their life because they used to love biking so much, but got to a certain age [and] couldn't do it anymore because of an injury or whatever," he says. "But then, once they found e-bikes, they can get back out with their spouse or with their family and do the biking they used to do."

Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

All photos by Brianna Kelly.

 

Duo Security partners with VMware to improve cybersecurity for employees working remotely

"Bring your own device" is all the rage these days, as employees use their own laptops and tablets in a variety of locations in and outside their actual workplaces. But that can also be a big headache for IT departments.

 

"Employees want to work on vacation or from their mother's house or Starbucks, and that's great from a productivity perspective," says Ash Devata, vice president of products for Ann Arbor-based Duo Security. "On the other hand, the IT team wants control, and they need to make sure everyone is complying with regulations related to collecting credit cards or sensitive HR information."

 

That's where a new partnership between Duo and VMware comes in. At the beginning of August Duo released its Trusted Endpoints feature for mobile devices, integrating VMware's digital workspace platform, VMware Workspace ONE.

 

Devata says the technology allows an IT team to set up a policy that allows access to a website menu or database with the employee's personal device, but employees must use their company-issued devices if they want access to a critical application that has HR or credit card data.

 

"It's becoming a trend in how people run a company to give employees freedom to work from wherever they want, but with freedom comes responsibility," Devata says.

 

Devata says Duo started hearing about VMware from their established clients about 18 months ago.

 

"They were telling us they used VMware to manage their devices and use Duo products to inspect anything coming into their applications to see if it was a trusted user or device," Devata says.

 

The clients suggested that Duo and VMware talk to each other about integrating the two platforms. After a few engineering conversations with VMware's team, Duo Security did just that, and they already have several customers using the integrated product just one week after launch.

 

Devata says that while the new product can help with cybersecurity, employees shouldn't neglect basic security measures. Simple steps like creating secure passwords and updating software with security patches are still the first line of defense, he says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Duo Security.


Military members can now converse with their bank accounts, thanks to Ann Arbor company

United Services Automobile Association (USAA) members are now able to converse with their bank accounts, thanks to a 90-day pilot program with Ann Arbor-based artificial intelligence (AI) company Clinc.

 

Clinc was founded in 2015 by Jason Mars and Lingjia Tang, both University of Michigan professors specializing in AI and systems research. The company revealed its AI financial assistant, Finie, last fall.

 

USAA is a major institution offering a variety of financial services, but many people aren't aware of it since it serves military members, says Clinc CEO Mars. Mars says working with USAA is a great fit because the financial institution is consistently ranked No. 1 in customer service and satisfaction.

 

"That's going to give us a lot of credibility when it comes to having a great customer experience in the industry," Mars says.

 

As part of the pilot program, Clinc's technology has been integrated with Amazon's Alexa, a virtual personal assistant.

 

"The Alexa device is translating speech to text, and then that text goes to our AI brain," says Mars. "Our A.I. does the work from there, and the natural language understanding and reasoning happens in our stack, and then sends the response out to Alexa."

 

Clinc's technology is like no previous chatbot or virtual assistant because it is able to process natural human language. Existing chatbots follow a script, asking what you want to do, then what account you want to change and other iterative steps. In contrast, Clinc's AI understands natural human language, so you can give multiple commands in one sentence, such as: "Change the withdrawal limit in my checking account to $500 and have that end after two months."

 

Mars says that just a few days after launching the pilot program, many users have signed up and report being "delighted" about the experience so far. Clinc will use the pilot program to learn more about how customers want to use it so the company can tweak its product before a wider launch to all USAA members, Mars says.

 

Mars adds that Clinc expects to announce more partnerships in a few months, including institutions that are likely to be more familiar household names than USAA.
Interested in learning more about Clinc? Join Concentrate for a High Growth Happy Hour featuring Jason Mars and fellow Ann Arbor entrepreneur Christina York on Aug. 23 at Ann Arbor SPARK. For more details and to RSVP, click here.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


Jason Mars photo by Doug Coombe. Finie screenshots courtesy of Clinc.

New craft brewery and tasting room opens on Ann Arbor's south side

A new craft brewery and tasting room run by two local teachers, Pileated Brewing Co., has opened at 2290 Industrial Highway in Ann Arbor.

 

Andrew Collins and Jay Howe were shooting for an early June opening, but red tape held them up for several weeks. The two opened their doors to the public on Thursday, Aug. 3.

 

Both co-owners had experience with home brewing before they met at Huron High School. They started attending Ann Arbor Brewers Guild meetings and hatched an idea to create a very small microbrewery. They named it Pileated Brewing, after the woodpeckers of the same name, because the two owners are both redheads like the birds.

 

Because the two are keeping their teaching jobs as well as doing all the work from brewing to pouring at the tasting room, their hours are limited: 5-10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

 

"We'll probably expand the hours as we go," Howe says. "We might start by having later hours on Saturday and see how that goes." The co-owners say they will also tweak their hours to accommodate pre-game sales for tailgating when University of Michigan games are on.

 

Howe and Collins say they aren't overly concerned about setting themselves apart in the microbrew scene.

 

"Craft beer is still very strong," Howe says. "Everybody always wants new beer."

 

The menu currently consists of a couple of IPAs, a porter, a stout, and a red beer. They say they like to create recipes based on "the drinking experience" rather than trying to imitate certain popular styles of beer. For instance, "The Morrigan" is a smoky red beer that defies categories.

 

"It's not a Scotch ale, and it's not red ale, but more of a hybrid," Collins says. "It's one of our most talked-about beers, and we're selling a lot of it. People are feeling us."

 

Pileated Brewing's tasting room can only accommodate 35 people, but that's because Collins and Howe's focus is on having their beers distributed at local markets, rather than running a full-scale tap room. No food is served aside from a few packaged foods like popcorn, though patrons are invited to bring in their own takeout.

 

Collins says he and Howe have talked to local Whole Foods and Plum Market stores about carrying Pileated brews, and Lucky's market and some local party stores have shown an interest in carrying the brand.

 

The two say that in the future they are hoping to get a license for outdoor seating and to run some educational events, such as having an outside caterer bring in food and teaching customers how to pair beer with food.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in southeast Michigan. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos by Sarah Rigg.


U-M student named to national list of innovative young people in manufacturing

A 19-year-old University of Michigan (U-M) student is the youngest person named to Manufacturing Engineering magazine's 2017 list of notable young people in the manufacturing field.

 

The magazine's annual "30 Under 30" list honors young people in the manufacturing field who show initiative and innovation, set high goals and meet them, have experience working the shop floor, and give back by encouraging young people to pursue STEM education and manufacturing as a viable career choice.

 

Joshua Cukier, who was the recipient of an SME Education Foundation Scholarship, already had experience with his high school's robotics team before arriving at U-M. Once at U-M, he picked up hands-on experience with computer-aided design programs as a member of the Human-Machine Interface subdivision of the Michigan Formula One Hybrid Racing Team (MHybrid).

 

Cukier says he is interested in both reforming the old-fashioned image that manufacturing has and in pushing the boundaries of conventional manufacturing processes.

 

"I'd like to see more younger people getting into manufacturing and being innovative," Cukier says.

 

He says that technologies like autonomous vehicles or artificial intelligence get a lot of press, but what many don't realize is that manufacturing techniques have to be updated to support these new technologies.

 

"As those evolve, the mechanical components that make that a reality must be created new as well," Cukier says.

 

Cukier is currently in his second summer as a manufacturing engineering intern at Falcon Lakeside Manufacturing in Stevensville, Mich., a supplier of die-cast parts. Cukier says that, as an intern, he's been given latitude to experiment and come up with new models and layouts, study industrial robotics, and develop a plan for automating work sequences (called "machining cells") usually done by hand.

 

Cukier says he is interested in how both robotics and additive manufacturing (also known as 3-D printing) technologies can be pushed even further in manufacturing.

 

"In the past 3-D printing has been a bit of a novelty, but it's getting to the point now that it's more feasible to use it with fewer defects," he says.

 

Robotics in manufacturing is nothing new, but Cukier says he thinks more flexible robots that can be easily and quickly reprogrammed and moved around factory floors will revolutionize the industry.

 

Cukier says one of the best things about a career in manufacturing is seeing components or processes you designed being used out in the real world.

 

"The biggest thing is seeing the impact of what you've made in everyday life," he says. "At Falcon, we're making little pieces for electric car batteries, and when I see a Volt go by, I can say, 'I helped with that.'"

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Joshua Cukier.


U-M invests $600,000 in advanced transportation technologies

A radar system for autonomous cars and a 3-D printer that prints electrical wires are among seven projects that recently received a total $600,000 in investment from the University of Michigan (U-M).

 

The Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization Innovation Hub for Advanced Transportation (MTRAC) awarded $100,000 grants to five technologies, and two more received $50,000 each. That's up from a total of four projects that received MTRAC funding last year.

 

Eric Petersen, U-M MTRAC program director, says the program's oversight committee of industry experts make funding decisions based on the perceived risk and value of each project. Sometimes project leaders are asked to address the committee's concerns before being awarded an additional amount. The two technologies that received the lesser amounts will have the chance to get an additional $50,000 after reaching specific milestones set for them by the committee.

 

A high-frequency radar technology for autonomous vehicles was one of the projects receiving $100,000. Radar is able to see through rain and bad weather, Petersen says, and at highway speeds this technology would give an autonomous car more time to see and react to obstacles.

 

Another technology receiving $100,000 deposits diamond-like coatings onto cylinder bores to reduce friction in engines and, as a result, reduce fuel consumption. While the six other technologies came from U-M, this project came from Michigan State University's Fraunhofer Center for Coatings and Diamond Technologies, a collaboration between the university and the German government.

 

A third technology involves building complex electrical assemblies with 3-D printing. The technology can print wires made of conducting material on the same printing head as plastic parts.

 

"This is going to change the way that parts are designed," Petersen says.

 

A fourth technology makes wireless power transfer in electric vehicles more efficient and flexible, Petersen says. Technology already exists to charge electric cars wirelessly, but these chargers can be fussy if the car isn't positioned just right.

 

"This technology can allow for different distances from the charging base to the bottom of the car, and different alignments," Petersen says. "It allows for lots of variability while still getting high efficiency."

 

The final technology receiving $100,000 is Your Own Planner, a travel planning search engine that is more flexible and provides lower-cost and more efficient itineraries.

 

"Instead of defining dates and locations, the technology asks for motivations, intentions, and constraints, and then develops a few different options for the user," Petersen says.

 

One of the projects receiving $50,000 is technology related to enhanced object recognition in robotics. Some robots use a laser to make a cloud of all the objects around their sensors, Petersen says.

 

"This proposal is an improvement on this method, so you get more information from the laser about what it bounces off of and back to," he says.

 

The second project receiving $50,000 is a system that improves the ability of autonomous vehicles to sense and interpret large amounts of data in real time while also consuming less power. The new technology compares and consolidates information from several different types of sensors, which reduces the computing load.

 

"There might be a bike that the radar sees, and a camera sees, and a LIDAR (light detection and ranging) sees. This technology compares that information quickly, and when the sensors all agree, the computer tracks it as a bike rather than as three different sets of data," Petersen says.

 

More information about the program and past awardees is available at the MTRAC website.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


Eric Petersen photo courtesy of Eric Petersen. Mcity photo by Doug Coombe.

DROUGHT juice opens Ann Arbor location after years of planning

The founders of DROUGHT, a Royal Oak-based cold-pressed raw juice company, always meant to open a location in Ann Arbor, but it wasn't until this July that they finally felt the time was right.

 

"We've always been quite interested in the Ann Arbor market," says Julie James, one of four sisters who founded DROUGHT a little over five years ago. "It's always been on our radar because the Ann Arbor crowd really embraces wellness."

 

The juice company now has two locations in Royal Oak, one in Plymouth, one in Detroit, one in Bloomfield Hills, and now a sixth location at 204 E. Washington in Ann Arbor, which opened for business July 14.

 

Ann Arbor's Wednesday night farmers market was one of the first places the sisters tried out their juices before launching into full-scale production.

 

DROUGHT's first retail location was in Plymouth, and the James sisters expected to expand into Ann Arbor next. However, because they decided to use a space in Ferndale for production, James says it made more sense to expand into the Detroit suburbs first, especially since the sisters were initially transporting juices using cooler packs.

 

"Since we got refrigerator trucks, it's now easier to expand further away from our production space," James says.

 

In addition to cold, bottled juices now available at the Ann Arbor store, this autumn the sisters will add a line of curated wellness products, such as supplements and hand and body lotions, James says.

 

James says she expects DROUGHT to catch on quickly in Ann Arbor, because Ann Arbor area residents are "already very educated about the benefits of raw juicing."

 

James says the co-founders do little formal advertising and tend to thrive on word of mouth.

 

"True customer testimonials are our best resource," she says. "It can be an emotional purchase to spend that much on yourself, $10 for a bottle of juice, but that's because it takes three to five pounds of organic produce to make one bottle. We're not out there trying to convince anyone, but they'll often hear about it from a friend who recommends us."

 

James says DROUGHT is currently in the process of building out a 15,000-square-foot production facility in Berkley, which will allow the company to expand both its retail operations and its wholesale market. About 30 markets around the Midwest carry DROUGHT juices, but James says the company will be able to expand into many more markets when the production facility remodel is done.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Photos courtesy of DROUGHT.

Ziggy's hybrid cafe, bar, and music venue set for soft opening in Ypsi

A chalkboard reading, "I don't know where I'm going from here, but I promise it won't be boring," has been sitting in the window of the downtown Ypsilanti storefront at 206 W. Michigan Ave. for months as its owners have worked to set up their hybrid cafe, bar, and performance venue.

 

The David Bowie quote is an apt sentiment for Ziggy's ahead of its soft opening on Aug. 4 to coincide with First Fridays Ypsilanti. Some behind-the-scenes work still needs to be done on the business' bar and venue side, but Ziggy's doors will be open Friday evening so visitors can see how the space has transformed and get a taste of what the cafe portion will be like.

 

Ziggy's owners David and Jo Jeffries and cafe manager Kristina Ouellette are eager to finally be able to offer a new space for people to hang out while listening to live music and enjoying a caffeinated or alcoholic beverage and a bite to eat. The trio is still working on getting a liquor license and finalizing the menu, so for now Ziggy's will only offer light food and coffee drinks made with Hyperion Coffee Company beans, but it will still stay open later than a traditional cafe.

 

"I want [it to be] a cute place where you can take your friends, or take a date, or take your parents even," Ouellette says. "Just a new, cool place to go."

 

The driving force behind Ziggy's was David Jeffries' longtime dream of owning a venue where he could regularly host concerts in an effort to support local musicians, especially those who have an alternative sound. He hopes to eventually book about five performances per week once Ziggy's has its liquor license.

 

David Jeffries says he chose to name his business Ziggy's in honor of David Bowie because Bowie has always been his "gateway drug into the avant-garde and more left field of music."

 

Ziggy's interior vibe screams video game culture, with its colorful decor, comic book-inspired artwork, and arcade games – including Pachinko machines from David Jeffries' personal collection – on display throughout the space. The games won't be the focus of Ziggy's, but they'll be "part of the fun," says Jo Jeffries.

 

The trio plans to host a proper grand opening in the coming weeks.

 

"It takes a lot of organization to rock 'n' roll," David Jeffries says.


Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

All photos by Brianna Kelly.

Ypsi business owners team up to host networking events for fellow entrepreneurs

Two young Ypsilanti entrepreneurs are teaming up to host community business mixers in an effort to create and strengthen relationships between current and aspiring entrepreneurs in Ypsi.

 

Deonta Doss, owner of Friends Closet, and Olisa Thompson, owner of MAX Marie, will host their second community business mixer at Friends Closet, 731 W. Cross St., on July 27 from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Those who attend the event will have the chance to mingle with other local entrepreneurs, introduce themselves and their businesses, and receive advice from Ylondia Portis, owner of BrandHrt Consulting, Digital Insights, and Strategy.

 

Doss says the goal of the event is to "bridge the gap" between existing business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs, and "to bring everyone together in Ypsilanti."

 

Thompson says one of her favorite parts of the community business mixers is getting to meet "the person behind the business."

 

"As an entrepreneur from around here, I want to meet new people who are likeminded and are interested in entrepreneurship, getting advice, connecting, and networking," she says.

 

At the first community business mixer at Friends Closet on March 30, about 30 attendees had the chance to meet and exchange contact information with local officials and entrepreneurs, including the owners of Cultivate Coffee and Tap House, Maiz Mexican Cantina, and the Jamerican Grill food truck. Doss says many of those who attended the inaugural mixer were friends of his.

 

"They came out to support me and in return, they met a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs," Doss says.

 

Doss and Thompson plan to host a community business mixer every few months. They eventually hope to bring the event to other local businesses.

 

Friends Closet also hosts many other events, including art shows, concerts, independent movie screenings, listening parties, open mics, and brand launches.

 

"Friends Closet has definitely provided a space and a vibe where people can come and express their art, whether it’s clothing, fashion, poetry, food, [or] music," Thompson says.


Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

Deonta Doss and Olisa Thomspon photo by Brianna Kelly. Mixer photos courtesy of Nick Azzaro.

 

Ann Arbor's EyeSucceed partners with Google Glass on food industry application

Ann Arbor-based EyeSucceed, an NSF company, has formally partnered with Google to come up with new applications for Google Glass in the food safety industry.

 

NSF has been providing audits of food service operations on Google campuses across the country for several years, as it does for numerous other companies. Since February 2015, EyeSucceed has been working directly with the Glass team to pilot food-industry applications of Glass, including remote food safety and quality audits.

 

"At NSF, we do over 150,000 food safety audits around the globe every year," says Tom Chestnut, co-founder of EyeSucceed and senior vice president of food at NSF. "One thing we realized was that the food safety picture is one that hasn't changed much in the last 20 to 25 years."

 

Back in 2013 the buggy first iteration of Google's hands-free assisted reality Glass device raised privacy concerns, and the product launch is generally considered a public relations disaster for Google. But over the last few years, a prototype for the new Glass Enterprise Edition has been in the works at X, a subsidiary of Google's parent company, Alphabet. The new version of Glass and Google's partnership with EyeSucceed were announced the same week in mid-July.

 

EyeSucceed uses Glass as a platform to monitor food employees in real time as they follow step-by-step requirements to complete job tasks, alerting them when they make a mistake and displaying corrective action. Information from these sessions can be uploaded to the cloud, and analysis of the collected data can lead to improvements in the process.

 

Chestnut says that soon after starting the pilot food inspection project with Google, NSF realized the newly-revised technology had the potential for "great applications" both within NSF and across many types of industries. For instance, an employee in the U.S. can monitor the work going on in another country without having to send an employee to physically oversee operations in dangerous, war-torn areas.

 

Glass is already being used in manufacturing, and Chestnut says hardly any planes have been made in the last couple years without using this type of technology.

 

Chestnut says that with the U.S. food industry employing more than 20 million people, there is likely to be a "great benefit" from using the new technology.

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Photo courtesy of EyeSucceed.

Saline joins local autonomous vehicle industry with French automaker's arrival

Washtenaw County's reputation as a hub for autonomous vehicle research and development got another boost with the announcement that French company NAVYA will soon begin manufacturing its ARMA autonomous shuttle vehicles at a production plant in Saline.

 

NAVYA's electric ARMA shuttles seat up to 15 people. About 45 of them are in use around the world to date. Eventually, autonomous vehicles may operate on the open road, but currently most applications of the ARMA vehicles are focused on smaller, enclosed areas, such as providing shuttle service in an amusement park or around the campus of a large hospital complex. NAVYA expects the North American market for this type of vehicle to explode in the next three or four decades.

 

NAVYA first became interested in the southeast Michigan region after Ann Arbor SPARK hosted a French mobility delegation in 2015.

 

"They were interested in exploring the U.S. market and were exposed to the stuff happening in Mcity and the American Center for Mobility and generally automotive culture in southeast Michigan," says Phil Santer, senior vice president of business development at SPARK.

 

The city of Saline already has a core of international businesses, including a couple other French companies, and a solid tech business community. Santer says that created a "pretty welcoming atmosphere" for NAVYA.

 

"Places like Saline are hitting above their weight class," Santer says. "There's so much technology and innovation going on, and you don't find such really interesting things going on in another community of similar size somewhere else."

 

The French company wanted to settle somewhere in the greater Ann Arbor area, Santer says, in part because "we have a heritage of having a reliable supply chain for automotive vehicles." NAVYA officials decided that the 20,000-square-foot facility at 1406 E. Michigan Ave. in Saline, formerly warehouse space for American Soy, would best meet their needs.

 

NAVYA is expected to make about $1 million in capital improvements and create about 50 jobs. As a result, the company netted a $435,000 Michigan Business Development grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

 

"This certainly adds to Saline's technology cluster, and we hope this will be a driver and validation point for other international mobility startups to invest in the greater Ann Arbor area and around Michigan," Santer says.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Photos courtesy of NAVYA.

North American Tech Tour to bring investors, entrepreneurship events to Ann Arbor in August

Investors, entrepreneurs, and bloggers Paul Singh and Dana Duncan will bring events and fellow investors to Ann Arbor when their North American Tech Tour stops here Aug. 8-10.

 

Singh, who is former managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based 1776 startup incubator and coauthor of the Results Junkies blog, says he began investing in startups in 2009. At that time, his focus was on visiting San Francisco and Silicon Valley, but he soon noticed that many companies in those areas had started somewhere else – sometimes in other countries but often in smaller towns in America's heartland.

 

"So, in version one of the tech tour, I figured I'd get on an airplane and find these companies before they went to Silicon Valley," Singh says. He did that for about five years and racked up a quarter of a million miles in travel.

 

Singh decided he really needed to drive instead of fly if he wanted to visit communities farther away from major airline hubs, and that he needed to spend more than a day or two in each place to get the most from his visit.

 

"It dawned on me that if I took my house to those places, it'd be more comfortable than living out of a suitcase in a random hotel, so in late 2015, I bought an Airstream trailer," Singh says.

 

In spring of 2016, he took his trailer to visit these cities in the heartland for several days to a week, visiting 70 cities in a year and a half. He also brought other investors along with him, so they could see for themselves that there are many great places to invest in outside of Silicon Valley.

 

Singh says each visit is unique and tailored to the specific city, but some components of the tour remain the same. In each location, he establishes daily "office hours" so startups and entrepreneurs can come in and talk to him and the other investors that travel with him.

 

The tour also hosts a couple of events open to the general community, made up of panels and keynote speakers, as well as one or two roundtables focused on getting to know local investors. Singh also likes to do an informal tour of each community he visits to get a sense of where community members hang out and what company work cultures are like.

 

The tour's Ann Arbor visit will include office hours every day, and a "Fireside Chat" on the evening of Aug. 8. On Aug. 9, morning sessions on angel investing and other startup topics will be followed by afternoon office hours and a stop at the A2 BrewTech Meetup at Dominick's bar in Ann Arbor.

 

On the last day of the tour, participants will visit Ann Arbor's autonomous vehicle facility, Mcity, followed by visiting a co-working space. There will be one last chance for office hours and then a farewell party before the tour leaves for a mobility startup event in Detroit.

 

More event details and registration information are available here.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of Results Junkies.


YpsiTasty grub crawl highlights Ypsi restaurants who source locally

This Tuesday evening the A2Y Regional Chamber and Growing Hope will use the fourth annual YpsiTasty grub crawl to highlight businesses that use local farmers to source their ingredients.

 

Katie Jones, director of marketing and events for the A2Y Chamber, says the chamber had been doing grub crawls in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti for several years when, in 2014, Growing Hope approached the chamber asking to do an Ypsi-specific grub crawl with some "local Ypsi flair."

 

"We decided to figure out how to do one in Ypsi and have the participating restaurateurs focus their items on locally-sourced ingredients," Jones says.

 

To further that mission, the Ypsi Food Co-op and Ypsilanti's Tuesday farmers market will be included as stops on this year's YpsiTasty event.

 

"It's important that people know they can stop in and meet the farmers that provide some of the ingredients that have gone into the taste options they will experience later that night," Jones says of the farmers market.

 

Jones says she's glad to see that Ypsi's food scene has grown since 2011, when she first started going to grub crawls.

 

"Back in 2011, we had all the old regular restaurants downtown, but since then we've highlighted Depot Town and businesses on Cross and River streets and further down Michigan Avenue," Jones says. "This year, we have a good mix of the old trusty restaurants like Haab's but also newer ones like Ma Lou's and the Ypsi Alehouse."

 

This year's complete list of grub crawl destinations includes:

Aubree's Pizzeria and Grill

Cultivate Coffee and Taphouse

Encuentro Latino (at Ypsilanti Farmers Market until 7 p.m.)

Go! Ice Cream

Haab's Restaurant

Ma Lou's Fried Chicken

MAIZ Mexican Cantina

Ollie Food and Spirits

Red Rock Downtown Barbecue

Ypsi Alehouse

Sweetwater's

The Wurst Bar

 

Tickets cost $25, and participants should arrive at their first destination between 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. After receiving a ticket, participants can visit each location on the grub crawl once until 9 p.m. More information and registration is available at the A2Y Chamber's website.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Photos courtesy of the A2Y Regional Chamber.

Social network for the chronically ill among U-M Desai Accelerator's summer cohort

A company that helps connect people with chronic illnesses for social support is one of four startups comprising the latest cohort at the Desai Accelerator, a joint venture between the University of Michigan's (U-M) Ross School of Business and U-M's College of Engineering.

 

The Ann Arbor business accelerator nurtures startups who are past the earliest stages of development but not yet seeking external investors. This is the first year Desai has hosted two cohorts in one year.

 

Participants in the 13-week summer accelerator program include Find Your Ditto, a mobile social platform for those with chronic illnesses; Ascape Audio, which creates uniquely-designed wireless earbuds; Gwydion, a virtual reality software firm specializing in the post-secondary education and research field; and TwoScoreTwo, which makes products for secure data storage and unhackable money transfers.

 

Brianna Wolin, co-founder of Find Your Ditto along with partner Parisa Soraya, says the $25,000 investment that comes along with being chosen for the accelerator is great, but it's the people they interact with that are making the difference.

 

"It's great to be surrounded by people providing mentorship, networks, and resources for fundraising," Wolin says. "It allows for greater connections and plans for securing early adopters who can push us to the next level."

 

Find Your Ditto's mission is near and dear to Wolin's heart, since she has been living with celiac disease and Type 1 diabetes since she was 4 years old.

 

When Soraya put up a Facebook post asking to interview someone with a chronic illness, Wolin responded. The two hit it off, and Soraya got special permission to include Wolin, then an undergrad, in a an innovation competition sponsored by U-M's School of Public Health.

 

The two proposed an online platform that helps people with chronic illnesses find others with the same condition living nearby so they can support one another, filling a gap in existing services.

 

Right now, people with chronic illnesses can get in-person coaching at hospital-run support groups, but they have little control over when support group sessions are held or what topics are covered. On the flip side, people can get support day or night from online forums, but those lack the in-person component.

 

Find Your Ditto allows those suffering from chronic illnesses to decide when and how often to meet in person and what topics will be discussed, Wolin says.

 

Since that student competition, the two co-founders have been through several pitch competitions and an early-stage accelerator. They hope that the Desai experience will lead to even greater investments in the company's future.

 

"We're forever grateful for that belief, that trust they have in the importance of what we're doing and our ability to scale our business," Wolin says.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
 
Photo courtesy of Brianna Wolin.

Ann Arbor's Applied Fitness Solutions hosts fitness challenge to benefit Ozone House

Ann Arbor's Applied Fitness Solutions (AFS) recently raised $3,075 with a charity challenge benefitting Ozone House, a nonprofit that helps homeless and runaway teens in Washtenaw County.

 

AFS is an Ann Arbor-based business that offers fitness and nutrition coaching in person and via mobile app. After clients meet with a fitness coach, they set exercise and nutrition goals and are encouraged to make it to AFS' gym at least twice a week. If a client reached his or her attendance goal over the four weeks of the charity challenge, half of his or her signup fee was donated to Ozone House.

 

Heidi Ruud, Ozone House's marketing and communications specialist, has been a client at AFS for some time. Sawyer Paull-Baird, fitness director at AFS' Ann Arbor location, says Ozone House was a natural choice when AFS management talked about charitable projects.

 

"Part of our mission is to unite, empower, and enrich the communities we serve," Paull-Baird says. "The main way we do that is through health and fitness, but we also wanted to partner with like-minded local charities."

 

The funds raised during the challenge were presented to Ozone House in late June, but AFS will continue supporting Ozone House by hosting a charity garage sale Saturday, July 29, and Sunday, July 30.

 

Over the course of the 10 years AFS has been operating, the business accumulated many pieces of used exercise equipment in its storage unit, and employees kept planning to clean it out but never did, Paull-Baird says.

 

"I thought it would be a good idea to do a garage sale and donate the proceeds to our charity partner," he says. "It's also a nice opportunity to increase awareness of what Ozone House does."

 

More information about the charity garage sale is available on the AFS Facebook page.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of Applied Fitness Solutions.


Ann Arbor's ForeSee launches product to help banks better connect with customers in the digital age

As technology changes every industry, banks and financial institutions that focus on creating positive customer experiences will have the edge – but how banks will do that isn't always clear.

 

That's according to Jason Conrad, vice president at Ann Arbor-based customer analytics firm ForeSee and head of its retail banking practice. While some banks are betting that automated tellers and mobile banking apps will mean they can close physical branches, others are refocusing on brick and mortar.

 

"Some banks are opening more branches to reinforce that connection with the community as a strategic, competitive advantage," Conrad says.

 

Choosing the right strategy can be tough, but ForeSee thinks its new retail banking solution, an extension of its existing customer experience product suite, can help banks better understand their customers.

 

ForeSee's new retail banking solution is a suite of tools and apps added to its preexisting ForeSee CX Suite. It measures customer data across various channels from desktop web applications to mobile apps to physical branches and call centers and helps banks analyze who their customers are.

 

"Banks are facing technological upheaval in digital space," says Conrad. "There are literally hundreds of companies making them rethink how they are serving customers. Banks that measure success through the eyes of customers will thrive in the era of technological disruption."

 

Conrad says research with a dozen retail banks showed they were all nervous about the rise of financial technology, or "fintech," and what it means for traditional banks. They want to know what drives customer satisfaction as well as how to improve retention and customer loyalty.

 

Banks need to develop a clear understanding of who their customers are, and then decide the "next best action," which Conrad describes as combining what the customer wants from the bank with figuring out how the bank can best focus limited time and resources.

 

Next comes taking action on the information the bank has gathered so it can optimize its customers' experience across all points of contact, whether an online portal or a physical bank branch.

 

Finally, Conrad says, banks should take a holistic view of the products and services they offer, understanding not just the technicalities but the human side of things, since banks often interact with customers during huge milestones such as buying a first car or first home or saving for college.

 

"Banks need to move from simply retaining business and earning loyalty to connecting with customers in an authentic, meaningful way," Conrad says. "And then a funny thing happens: they sell more and make more money, the consumer is happy, and everyone wins."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photos courtesy of ForeSee.


Ann Arbor defense contractor develops autonomous-vehicle spinoff at SPARK Ypsi

Having adapted its military artificial intelligence work to Ann Arbor's burgeoning autonomous-vehicle industry, Soar Automotive recently "graduated" from the Ann Arbor SPARK East business incubator in downtown Ypsilanti.

 

Soar Automotive is a less traditional tenant for a business accelerator. The company is a spin-off of Ann Arbor's Soar Technologies and used the business accelerator as a temporary office space while it searched for a permanent home.

 

Soar Technologies provides contract research and development work for the U.S. Department of Defense, applying artificial intelligence techniques to military problems. Spin-off Soar Automotive will adapt some of those same technologies to the field of self-driving vehicles, says Soar Automotive president Andy Dallas.

 

"We focus on developing technologies that emulate human behavior," Dallas says. "Like human drivers, the technology can deal with imperfect data, project into the future what may be happening, and adjust its driving based on that. It deals with complicated situations more robustly than other approaches you hear about."

 

Dallas says an ex-employee of Soar Technologies had used SPARK's business incubator in Ypsi and recommended it when Soar Automotive was conceived of as a spin-off business.

 

"We needed a place to stay while we were looking for real estate, and that ex-employee spoke well of the Ypsi facility, and we liked what we saw," Dallas says.

 

The spin-off used the incubator for office space from February through early May, when the company moved out of the incubator and into its current space at 1665 Highland Dr. on the south side of Ann Arbor.

 

Dallas says Soar Automotive currently has six employees and may double its staff in the next six months. Staying in the Ann Arbor region made sense for a number of reasons. Dallas says many of Soar's existing employees live in Ann Arbor, and Ann Arbor is an attractive community to live in for new recruits as the company prepares to hire more employees.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of Soar Automotive.


24/7 coworking space opens in Ypsilanti with accessibility in mind

Ypsilanti has joined the local coworking movement with the opening of GoWork at 9 S. Washington St. in downtown Ypsi.

 

Kyle Thibaut, GoWork cofounder and head of technology, says he and GoWork's other two cofounders (Andrew Sereno, head of operations, and Clayton Smith, head of community) envision their coworking space being not just a convenience for entrepreneurs and startups, but a hub for building community.

 

The three cofounders decided they wanted to bring the coworking concept to Ypsilanti and began brainstorming and searching for a space in March. They powered through permit and licensing issues and remodeling the space and were able to get the business up and running in a remarkably short time, opening to the public June 1.

 

GoWork aims to set itself apart from other coworking spaces by emphasizing four key elements: accessibility to all, 24/7 access, community resources and events, and comfort and amenities.

 

Thibaut says the cofounders aim to provide the lowest-cost local coworking space by far, and GoWork provides a digital key code so that patrons can access the space at any time. Not having to have an employee staff the building 24/7 helps keep costs low.

 

Comfort and amenities include providing a variety of seating options, lockers, and mailboxes, as well as snacks and drinks.

 

The community-building piece is something that will take longer to roll out, Thibaut said.

 

The cofounders are already participating in Ypsi's "First Fridays" events and will continue to do so. At a future First Friday event, visitors will have the opportunity to have one free, professional headshot taken for a LinkedIn profile or other social media profile.

 

The cofounders also envision having clinics, workshops, and lessons in the space. Additionally, GoWork wants to connect its users to other professionals in the area, helping entrepreneurs and startups working out of the space connect to experts with knowledge about legal matters, finance, marketing and advertising, and other services, Thibaut says.

 

"That's fairly far out in the future, but that's the vision," Thibaut says. "We want to connect people within the space and connect people in our coworking space to people out in the community offering services."

 

GoWork is offering space completely free for the month of June, both to draw in potential users and to get feedback on how the space could be improved. After the free period, users can buy day passes or get a monthly membership that includes priority access to a private conference room.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
All photos courtesy of GoWork.

AOL cofounder's business pitch bus tour to award $100,000 in Ann Arbor stop

The Rise of the Rest bus tour, showcasing startups and promoting entrepreneurism, will hit Ann Arbor on Oct. 11.

 

Rise of the Rest is an initiative of Revolution, a Washington, D.C.-based investment firm founded in 2005 by AOL cofounder Steve Case.

 

This will be the sixth iteration of the biannual tour, which stops in five different cities in the U.S. heartland each time. The tour brings about 10 hours of programming to each city, including a business pitch competition with eight finalists. Applications are being accepted now through Aug. 30 for the business pitch competition, which will net the winner a $100,000 investment.

 

Anna Mason, director of investments for Rise of the Rest, says Silicon Valley, Boston, and New York historically receive about 75 percent of all startup investments in the U.S., but Rise of the Rest aims to put a spotlight on dynamic regions outside of those three hubs.

 

"Our very first stop on our very first tour was Detroit, and because of the lessons learned and the rise of regional entrepreneurial communities, we were particularly excited to be back in the southeast Michigan region," Mason says.

 

Mason says Ann Arbor was attractive as a Rise of the Rest stop for a number of reasons, including the fact that Ann Arbor has strong economic development organizations supporting entrepreneurship and broad community engagement with the tech industry. The Ann Arbor area's mobility industry hubs were attractive as well, Mason says.

 

Perhaps most important to Rise of the Rest, a dense network of local and statewide investors are based in Ann Arbor.

 

"We were particularly excited and encouraged to see that, and we're looking forward to getting to know that group of local investors," Mason says.

 

The Oct. 11 event will open with a private, invite-only leadership breakfast bringing together participants from the private and public sector, ranging from local government officials to university representatives to regional investors and local startups.

 

Then the participants go on an "ecosystem crawl," visiting four or five companies ranging from early-stage startups, who might even still be in a business incubator or accelerator, up to pre-IPO or other late-stage startup companies.

 

The second half of the day involves a "fireside chat" with Case, the pitch competition, and a community happy hour.

 

Mason says pitch competition judges look for bold ideas that "swing for the fences." They also look for a dynamic team with solid leadership and a business idea that is likely to employ a large number of people locally or regionally once it's scaled up, Mason says.

 

"We're looking for an idea that has the potential to be game-changing for the industry," Mason says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photo courtesy of Rise of the Rest.


Workit Health to take addiction recovery program on the road in Airstream trailer

Workit Health is taking its addiction recovery program on the road in an Airstream trailer that will visit underserved areas around Michigan starting in July.

 

Founded in Oakland, Calif., Workit is a private online service to help people break addictions. The company has a northern office in Ann Arbor, and co-founder Lisa McLaughlin is originally from Michigan. McLaughlin says those "deep roots" in Michigan inspired Workit to kick off a tour of five communities in the state.

 

Lenawee and Livingston counties were identified as communities to visit early in the trip, McLaughlin says, but Workit is keeping the itinerary fluid so the team can go where it finds the greatest need.

 

"We want to develop a deep understanding of where there are treatment gaps," McLaughlin says. "That can mean people are not moving from detox to outpatient care, or they're not living somewhere close to appropriate addiction care."

 

A team composed of a medical assistant, nurse practitioner, and a doctor will do assessments and develop personalized treatment plans for those who visit the trailer. The team will also get patients up and running on Workit's online program, where patients can receive regular counseling and assignments to help with addiction recovery.

 

McLaughlin says the trailer tour is an "evolution" of Workit's ongoing mission.

 

"We've done incredible work in the earlier stages of addiction, getting people into the program through our website or through their employers," McLaughlin says. "But with this giant opioid crisis, it became inevitable that we'd be dealing with later-stage cases."

 

She says the trailer program is just one way Workit can help brick-and-mortar health systems meet the urgent need for addiction recovery services.

 

"It's very clear that a last-mile solution is needed and there's no time to lose," she says. "We're not going to wait until all these health systems catch up. We have all the pieces, and we're putting them together and bringing them to you."

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of Workit Health.


China's Camel Energy to add 41 jobs with new Pittsfield Township R&D center

Chinese-based battery manufacturer Camel Energy recently announced it will establish a research and development headquarters in Pittsfield Township on Varsity Drive.

 

The company's parent corporation, Camel Group Battery Academy Co., employs about 6,000 people in China. Camel Energy received support from Ann Arbor SPARK and a nearly $300,000 incentive from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, choosing Ann Arbor over other U.S. sites in California and Texas.

 

The company will invest $4.6 million in the new R&D headquarters and expects to add 41 jobs here.

 

Phil Santer, senior vice president of business development for SPARK, says most of the jobs will be related to engineering or technical R&D, with a few managerial or sales positions as well. Zubo Zhang, president of Camel Energy, is expecting to move with his family to the Ann Arbor area and bring a handful of Chinese colleagues to the location as well.

 

Santer says foreign investments are an increasingly important part of Michigan's economy, but foreign businesspeople often are more familiar with America's east and west coasts than the heartland.

 

"With foreign company attraction, we're often overcoming the perception about these well-known areas like California or New York or Boston and need to raise awareness of the cool stuff going on in Michigan," Santer says. "For instance, 76 percent of all automotive R&D happens in Michigan. That's a nice fact that people respond to."

 

Santer says Camel Energy was interested in locating where automotive R&D talent is concentrated.

 

"Around the Ann Arbor region and throughout Michigan, there's this focus on electrification and energy storage, and they wanted a location where they could tap into the talent here," Santer says. Camel Energy focuses on traditional car batteries in its China market but wants the Pittsfield Township site to focus on development of higher-efficiency batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles, he says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Argus Farm Stop to open second location in Ann Arbor's Burns Park

Argus Farm Stop is gearing up to open a second location in Ann Arbor's Burns Park neighborhood at 1200 Packard St., with a grand opening tentatively set for August.

 

Bill Brinkerhoff and Kathy Sample launched the first Argus Farm Stop in summer 2014 just outside downtown Ann Arbor on West Liberty. Brinkerhoff and Sample created what they saw as a "next-generation" farmers market, open year-round, seven days a week, and featuring produce, dairy, and meat from more than 140 local farmers and producers. Producers set their own prices and keep 80 percent of the sale price. The shop also includes a popular coffee bar.

 

"We love farmers markets, but they are limiting for some people, only being open one day a week," Sample says. "The sense of community at a farmers market can't be beat, but some people just can't shop on a Wednesday or a Saturday."

 

The idea for the Burns Park location came about after a Burns Park resident approached Brinkerhoff and Sample about creating a new market in his neighborhood.

 

"He saw an abandoned building in a vibrant neighborhood and thought it shouldn't be that way," Sample says.

 

Brinkerhoff and Sample coached the man and connected him with the builder they used to remodel their West Liberty location, but he ultimately decided he wasn't in a position to quit his job to take on opening a market. But by that time, Sample says so much effort had been put into the new market that it seemed a shame to let it go to waste. So she and Brinkerhoff stepped up to turn the building into a second Argus location.

 

The new business will bring the building at 1200 Packard full circle, as it was a neighborhood market from the 1930s through 1960s. Sample says Burns Park is ideal for Argus in many ways.

 

"We felt it would support the business model with enough people who care about local food and enough of a population to support the coffee bar, for that sense of community," she says.

 

Sample says her main goal is to strengthen the local food ecosystem, and she hopes the Argus model will spread around the country. She says she gets so many inquiries about how to set up a similar store in other communities that she hopes to someday soon build a portal on the Argus website to help interested parties figure out if it's feasible in their communities.

 

"We put about $1 million into the hands of farmers every year at our current location, and I think we can duplicate this in our other store," Sample says.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 
Photo courtesy of Argus Farm Stop.

Washtenaw Community College-led consortium to develop workforce for American Center for Mobility

Washtenaw Community College (WCC) will form a consortium of community colleges to develop mobility industry training programs at the American Center for Mobility's (ACM) automated vehicle testing and development facility in Ypsilanti Township.

WCC is already partnering with Wayne County Community College District and is in talks with Macomb Community College as well, according to Brendan Prebo, associate vice president of marketing and communications for WCC.

Prebo says the partnership between WCC and ACM was a natural choice because the community college is located in the "center of the mobility universe."

"We have MCity (the University of Michigan's connected vehicle research and test facility) here a few miles away, University of Michigan engineering school in the area, and ACM in Ypsilanti Township just down the road," Prebo says.

Prebo says WCC began looking into training employees to work in the mobility industry several years ago. The school established its own Advanced Transportation Center to develop certificate and college credit programs for mobility careers.

"What we're doing with ACM at Willow Run is a natural extension of activities we've already undertaken in this area," Prebo says.

WCC will establish an office on ACM's campus, and Prebo says it will be initially staffed with two or three people by the end of June. The office will allow WCC staff to coordinate with ACM to develop mobility curricula, certificates, and degrees, as well as apprenticeship and internship programs.

Additionally, WCC will allow students interested in a bachelor's- or master's-level program to accrue credits at WCC at about a quarter of the cost of attending a state university, and then transfer those credits to a four-year program at a university.

The consortium is also talking about ways that connected vehicle engineering and other issues related to mobility could be introduced to curricula at the K-12 level. One way would be integrating mobility skills and knowledge into preexisting summer camp programs aimed at students ages 8 to 18, Prebo says.

Prebo says there's a lot of excitement about the announcement, but it will take time to build the consortium as well as develop classes and other programs.

"We're really just in the beginning stages of building some of those programs, but we look forward to having more to announce in the months ahead," Prebo says.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photo by Bill Milliken Jr.


Ann Arbor Health Hacks Weekend invites broad range of participants to address barriers to care

On June 23-25 the nonprofit A2 Health Hacks will host a weekend-long event with the aim of inspiring a wide range of participants to dream up innovations in healthcare.

 

Ann Arbor Health Hacks Weekend is now in its second year. This year's theme is "Removing Barriers to Healthcare." Participants will tackle solutions to problems that prevent people from receiving appropriate care, from affordability to transportation to difficulties taking time off work.

 

Beatrix Balogh, a systems engineer, co-founded A2 Health Hacks in the autumn of 2015 with three other women who had an interest in healthcare: supply chain manager Britt Johnson, innovation consultant Diane Bouis, and industrial engineer Neelima Ramaraju.

 

The four women talked about what they felt was lacking in terms of developing healthcare innovations in the Ann Arbor area. They knew that the University of Michigan ran its own health hacks events, but those were only open to students.

 

"We thought about what if we wanted to participate in something like that, but you're not a student," Balogh says. "We wanted to learn what others are doing in healthcare and get connected."

 

From there, the four established A2 Health Hacks and began inviting researchers, professors, and employees from healthcare startups to monthly two-hour mini-hacks, workshops, and happy hours to assess how much interest there was in the community.

 

Balogh says the four wanted to do a longer event with a bigger crowd than the three dozen who usually showed up to the monthly events. Their first weekend-long hackathon in summer of 2016 attracted about 90 participants and 40 mentors working on the theme of prototyping disease prevention. This year, A2 Health Hacks hopes to attract 120-150 participants.

 

The weekend event kicks off with networking Friday night. Then from Saturday morning through noon on Sunday, participants form their own teams to work on various health hacks. On Sunday afternoon, a panel of judges awards prizes.

 

First and second prizes are entry into Ann Arbor SPARK's Entrepreneur Bootcamp program and promotion on the A2 Health Hacks website for up to one year. Third prize is a "customer discovery" program from The SearchLite, a service that helps startups and entrepreneurs in their early stages.

 

Balogh says none of the ideas coming out of A2 Health Hacks have yet produced a marketable product, but many participants continue pursuing innovations that help people live healthier lives. One participant, for instance, started an Uber-style transportation system that partners with a local Meijer to help low-income people get rides to the grocery store.

 

Balogh says that A2 Health Hacks' overall goal is to get all sorts of people in Michigan involved in healthcare innovation.

 

"Those new ideas shouldn't just be coming from people with expertise in healthcare, but from people with unique mindsets working together to come up with innovative ventures and ideas," Balogh says.

 

Registration for the weekend event is still open, with signup available on A2 Health Hacks' website.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

All photos courtesy of A2 Health Hacks.


Annual open house for 70 Ann Arbor tech businesses adds TED-style "Tech Talks"

Ann Arbor SPARK will host its third annual Tech Trek open house event for Ann Arbor tech businesses on June 16, adding a new TED Talks-style "Tech Talk" component this year.

 

Tech Trek participants can visit more than 70 Ann Arbor technology businesses and learn about each company's products or services. Visitors start at one of three locations, where they receive a map to all participating businesses.

 

Christina York is the CEO and owner of SpellBound, an augmented-reality mobile app that makes the illustrations in children's books come to animated, 3-D life. She says she has enjoyed seeing how the Tech Trek program has grown and changed since the beginning.

 

"At the very first one, we expected a few people to come by and talk to us," York says. "We were blown away that something like 800 people came through that first year. We were so busy we couldn't leave our table."

 

York says people may feel intimidated when they hear "augmented reality company," but their imaginations are sparked once they see what SpellBound can do.

 

"We put a three-by-four foot mat on the floor, and people can point their mobile device at it," York says. "(Mobile devices will display) a three-foot elephant and a six-foot tree, and people can get snapshots taken of them posing with it. It was fun to see adults acting like little kids."

 

York says the open-house setting of Tech Trek allows for one-on-one personal conversation, but it's hard to go deep. Participating companies asked SPARK if they could have more time to explain their products, services, and missions, and thus Tech Talk was born.

 

York, one of 10 presenters who will give seven-minute talks about their technology, will talk about how SpellBound technology can help with "therapeutic play."

 

She says she hopes the Tech Talk portion of the program will allow participants to get a sense of Ann Arbor's entire tech scene, from brand-new startups to well-established movers and shakers.

 

The other Tech Talk presenters are Emily Drier, Ann Arbor chapter leader of Girl Develop It; Greg Gage, co-founder and CEO of Backyard Brains; James Goebel, founding partner of Menlo Innovations; Lon Lowen, senior director of engineering operations at Arbor Networks; Daniel Moore, technical service engineer at Universal Robots; Jon Oberheide, co-founder and CTO of Duo Security; Andrew Sardone, vice president of engineering at Nutshell; Chris Schneider, senior vice president of engineering at LLamasoft; and Alon Yaffe, vice president of product management and data protection at Barracuda Networks.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Christina York photo courtesy of Christina York.

Ann Arbor's Court Innovations attracts $1.8 million in Series A funding

Ann Arbor startup and University of Michigan (U-M) Law School spin-out Court Innovations has attracted $1.8 million in its Series A funding round, allowing it to expand its mission to make justice more accessible to all.

 

CEO MJ Cartwright says the funding will allow Court Innovations to expand its Matterhorn product, which facilitates a variety of online interactions between defendants and the court system, nationwide.

 

"We're thrilled that BELLE Michigan Fund led the round, and from there, we were able to get Northern Michigan Angels excited about what we were doing," Cartwright says.

 

Private investors and an online equity crowdfunding platform also provided part of the $1.8 million raised.

 

Contributing $50,000 was U-M's student-led Social Venture Fund. The Social Venture Fund's core areas of interest are education, food systems and environment, health, and urban revitalization. An online product for processing court cases might seem like an odd match for the fund.

 

"But if you think about the areas they are working in, criminal justice fits with that fairness element. Making justice accessible to everybody actually impacts all of their core areas," Cartwright says.

 

A number of online portals already allow people to pay for traffic tickets and other ordinance violations online, but Matterhorn allows defendants to do more than that in cases of civil infractions and lesser misdemeanors.

 

"We also allow them to give reasons for why they may have been pulled over for a traffic ticket, or they can say they don't have the cash to pay upfront and want to set up a payment plan to pay off a fine over the next two paychecks," Cartwright says.

 

Cartwright says the idea for Court Innovations came about when U-M law professor J.J. Prescott was batting around ideas with students about how to reduce the outstanding warrants and unresolved cases bogging down courts.

 

Pilot programs proved that the technology worked and that people would use it. Next, Court Innovations had to prove that courts participating in the pilot program could be converted to paying customers. The company also conducted studies that showed that, in participating courts, the number of fines paid in full and cases closed increased, and time spent on cases dropped.

 

The program started in Michigan with about 18 or 19 courts participating, then expanded into Ohio and more recently Arkansas.

 

Cartwright says she believes the program was attractive to so many investors because everybody knows somebody who has had a negative experience dealing with the court system.

 

"People understand it and see the potential for it very easily," Cartwright says. "Combine the social impact with the strong business impact, plus our proven outcomes, and it's a nice combination for a broad range of people to get excited about."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Photos courtesy of Court Innovations.

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
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 Monster.com 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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
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:

Llamasoft

 

Nine-year award winner:

Caelynx

 

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

DocNetwork

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

 

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

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 drivingstudy2017@gmail.com.

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All images courtesy of Michigan Venture Capital Association.


Trump policy prompts "unexpected" growth for Nexient's Ann Arbor office

After doubling its Pittsfield Township office space last year, California-based IT firm Nexient planned to add more than 100 new employees to its local staff of 250 by 2019. But thanks to multiple factors, including anticipated Trump administration policy changes, the company is poised to exceed that goal.

 

Nexient chief delivery officer Colin Chapman credits the software development firm's recent expansion into new sectors with "huge appetite for scale," new investments in strategic capabilities that help clients define what they want, and surging interest from clients wanting technology developed within the United States.

 

Part of that surge is spurred by a Trump administration review that will likely limit H-1B visas. The program is known for helping U.S. tech companies hire highly skilled foreign workers, but critics note the program's abuse by foreign outsourcing firms and U.S. companies looking to source cheap labor.

 

"The election has given us an unexpected jump in client interest on domestic sourcing versus offshoring – about double what we were seeing a year ago," Chapman says.

 

Still, Chapman's feelings are mixed. He says H-1B visas have helped Nexient fill at least one role that couldn't have been hired locally. The program also led to citizenship for a staff member – or "Technology Athlete," in Nexient's parlance – who now mentors new developers.

 

"This is an example of why these visas were created in the first place, and I’d hate to see Technology Athletes like him discouraged about their prospects," Chapman says.

 

Another factor in Nexient's growth is Ann Arbor itself. The firm is headquartered in Silicon Valley with a service delivery center in Kokomo, Ind., and a satellite office in Okemos. But Chapman says the firm's principal delivery center was established here for the Ann Arbor area's vibrant culture, proximity to "excellent universities," and talent pool of "lifelong learners."


"Ann Arbor is part of our recipe for scalability," he says. "We see it as a big competitive advantage over domestic sourcing companies in rural locations that just can’t offer the same amenities."
 
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Ann Arbor Distilling Co. gins win national awards

Ann Arbor Distilling Co. has only been in business for a little over a year, but it's already making a name for itself at the national level.

 

The craft distillery took home a silver medal for its Arbor Winter Gin at the American Distilling Institute’s Annual Spirits Competition last week in Baltimore, where judges evaluated more than 800 spirits from independent distilleries around the world. The Winter Gin has also won previous awards in the San Diego Distilled Spirits Competition and the American Craft Spirits Awards.

 

Ann Arbor Distilling managing director Rob Cleveland credits the ingenuity of distiller John Britton with helping to set the young company's spirits apart.

 

"One of the reasons our gins have been so popular and won these awards is that we're really approaching it in a way that's fairly different from your typical gin," Cleveland says.

 

Taking a note from craft beer makers, Ann Arbor Distilling's gins are infused with a variety of botanicals meant to make drinkers "taste the season," the same way a Bell's Oberon makes people think of summer.

 

"We're thoughtful about how those botanicals are going to impact the drinker and really coming up with a different formula," Cleveland says.

 

For example, the newly released Arbor Spring Gin highlights hibiscus, while the Arbor Fall Gin (which took home an "Excellence in Packaging" award in last week's competition) might have cardamom notes.


In addition to gin, the distillery also makes vodka, rum, and coffee liqueurs, available at its Ann Arbor tasting room, which recently added live music on weekends and also hosts twice-monthly Moth StorySlam events. Ann Arbor Distilling Co. products are also now served in many area restaurants, and its vodka and Winter Gin are distributed statewide by Meijer.
 
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Ann Arbor startups take top prizes in MSU business plan competition

Ann Arbor startups made a splash last week at Michigan State University (MSU) in the annual Greenlight Michigan business plan competition. Swim coaching app MySwimPro took the $40,000 grand prize, while eco-friendly animal feed producer Kulisha took the $6,500 first place award in the undergraduate category.

 

The business plan competition organized by MSU's entrepreneurship office, Spartan Innovations, is open to entrepreneurs from the entire state. The competition focuses on early-stage businesses, and applicants are required to have been in business for less than two years.

 

Prizes are sponsored by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the MSU Federal Credit Union.

 

Paul Jaques, director of community and student engagement for Spartan Innovations and co-creator of the Greenlight program, says the 2017 competition attracted 178 applicants, the most since the program was started. A panel of seven judges chose 22 finalists to make presentations at the March 29 competition.

 

"One thing we are looking for are companies that are going to go on to the next thing, that will use the investment to create jobs," Jaques says.

 

Jaques says MySwimPro won the top prize because judges believed the prize money would allow the company, which makes the top-ranked swim coaching app for Apple Watch, to "get to the next level."

 

"They have already won quite a few competitions in the area and around the country, and they were named the number one app on the Apple Watch," Jaques says. "They're looking to grow and to possibly be acquired by a larger company."

 

Kulisha won in the undergraduate category for having a truly unique concept that complements Michigan's vibrant craft beer industry, Jaques says. The company uses black soldier fly larvae to turn food waste into an eco-friendly animal feed.

 

"They are putting units outside craft beer places and having mealworms feeding on waste byproducts," Jaques says. "The way the team was put together and the way they presented their idea was great, and something the judges had never seen before."

 

Ann Arbor-based SAHI Cosmetics, which won the Michigan Business Challenge in February, was also a finalist in the Greenlight Michigan competition but didn't make the final cut.

 

Organizers say while there is a rivalry between East Lansing and Ann Arbor on the football field, the Greenlight Michigan competition is a chance to break down barriers and get people from communities all over Michigan shaking hands and making connections.

 

"There are amazing medical and technology developments coming out of Ann Arbor, but there are amazing things going on in the entire state, including Detroit and Lansing and Grand Rapids. Everybody has their own niche," Jaques says.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photo by John McGraw of John McGraw Photography.


First Capital Fund established to help Michigan's early-stage startups thrive

Young startups across Michigan will get a helping hand from a new multi-million-dollar fund managed by Invest Detroit Ventures and supported by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the New Economy Initiative (NEI).

 

The First Capital Fund's goal is to raise $4.2 million in two years and offer up to $150,000 in capital to tech companies in the earliest stages. MEDC has made an initial $2 million investment in the fund, which Invest Detroit aims to double by bringing private capital into the fund. NEI will support the fund with $800,000.

 

Adrian Ohmer, principal with Invest Detroit Ventures, says the fund does not require startups to bring along any additional financiers because funding for early-stage startups has become harder to find.

 

"Something we've observed in our seven years of existence is that a lot of the capital pegged as early stage has moved down the pipeline," Ohmer says. "Even angel investor groups only want to fund startups in the post-production phase."

 

Ohmer says awarding up to $150,000 to startups means they don’t have to spend months on the road, raising more capital from various investors, in order to move on to the next level and then do another road trip to raise even more funds a year later.

 

"We want to make sure they have enough money to meet certain milestones that we work with them to set in order to get them to a fundraising round that makes sense for them in their industry," Ohmer says.

 

While Invest Detroit is based in Detroit, it has always had a wider focus, Ohmer says.

 

"With the rebirth of Detroit, the city is certainly central to a lot of what we care about, but our team has always had a statewide focus," Ohmer says.

 

That focus includes Ann Arbor, which Ohmer calls a "hotbed for startups."

 

"Ann Arbor companies are more than likely going to be a prominent part of our fund," Ohmer says.

 

He notes that the fund hopes to engage a broad range of Michigan startups, including those in the Upper Peninsula.

 

"Companies from the Upper Peninsula have always come down to big events that the state hosts, like the Michigan Growth Capital Symposium, so we're going to find ways to establish a presence there, though it might be mostly through web-based meetings," Ohmer says.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


Adrian Ohmer photo courtesy of Invest Detroit.


G2 Consulting to double office space, add staff in Ann Arbor

Three years after establishing its Ann Arbor office, Troy-based geotechnical engineering services firm G2 Consulting Group is doubling its space here and adding staff.

 

The geotechnical, geoenvironmental, and construction engineering services firm's work revolves primarily around testing soil, rock, and groundwater for building projects and developing solutions to the challenges the resulting data may present. G2 will move from a 2,700-square-foot space at 1590 Eisenhower Place to a 7,900-square-foot space at 1350 Eisenhower Place at the end of April.

 

"We're at a point in our old office that, even if we wanted to hire another engineer, technician, or scientist, we don't have a desk or chair to put them in," says Jason Stoops, the firm's Ann Arbor office manager. "We talked about whether we wanted to stay the same size and service the clients we're already working for or try to expand our client base. But if we want to expand, we need staff to do that."

 

Stoops says the new location has more space than the Ann Arbor office currently needs. However, the office is expecting to add at least four new staff members and warehouse some equipment on site, allowing Ann Arbor to be more of a full-service engineering firm instead of just a satellite office to the Troy headquarters.

 

G2 has worked on several major projects since opening in Ann Arbor. The Ann Arbor office's first big project was the Arbor Hills shopping center on Washtenaw Avenue. The firm has since worked on Bank of Ann Arbor's headquarters renovation and the downtown Ann Arbor Residence Inn by Marriott.

 

Although the firm is headquartered just an hour's drive away, Stoops says G2 has worked hard to engage with the Ann Arbor community. A May open house for the new facility will feature Arbor Brewing Co. beverages and Zingerman's food.

 

"We're trying to create the feel that we're culturally in step with Ann Arbor," Stoops says.

 

Stoops raises the possibility that another three years might bring more exciting news for G2. The firm is currently considering opening another office in Ohio or western Michigan.

 

"We're hoping to take the success of our Ann Arbor office to other markets," Stoops says.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Jason Stoops image courtesy of Jason Stoops.

Online Tech and Actifio partner to make long-term data storage cheaper, easier

Rapidly changing technology can make it difficult to retain and retrieve old files in useful formats, but a new partnership between Ann Arbor's Online Tech and Massachusetts IT company Actifio aims to address that challenge.

 

Some industries, such as the healthcare field, need records that can go back several years or even a decade. Retaining both the files and the quickly-outdated hardware and software needed to retrieve files that old can be challenging and expensive. Jason Yaeger, senior director of solutions architecture and security officer at Online Tech, says the partnership between Actifio and his company allows clients to recover up to 10 10-terabyte databases in under 10 minutes.


Online Tech runs five data centers and two cloud-computing infrastructures in the Midwest, and specializes in solutions for large businesses that need to keep backup or disaster recovery files. Actifio's OnVault software allows companies to retrieve large sets of data quickly and cheaply, and to eliminate the need for keeping duplicate sets of data.

 

"With this service, using Actifio's software, we're able to archive the information for whatever retention period (clients) want," Yaeger says. "If they want to stop using Online Tech, that data is then stored in a compressed native format and can be retrieved at any time with a free tool. They're not reliant on using our service or Actifio."

 

The partnership will also allow Online Tech to streamline customers' development practices. For instance, when building a website, a company will typically go through multiple stages from development to testing to quality assurance.

 

"You may end up with four copies of the same dataset that could amount to four or more terabytes of data," Yaeger says. "Because we can instantly recover data and virtualize datasets, you can delete that instance of the data, and then instantly mount it again during the next phase. It saves on having to save sprawling datasets from a development viewpoint."

 

Yaeger says the partnership with Actifio will play a key role in Online Tech's future. Clients' infrastructure costs continue to fall, so if Online Tech just kept providing the same services to the same clients, the company's revenue would stagnate and then drop. The company has managed to avoid that problem so far, showing steady growth in recent years.

 

"With the ever-decreasing cost of cloud infrastructure, companies like Online Tech need to increase the value to our clients by solving more of their technical and business challenges," Yaeger says. "The partnership with Actifio will help enable our growth."

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 sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Jason Yaeger photo courtesy of Online Tech.

Zingerman's among 2017 Washtenaw County Environmental Excellence Award winners

Three Washtenaw County businesses and one government department were named winners in the 20th annual Environmental Excellence Awards, sponsored by the county's Water Resources Commissioner's Office and the county Board of Public Works.

 

The awards are given to area businesses and nonprofits that show excellence in the areas of waste reduction and recycling, water quality protection, and pollution prevention initiatives and compliance. This year's awards were presented at a March 16 ceremony held at Weber's Inn.

 

County water quality specialist Catie Wytychak serves on the awards committee. She says that when the committee selects winners each year, they try to look for an organization that has done outstanding work but hasn't already been honored.

 

The award for "Waste Reduction and Recycling" went to Ann Arbor-based The Betty Brigade, which provides relocation and organization services. Wytychak says the business stood out because when its employees are providing decluttering and moving help, they sort out items to be recycled or home toxics to be brought to the county for proper disposal rather than just sending all unwanted items to the trash.

 

The "Water Quality Protection" award went to the Saline Environmental Commission. Wytychak says the commission has been doing good work for a long time, including giving away rain barrels and hosting a comprehensive recycling program at Saline City Hall. But the commission also recently completed a major project to label 100 storm drains with markers reading, "Don't dump, drains to river."

 

"They got the whole neighborhood involved," Wytychak says.

 

The "Pollution Prevention" award went to Ann Arbor-based machine shop Lambert Industries, Inc. Wytychak says pollution prevention is a mandatory program for companies that store toxic waste on their property, and an environmental health employee visits these businesses to make sure none of the toxic chemicals are making it into storm drains or rivers. Lambert Industries won for going above and beyond in this category.

 

The "Overall Achievement" award goes to a company that is involved in environmental efforts in all three categories: waste reduction and recycling, water protection, and pollution prevention. Wytychak says this year's winner, Zingerman's Community of Businesses, was outstanding in all those areas.

 

"They have been doing so many good practices since the very beginning, but what brought them to our attention recently was that a master rain gardener built a rain garden at one of their locations to absorb runoff from the parking lot," Wytychak says.

 

Information on the county's other Environmental Excellence programs is available at the county's website.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos courtesy of Washtenaw County Environmental Excellence Partnership Program.


Grant helps Ann Arbor, other Midwest cities brace for climate change effects

The Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC) and partners are using a $77,000 grant to help Ann Arbor and four other Midwest cities prepare for climate change in a pilot program intended to be extended throughout the country.

The Urban Sustainability Directors Network's (USDN) Innovation Fund awarded the grant to the Great Lakes Climate Adaptation Network (GLCAN), a regional network of the USDN that includes Ann Arbor among its member cities. Throughout 2017, HRWC will use the bulk of the grant to provide staff for the project in Ann Arbor as well as Dearborn; Bloomington, Ill.; Indianapolis; and Cleveland.

Under the program, the cities and GLCAN will develop vulnerability assessments for use in city planning and budgeting, and to prepare for climate impacts such as high heat days or floods.

Many projects around the country focus on stopping global warming, but Rebecca Esselman, watershed planner with HRWC, says climate change is already a reality and can't be discounted during the planning process.

"Even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, we'd still have a climate on a trajectory to change pretty significantly," she says. "We can't not prepare for that future. It doesn't mean we've accepted climate change."

Cities are currently doing vulnerability assessments for various reasons, such as whether water supplies or infrastructure like roads and dams are vulnerable. However, these efforts typically do not consider climate change factors that will either introduce new vulnerabilities or make existing ones worse.

"If you have aging dams and climate change produces an extreme rain event, then you end up with a bigger problem than you originally thought you had," Esselman says.

Historical trends and projections for the future provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will help participating cities create an adaptable template for cities to assess climate-related vulnerabilities.

Esselman says the pilot is taking place in medium-sized Great Lakes cities because the Great Lakes region has shared climate threats, and because small-to-medium cities often don't have the same resources as larger cities.

"Larger cities have climate action plans and are working on this already, but smaller cities don't always have the capacity to do this, so we're coming up with something that works for those size cities," she says.

Once the tool is tested in Great Lakes cities, it can be adapted to other medium-sized communities throughout the U.S., adjusting for a different set of climate factors.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Ann Arbor flooding image courtesy of GLISA.

Concept for shipping-container studio spaces wins $5,000 in inaugural Pitch Ypsi competition

A local musician and entrepreneur's idea for artists' rehearsal spaces made of shipping containers won $5,000 in the first annual Pitch Ypsi $5,000 contest.
 
Pitch Ypsi $5,000 is a business plan competition hosted by leaders in eastern Washtenaw County, including Ypsilanti mayor Amanda Edmonds and Ann Arbor SPARK East business accelerator manager Joe Licavoli. More than 60 businesses applied for the competition, and the five best submissions were chosen by a committee to present at a pitch night March 8 at the Eastern Michigan University College of Business. A panel of five judges ruled unanimously to make the final award to Grove Studios.
 
Grove Studios founder Rick Coughlin wants to use shipping containers to build a modular studio space for rehearsals, performances, and collaboration in Ypsi. Coughlin also envisions the possibility of holding gallery shows, lectures, and other art and music events in the container spaces.
 
He says his vision is similar in some ways to existing coworking spaces that cater to tech startups. The difference for his studio would be the focus on creating a hub for artists and using modular spaces. Two 20-foot shipping containers can be patched together to create a 400-square-foot space, or two 40-foot containers would create 800 square feet of space.
 
Entrepreneurs have already tried a similar idea in Norway, and Coughlin is in talks with Norwegian company Nordic Shelter to engineer shipping containers for Grove Studios.
 
"We want to elevate the idea of an artists' working space. We believe we can do it right, and shipping containers are one of the ways we can get there," he says.
 
Grove Studios recently opened a more traditional collaborative artists' rehearsal space at 1145 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti Township. Coughlin rents that property but has been seeking properties that he could buy for Grove Studios in the city of Ypsilanti. He hopes to avoid the sort of large-scale artist displacement that occurred in 2015, when the former SPUR studio space in Ypsi abruptly closed due to a change in building ownership.
 
Coughlin has lived in Ypsi for 23 years and feels "really connected" to the community. He wants Grove Studios to be part of Ypsi's ongoing revitalization as a cultural hub.
 
Coughlin says the $5,000 prize will help him to launch further marketing and crowdfunding efforts. He hopes to bring in $40,000 through a Patronicity crowdfunding campaign and then have the Michigan Economic Development Corporation match that amount through its Public Spaces, Community Places program.
 
"We want to make sure that we're telling our story in a way that people really understand it, so the money we raise would pay for quality video and photography and marketing and branding to accomplish that," he says.
 
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Conceptual renderings courtesy of Grove Studios.

 

Edible Project app makes eating out easier for those with dietary restrictions

A new Ann Arbor-based app, which helps diners with food restrictions find menu items they can eat, is reaping the rewards of a publicity stunt that distributed 1,000 care packages across Ann Arbor.

Early on March 6, Edible Project cofounders Mike Copley and Ish Baid and a team of helpers distributed 200 doormats and several camp chairs with the Edible Project logo around the University of Michigan (U-M) campus and other parts of Ann Arbor. They also distributed 1,000 care packages, each containing a special-ordered fortune cookie with messages about food restrictions, a $3 gift card to Piada Italian Street Food, a piece of candy, and a flyer with more information about the app.

Baid said his team wanted to create buzz across campus and around town, and the publicity stunt accomplished what they had hoped.

"In the past week, we've had more downloads of the app than over the entire life of the app. And we're still getting 150 to 200 new users coming in daily," he says.

Baid, who serves as chief technology officer for the Edible Project, says the idea for the app was born from his partner's dairy allergy. The two were friends while students at U-M, and Copley's allergy made eating out a chore.

"It could take half an hour to order, because if he has even the smallest trace of dairy, it would put him in the hospital," Baid says.

According to Baid and Copley's research, one in five Americans have similar diet restrictions, ranging from eating a "Paleo" diet to being kosher or halal to being vegan. (A survey conducted on the U-M campus by the Edible Project team suggested an even higher ratio of one in four respondents with dietary restrictions.) These restrictions often mean that diners will stick to just one restaurant where they know the menu, or to ordering a salad at every eatery.

Copley and Baid knew there had to be a better way and released the first iteration of their app in January of 2016. They started by going to different eateries in Ann Arbor and trying to gather ingredient information.

"We realized it was a bad approach," Baid says. "Who is really the expert in dietary restrictions? It's the people with the restrictions. They know exactly what food is good in Ann Arbor and that fits a specific diet."

Within the next month, the app will be opening to user submissions. Users will be able to sign up as Edible Project "scouts" and report back on the best gluten-free or vegan menu items in the city.

Other plans for the future include competing in entrepreneurship events, networking, and working with a startup accelerator program. Their long-term plan, though, is to take the app nationwide.

"Our goal is to have every menu in the country documented," Baid says. "We're in an era when people are info-hungry, so I think it's possible, and we want to be the ones who make that happen."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photos courtesy of the Edible Project.

Sold-out Ypsi TEDx event announces speakers, plots livestream

A variety of local speakers will give nine eight-minute talks on the topic of interdependence for the second annual TEDxYDL event at Eastern Michigan University’s (EMU) Halle Library on April 13.

The event is co-sponsored by the Ypsilanti District Library and Halle Library. It's one of thousands of independently organized programs around the world licensed through TED, a nonprofit organization devoted to "Ideas Worth Spreading" in the form of short talks delivered by leading thinkers in various disciplines.

If you want to attend in person, you're already out of luck. The program has filled up completely with a long waiting list both years, with the event’s free tickets being snapped up in the first two hours they were available for the 2017 event.

However YDL communications and development coordinator Gillian Ream Gainsley says YDL is seeking a sponsor to host a livestream event this year so people on the waiting list for tickets have another option. Gainsley says organizers haven’t moved the event to a bigger space because their TED license limits the audience to 100 people.

Gainsley says choosing speakers was fun but challenging. Organizers received 62 applications and cut those down to nine talks (one talk features two speakers) that fit this year’s theme of interdependence.

The application of biomedical illustrator Megan Foldenauer, who plans to talk about the human eye, stood out.

"She told the story about how she started illustrating all of her biology papers and her professor told her about medical illustration as a field. It seemed like a fascinating way to talk about the intersection of art and science, and it fit our theme," Gainsley says.

Another presenter is Jim McBee, owner of The Ann magazine.

"Jim is going to talk about fake news, which is obviously a hot topic, but we’re also hoping he’ll talk about how an independent local print newspaper is functioning and why that’s still important," Gainsley says.

Another speaker, EMU lecturer Ping Zhou, will address the topic of interdependence by focusing on the geography of international trade. Gainsley says the last few months' divisive political climate inspired the topic for the 2017 event.

"There are so many divisions, but at the end of the day the various disciplines, as well as people and countries, depend on each other in interesting ways we don’t often think about," she says.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All images courtesy of TEDxYDL.

Busch's, North Peak team up to create exclusive Newfangled Pale Ale

Ann Arbor-based Busch's Fresh Food Markets have added another Michigan craft brew to their line of designer beer after collaborating with Dexter-based Northern United Brewing Co (NUBC).

The resulting beer, North Peak Newfangled Pale Ale, is the third in a series of Busch's exclusive beers made by Michigan brewers with Michigan ingredients. The new beer is a 5.5-percent alcohol-by-volume Midwestern pale ale featuring Michigan hops and grains, according to Marty Phelan, category manager for Busch's. The beer hit the shelves in early March and will be carried in all 16 Busch's locations in Michigan, including Ann Arbor.

Phelan says Busch's first beer collaboration happened about a year ago, when the chain worked with Short's Brewing Company in Bellaire. That partnership was so successful that Busch's went on to make a second beer with Dark Horse Brewing Co. in Marshall.

Phelan says Busch's input on the new beers varies from brewer to brewer. Busch's was able to give a lot of input on the recipe and the name of the beer that Dark Horse developed for Busch's, for instance.

Phelan says Busch's already had a "great relationship" with North Peak, which is one of several brands falling under NUBC's banner. After seeing the previous two collaborations, NUBC approached Busch's about releasing a beer developed by Ron Jeffries, who also is production manager for NUBC's Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales line.

The new brews are going over well with customers, and Phelan said he is getting "a lot of feedback."

"Just on our Facebook page alone, we get hundreds of comments about these beers," Phelan said. "I love working on these projects. It's a lot of fun to do this with Michigan breweries."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Brackets for Good pits Ann Arbor-area nonprofits against each other for $10,000 prize

For the second year in a row, the nonprofit Brackets For Good is helping Ann Arbor-area organizations raise money and awareness by pitting nonprofits against each other in a bracket-style competitive online giving tournament.

Since its 2012 founding in Indianapolis, the nonprofit has expanded to 11 cities including Ann Arbor. Each participating nonprofit gets to keep all donations raised during the competition, and the top winner gets a $10,000 prize from a sponsor.

Valeo Financial Advisors was a major sponsor in other cities, so when Valeo opened a new office in Ann Arbor, it brought the Brackets For Good fundraiser with it last spring.

Until March 31, supporters may make online donations to help a favorite Ann Arbor-area nonprofit organization advance toward the final $10,000 Championship Grant. This year's 38 participating nonprofits range from the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre to Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County.

Last year’s Championship Grant winner in the Ann Arbor area was the Ecology Center, an environmental education and policy action nonprofit.

Ecology Center deputy director Rebecca Meuninck says she thinks the organization’s success the first year was due to its efforts to engage board, staff, and supporters while keeping things fun.

The Ecology Center did a lot of outreach on social media and organized watching parties at the office for staff and board members as the climax of each round of the competition played out. A clock on the Ann Arbor bracket's home page counts donations and time left to donate.

"Everybody pitched in. In the last few minutes, donors would make last-minute gifts to push us over each week," Meuninck says.

Besides receiving the $10,000 grand prize, the competition also helped the Ecology Center bring in a large chunk of money much earlier in the year than usual. Many charities receive the bulk of their donations toward the end of each year, but the Ecology Center brought in about 20 to 25 percent of its annual budget by March due to the competition, Meuninck says.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

FlexDex begins shipping low-cost surgical tool designed to replace robotic system

New applications for robots seem to be in the news every day, but Ann Arbor-based FlexDex Surgical's new surgical tool increases surgeons' flexibility and reduces costs by taking a robot out of the equation.

The mechanical platform, which allows surgeons to more easily make sutures inside the body during minimally invasive laparoscopic surgeries, recently began shipping nationwide. Developed in a University of Michigan (U-M) engineering lab, the device is designed to be ergonomic and intuitive to use. Unlike other laparoscopic surgical tools, the FlexDex needle driver mimics the direction of the surgeon’s hand and locates the device’s center of rotation at the surgeon’s wrist, where it's mounted.

Before the invention of the FlexDex device, surgeons could use an old-fashioned but cumbersome straight-stick instrument or the robot-assisted da Vinci surgical system, whose $2 million price tag is prohibitively expensive for many hospital systems. Both approaches take more training to use than the FlexDex device.

At $500, the FlexDex also has a clear cost advantage. The low price is partly due to the fact that the FlexDex device is purely mechanical, requiring no power source. The device uses cables and pulleys that are relatively inexpensive to produce.

"Those parts are just put together in a novel way to provide robot-like dexterity in a mechanical instrument," says FlexDex chairman and CEO Thomas Davison.

The FlexDex platform has already been used in operations. Down the road, FlexDex will be able to attach tools other than a needle to the platform.

"We started with the needle holder because one of the more difficult maneuvers in surgery is suturing," says Davison.

The company has plans to start shipping other FlexDex-compatible laparoscopic instruments soon, including vessel sealers, scissors, graspers, and dissector instruments. FlexDex has raised over $10 million through federal grants and private investments.

FlexDex was cofounded in 2014 by pediatric surgeon Jim Geiger, surgery professor at the U-M Medical School and pediatric surgeon at U-M C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital; and Shorya Awtar, associate professor of mechanical engineering at U-M. The technology stems from research funded by the National Science Foundation.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

ContentOro nabs Fortune 1000 clients with quality web content, good word of mouth

Fortune 1000 company Citrix has partnered with Ann Arbor-based ContentOro to create an informational hub for small businesses on Citrix's file-sharing and collaboration website ShareFile.com.

ContentOro built the Small Business Center for ShareFile clients who are business owners and managers. The site features 260 pages in 24 sections with information and advice on a variety of topics for businesses that are just getting started, including how to raise capital, how to negotiate a lease, or how to build out a go-to-market strategy.

ContentOro provides that content through a partnership with John Wiley and Sons, a large global publisher. Wiley's print content has already been thoroughly edited, so ContentOro can repurpose it for web content more quickly and cheaply than paying someone to research, write, and edit new content.

ContentOro CEO and founder Bob Chunn says he is planning other projects with multiple Fortune 500 companies soon, building on good word of mouth like the referral that brought ContentOro to Citrix's attention. Chunn says one of his first paying clients of 2016 was Redford-based national chain Pet Supplies Plus, and he has been using that project to show other major clients what ContentOro can do.

Chunn says major companies don't find short, "clickbait"-style articles valuable. Instead, they want to provide information that is authoritative and trustworthy.

"We're working to bring content in line with what these powerful companies want to show their customers," he says.

Consumers respond well to the higher-quality content. Chunn says ContentOro's metrics show that visitors to pages built by ContentOro stay three times as long and view four times as many pages compared to content elsewhere on a client's website.

Chunn says he feels his mission is, at heart, a "noble" one: free and equal access to information currently contained in print books.

"Our technology allows the content to be used on the internet and allows search engines to find it," he says. "Everyone, regardless of income or status in life or where they happen to be located, can have access to that information now."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Clinc closes $6.3 million funding round, eyes major clients for AI financial assistant

Ann Arbor-based artificial intelligence (AI) company Clinc has closed a $6.3 million series A funding round, hot off the launch of Finie, the company's voice-controlled AI platform for banking.

Clinc was founded in 2015 by Jason Mars and Lingjia Tang, both University of Michigan professors specializing in AI and systems research. The new funding round, led by Columbus, Ohio-based Drive Capital, brings Clinc's total investment to $7.75 million just six months after the company closed a $1.2 million seed funding round.

The new funding will allow Clinc to add as many as 20 employees to its current staff of 21, and to further develop and market Finie. Finie's AI technology is able to understand natural speech and then allow users to converse with their bank accounts without using special keywords or question templates. The technology can be integrated into multiple platforms, from mobile apps to chatbots to Facebook messenger.

With the new round of funding, Clinc's technology could soon be integrated into Amazon's virtual assistant, Alexa, or into the Google Chrome browser. Mars says he doesn't like to try to convince investors by telling them about Finie but rather just enjoys showing them what it can do.

"People recognize when they are seeing something they haven't seen before," he says. "I show them how to use it, and they say, 'Okay, I get it. I'm in.'"

Mars attributes the company's success to a combination of great timing and having the best technology in the field. He says financial institutions have been making promises in terms of what they want to do with AI, but until now technology has lagged behind.

"What they want to do requires absolute state-of-the-art technology, and we have the smoking gun," Mars says.

Clinc doesn't want end users to have to install yet another app, Mars says. The aim is to have Clinc's technology incorporated into apps they are already using.

"Say they already have the Chase or Bank of America app on their phone. Finie would be just a new button or a new experience added onto the app as a sort of feature," he says.

Mars says the public should be on the lookout for a "blockbuster" announcement from Clinc this summer.

"We're working very closely with a top financial institute to integrate our technology into, potentially, two of their products, and that could be released to users as soon as June or July," he says.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Ypsi software company moves to historic building, receives $10,000 grant to upgrade

White Pine Software Technologies recently received a $10,000 Innovate Ypsi grant from Ann Arbor SPARK that will allow the company to add technology infrastructure and fiber optic internet access to its office space in a historic Ypsilanti building.

The building at at 300 N. Huron is more than 100 years old and once served as town hall for the community. White Pine will move into the second-floor office space some time after the March 3 completion date for the infrastructure upgrade.

White Pine, founded in 2014, currently occupies space in Ann Arbor SPARK’s East business incubator and offers data management and analysis to science, engineering, and computer science companies.

When a company generates a lot of data in labs while calibrating equipment or carrying out other engineering functions, that data is often managed by what White Pine president Robert Smith calls "homegrown" systems. When companies decide to upgrade those systems, White Pine helps them standardize the way the data is managed.

"What we do is apply an ISO standard developed in Europe for managing that data in ways that make it easy to plug in large amounts of analysis tools and manage it according to IT standards for traceability, security, and other things," Smith says.

Smith says he has lived in Ypsilanti for 30 years and it was a natural decision to base his business in the community, but he probably would have kept looking for another location if he hadn't been able to secure the grant. He says the building was already wired for business-quality internet service, but his data-driven business requires infrastructure that is "very solid and reliable."

Smith says he was happy to be able to locate his business in the North Huron building situated near the Riverside Arts Center and other local amenities.

"The grant was really the thing that made the decision easy," Smith says. "Otherwise, we would have wrestled with it a long time and would have had to go somewhere else. We probably would have ended up in a business park, but they are not interesting places to work."

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 based in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
 
300 N. Huron photo by Robert Smith.
 

Cosmetics company wins best business at Michigan Business Challenge

A cosmetics company focused on Arab, Latina, and Indian consumers was named winner of the Michigan Business Challenge on Friday, Feb. 17, after a multi-round pitch competition.

Sponsored by the University of Michigan's (U-M) Zell Lurie Institute (ZLI), the Michigan Business Challenge gives U-M student teams the opportunity to win more than $85,000 in cash prizes and get feedback from business leaders. Challenge winner Sahi Cosmetics took home a $25,000 award for best business, plus an additional $2,000 for outstanding presentation.

Shelly Sahi brainstormed her business idea in December 2015 after consulting with a mentor at ZLI. She determined that there was no direct competitor for the market she was targeting – primarily Arab, Latina, and Indian women with medium skin tones.

"I've been a makeup artist my whole life, and I know that it's hard to find makeup for women with yellow and olive undertones to their skin," Sahi says.

She says she thinks her pitch stood out to the judges because of her enthusiasm and her attention to market research, which showed there was a gap to be filled.

"If it's something you truly believe in, something you really want to see come to fruition, that's what comes through in your pitch," Sahi says.

Sahi completed her MBA at U-M's Ross School of Business and currently runs her business out of U-M's Desai Accelerator. She worked at Ford before she started her MBA studies and initially thought she would return there after she graduated.

"I wasn't thinking of being an entrepreneur," she says. "It started as something on the side but turned into so much more."

After funding a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2016, she is now working at her cosmetics business 70 hours a week, with three interns working part-time under her.

Sahi says the prize money will help her develop an "aggressive" go-to-market strategy. Short-term plans include hosting pop-up markets in the Detroit metro area this year, with a five-year plan that includes opening a flagship store in Detroit.

In addition to the best business plan track, the Michigan Business Challenge also offers an "Impact Track" that supports teams with a social or environmental mission. The winner of the Impact Track was AIMTech, a startup that has developed an affordable, high-quality, low-tech pressure ventilator that requires no electrical power. The business' aim is to prevent deaths caused by respiratory illnesses in infants living in low-income countries.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor based in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photo by Doug Coombe.

Ann Arbor tech startup launches cancer diagnosis tool cataloging 3.3 million medical articles

Ann Arbor health-tech startup Genomenon has launched a new, first-of-its-kind software to help medical professionals and geneticists research millions of medical publications more quickly for faster diagnoses.

Launched last week, Genomenon CEO Mike Klein says Mastermind automates searching and sorting through articles on genetic variants, so pathologists and research laboratories can focus on understanding the results of DNA testing.

"Once they get the DNA test back and are doing all the analysis, we help them interpret those results to determine whether the gene mutations found in that section are pathogenic, or disease causing; or benign, or not disease causing," Klein says.

Mastermind's database includes full-text readings and analysis of 3.3 million articles, according to Klein, and is on track for 6.5 million by summer.

"We're machine reading every article," Klein says. "The real trick is going out and finding those articles and getting access to those full text articles, and we have some academic partnerships we've leveraged to get those."

Cancer-related literature was the focus for the launch. That's now expanding to include heart disease and infertility.

The launch comes after three years of development and fundraising, as well as support from local organizations. Genomenon spun out of the University of Michigan (U-M) and was incubated at the U-M Tech Transfer Venture Accelerator. It's also received funding from Ann Arbor SPARK and scored a big win at the Accelerate Michigan Competition in 2015.

Genomenon was cofounded by Dr. Mark Kiel, who was then working at U-M as a molecular pathologist.

"What he found is, every time he had gotten all the mutations from patients, he was spending 80 percent of his day doing searches, searching for the literature to figure out whether the mutations were pathogenic or not," Klein says. "A guy with a Ph.D. M.D. is spending all his time doing Google searches and PubMed searches. It didn't seem like a really good use of his time."

So Kiel left U-M to focus on automating that search. Several developers told him his vision was impossible before Kiel met cofounder Steve Schwartz, who helped him bring it to life and now works as Genomenon's chief technology officer.

Mastermind is now available to license for genetic reference labs, and Klein says terms are being negotiated with two companies that just finished piloting the software. One reported that Mastermind helped it cut eight weeks' worth of work down to two days.

Klein says Genomenon's combination of clinical perspective and exhaustive research make it unique in the field, with the closest comparison being a more generic offering like Google Scholar.

"We have no direct competitors," Klein says. "There's nobody who's been able to accomplish what we've been able to accomplish in the last three years."
 
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

New Ann Arbor 2030 district will cut energy use in half for participating properties

An effort to establish a collaborative, energy-saving district among Ann Arbor's commercial properties is moving forward with plans to launch by the end of the year.

Modeled after similar districts in cities including Seattle, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Austin, Ann Arbor's 2030 District is a private-public partnership aimed at reducing energy and water use and vehicle emissions by 50 percent districtwide by the year 2030.

"The district creates an ongoing engagement led by the private sector, so [members] can direct efforts where they feel they need it most," says Bonnie Bona, project manager with the Ann Arbor nonprofit Clean Energy Coalition (CEC).

CEC is overseeing the district's formation and recruiting property owners, service providers, and community stakeholders to officially launch the district, currently classified as "Emerging," by December 2017.

Participation is voluntary, and Bona says all parties stand to gain from involvement. Service providers like architects, engineers, contractors, and suppliers can anticipate new business opportunities; property owners, managers, and developers can benefit from increased competition among providers, offering more solutions and competitive pricing; and tenants will get upgraded spaces with lower utility bills.

Participating property owners and management companies so far include QR Management, Sun Baths, Jones Lang LaSalle, Bivouac, Shaffran Companies, and MAVDevelopment.

While other 2030 Districts have been launched with the help of grants from federal programs and large local foundations, Bona says Ann Arbor's model is a little different.

"The interest by local professionals providing many small contributions was a more viable approach after attempting the larger sources without success," she says.

The district recently received a $15,000 matching grant from Architecture 2030 and Summit Foundation after securing local commitments from several local contributors.

Some of those committed funds are from partnering service providers, which must become district members and pay membership dues to be eligible to work on enhancing member properties.

A series of events is also being planned throughout the year to highlight properties that are already making progress, as well as the the teams behind them.
 
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Ann Arbor software developer chooses new hires with AI Connect Four tournament

Custom software developer Atomic Object's Ann Arbor office hired three new employees last month, but not before they'd proved themselves and their programming skills in a test of skill and character known as Connect Four.

Modeled after a similar event held in Atomic Object’s Grand Rapids headquarters last fall, 17 aspiring developers were invited to compete in the 2017 Atomic Games in the company's downtown office in January.

Competitors spent a weekend building an artificial intelligence (AI) that could simulate a player in a virtual version of the popular kids' game Connect Four. The following Monday, participants ran the AIs against one another in a single-elimination tournament.

"It's kind of like March Madness for geeks," says Atomic Object managing partner Jonah Bailey.

The three full-time hires that resulted from the competition will enter the company's Atomic Accelerator program, which provides a professional development curriculum for recent graduates during their first two years with Atomic Object.

As demand for Atomic Object's services has grown, Bailey says the company realized hires from within the industry aren't always the best fit for its complex work, which often requires learning new computing languages and frameworks on a project-to-project basis.

"What we decided was, instead of going out and looking for these lateral hires — people with 10-plus years' experience — what if we just went out and made those people?" Bailey says.

Throughout the games, Bailey says competitors were evaluated on their technical competence as well as their interpersonal skills, and winning the game didn't necessarily equal a job offer.

The game was represented graphically on a screen during the competition and players were generally supportive of each other as the chips fell. Bailey says audible and emotional responses were common, "and if it seemed like a really intelligent play [was made], everyone was like, 'Ohhh.'"

The winning AI was able to "get smarter" as it played by storing a repository of situations it had already encountered, but Bailey says a human player should still be able to fend it off.

"I don't think any of these AIs would actually be able to beat a human being," Bailey says. "They might draw, but I don't think they would win."
 
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Through farm partnership, Wolverine State brewery becomes a produce pickup spot

Drinking a beer while you shop for produce isn't just for Ann Arbor's Whole Foods shoppers anymore.

Members of Sunseed Farm's community supported agriculture (CSA) program can now make their weekly produce pickups at Wolverine State Brewing Co. on Tuesdays from 5 to 7 p.m. thanks to a new collaboration between the Ann Arbor brewery and the Dexter farm.

Wolverine State marketing manager Mackenzie Meter pitched the idea to Sunseed owner Tomm Becker as a way to engage the community and promote health and wellness in the taproom.

Meter says the new collaboration helps promote the farm's CSA program to tap room regulars and gives existing CSA members "a nice, relaxing environment where they can come in and have a beer and pick up their veggies."

"It really reinforces the 'community' aspect of community supported agriculture," she says.

The new pickup location also helps introduce CSA members to the brewery's lagers and recently expanded tap room, which is tucked behind Big George's Home Appliance Mart on West Stadium Boulevard.

"There are lot of people who, since we're a little bit off the beaten path, might not have had a decent excuse to come in here for a while, and now they have their Tuesdays," Meter says.

CSA members of drinking age can get discounted pints on Tuesdays, and there are plans to offer CSA and Mug Club bundle deals in the spring and summer.

Sunseed had already been hauling away the brewery's spent grain — which the farm uses to fertilize its fields — for several years. The symbiotic arrangement helps the brewery unload thousands of pounds of waste material produced while brewing.

Future collaborations could include a spring beer dinner made exclusively with Sunseed produce and hosted at the brewery.

"The fun thing about experimenting with a partnership like this is it really opens up a lot of doors," Meter says.

The brewery also hosts several fundraisers throughout the year, including Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's Annual Chili Cook-Off, which is coming up this weekend.

"For whatever reason, [breweries] have just morphed into these community gathering spaces," Meter says. "It's a relaxed environment, and it's about as local as you can get, especially considering a place like this. We brew and bottle and package and ship and serve right on site.

"I think that kind of hyper localness is really appealing to people. And, yes, we are drinking beer and eating nachos, but this is not an anti-wellness culture here."

For example, Meter notes that Wolverine State often partners with Ann Arbor road-race and triathlon organizers Epic Races.

"You can relax [and] have a couple of beers, but you still get to be a part of this very active community-oriented lifestyle," she says.
 
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
 
All photos courtesy of Wolverine State Brewing Co.

U-M Desai business accelerator welcomes new managing director, eclectic new startups

The University of Michigan's (U-M) Desai business accelerator welcomed a new managing director last month, as well as a diverse cohort of five new startups ranging from a community healthy eating app to a recruiting network for college coaches.

Angela Kujava steps into her new role as Desai managing director after several years heading up marketing, innovation, and product efforts for Ann Arbor-based web and app design firm Logic Solutions. During her time there she realized her passion for supporting new technology companies, which she often worked with as a consultant. When the Desai position opened up, Kujava says it seemed like a natural fit.

"I have always loved the challenge of creating order out of chaos," Kujava says. "When you work with early-stage companies, they have a lot of moving parts, and many early-stage companies are working to manage that without the benefit of an established structure. What I get to do every day is help guide them and manage all those moving parts."

Kujava will guide an eclectic mix of startups in her first cohort. The new cohort includes Circadian Risk, which develops risk analysis software for mobile devices; FoodStand, an app for community-driven healthy eating challenges; Sahi Cosmetics, a makeup line designed for olive- and yellow-undertoned skin; ScoutDay, a recruiting network connecting high school athletes and college coaches; and Warmilu, which uses a therapeutic warming technology to create non-electric warming blankets for infants.

"Every cohort and every team brings a different set of experiences and different challenges, and right now we are looking to help them succeed with those challenges," she says.

Each company selected for the Desai program receives a $25,000 investment, office space in downtown Ann Arbor, and access to resources valued at more than $500,000, including legal and human resources services and extensive mentorship from the U-M alumni network. The 2017 winter program runs through April 21, followed by a Demo Day in May.

Desai was founded in 2015 as a joint venture between U-M's Zell Lurie Institute of Entrepreneurial Studies at the Ross School of Business and the Center for Entrepreneurship at the College of Engineering. Previous participants include personal safety app Companion, winner of the 2015 Michigan Business Challenge, and mobile swim coach app MySwimPro, which was named Apple Watch App of 2016.

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

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Warmilu photo courtesy of Warmilu.

 

Pittsfield Twp. alternative conference center finds local success, national recognition

When Karen Gordon got tired of sitting in unproductive meetings a few years ago, she started taking notes on how to improve them.

The Belleville resident and self-described "corporate veteran" launched GO Where Meetings Matter, a creative conference center in Pittsfield Township, in August 2015. GO's six available conference rooms and common area feature ergonomic furniture, stimulating colors, and atypical table shapes, all meant to keep people comfortable, alert, and engaged. Located on Washtenaw Avenue a mile east of US-23, the business counts the nearby University of Michigan as well as Detroit-area auto suppliers among its regular clients.

Gordon spent the last 10 years of her previous career at Ally Financial (formerly known as GMAC) heading up special projects before going into business for herself.

"I lived in meetings, and I knew they could have been and should have been productive, but a lot of them weren't," she says. "So I started thinking about how to build a better box to have a better meeting."

With the help of some entrepreneur friends, she started brainstorming about her ideal space in which to brainstorm. When a survey of local creative conference spaces came up empty, she started her own.

Her first order of business for the new space: no banquet chairs.

"If you think about it, they're only made to be sat in for 90 minutes," she says. "They're meant for a meal, not an eight-hour meeting."

Another difference at GO, according to Gordon, is the common area itself, where client meals are served and small talk can lead back to business in an organic way that doesn't typically happen behind conference room walls.

"Where the real magic happens in a meeting is when people meet outside," she says.

Unlike hotels and traditional conference centers that charge a low, per-person base rate and then lots of add-ons for amenities, Gordon says GO's pricing is all-inclusive. Clients still pay per attendee, but that fee includes use of the room, technology, supplies, beverage service access, a continental breakfast, and snacks. Clients are also free to bring in catering for lunch if they want.  

"I wanted to do everything I could to create the environment so the host of the meeting doesn't have to think about anything but the participants and their content," Gordon says.

GO was recently certified as a woman-owned business by the Women's Business Enterprise National Council. Gordon is also one of five finalists for an Inc. Magazine essay contest that could win her a one-page spread in the magazine's May issue and a video on the Inc. website. Voting is open through midnight on Sunday, Feb. 12.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

All photos courtesy of GO Where Meetings Matter.

New pitch competition offers $5,000 prize for eastern Washtenaw County entrepreneurs

The organizers of a new Ypsilanti-centric business plan pitch competition hope to generate excitement for entrepreneurs setting up shop or expanding operations into eastern Washtenaw County.

Pitch Ypsi $5000 will offer five finalists a chance to make their case to a panel of five judges for a shot at winning $5,000 during a Pitch Night event on March 8 at SPARK East. Local entrepreneurs have until Feb. 13 to apply.

"There's a lot of great things that happen in Ann Arbor, and we would like to have that kind of energy on the east side in Ypsilanti," says planning committee member Angela Barbash.

The event's planning committee also includes Ypsilanti mayor Amanda Edmonds and SPARK East business accelerator manager Joe Licavoli. Barbash says the committee is looking for startups or existing organizations that are excited about locating in Ypsi, with "bonus points" going to those who can show how they will make Ypsi a better place.

"We're not saying, 'Hey, everybody who submits needs to be in social enterprise,' but if you can demonstrate how your product or service or your company is going to impact the community in a positive way, then that's certainly going to put you ahead of the pack," she says.

The competition is modeled after Grand Rapids' popular 5x5 Night events, in which five judges put up $1,000 in prize money each. Barbash and Edmonds lobbied to have one of the contest's judge seats represent more members of the community, so four judges will contribute $1,000 apiece and the remaining $1,000 will come from 10 individuals donating $100 each. As of last week, 18 submissions had already been received.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Pittsfield Twp. "escape room" visitors hunt new puzzles in Kerrytown businesses

The team behind Pittsfield Township "escape room" Decode Detroit recently entered the second phase of its multi-part adventure game with the launch of Minerva's Escape, a free puzzle scavenger hunt in Ann Arbor it hopes will help promote local businesses.

The original escape room challenges players to figure out how to outwit Minerva, "an adolescent artificial intelligence with ambitions too big for her motherboard," with whom they've been "locked" in a room. In a new extension of that experience, Minerva has "escaped to the internet," and players must track her down through a series of clues left at Ann Arbor businesses and restaurants.

Participating businesses include Ann Arbor Spice Merchants, the Lunch Room, and TeaHaus, all located in or near Kerrytown. Each digital puzzle is concealed within an item that fits into the surroundings of its host store. Players identify the puzzles by the Decode Detroit logo that marks each one.

TeaHaus manager Jody Jones says the game has already generated some new foot traffic for her store and is a good way to bring people in who wouldn't normally stop.

"It's a great fit for our business, because we really enjoy engaging with our customers no matter what the reason, and we also have the opportunity to introduce someone to tea who may have never been introduced," Jones says.

She says the puzzle is well hidden and fits seamlessly in the shop. While most customers haven't recognized it, for those playing, it's unmistakably part of the game.

"It has been a lot of fun to see people looking for the piece in the store," Jones says. "You almost know immediately if they are a customer or a game player by they way they are searching. I have to resist the urge to play that one game you played as a kid: 'You're getting warmer, you're really hot, you're on fire!'"

If nothing else, the game can be a conversation starter.

"I did have one experience on the first day we had the puzzle, where I thought someone was playing and asked him, 'Are you playing the game?'" she says. "The guy looked at me inquisitively and was like, 'I don't know, am I playing the game?' Turns out he wasn't, and that it was a pretty funny question to ask someone just shopping in TeaHaus for the first time."

Two more Minerva's Escape missions are planned for downtown Ann Arbor, according to Decode Detroit cofounder Patton Doyle, including puzzles at Vault of Midnight, Downtown Home and Garden, and 826michigan.
 
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

After $22 million funding round, FarmLogs still "home to stay" in Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor's FarmLogs continues to grow with no signs of slowing down. The agricultural data science company recently raised $22 million in a Series C round of funding and more than doubled its staff in the last year.

Spokesperson Nicole Duhoski says the new capital will be invested back into product improvements and adding more employees to the company's current staff of 70.

More than one in three U.S. row crop farms use FarmLogs today, according to Duhoski. That adds up to more than 20 percent of the country's row crop acres and more than 60 million total acres of land managed with the software. FarmLogs software allows farmers to easily record and track activities like fertilizing or seeding, and to predict and maximize crop yields.

Duhoski credits the product's success to FarmLogs' sophisticated, easy-to-use offerings.

"We're giving farmers access to better information and tools than they've ever had before, and we're directly impacting their profits," Duhoski says. "Today, farmers are getting squeezed from every angle. Margins are tight, input costs are rising, and commodity prices are declining. All of this makes it incredibly difficult for farms to remain profitable."

Addressing farmers' needs without trying to sell them something else helps too, she says.

"Most of the competing products are built by large conglomerates, like Monsanto, where they are also trying to sell you the seed and inputs," Duhoski says. "Our independence differentiates us. We don't sell seed. We don't mind telling growers to spend less on seed if it will make them more money."

Founded in Silicon Valley before resettling here, Duhoski says Ann Arbor is FarmLogs' "home to stay" because it offers close proximity to its customers ("we're within a day's drive to anywhere in the corn belt," she says), as well as access to top talent coming out of the University of Michigan.

"We felt Ann Arbor is the place in the Midwest where we could have the best of both worlds," Duhoski says.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

New Ann Arbor Solar Club eases hassle, cuts costs of going solar

Washtenaw County homeowners and businesses intrigued by the prospect of installing solar energy equipment may find helpful assistance and financial savings from a new partnership involving several local organizations.

The Ann Arbor Group Solar Program – also called Ann Arbor Solar Club – is a partnership between the City of Ann Arbor's energy commission, the nonprofit Clean Energy Coalition, outreach and education effort a2energy, and online solar energy marketplace Geostellar. The program will offer educational events and social media forums, and emphasize the use of Geostellar's online platform to compare, customize, and find installers for solar equipment. A discounted group-purchasing rate is available to county property owners who use the promotional code "A2" when purchasing equipment through Geostellar.

Geostellar CEO David Levine says Geostellar's patented technology produces a "Solar Profile" unique to each property, which is used to tailor site-specific offerings.

"We can adjust the equipment types, system size, racking, and financing terms to optimize the installation for total savings over the life of the system or monthly savings on each bill," Levine says.

Initial surveying is done virtually with Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology that measures surface heights by bouncing lasers from airplanes off objects on the ground.

Interested home or business owners can see an initial survey of their property's solar potential and estimated installation costs for panels, as well as projected energy cost savings and greenhouse gas emissions reduction, by entering their address on the Geostellar homepage and following some simple steps.

"This saves the property owner a lot of time and money, because the consultation can happen over the phone," Levine says. "Only after the estimate is dialed in will Geostellar deploy a local installer to perform an on-site verification of the design."

Once design and contracting are complete, Geostellar assigns a project manager who works through scheduling and logistics for delivery and installation. Levine says the whole process takes about 90 days from estimate to installation, after which Geostellar monitors the systems and dispatches a contractor to fix any problems.
 
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

SPARK East to launch meetup series on artificial intelligence

The organizer of a new Ypsilanti meetup series on artificial intelligence (AI) says he'll welcome questions ranging from how to make AI work for a new business idea to "Is 'Terminator' going to happen?"

The series starts Tuesday, Jan. 24, at SPARK East. Organizer Adam Sypniewski says he wants the meetups to be a fun place to share ideas, foster collaborations, and address any and all machine learning-based questions.

"There is this vibrant startup culture in the Ann Arbor area," Sypniewski says. "I want to meet the people who have cool ideas out there. I want to introduce them to cool ideas and hopefully have something fun happen from this."

Sypniewski is an Ann Arbor resident and AI developer for Deepgram, a San Francisco-based "speech search" company that uses AI to transcribe, spot keywords, and get insights from phone calls, video footage, and online media.

"[If you] go to YouTube right now and enter your search keywords, the results that Google serves you are not based on the content of the video. They're based on the metadata, the title, or the description," Sypniewski says. "Deepgram could do something very similar, but we would search over the content. We could give you the results for that phrase, and when it was actually spoken."

Sypniewski got his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Michigan, where he used machine learning to calculate distances between galaxies and also met Deepgram's founders. After school he did applied AI work for a defense contractor before joining Deepgram.

For the first meetup, Sypniewski plans to present a layman's introduction to AI and a survey of what's been happening in the field for the last 50 years. From there, he hopes to get into more detailed examples, involve guest speakers from the automotive and other industries, and even host workshops where participants could play with some of Deepgram's recently open-sourced technology.

"A lot of companies and a lot of people see [AI] as scary and complex, and it's really not," Sypniewski says. "It's very intuitive, and it's very simple for a lot of people to get into, and I want people to start to appreciate that and hopefully see more companies, even in this area, start to try it."
 
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Video game development incubator to launch in Ypsi

A new business incubator meant to foster video game development in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area launches Thursday, Jan. 19, with an introductory meetup at SPARK East in downtown Ypsi.

Organizer Larry Kuperman says the short-term goal for the collaboration between Meetup group A2 Game Designers and SPARK is to offer monthly meetings for developers to network, collaborate, and get advice from industry players working in the area already.

"Initially we're looking to create a shared space with developers, including students, and exchange ideas and practices," Kuperman says.

Local game studios currently include PC game maker Revival Productions and mobile games maker Gaudium in Ann Arbor, as well as PC game producer Stardock in Plymouth. Gaudium cofounder David Cai will speak at next week's meeting.

In the long term, Kuperman hopes to help launch and grow startups that can tap into the region's venture capital resources and make connections with other sectors.

"Whether it's an auto manufacturer saying, 'Hey, we want you guys to design a game-oriented technology we can use for our cars,' or the university says, 'We're looking for people to design educational games,' that's what I see in our future," he says.

Kuperman, an Ann Arbor resident, is director of business development for Nightdive Studios, a Portland, Ore.-based company that specializes in re-releasing and remaking classic video games. He says gaming's low startup and overhead costs make it an attractive industry.

"A games development studio can be one to two guys with a laptop, if you're thinking about mobile games development," Kuperman says. "Some of those monetize really, really well, when you think about the return on investment."

Kuperman's motivation is partly personal. His adult children moved out of state after college to pursue careers in tech and nursing, and he sees no reason students in any of the gaming programs offered at nearby colleges and universities shouldn't be able to find employment or set up shop here after school if they want to.

"These bright graduates come out of school, and there isn't any place for them to go to work in this area, so they gravitate to San Francisco, to Seattle, to New York, and I want to change that," he says.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Collaboration gives Ypsi High students professional photography opportunity

A new partnership between Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) and Ypsi clothing boutique Puffer Reds is giving Ypsi high school students their first shot at professional fashion photography.

Under the terms of an agreement struck last month, YCS district photographer Nick Azzaro has begun engaging Ypsilanti High School students in promotional photo shoots featuring Puffer Reds gear. Students volunteer for the shoots, and Azzaro coaches them as both photographers and models. The first shoot occurred earlier this month.

"They're pretty much doing everything, and they're learning lighting along the way," Azzaro says. "They wouldn't be able to walk away and recreate it on their own quite yet, but we'll get to that point."

Puffer Reds owner Eric Williams provides apparel for the shoots and will use the resulting photos for promotional materials. No money will change hands under the arrangement. The program is coordinated through the Learning Studio, Azzaro's studio at YCS, which he hopes to eventually turn into a full-fledged student-run photo studio with multiple clients.

Azzaro has worked with YCS since 2013, when he began teaching photography for the district through Eastern Michigan University's Bright Futures after-school program. He recently closed his downtown studio, Chin-Azzaro, to refocus on his work at YCS. He says he'd long envisioned a collaboration between YCS and a business like Puffer Reds.

"So far, I haven't met a student that doesn't like to be photographed," Azzaro laughs. "I knew the recipe would work. It was just a matter of getting a backer like Puffer Reds."

Since photos from the first shoot appeared on Puffer Reds' blog, Azzaro says he's received an "overwhelming number" of inquiries from students interested in participating in upcoming shoots. As an incentive for academic performance, the program is currently only open to students who have a GPA of 3.2 or higher.

"The kids are talking about it: 'Hey, when are you going to get me in there?'" Azzaro says. "'What's your GPA?' – that's my first question."

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.

Photos courtesy of Nick Azzaro.

Ann Arbor-based reversible baby bottle launches

After a couple of years of designing, fundraising, and testing, the brothers behind Ann Arbor-based Flipsi Bottle have launched Flipsi Baby, a baby bottle that can be turned inside out for easy cleaning.

The bottle is also designed with a natural nipple shape to help transition babies from breastfeeding to bottles, and it features flexible, food-grade silicone sides that collapse inward while feeding to minimize air intake and help prevent colic. Flipsi cofounder and chief technology officer Jeff Plott and brother, CEO, and cofounder Chris Plott originally conceived their product as a reversible sport bottle, but pivoted to focus on a baby bottle design in 2014.

The Plotts have had an eventful 2016 leading up to the launch. That included winning an Innovation Fund grant from Macomb Community College and a Business Accelerator grant from Ann Arbor SPARK.

"This funding provided the last push we needed to kick off the bottle’s mass production," Jeff Plott says.

Next came extensive quality testing for choking hazards and harmful substances in build materials. The bottle passed all required testing.

Flipsi Baby has been available at Flipsi's website and through Amazon since mid-October, and Plott says user reviews and feedback have been overwhelmingly positive so far.

"One thing that really sticks out from the initial feedback is that babies who had refused other bottles seem to really latch onto the Flipsi Baby right away due to the natural shape," Plott says. "We are extremely pleased to hear how much parents and babies love our bottle."

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

U-M Law School startup offers equity crowdfunding

Investors of all stripes may now purchase shares in University of Michigan (U-M) Law School startup Court Innovations through the equity crowdfunding platform NetCapital.

Launched in 2014 with intellectual property developed at U-M, Court Innovations' Matterhorn online case resolution platform is now in use in 20 courts across Michigan and Ohio. Matterhorn allows courts, law enforcement, and citizens to communicate about and resolve minor infractions without setting foot in court.

"It's kind of exciting to be able to extend equity investment to more people, just like we're extending the court to have more people access it," Court Innovations president M.J. Cartwright says. "It really fits our model."

That extension is made possible under the federal Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act) by way of a 4(a)(6) crowdfunding offering, with the transaction facilitated by NetCapital's Securities and Exchange Commission-authorized funding portal. The JOBS Act is meant to encourage funding for small business by easing some securities regulations. The act was passed in 2012, but provisions for companies to issue securities through crowdfunding finally took effect in May of this year.

"You don't have to necessarily be an accredited angel investor, and you can actually invest in companies that are, like ours, offering some of their common stock, and you can be involved in company investment," Cartwright says. "Which we think is very, very cool."

Founded with funding from U-M's Third Century Initiative, Court Innovations is now looking to raise close to half a million dollars, staff up, and expand into courts in all 50 states.  
 
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

TechArb's latest group of U-M student startups pursues next-gen orthotics and more

Class is in session for the next generation of University of Michigan (U-M) startups in TechArb's 2017 winter cohort.
 
Between now and mid-April, the student venture accelerator's latest group of 11 student-run startups will conduct customer research, refine their business models, and receive mentorship from industry experts.
 
For the team at ArborThotics, that includes working with orthotists, federal regulators, and 3-D printing labs to continue the work they started in their capstone software engineering class last fall at U-M. ArborThotics cofounder Dom Parise and his team developed software to help produce custom ankle-foot orthotics using U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved scanners and 3-D printing.
 
Parise says producing this type of custom orthotics is currently a lengthy process that can involve plaster molds and specialized plastics baked for several days by technicians. From consultation to prescription to finished product, the process typically takes two to three weeks.
 
"It's really long, and kind of archaic at this point," Parise says. "With the 3-D printing, we can now print them in probably six to eight hours on the high end."
 
With FDA sign-off on the product and process, Parise hopes the team will have its solution on the market by mid-summer, but he's prepared for a longer haul.
 
"We can improve the product at the rate of software, but sales are at the rate of healthcare," he says.
 
For now, Parise and his team enjoy working with a group of like-minded entrepreneurs who are all at similar stages in their work, as well as the structure and deadlines provided by the TechArb program. For instance, the accelerator holds weekly meetings in which each company reports on its progress.
 
"The entrepreneurship process can be solitary if you don't have the right network," Parise says.
 
In addition to custom orthotics, the new TechArb cohort includes ventures working on original approaches to hassle-free funeral planning, healthy food choices, and connecting people living with chronic illnesses for local peer support.
 
TechArb was founded in 2009 as a joint venture between the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship and the Zell Lurie Institute at U-M's Ross School of Business. Forty teams have participated in TechArb this year, and have since received more than $2 million in funding.
 
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Photo courtesy of TechArb.

Winter Art Tour offers prizes for gallery visits this weekend

Each summer, the Ann Arbor Art Fairs draw in thousands of art lovers from all around the world – but what about winter? This weekend Ann Arbor's Yourist Studio Gallery will team with an expansive group of local artists and studios to launch the inaugural Winter Art Tour, featuring the work of over 150 local artists spread across nine Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti venues.
 
Organizer Cara Rosaen says the event, which runs Dec. 9-11, was conceived with the goal of improving "the visibility and viability of local artists, and to create a more vibrant arts community for everyone."
 
The experience begins when a participant obtains a "Passport to Art" online or at any of the nine participating venues, which range from the Ann Arbor Art Center to this weekend's DIYpsi art fair. From there, participants are encouraged to visit as many of those venues as possible, collecting stamps on their passports at each stop. Once four stamps are collected, passport holders may be entered into a drawing with a chance to win one of 21 pieces of art from participating artists.
 
Rosaen says ceramic artist Rosie E. Gomez brainstormed the passport idea to connect numerous art shows across Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.
 
"We realized there were nine-plus art shows on the same weekend last year, and wanted to figure out a way to make everyone's event bigger," Rosaen says. "Once we got nine great art shows on board, we knew we had something special."
 
Participating galleries were hand-selected in an effort to offer "a good mix of artists and atmospheres for tour-goers," according to Rosaen, and to highlight everything from intimate home studios to "large indie art shows with over 80 artists."
 
With larger galleries such as Selo/Shevel and Clay Gallery having closed their doors in recent years, Rosaen and her collaborators see events like the Winter Art Tour as an increasingly important means of keeping the pulse of the local arts community strong – even in the dead of winter.

Jason Buchanan is a writer, father, and film fanatic living and working in Ann Arbor.

MGoBlog-endorsed OSB Community Bank pursues Ann Arbor community banking niche

Brooklyn, Mich.-based OSB Community Bank has been barely a stone's throw from Ann Arbor for nearly a century, with six branches including Jackson, Onsted, and Adrian locations. But the bank is now making its first foray into Ann Arbor in an effort to fill a community banking void in the city.
 
That's thanks in part to bank president and CEO Rick Northrup, who joined the bank just this January. Northrup has worked as a banker in Ann Arbor for nearly 20 years, most recently at the now-defunct United Bank and Trust. Northrup served as that bank's executive vice president and was promoted to senior vice president at Old National Bank when it acquired United Bank and Trust.
 
"I stayed for a while, but I didn't like it," he says. "I wanted to get back into community banking."
 
When Northrup took the job at OSB, he saw an opportunity to give Ann Arbor another locally-owned banking option. He notes that both United Bank and Trust and Ann Arbor Commerce Bank have closed in recent years, leaving Bank of Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor State Bank as the only community banks in town.
 
"They're really good banks and I have friends that work at both of those institutions," Northrup says. "But where there used to be four, now there's only two, and we felt there was a need in the marketplace for another alternative bank."
 
OSB's new loan production office at 305 E. Eisenhower currently employs two people, with a third hired to join the staff early next year. The bank is currently seeking a fourth employee for the branch as well. Northrup says the location is already running "pretty well ahead of plans" for loans and other new business.
 
OSB arrives in town with the notable endorsement of Brian Cook, editor of the popular U-M sports blog MGoBlog.
 
"I've met [Cook] once," Northrup says. "But I'm a big fan, as a lot of people are, of his writing and the website."

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.

Ann Arbor baby carrier company employs moms with challenges

Being a new mom is challenging, but continuing to work at the same time can be overwhelming. Ann Arbor resident and mother of two Brea Albulov knows this struggle well, so she created a baby carrier to allow women to do both.
 
Founded in 2015, Albulov's company Hope Carried offers a wrap-like baby carrier in three different styles, made by moms who struggle with a variety of barriers to employment. Albulov endeavors to hire women whose language skills, cultural restrictions, transportation issues, or simple lack of experience make it difficult for them to find employment.
 
Albulov was seeking a way to inspire positive social change with her business when images of Syrian refugees prompted her to begin researching local refugee services.
 
"My heart was breaking," Albulov says. "I kept seeing mothers and thinking about what it would be like to not to be able to feed my child. That spurred the idea to try and find women who needed employment but for various reasons couldn't enter the traditional workforce."
 
It wasn't long before she came into contact with Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County (JFS), an Ann Arbor-based resettlement organization, and organized an open house.
 
The response was overwhelming, and resulted in the hiring of her first three employees. Today she's up to six, and JFS has pledged to provide a sewing machine for any woman who goes to work for Hope Carried.
 
Albulov is currently seeking to take her business to the next level with a Kickstarter campaign. Funds raised through the campaign will allow her to buy fabric wholesale and eventually add eight new employees to her team.

Jason Buchanan is a writer, father, and film fanatic living and working in Ann Arbor.

What drew San Francisco's SF Motors to Pittsfield Township?

San Francisco-based SF Motors, a subsidiary of Chinese auto manufacturer and supplier Sokon Industry Group, has announced plans to invest in a $10.7-million research and development facility in Pittsfield Township.
 
The facility is expected to create around 150 jobs. It will focus on product, powertrain, and new battery development in order to create the next generation of electric vehicles, according to Yong Yang, the company's VP for strategy, planning, and PR.
 
Yang cites the Ann Arbor area's reputation as a driver in automotive technology, and success with engineering and research and development centers, as key factors in the company's decision to move here. He is hopeful that proximity to the University of Michigan will give SF Motors access to the engineering talent the company will need to support its long-term goals of automotive innovation.
 
The company conducted a multi-state selection process that weighed such factors as business environment, incentives, location, talent pool, and resources. Yang says the "confluence of automotive and mobility experience and expertise" in Michigan ultimately proved the deciding factor in the company's plan to expand here.  
 
Additionally, the facility provided to the company by Pittsfield Township proved a perfect match for the company's growing needs.
 
"Advanced automotive technologies such as connected and automated vehicle research and implementation will be an important feature that our team will be working on," Yang says. "Our manufacturing team on site will be working on building a world-class manufacturing facility using best practices in the industry."
 
The SF Motors facility is only the most recent major development in next-generation automotive research in Washtenaw County. The 23-acre Mcity automated vehicle test facility has been in operation at the University of Michigan in operation since July of 2015, and another such site is set to open next year at the site of the former Willow Run bomber plant.

Jason Buchanan is a writer, father, and film fanatic living and working in Ann Arbor.
 

Acclaimed Espresso Bar changes hands, becomes Literati Coffee

Two years after the Espresso Bar moved from Kerrytown's Braun Court to Literati Bookstore in  downtown Ann Arbor, the much-lauded coffee shop is taking on a new name and ownership.
 
Jess Harmon will manage the renamed Literati Coffee under the supervision of Literati owners Mike and Hilary Gustafson, who now own the coffee shop. Sanford Bledsoe, who originally founded the Espresso Bar on the main floor of the Bar at 327 Braun Court, is no longer involved in the shop. Bledsoe could not be reached for comment.
 
On the surface, much will remain unchanged at the shop. Neither Harmon nor the Gustafsons seem eager to alter the shop's winning formula, which earned it a spot on "Cosmopolitan"'s list of America's best coffee shops earlier this year.
 
But watchful regulars may indeed notice improvements that the trio hopes will help integrate the once-separate spaces into a cohesive whole. Harmon says that having the same owner preside over both the coffee shop and the bookstore "opens up a world of possibilities."
 
"Everything just seems to be running a bit smoother now that we have the ability to pay attention where we should overlap," Harmon says.
 
Harmon notes that the shop's long-standing barista is now working with the bookstore itself in a building manager capacity, making it easier to smooth out labor issues and assist with the store's events team.
 
For now, the focus will be on making the shop's event space more inviting and establishing a more consistent means of quality control behind the scenes. In the months ahead, customers can anticipate more coffee-focused events like a latte throwdown – where baristas compete to create the best latte foam art – coming this January. Harmon will use coffee roasted by Stove Top Coffee owner and area newcomer Steve Holm for that event, aiming to foster a sense of community among the region's roasters, baristas, and coffee lovers.

Jason Buchanan is a writer, father, and film fanatic living and working in Ann Arbor.

Photo courtesy of Literati Coffee.

Washtenaw County companies win $200,000 in state employee training grants

Eleven Washtenaw County companies will receive over $200,000 in grant funding from the Michigan Talent Investment Agency for employee training initiatives ranging from Six Sigma certifications to hazardous materials training.
 
The grants are made possible by the state of Michigan's Skilled Trades Training Fund (STTF), established in 2013. Michigan Works! Southeast (MWSE) helped 40 southeastern Michigan employers submit applications for funding this year and will administer a total of $1.2 million in grants to the 27 regional awardees.
 
Despite the name of the fund that makes the awards possible, MWSE spokesperson Nicole Bell says it's been "exciting" to see how the scope of award applicants has grown each year since the STTF's inception.
 
"Some of the companies we are working with are kind of outside the box of 'skilled trade,'" Bell says. "We have a couple food industries. In a couple other counties we have hospitals. When you think of skilled trades some people think of welders or electricians or something to that effect. This is just a little bit different and it encourages retention or new employment."
 
Some Washtenaw County awardees are very much in the traditional skilled trades wheelhouse, such as Milan Metal and Mahindra Tractor Assembly in Ann Arbor. However, this year's local awardees also include software consulting and developing companies. Ann Arbor's Menlo Innovations will use its $13,500 grant to offset onboarding training for its developers and Quantum Signal in Saline will use a $9,000 grant for CompTIA security and Linux certification trainings.

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.

Tech Homecoming offers networking opportunities on year's biggest bar night

Local expatriates heading out to meet up with old friends on Thanksgiving Eve will also have a chance to meet some new Ann Arbor technology companies at the second annual Tech Homecoming event next Wednesday at Babo.
 
Hosted by Ann Arbor SPARK and Duo Security, SPARK's vice president of entrepreneurial services Bill Mayer says the event helps showcase the city's "growing and vibrant ecosystem" to those considering a move back to the area for work in the tech field.
 
"If you were to relocate to Ann Arbor to join, let's say Duo or Nutshell, and you decide you put in two or three years and are ready for a change, you can see a whole inventory of companies that are directly relevant to the work that you do," Mayer says. "You don't have to leave the area to find your next job."
 
The idea for the event came from Duo chief operating officer and cofounder Dug Song, who Mayer says put together last year's outing as a way to leverage the "biggest bar night of the year" to help tell the story of what's been happening here and attract talent back to the area.
 
That first outing featured 13 companies and drew around 200 guests for an informal evening of networking at Babo.
 
Mayer estimates about half of the attendees were recent college graduates who had moved from the area in the last five years. He says the most common response from attendees was pleasant surprise about how much the tech workforce in their hometown has grown in recent years.
 
It's hard to say if the event specifically led anyone back to the area, but Mayer believes it did make an impact in the ongoing recruitment of candidates looking to make a change.
 
"The great thing about Ann Arbor is you can buy a house, [and] you have a great public school system, as opposed to some of these other innovation areas like San Francisco, or Chicago, or New York," Mayer says.
 
The private event is free to attend, but registration is required.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

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

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

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Jolly Pumpkin to add new restaurants in Chicago, Dexter

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

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

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

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

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Photos courtesy of Decode Detroit.
 

Spanish auto parts supplier to create nearly 200 jobs in Chelsea

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

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Build/Create Studios adds staff, sharpens marketing services

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

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Using tech, ÆPEX brings live classical music to new venues

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

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Photo courtesy of 
ÆPEX Contemporary Performance.
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

German chemical company to expand into Ann Arbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Numerous local startups among 2016 Accelerate Michigan semifinalists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Australian senior-monitoring tech startup establishes Ann Arbor base

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
 

Ann Arbor human trafficking conference promotes collaboration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LLamasoft welcomes Local Orbit as officemate in former Google space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Doug Coombe.

RetroSense's sight restoration therapy moves forward with Allergan acquisition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Arbor startup reveals AI financial assistant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Doug Coombe.

 

Social services agency begins Syrian refugee resettlement in Ann Arbor

Responding to the recent influx of Syrian refugees, a Michigan social services agency is expanding its refugee resettlement program into Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti this month.

Samaritas, formerly Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, is adding one new case worker to coordinate resettlements from its existing office on Carpenter Road in Ann Arbor. Additional staff may be hired as needed. Samaritas has also received approval from the U.S. State Department to expand its Detroit-area refugee resettlement program into nearby Westland, Inkster, and Northville.

The expansion helps the faith-based organization accommodate the large numbers of Syrians fleeing civil war in their home country. It also follows recent reports that Michigan, specifically the Detroit area, is the top destination for the 10,000 Syrian refugees admitted to the United States this fiscal year.

Resettlements into the new partner communities have already begun, according to Lynne Golodner, a spokesperson for Samaritas. About a dozen families will be placed during the first wave.

"We are eager to work with communities and organizations in the Ann Arbor area who are enthusiastic about helping refugees build a new life here," she says.

Other Ann Arbor congregations, outreach organizations, and University of Michigan staff and students will assist with the transitions. The Washtenaw Refugee Welcome collective meets monthly to help with resource planning, including housing, medical care, transportation, and employment for Samaritas' and Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County's refugee programs.

Anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sound bites have been prevalent this election cycle, but Golodner says those sentiments have not affected Samaritas' work or this new effort.

"We find that most people are, in fact, very open to welcoming refugees," she says. "They understand that a refugee seeks refuge in a place of welcome. We are happy to be that place of welcome for people from all over the world who seek an end to their nightmare."

Samaritas is seeking business partners to employ, mentor, or train refugees, as well as volunteers to serve as mentors or tutors. Contact Samaritas' Troy office at (248) 423-2770 for more information.

Report: Ann Arbor leads Michigan in entrepreneurial resources

A new statewide guide to entrepreneurial resources shows that Ann Arbor easily tops other Michigan cities when it comes to funding opportunities and other support for startups.

The 2016 Michigan Entrepreneurial and Investment Landscape Guide was released last week by the Ann Arbor-based Michigan Venture Capital Association. The document features more than 140 profiles on venture capital firms, angel groups, support organizations, and service providers active in the state's entrepreneurial and investment scene.

Ann Arbor is particularly rich in resources, with more than half of the state's 44 venture capital firms based here, as well as two angel groups and 17 entrepreneurial support organizations.

"Washtenaw County by far leads the charge in resources that are available for entrepreneurs," says Maureen Miller Brosnan, executive director of the MVCA.

The area is one of the fastest-growing entrepreneurial communities in the state, Brosnan says, thanks in part to work coming out of the University of Michigan in high-tech and life science industries.

Launched last year, the annual guide and companion interactive map helps connect young companies to funding and leadership with a focused approach that Brosnan says wasn't available before.

"The guide was designed to fill that hole we were seeing," she says. "This is the quickest way for startups to find partners."

Another key market for the guide is out-of-state investors, to whom Brosnan says Michigan presents a "vitality" of entrepreneurial activity not seen in other parts of the country.

"For every $1 invested in Michigan startups, $4.31 comes in from out-of-state investors," she says. "We are really good at leading the charge with deals and able to acquire partners from outside the state of Michigan."

The full guide can be downloaded as a PDF from the MVCA website. Printed versions of the guide will be available at MVCA events, including the organization's upcoming 2016 awards dinner in November.
 

Warmilu's blanket technology goes to Kenya, scales up

From deployments in Nairobi to clinical trials in Detroit to a new home in Ann Arbor, startup Warmilu continues to explore new horizons for its warming blanket technology.

Warmilu's IncuBlanket is a non-electric, reusable heating wrap that acts instantly. First developed by University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University students as a way to keep newborns warm, the idea grew to include uses for the elderly and people dealing with pain or soreness.

In March, Warmilu team members traveled to Kenya, where they spent two and a half weeks working alongside Ann Arbor's Relief for Africa foundation to introduce Warmilu products to doctors, Ministry of Health officials, and potential distributors in and around the cities of Nairobi and Eldoret.

The Warmilu team brought 35 IncuBlankets with them to distribute and test at six different hospitals in Kenya. Grace Hsia, Warmilu's CEO and co-founder, calls the trip an "eye-opening" discovery mission.

"It really validated and helped us realize there was a challenge greater than we had anticipated and potential for acceptance larger than we had anticipated," Hsia says.

With letters of support from four hospitals on the way, Warmilu is finalizing a distribution deal that would allow the company to start processing purchase orders for about 20,000 blankets.

Closer to home in Detroit, the Warmilu team is working with Dr. Nitin Chouthai at the Children's Hospital of Michigan on planning and deploying clinical trials that could help make the IncuBlanket's case as a warming option for transferring critical-care and neonatal patients in emergencies.

Pending approval, the tests will last three to five months and rate the IncuBlanket for efficiency, effectiveness, and safety compared with current methods of transporting low-birthweight and premature infants.

With high hopes for new market opportunities, Warmilu also has another first on the way: its first home.

The company, which Hsia says was previously "nomadic," is moving into a new, 2,000-square-foot headquarters and production space on the west side of Ann Arbor. Hsia says the move will help the five-year-old business scale up while bringing all operations in-house, from administration to production to storing raw materials.

"It will allow us to produce the blanket volumes we're projecting for at least the next two to three years," she says.

Warmilu's team of six will expand soon too, as the company looks to bring on a quality and production manager and several sewers.

A closer look at U-M's new driverless vehicle startup tenants

Peter Brink has thought a lot about cars that drive you places instead of the other way around.

"The day of the truly automated vehicle where you get in and say, 'take me to this location,' ... might be 10 years off, but it's probably not as far as off we think it is," says Brink, director of engineering at the driverless vehicle startup PolySync.

Starting next week, University of Michigan students will begin working with Brink and other developers and engineers in the driverless vehicle field on research that could help make that forecast a reality.

The joint incubator program by U-M's Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) and Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE) is bringing three West Coast startups in to work with 11 engineering students for the fall semester. Portland, Ore.-based PolySync and San Francisco-based Zendrive and CivilMaps will move resources into the TechLab incubator at U-M's Mcity autonomous vehicle test facility. The initiative aims to help develop both students' careers and the startups' own new technologies.

Jay Ellis, director of the CFE's Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization program, and MTC deputy director Carrie Morton led the yearlong search for partner companies, narrowing over 30 candidates down to three. Candidates had to do work that either transfers drivership from humans to machines, or makes vehicles and infrastructure more connected. More importantly, they needed a program that put student development first.

"All three of these companies got that right away," Ellis says.

In the case of CivilMaps, students will help map and then localize the Mcity environment for a car's robot "driver" to read. The 3-D mapping company's focus is on making self-driving cars enjoyable and trustworthy for passengers, says Sravan Puttagunta, CEO & Co-Founder. Maps generated by sensor data and CivilMaps' technology are meant to replicate the human experience of navigating the physical world autonomously.

"Mcity is a great test bench for our technology stack," Puttagunta says. "A controlled environment lets us create very specific scenarios to stress-test our technology stack while having a captive audience that comes from the automotive industry."

Zendrive returns to Mcity this fall after a successful pilot run with the TechLab program back in February that led to summer internships for two students. The mobile technology company was founded by Google and Facebook veterans, and specializes in data and analytics for improving road safety.

Ellis says students will help identify and validate vehicle maneuvers using smartphone data and use that to quantify drivers' risk. They will also compare vehicle and phone data to confirm that they correlate – for instance, noting how a phone registers a hard right turn when a vehicle makes one on the road.

A driverless tech company for other driverless tech companies, PolySync's middleware platform collects and presents data from a variety of vehicle sensors. The software is meant to help developers easily obtain data useful for writing code for new autonomous vehicle applications.

Brink and the team at PolySync will work with students to produce an autonomous vehicle that can get to a predetermined destination. Part of the process will involve watching their calculations fail, which is harder to do in the real world.

"When you're driving out on the streets of Portland or Chicago or Ann Arbor, you don't want to drive the wrong direction on a one-way street, or constantly be crossing lane lines," Brink says. "Mcity provides us a captured enviroment where we can collect a lot of this 'driving badly' data, because that allows us to test the automatic drive algorithms."

Brink's initial interest in the program was to get involved with what students were doing while also exposing them to the work going on at PolySync. The research potential became apparent as something of a bonus.

"I realized after the fact what a great opportunity it was to do all this other stuff," he says. "I hesitate to use the term, but it really is synergy."

Photo by Doug Coombe.



 

HouseSetter technology monitors your home while you're away

A collaboration between Ann Arbor's Logic Solutions and a new Michigan-based company has produced a new digital "watchdog" device to keep tabs on a home's electricity, temperature, and humidity levels while owners are away.

HouseSetter was developed by former OnStar presidents Chet Huber and Walt Dorfstatter, who got the idea while Huber was wintering in Florida for the first time in 2009. Their goal was to produce a streamlined, inexpensive monitoring system for seasonal homes that didn't require home internet service, Wi-Fi, or phone lines.

The partners settled on a subscription service and a dog-shaped device they named "Sherlock" (both founders like dogs) with built-in sensors, a digital camera, and a cellular network connection. The device can alert a service center if something seems to be wrong, like a power outage or a faulty air conditioner or furnace. Even if conditions are fine at home, Sherlock still collects and feeds data into a subscriber's weekly update report.

"If something’s wrong this dog won’t bark," Dorfstatter quips. "He’ll send you an email and text instead."

HouseSetter approached Logic Solutions about the project, in part because of Logic's Michigan ties. The team at Logic designed and built HouseSetter's website and user interface, where subscribers can manage their accounts and receive reports. They also developed a communications system between HouseSetter's web server and Verizon Wireless.

"We couldn’t have asked for a better, more knowledgeable team of developers and technical leads to help us create HouseSetter’s website, communication software, and the reporting module," Dorfstatter says.

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.

ProModel grows step by step with Ann Arbor's economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U-M Desai Accelerator announces 2016 cohort of startups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MySwimPro, a social fitness platform for swimmers and triathletes.

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

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

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

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

Civionics to expand sensor pilot with local manufacturer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarity Quest Marketing capitalizes on patience, focus

For more than a decade, Christine Slocumb has been spreading the good word about her clients at