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Packard Health offers Healthy Kids Fair July 21 as outreach to vulnerable children and families

Packard Health is offering free back-to-school supplies, health checks, and family-friendly activities during a Healthy Kids Fair from 1-3 p.m. July 21 at its Ypsilanti location, 200 Arnet St.

 

The second annual fair is intended as community outreach to help vulnerable kids and their families, who might not have a steady primary care physician, prepare to go back to school this fall. The afternoon will include fun activities like face-painting and a bounce house but will also be an opportunity for children to receive health screenings, immunizations, and back-to-school physicals.

 

Additionally, Packard Health received grants and gifts from local businesses to offer free backpacks and free bike helmets, along with free helmet fittings, during the event.

 

The fair also serves as a celebration of Packard's 45th year in existence and a way to introduce the community to the organization's newest location. Packard Health executive director Raymond Rion says that many people know about Packard's main location on Packard Avenue as well as its office on Ann Arbor's west side, but the organization hasn't spent much time publicizing its newest location.

 

"We started off pretty quietly," Rion says of of the Ypsilanti location, which has been open about two and a half years. "We have an understated corporate culture and don't always excel at blowing our own horn."

 

He adds that opening another location in the heart of Ypsi made sense because, while Washtenaw County has two strong major health systems, Packard Health aims to serve people who are underserved or experience barriers due to language, location, or the severity of their medical problems.

 

Rion notes that Washtenaw County has the eighth largest income disparity of any county in the nation, and with that income disparity comes health disparities.

 

"There's this gigantic life expectancy gap separated by just eight miles," he says.

 

Rion says that people who fit the "box" of the traditional healthcare model will receive "pretty good health care." But it's not so easy for those who face barriers to scheduling appointments in advance, showing up on time, or understanding their caregiver's instructions.

 

"The further you are from fitting well into the box on the box's terms, the less well the system serves you," Rion says. "What we've tried to do is figure out creative ways to get services outside the box."

 

More information about the Healthy Kids Fair is available on Packard Health's website.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Packard Health.


Ann Arbor company announces Vietnamese partnerships to produce high-durability spider silk

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

Bulletproof vests made of spider silk spun by genetically modified silkworms may sound like the far-fetched product of a superhero movie. But they're the very real work of Ann Arbor-based Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, which is expanding into Vietnam to support its production of recombinant spider silk.

 

The company's technology injects the genetic "recipe" for spider silk into silkworm egg sacs, and the modified silkworms munch on mulberry leaves, transforming them into the company's spider silk recipe. Those transgenic silkworms then give birth to more silkworms already programmed with the spider silk "cookbook," says Kraig COO Jon Rice.

 

"Silkworms make 150,000 metric tons of silk per year, and spiders make very flexible silk but don't make a lot of it," Rice says.

 

In early July Kraig opened a wholly-owned subsidiary, Prodigy Textiles, in order to be allowed to operate in Vietnam. It then signed three agreements with local farming cooperatives in Vietnam's Quang Nam province. Under these agreements the farmers will produce the mulberry necessary to support the company’s recombinant spider silk production.

 

These agreements will allow the company to scale up its operations, Rice says, since Vietnam already has the climate, the knowledge, and the infrastructure to create silk year-round.

 

"We looked at several countries, but Vietnam was head of the list," Rice says. "They are about (No.) five or six globally in annual silk production. The knowledge is there, the equipment is there, the facilities are there. All they need is our better-performing silkworm."

 

Kraig founder and CEO Kim Thompson's interest in figuring out how to make transgenic silkworms turn mulberries into fabric as tough as spider silk goes back to the early 2000s. But it wasn't until 2016 that Kraig got its first contract from the U.S. Army to see how its materials might function as a protective textile.

 

"We make vests out of Kevlar, because it has high strength and toughness," Rice says. "Spider silk is about 10 times stretchier, and pretty close to Kevlar in terms of strength. Stretch plus flexibility equals toughness, and our spider silk outperforms even the best synthetics because of that flexibility."

 

The spider silk material is also lightweight and "biocompatible," Rice says. For instance, if a soldier receives an injury that involves high heat, like an encounter with an IED or a vehicle rollover, synthetic plastic fibers will heat and melt into the wound, but spider silk will not.

 

Rice says the market for the company's material is much broader than the military, and could include medical uses, including skin grafts. He says the company already has the technology, the production capability, and the market for its materials. The question, until now, has been how to scale up production.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Kraig Biocraft Laboratories.


M Farmers Markets offer fresh local produce across U-M campus and satellite facilities

Ann Arbor has multiple high-profile outlets to buy local produce, from the Ann Arbor Farmers Market to Argus Farm Stop. But since 2011, the University of Michigan's (U-M) MHealthy wellness program has been quietly expanding its summer offering of several M Farmers Markets a week at numerous U-M sites.

 

Since nutrition is a key component in weight control and overall health, it made sense for U-M to start offering farmers market days around the U-M campus and at the university's various clinic locations around Ann Arbor, according to Erica Owen, manager of nutrition and weight management for MHealthy.

 

Owen says the U-M health system had been considering holding farmers markets at U-M locations since 2007, but it wasn't resonating with employees. But the idea started to catch on when U-M students expressed interest in having farmers markets on campus.

 

Owen says early efforts involved having food service company Aramark buy produce from local farms and then resell it at university sites, due to U-M policies on who can sell products on the university's turf. But once Square's mobile credit card processing technology caught on with local farmers, it made it easier for them to set up tables and take credit card payments.

 

Owen says student markets in early fall typically attract three or four produce vendors, as well as food trucks and other prepared food vendors. The markets often also include cooking demos with simple recipes requiring no more than five or six ingredients, Owen says.

 

"It's often something like salsa that doesn't need to be cooked, or can be cooked really quickly, like a one-pan meal," she says. "They can see the recipe being made, take a recipe card with them, and then buy the produce to take with them and make the recipe at home."

 

M Farmers Markets at health system locations typically only feature one farmer each day, either Milan-based Zilke Vegetable Farm or Tecumseh-based Prochaska Farms. Markets at Wolverine Tower, the North Campus Research Center complex, the U-M Hospital, and the East Ann Arbor Health Center are the best attended, due in large part to the density of employees in those areas.

 

Markets at U-M's Briarwood location and some of the university's other smaller satellite locations haven't been as well-attended, Owen says, though a marketing push by interested faculty produced healthy attendance at a new market at the Stephen Ross Academic Center.

 

Owen says the MHealthy team tweaks its market offerings each year, adding markets or events where there's interest, and sometimes scaling back at locations where attendance has been poor.

 

"We are going to have to look at what happens next year," Owen says. "We may have saturated our market a bit, and there are also so many more markets in (employees') own communities, near their homes, than when we started. We are good at reevaluating and coming up with new, creative ideas."

 

Owen says she's considered creating a system allowing employees to order a box of variety produce in advance, to be picked up at a centralized location at the end of the work day. Another of those creative ideas is a collaboration in the making with MDining, the university's dining service, that would involve offering MHealthy-approved boxed lunches with an entree, a fruit salad, and a bottle of water.

 

A complete schedule of the M Farmers Markets is available through the University of Michigan's website.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of MHealthy.


Inaugural Vital Seniors Competition seeks solutions for county's growing senior population

Washtenaw County's senior population is set to explode between now and 2040, and the finalists in a major new competition have a variety of ideas to address that population's needs.

 

Vital Seniors: A Community Innovation Competition is sponsored by the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation (AAACF) through its Glacier Hills Legacy Fund, which is devoted to sparking innovation in programs for adults 60 and over.

 

Using demographic projections by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), AAACF CEO Neel Hajra says that not only is the county's population of seniors over 60 going to more than double between 2010 and 2040, but the population of those 75 and older will triple in that same time frame. The number of vulnerable seniors at or near the poverty line is expected to double in that timeframe as well.

 

At the same time, because of smaller families and greater geographic dispersion of families, "the ratio of family caregivers to seniors is plummeting," Hajra says.

 

"When we look ahead to the 2030s and 2040s, national statistics show there will be fewer family supports for more seniors, and that's why we're trying to bring attention to the issue and have the community, as a whole, rally around this point," he says.

 

The AAACF has already awarded $20,000 "capacity grants" to each of 10 finalists:

  

Innovations proposed by the 10 finalists range from new transportation models for seniors to supportive housing for seniors who want to age in place to various senior health initiatives.

 

Over the summer, the finalists will use the $20,000 to improve their organizations' capacities and tweak their ideas, says Chris Lemon, senior program officer for AAACF. The 10 finalists have already been through one capacity-building workshop that involved a "visioning" session with ZingTrain and a round-robin meetup with coaches that will be matched with each of the 10 organizations.

 

While the organizations had to provide an overview of the project they proposed, the coaching and workshops will allow them to refine and improve their ideas.

 

"We're leaving the door open for each project to evolve further, since this is an innovation competition," Lemon says.

 

In the fall, the competition will award a $500,00 grand prize, a $250,000 Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation Caregiver Prize, two awards for $100,000, and two "People's Choice" awards of $50,000 each. The $50,000 and $100,000 prizes will be divided up into two categories, one each for organizations with operating budgets under $1 million and one each for organizations with budgets over $1 million.

 

Lemon says voting will take place online over several weeks in the autumn, and a final awards ceremony will take place sometime in early November. Those interested in voting for the People's Choice Awards or attending the final ceremony can watch for updates at the AAACF website, at www.vitalseniorscomp.com, or on any of AAACF's social media accounts.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.


EMU and U-M join forces for conference on innovation in education

A new conference on Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) campus will focus on effectively using design thinking and social and emotional learning to improve kids' educational experiences.

 

Eastern Michigan University's Bright Futures program and the University of Michigan's Institute for Innovation in Education have joined forces for the two-day Ideas to Action Conference, which runs June 28-29 on EMU's campus.

 

"We really try to give kids opportunities to practice emotional management, empathy, how to work in teams, responsibility, and initiative and problem-solving," says Will Spotts, assistant director for Eastern Michigan University's Bright Futures. "It's great to say that we value these skills, but actually doing it in a pedagogically- and age-appropriate way is going to look different from pre-kindergarten all the way to college seniors."

 

Spotts says this is the fourth year Bright Futures has hosted a conference on social and emotional learning (SEL), and IIE has also convened its own "gatherings" in the past, but this is the first time the two groups have joined forces for a two-day look at educational best practices.

 

Bright Futures' philosophy around quality after-school programs and academic improvement has already been influenced and shaped by previous interactions with IIE, Spotts says, and the collaboration made sense.

 

He says Bright Futures conferences have typically attracted K-12 teachers and administrators and educational nonprofits, while IIE gatherings have typically pulled in researchers and thinkers who are bringing in non-mainstream ideas around education.

 

"We thought there was enough synergy and potential for cross-pollination, and we work with these folks regularly anyway, so we thought, 'What happens when you put your people together with us for a two-day joint affair?'" Spotts says.

 

Thursday's programming, a "Designing for Social and Emotional Learning" workshop led by IIE, centers on the idea of "design mindset."

 

"Famously, fixers want to fix things. They come in, see a problem, and apply a solution, without trying to get to the root of what the problem might be," Spotts says. In contrast, the design mindset gets to the roots of an issue and surveys stakeholders for their ideas to develop a solution.

 

Spotts says he thinks a workshop on the topic dovetails nicely with SEL, because the school day and after-school programs could both benefit from students expressing what they want out of the experience and exploring their own solutions to educational issues.

 

The Friday portion of the event is sponsored by Bright Futures and typically draws around 125 people, Spotts says.

 

The day will open not with a traditional keynote speech, but with a "Keynote Story Slam" that will set participants up to reflect on their experiences and what they've learned over the years. That will be followed by two 40-minute workshop sessions, where participants can choose from nine different themes ranging from "The Power of Storytelling" to "Using SEL with Trauma-Informed Practice."

 

During lunch, participants will write down topics they want to explore more during the "unconference" that will take up the rest of the day. Participants will be split up into groups of 10 or 15 people based on interest, with a facilitator who will help frame the conversation while letting participants decide where the conversation goes.

 

"They'll spend 45 minutes thinking out loud and networking," Spotts says. "It's a chance for people who might live in the same community but who might not know each other to find allies and think out loud together."

 

Spotts says Thursday's workshop was originally capped at 30 participants, but interest was high and registration "exploded," so the cap was moved to 55 people. Even after lifting the cap, Thursday is sold out and a waitlist has been formed. However, registration for Friday's event is still open via the EventBrite page for the conference.

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of EMU Bright Futures.


Ann Arbor teen inventor wins award at national convention

An Ann Arbor teen's invention aiming to prevent fatal police shootings of deaf people has won a national award.

 

Seventeen-year-old Skyline High School graduate Sarah Whybark won the "Best Logbook" award at the June 1 National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo (NICEE), held at Henry Ford Museum, for her invention called ASSIST. She was one of 437 student inventors from 20 states and two countries participating in the convention produced by The STEMIE Coalition, a nonprofit founded to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), invention, and entrepreneurship education.

 

ASSIST is a bracelet for deaf people that blinks when police are around, alerting the police to a deaf citizen while also alerting the deaf person to law enforcement officials' presence. The idea was originally conceived by another student in Whybark's engineering class at Skyline. But that student moved on to another idea and let Whybark develop ASSIST.

 

"Growing up in elementary school, I had a few friends who were deaf," Whybark says. "I wanted to help a minority group that often gets overlooked, and I remembered a while back there was a story about a man who was shot and killed in Oklahoma because he was unable to hear and understand the police who were confronting him."

 

That initial concept became Whybark's school year capstone project and her NICEE entry. Whybark says the "Best Logbook" award means that she maintained excellent documentation and organization throughout her project, including documenting ideas that she abandoned.

 

Currently, she says the bracelet is made of "a garage weather strip, Velcro, duct tape, and hot glue." But she has plans to develop it further by collaborating with engineers and coders and eventually patenting her idea.

 

"Once I get a working prototype, I plan to reach out to the people and organizations that I have already met and who have taken interest in this idea," she says. "After I have it functioning and supported, I will bring the idea to the police and those who are on the other side of this public safety issue right now."

 

She also hopes to add a feature alerting deaf drivers to an approaching emergency response vehicle. Beyond the ASSIST project, Whybark's future plans include attending Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky. and becoming an elementary teacher for students with special needs.

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of the STEMIE Coalition/KMS Photography.


Corner Health Center hosts Vogue Night to encourage LGBTQ youth involvement

Many people may know the dance style of "voguing" as something they've seen in a Madonna video or the documentary Paris is Burning. But members of the LGBTQ community know that vogue has deeper roots as a platform for safe sex education in queer communities and communities of color.

 

To honor that legacy, Ypsilanti's Corner Health Center will host a Vogue Night at Riverside Arts Center, 76 N. Huron St. in Ypsi, from 7-11 p.m. Friday, June 22. The event aims to encourage more LGBTQ youth of color to feel welcome at the health center, which has a mission of helping local youth develop healthy behaviors.

 

"Vogue started a little before the HIV/AIDS crisis, and was mostly used by queer people of color, primarily black and Latino," says Miles Perry, a Corner Health Center summer intern who is organizing the event. "A Vogue Night was a place where they could gather safely and have a good time without being in fear of persecution."

 

The tradition also involved a sense of community and belonging, with "house mothers" and "house fathers." Perry says a "house" in this sense is an affinity group of peers, like the houses in the TV show Game of Thrones or the Harry Potter books.

 

Perry says that tradition was transformed into a space where public health agencies could come in and get participants screened and connected to services to prevent the spread of HIV.

 

"In the same tradition, we're trying to get more queer people of color into the Corner Health Center," Perry says. "We have a variety of people who come through the doors, and a majority of our patients are (racial) minorities, but we're not seeing the same diversity with queer patients."

 

As a relative newcomer to Ypsi who was placed at Corner Health Center through a University of Michigan public health program, Perry says he likes the energy in the city. The Rochester, N.Y. native says he's been getting a lot of positive feedback on the event, including being welcomed to put up posters in all the local stores he has visited and having several businesses offer to sponsor prizes for the event. As of the second week in June he was still looking for local businesses to donate food and drink and a volunteer DJ for the event.

 

Entry to the event is free, and anyone over age 15 is welcome. For more information, visit the Facebook page for the event.

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Miles Perry.


Meeting of the Minds summit examines challenges, opportunities in Michigan's mobility industry

The inaugural year of a new weekend-long tech event in Ann Arbor included a high-profile summit focused on Michigan's mobility leadership and solving community problems through mobility.

 

Ann Arbor SPARK recently expanded its June Tech Trek and Tech Talk programs to include a Meeting of the Minds Mobility Summit. SPARK partnered with the national organization Meeting of the Minds to create an all-day mobility conference June 14. It was preceded by a day of discussions around investing in the mobility sector on the 13th and followed by Tech Trek, Tech Talk, and a public mobility exhibition called Mobility Row on the 15th.

 

Komal Doshi, director of mobility programs at SPARK, says the ultimate goal in coming years is to expand what was formerly one day of programming around tech in Ann Arbor to an entire week of programs and networking under the umbrella of A2Tech360.

 

Meeting of the Minds is a national think tank that sponsors conferences nationwide regarding different aspects of smart cities. The national organization has only done one other conference centered on mobility before, Doshi says. She says Meeting of the Minds chose Ann Arbor for its second mobility summit because Ann Arbor has "such a strong ecosystem, such a strong drive around the mobility industry."

 

Doshi says much of the summit was focused on positioning Michigan as a leader in the mobility industry.

 

"We discussed the governor's mobility challenge and the chance for us to strengthen the regional ecosystem," Doshi says. "We also talked about how the focus really needs to be on how we meet users' needs. All around southeast Michigan, disadvantaged people are traveling large distances to make it to work and often have job loss for that reason because they don't have a way to get around, to the economic detriment of our society."

 

She says mobility is a "deciding factor" in issues ranging from healthcare access to job opportunities and higher education.

 

"We need to focus on how to use our innovations and grant money ... to (close) these gaps that exist," she says. "The conversations really showcased these gaps and what they mean for the prosperity of the region."

 

The day started with panels and keynote speeches from both local and national organizations, followed by small-group discussions about gaps and challenges in the mobility industry. In the afternoon, participants took a field trip to tour the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township. Global auto supplier Visteon provided two live demos on ACM's test tracks, one of vehicle-to-vehicle technology and the other on vehicle-to-infrastructure technology.

 

Additionally, eight other companies did demos in the ACM garages, showing off products ranging from technology that collects data on pavement conditions to controls for lighting infrastructure to cybersecurity for autonomous vehicles.

 

After the field trip, participants were divided into small roundtable discussions of seven or eight people to dive deeper into solving problems in the field. The conference was followed by a networking reception and SPARK's annual FastTrack awards for high-growth local companies.

 

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

 

Photos by Jenn Cornell.


New Washtenaw County program to offer paid tech apprenticeships, emphasizing underrepresented groups

A new $1.5 million pilot program will focus on placing Washtenaw County residents in paid tech apprenticeships, with an emphasis on underrepresented groups like women, people of color, and veterans.

 

The Workforce Intelligence Network for Southeast Michigan (WIN) will begin offering Apprenti, a registered apprenticeship program of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA). A $1.5 million grant from the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation will cover training expenses for the first 100 apprentices trained in Washtenaw County over three years.

 

David Palmer, senior director for strategies and partnerships at WIN, says the partnership and the Washtenaw pilot are in response to a "looming challenge around workforce and talent," especially in the mobility industry and other high-tech fields.

 

"Apprenticeships are a valuable post-secondary credential," Palmer says.

 

He says apprenticeships don't replace a bachelor's degree, but rather add to the options for employees looking for ways to gain experience and augment their professional credentials.

 

Palmer says employers are keenly aware of lost opportunities and profits when they can't fill high-tech jobs. He says creating more density of high-tech talent will help keep those high-tech, well-paying jobs in southeast Michigan.

 

"Throughout the southeast Michigan region, we need a skilled workforce to make sure we control our destiny as a mobility capital," Palmer says.

 

The Apprenti program uses a screening tool to identify individuals with talents and skills that could be a good match for high-tech jobs, whether or not the individual has the "right" degree or has attended a prestigious university.

 

The pilot program will help retrain individuals to gain skills in information technology and the mobility industry, while also helping companies identify talent they might not have found on their own.

 

Apprenti's successful pilot program in Seattle significantly "leveled the playing field" and created more opportunities for military veterans, women, and people of color, Palmer says. Although white men are also welcome in the program, Apprenti uses targeted campaigns on social and traditional media to recruit for those groups who are far less represented in the tech industry.

 

"Apprentices who had applied through local hiring streams never heard back," Palmer says. "Now, through Apprenti, they are on these teams at these organizations, and the organizations are admitting, 'We really missed out on talented individuals.'"

 

Those interested in the program must go through a three- to five-month unpaid bootcamp to fine-tune their skill sets. However, once hired into apprenticeships, participants will have full benefits and make 60 percent of the average entry-level wage, which still works out to about $47,000 per year, Palmer says. At six months, apprentices receive a 10 percent pay bump. After 2,000 hours or about one year on the job, they begin making a market-rate salary.

 

More information about Apprenti in southeast Michigan is available at ApprentiCareers.org.

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of WIN.


Expanded A2 Health Hacks event tackles health challenges in the developing world

The A2 Health Hacks hackathon will return for its third year June 22-24 with new partners, a new and bigger space, a new prize, and a new focus on addressing health problems in the developing world.

 

The hackathon starts on the 22nd with keynote speakers who "tee up interesting problems," according to cofounder Diane Bouis. Teams of participants will also form on the 22nd, and then they'll brainstorm throughout the weekend and pitch their solutions to judges on the 24th.

 

Bouis says all of her co-founders are interested in health in the developing world. They conceived of the hackathon as a "bridge between the developing world and the developed world," and that was part of the reasoning behind this year's theme: "Making Do: Healthcare in Low Resource Settings."

 

Bouis says that sometimes the type of solutions created in the developing world and the developed world will be different, but sometimes they have a lot in common. For instance, she says, people think of infant mortality as a problem of developing nations, but right here in Michigan, Detroit has one of the worst infant mortality rates in the nation.

 

This year, A2 Health Hacks has partnered with the University of Michigan's (U-M) School of Public Health, Innovation, and Social Entrepreneurship as well as the Technology Increasing Knowledge: Technology Optimizing Choice (TIKTOC) program at the U-M Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center.

 

The collaboration with TIKTOC led to a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, which is sponsoring a special TIKTOC track on the topic of "Transition into Independence for Young People with Disabilities" and an additional cash prize.

 

Bouis says the track regarding transition into independence, like the hackathon's main challenge, isn't just focused on high-tech solutions.

 

"It could be a device that helps people with mobility challenges achieve things independently," Bouis says. "The solution could also be an app that helps with time management for somebody that has cognitive or developmental challenges. Or it could be a service or business model."

 

Attendance was capped at 120 in past years, and, through attrition, between 90 and 100 people were still standing during the final pitch on Sunday. This year, a larger space has been secured so that attendance will now be capped at 150.

 

The first place winner for the hackathon and the winner in the TIKTOC track will win a full scholarship to the Ann Arbor SPARK fall boot camp, where they'll learn to launch a company based on their prototypes, as well as cash prizes sponsored by Google. The TIKTOC track winner also gets $500 in startup consulting services provided through the grant. Additionally, Google sponsors a third prize of $500 to be used toward advancing a prototype for the third-place team.

 

Visit the event's website for more information or to register.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of A2 Health Hacks.


New report makes economic case for improving racial equity in Michigan

Most arguments in favor of racial equality appeal to people's sense of social justice, but an economic case can be made as well. That's the focus of The Business Case for Racial Equality in Michigan: A Strategy for Growth, a new report produced by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Ann Arbor-based nonprofit Altarum.

 

The report found that Michigan could see a $92 billion gain in economic output by 2050 if racial disparities in health, education, incarceration, and employment were addressed and eliminated. For example, reducing health disparities would impact productivity and profitability and reduce excess medical costs.

 

The new Michigan report is an update to an early 2015 report about Michigan. It was released last week at the Mackinac Policy Conference. Kellogg and Altarum published a nationwide analysis in April as well.

 

Ani Turner, co-director of sustainable health spending strategies at Altarum, led the research. She says the newest version of the Michigan analysis updates facts and figures and includes more information highlighting effective strategies to improve equity in areas like housing, health, and jobs.

 

The Perry Early Learning Center in Ypsilanti is mentioned in the report as an example of effective early childhood intervention to improve life outcomes for children of color. While many people have hypothesized that giving children a good early start should create better outcomes over a lifetime, Perry proved the point with a long-term study that followed children in the program, as well as a control group, for decades.

 

"The virtue of the Perry preschool program and subsequent periodic analyses followed these kids well into middle age and was therefore able to demonstrate that, compared to kids not in the program, the participants had all these kinds of positive life outcomes like greater earnings and less teen pregnancy," Turner says. "It's a very quality intervention."

 

Methodology for determining the various dollar figures in the report involved using existing models to track the difference between what one would expect to see in a completely equitable society and what conditions currently exist, she says.

 

"If you're living in an equitable society and you're looking at outcomes like how much someone earns or their health status or the rates at which they're incarcerated, you would not expect to see huge differences by racial or ethnic group," Turner says.
Instead, in Michigan and around the country, gaps are still very large. For example, Turner notes that people of color in Michigan today make a little less than two-thirds what a non-Hispanic white person of the same age would make.

 

A more equitable society would mean more educational, health, and job opportunities for people of color and increased economic activity, Turner says.

 

In today's employment environment, employers are looking for workers with greater skills, she says, but Michigan's workforce is aging and will soon retire and draw on Social Security and Medicare. People of color are expected to make up about 40 percent of Michigan's workforce by 2050, so ensuring people of color have training and employment opportunities is crucial to the future of Michigan's economy.

 

"When we're creating the workforce, and the tax base, of the future, we really need to be bringing up opportunities for populations that have had less opportunity in the past," Turner says. "The productive population of the future, the prime taxpayers of the future, are today's kids, and they're the ones we need to be investing in now."

 

The full study is available for download here. The report is free, but the website asks visitors to enter a first name and email address so the Kellogg Foundation can track how widely the report is being read.

 

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


New Ann Arbor business takes networking to the next level through personalized connections

You could say networking is the focus of the new business Engage and its signature Connector Program, but founder Brooke Boyle says it's more about helping people figure out "What comes next for me in Ann Arbor?"

 

Networking is only part of what the recently launched Connector Program does, Boyle says.

 

"That's the piece that is familiar to people," she says. "But it's really about changing the way we interact with each other, learning how to not just try to relate to the person across from us but discover something new based on our differences."

 

Boyle personally vets applicants to the program and matches each "connectee" with three "connectors." They get to know each other over coffee or another casual meeting, and then the connector makes three introductions to individuals in the connector's network. Neither connectors nor connectees are charged for the service, but companies can choose to pay to put employees through the Connector Program.

 

The program is based on a Canadian networking system called the Halifax Model but tweaked for Ann Arbor. It doesn't just connect people to professionals and career-related opportunities but helps those who participate get more involved in their local community when they're off the clock. That might include finding a nonprofit's board to serve on or finding a community band or orchestra they want to play with in their spare time.

 

While the benefit to connectees is obvious, connectors and the companies they work for also benefit from the program by attracting new talent they might not otherwise encounter as well as helping new employees adjust to life in Ann Arbor.

 

Boyle says she vets connectors to make sure they really do have time to mentor and help a connectee. Once she matches a connectee with a connector, she strongly recommends that they meet in person within five days, so as not to lose enthusiasm or momentum.

 

"We want connectors to be honest about whether they have the bandwidth to do this," she says. "With the busy lives we all have, sometimes we'll say yes when maybe we should say no. I want them to actually take a look at their availability and really buy into supporting that person, and if they can't, we will introduce them to another connector."

 

Engage began a testing phase in August 2017 and it did a soft launch earlier this year. It already has more than 45 local businesses and community leaders serving as connectors. Boyle aims to bring 150 connectors onboard and run 100 connectees through the program in the coming year.

 

Boyle recently welcomed Ann Arbor SPARK as a funding partner to subsidize putting newcomers through the Connector Program as part of an effort to attract and retain creative talent to the greater Ann Arbor area.

 

"People have day jobs, but they also have passions that extend beyond that. (The Connector Program) helps them find that local organization they wouldn't have found on their own in their first six months in Ann Arbor," she says. "We're helping them feel 'in the know' about things a townie would say they must know about Ann Arbor."

 

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 by Katie Alexis Photography.


U-M students road-trip to trade lessons with social entrepreneurs through Ross Open Road program

University of Michigan (U-M) MBA student Christopher Owen says he met "real-life superheroes" while traveling the country to work with small business owners through the Ross Open Road program last month.

 

"That really touched me on a deep level," he says. "In a matter of four and a half days, we were building genuine relationships. ... They are visionaries in their field, and being a visionary often means being off in front, a voice in the darkness."

 

Ross Open Road was conceived as an action-based project about social entrepreneurship and small business ownership that would be mutually beneficial to both students and entrepreneurs nationwide. The program is co-sponsored by the Center for Social Impact, the Zell Lurie Institute, Sanger Leadership Center, the Erb Institute, and the Ross MBA Program Office.

 

Last month, for the program's third year, three teams of four U-M students started in Detroit and went on to visit social impact-oriented small business owners and nonprofits in three other communities. The students shared their classroom learning while also gaining real-world experience from the business owners they worked with.

 

Team ACAI, made up of Apoorva Kanneganti, Courtney Poopat, Alexis Morath, and Ian Stackhouse-Kaelble, visited the Michigan Good Food Fund and the Us Food Market in Detroit before moving on to Mindshift in Fargo, N.D. and Homes First in Lacey, Wash.

 

"The opportunity to travel across the country and work with smaller businesses and nonprofits with a social impact mission in communities we hadn't necessarily had exposure to before was something that was exciting and inspiring to all of us," Stackhouse-Kaelble says.

 

Poopat was especially inspired by Team ACAI's last stop, examining affordable housing with Homes First CEO Trudy Soucoup.

 

While the MBA students provided the classroom business knowledge that Soucoup didn't have, Soucoup had connections that the students didn't have. She introduced the team to community members, a state representative, a president of a property management company, a certified public accountant, and a lawyer.

 

"It really opened our eyes to the landscape, learning about the industry and what the nonprofit was doing to create an impact," Poopat says. In turn, the team helped the CEO dig into the feasibility of a proposed new revenue stream.

 

Team MACK, made up of Christopher Owen, Mark Green, Allison Bernstein, and Kashay Sanders, visited Lil Brilliant Mindz in Detroit before visiting Green Opportunities in Asheville, N.C.; JaWanda’s Sweet Potato Pies in Birmingham, Ala.; and Zuni Learning Tree in Conway, Ark.

 

A third team, called Team THIS, was made up of Stephanie Dolan, Thai Ha-Ngoc, Jinny Han, and Tsering Sherpa. The team visited sites in Detroit; Milwaukee; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Bozeman, Mont.

 

"Our vision was to contribute to rewriting the national narrative of entrepreneurship that is often seen as white, wealthy, and tech," says Owen. "We wanted to engage the new face of entrepreneurship, minority business owners in particular."

 

Bernstein says that, as a young black woman, she was nervous about visiting the South with its legacy of slavery. But she says that choice was "very intentional" and that the experience validated her passion for social justice and entrepreneurship.

 

"We learned so much about the history of this country and the communities entrepreneurs have come from," Bernstein says. "It was quite the life-changing experience to see that incredible genius is equally spread across the country and the world."

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Emily Brourman.


"Catastrophe room" business idea wins $1,500 at Pitch@WCC competition

A business idea for a "catastrophe room," offering the cathartic chance to safely destroy objects before enjoying a relaxing craft or a healthy snack, was a big winner at the May 15 Pitch@WCC competition.

 

CatasRelief founders Kiara Patterson and Tiffany Avery won two prizes and a total of $1,500 at the competition, sponsored by The Entrepreneurship Center at Washtenaw Community College. The yearly business pitch competition has three categories for startups in different stages of development: "Start," "Build," and "Grow." The founders of CatasRelief won $1,000 in the "Start" category and a $500 audience choice prize.

 

The runner-up in the "Start" category was Michigan Yu-Gi-Oh Academy, with a $500 prize. The winner in the "Build" category was EnBiologics, taking home a $1,250 prize, and runner-up MyAaliyah won $625. In the "Grow" category, Love at First Try earned the $1,500 top prize, followed by runner-up No More Parties Music Festival, winning $750.

 

Patterson says she and Avery know a lot of people who are stressed, so they wanted to start a business that would provide relief through healthy coping mechanisms. The two flew to Dallas to try out an "anger room," which allows customers to vent their frustrations by destroying objects. But Patterson and Avery came home thinking they could improve on the idea.

 

"A lot of destroy rooms are focused on anger, and that's not something we want to promote or even be around," Patterson says. "We want to change anger into positivity or at least into motivation."

 

They plan to do that by adding restorative and constructive activities to the experience. CatasRelief's simplest package will offer customers a chance to blow off steam by smashing up furniture in a destroy room. But other packages will offer customers a chance to watch a video of their destroy room experience while doing some relaxing crafts in another room. Another package adds on access to healthy snacks and pressed juices.

 

Patterson says she and Avery originally went to the Entrepreneurship Center and looked into Pitch@WCC just for the business coaching that is part of the lead-up to the competition. They were surprised to take home the top prize in their category, competing against eight other businesses.

 

Patterson says she learned a lot in a "how to pitch" workshop and found a mandatory coaching session about the "why" of opening a business especially helpful.

 

"It really got us thinking about our mission and what we're going to do to affect and help people," she says. "Of course we want to make money, but our main concern is being able to help others."

 

Patterson and Avery are still seeking a location for their business. Patterson says she and Avery plan to use their prize money on marketing materials and building out their website, but in the meantime, anyone interested in following the progress of the business should follow CatasRelief on Instagram.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of The Entrepreneurship Center.


New livestream series spotlighting female pop-culture creators to premiere in Ann Arbor

PopArt!, a new locally produced weekly livestream series focused on female pop-culture creators, will kick off with a free pilot preview screening from 6-8 p.m. June 7 at Duo Security, 130 S. 1st St. in Ann Arbor.

 

Duo Security's A2 Tech Film Showcase, with a mission of increasing diversity in film, is sponsoring the screening of the program, which is produced by local digital entertainment company Pop-Post. The 35-minute pilot was pre-recorded and filmed at Eastern Market and Vault of Midnight in Detroit, but starting in June all future episodes will stream live weekly on the Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch. The show is hosted by Charley Tucker, general manager of Vault of Midnight Grand Rapids; and Emma Fyffe, a Los Angeles-based actor and producer.

 

Ann Arborite Kathleen Hiraga started Pop-Post in 2014 to highlight female creators in pop culture but says the company has grown and shifted its focus since then.

 

"We started out as basically a mobile game studio for casual gaming, but that evolved into really focusing in on being a platform for the mission, which is a place for female content creators to aggregate," Hiraga says.

 

Hiraga's background includes serving as a staff designer for MTV Networks when she was 20. She says MTV was revolutionary when it started because there was no other aggregation platform for music videos, and she sees a parallel with Pop-Post and PopArt! providing a platform to aggregate the work of female pop-culture creators.

 

In spring 2016 Pop-Post started producing a seven-minute video talk show with female creators and found it resonated with viewers. That's when Hiraga began talks with Twitch about doing a similar talk show in a longer format with the goal of drawing more female viewers to Twitch, which tends to have a mostly male demographic.

 

"We'll be hosting some pretty viral guests in gaming, animation, and comics, discussing the latest films, game releases, and everything else in that pop-culture universe in real time," Hiraga says.

 

In the first segment, Fyffe talks about the animated cult favorite Sailor Moon, while Tucker discusses the history and creative backstory behind the superhero Black Panther prior to the character's recent blockbuster film.

 

The June 7 premiere will start with a mixer followed by introductions and a showing of the pilot episode. A panel discussion with creators including Hiraga, Tucker, and videographer/cinematographer Priscilla Creswell will follow the screening.

 

Hiraga says her company's mission is not just about filming a talk show but about creating a culture.

 

"At the end of the day, that's what we're doing," she says. "We're not a content studio so much as a cultural showcase for content in the pop art idiom for girls."

 

The screening is free, but RSVPs via EventBrite are requested.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Pop-Post.


New Ann Arbor company aims to strengthen Michigan's entrepreneurial ecosystem

After five years serving Michigan's entrepreneurial community as associate director of the Michigan Venture Capital Association (MVCA), Emily Heintz is becoming an entrepreneur herself.

 

Heintz's Ann Arbor-based company, EntryPoint, was established in March with a mission to advance entrepreneurship in Michigan. At the MVCA, Heintz led the development of the organization's annual research report. She hopes to use that same data-driven approach at EntryPoint to help economic development organizations and the startup community develop programs to support Michigan entrepreneurs through public engagement and research.

 

"I do a lot of analysis on the entrepreneurial community in the Midwest and want to help foundations and economic organizations craft the most meaningful programs and, long term, raise capital and run further programs that work more directly with the entrepreneurial community," she says.

 

Heintz says her previous work analyzing Michigan's entrepreneurial ecosystem has found many strengths, but also capital and talent gaps. Her work with EntryPoint will address those weak areas.

 

Heintz has built a network of partners who will assist her through their positions on EntryPoint's advisory board, including representatives of tech firms like Duo Security and numerous local venture capital firms.

 

"I've worked with most of them 10 years now in various capacities and they are invaluable resources in the type of work I want to put my energy toward," Heintz says. "All these people are really focused toward building a really inclusive entrepreneurial community and ensuring access to capital for entrepreneurs."

 

She says her initial role will be as a "connector of people and organizations," helping economic development organizations find capital and talent resources. She'll also help connect established companies to startups who can help those established companies "stay on the cutting edge of technology." One of her first projects with EntryPoint will be advising Invest Detroit Ventures on how best to structure the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition it sponsors.

 

Heintz says startups do have funding options, but there is an especial lack of series A funding in Michigan.

 

"Companies can scale up to a certain point, but help attracting the capital they need to grow, particularly in Michigan, is critical," she says.

 

Heintz says a main reason she decided to launch EntryPoint was that she was seeing excitement, momentum, and growth in Michigan's venture capital community.

 

"We've really built up great infrastructure for companies and investors," she says. "Now is not the time to take the foot off the gas pedal. Michigan needs a data-driven approach, and we need to be very intentional about the way we grow the entrepreneurial community in the Midwest over the next five to 10 years."

 

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

 
Photo by Leisa Thompson.

New downtown Ypsi makerspace aims for inclusivity, affordability

The owner of TinkerTech, a new makerspace at 216 W. Michigan Ave. in downtown Ypsilanti, says he hopes to engage community members who may not fit the usual makerspace user profile.

 

"One thing I noticed in hobby shops and makerspaces is that they tend to attract a very homogenous group of people, often socially awkward white guys, a group who I consider my people," Michael Ploof says with a laugh.

 

Ploof says he wants to reach out to a broad cross-section of the community, so TinkerTech's membership will exhibit both demographic and experiential diversity. He intends to build connections with groups ranging from Digital Divas and Girl Develop It to the Parkridge Community Center, and to bring in users who aren't traditional electronics hobbyists.

 

"I'm pushing to make more connections to technology through music and art," he says. Some of the first workshops and summer camps scheduled at the space focus on unusual topics like building guitar effects pedals, modular synthesizers, and interactive art.

 

Ploof is sensitive to concerns about Ypsi is being gentrified. He notes that a lot of the recent economic development both downtown and in Depot Town has created "exclusive spaces that cater to one segment."

 

"I try to be community-minded, and getting people in here from all different parts of the city is a priority," he says. "I want to make sure it's an inclusive space and that it feels applicable and welcoming to everybody."

 

Ploof's journey to opening his new business wasn't a straight line. After studying biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, Ploof spent some time working at Saline technology firm Quantum Signal and got into electronics as a hobbyist. Later he took a detour in his career path, earning an education degree from Eastern Michigan University so he could teach physics at the high school level.

 

"I enjoyed teaching, but not in the context of 36 kids in one class," he says.

 

While teaching a few students in an independent study course and seeing their enthusiasm and motivation, he realized that sort of one-on-one mentoring and teaching was going to make up very little of what he did for a living if he continued as a classroom teacher.

 

Ploof had been running a small electronics consulting firm on the side. He and some friends had put money aside to purchase a building to run an electronic parts store similar to Radio Shack. When the friends pulled out of the project, he still had funds set aside and decided to go ahead with his electronics store idea on his own, adding an educational component to the plan. From there, the idea for a makerspace was born.

 

Ploof says TinkerTech is carving out its niche in the local makerspace market by narrowing focus. Some other makerspaces can help members with projects ranging from wood and metal work to fiber arts, but TinkerTech focuses primarily on electronics.

 

Having a narrow focus means TinkerTech can have high-quality tools for members to use while keeping costs low, about half the price of memberships at other makerspaces in southeast Michigan. Ploof also subsidizes the cost of a membership or class at TinkerTech with the money generated by the consulting work he continues to do from his new space.

 

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

 

Storefront photo by Adarash Mishra. All other photos by Michael Ploof.


Female founders of Ann Arbor tech companies take national pledge for diversity

Several female business owners in southeast Michigan have signed a pledge, joining the national Founders for Change project that aims to increase diversity in the tech industry.

 

As of early May, several businesses in southeast Michigan with female founders or women on their executive teams have signed the pledge. They include Jottful, Spellbound, Foodstand, the University of Michigan's Desai Accelerator, WHIM-Detroit, TechStak, and Engage.

 

The pledge, which now has more than 700 signatures, reads: "I believe in a more diverse and inclusive tech industry. I am dedicated to having a diverse team and board, and when I have a choice of investment partners in the future, the diversity of their firms will be an important consideration."

 

Dawn Verbrigghe, founder of Ann Arbor-based web design and hosting firm Jottful, says she saw an article about the Founders for Change pledge in March and was "immediately drawn to the concept" but was a little reluctant at first to take the pledge.

 

Jottful is a very new company, having just started in 2017. It has a team of three currently, but is poised for rapid growth in 2018 and 2019, Verbrigghe says.

 

"Taking the pledge now, for a company our size in a very early stage, is a bigger deal than for some of these very big companies like EventBrite. It's a lot easier for them to take such a pledge," she says. "Funding is hard enough, so I didn't want to reduce the potential number of investment partners. But ultimately I decided I would prefer to have investment partners who are in line with the values the company was founded on."

 

Verbrigghe says there is already an informal network in the greater Ann Arbor area among women who own tech businesses, and she began talking about the pledge with her group of friends and colleagues who then passed it to other friends. They continue to post pictures of themselves with the signed Founders for Change pledge to the Twitter hashtag #midwestfemalefounders.

 

Verbrigghe calls the women who signed the pledge "brave" because it's a leap of faith to take a pledge that could potentially reduce a business' number of investment partners.

 

"In 2016, only 11 percent of venture capital firm partners were women," she says, while only two percent were Latinx and none were black. Additionally, all-female teams receive only 2.2 percent of venture funding.

 

"Think about it," she says. "If these are the people making funding decisions, it's not a surprise that women and minorities get less funding."

 

While the #midwestfemalefounders hashtag focuses on women in tech, Verbrigghe says she thinks having women in more positions of power is a good start, and hopes that female founders will be "more aware of the challenges" other minority groups face.

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Dawn Verbrigghe.


New report finds robust Michigan angel investment community investing heavily in IT, life sciences

Nearly 800 angel investors invested more than $41 million in 70 Michigan companies in 2017, according to a comprehensive new report prepared by Ann Arbor SPARK.

 

The "Michigan Angel Community," a statewide initiative managed by SPARK and supported by the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, recently completed its first annual research report about trends in Michigan's angel investment community. Some of the report's findings were presented at a "Michigan Celebrates Angels" event May 3 at the Lansing Center.

 

"The fact that we could identify nearly 800 (investors) was very encouraging, and I was happy to see that many," says SPARK senior vice president Skip Simms. "I believe there are many more that we probably didn't identify and think that number underrepresents (the number of angel investors in the state), but it kind of indicates there are plenty of opportunities."

 

Simms says angel investors are often private individuals who are reluctant to provide the information the report was seeking. To counter that, staff not only polled angel investors in the state but also requested investment data from companies that received angel funding in 2017.

 

The report found that the average investment was $55,000. Information technology companies received the most angel investments of any sector, with 30 companies receiving a total of $15.5 million. In contrast, only 19 life sciences companies received angel funding but they attracted larger investments, totaling $16.6 million.

 

"The life science industry in the state of Michigan requires more capital, generally speaking, than other types of startup tech companies," Simms says.

 

Simms says that figure of $55,000 was "well above the national average," according to the Angel Resource Institute Halo Report.

 

"They looked at 3,500 startup tech companies in the U.S. funded last year by angel groups, and the average nationally was much lower than that," Simms says, noting that it's not just the Ann Arbor area that has a "robust" life science startup community but that life sciences are very strong in Detroit and southwest Michigan as well.

 

Simms says the general consensus from the angel investors who attended the Lansing Center event was that it should be repeated.

 

"Nothing like this has been done before, and there was overwhelming appreciation for the event," Skimms says. "The consensus is that this is something we ought to do every year, to recognize and celebrate one of the key components to the success of any startup and to growing a business."

 

The full Michigan Angel Community report is available on Ann Arbor SPARK's website.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Ann Arbor SPARK.


Dexter native returns home to open Michigan office for Silicon Valley company

Carl Arft has happy memories of growing up in Dexter, creating hand-painted figurines at the What's It Shop and eating at the Captain's Table. So he was happy to recommend that his employer, SiTime, open its first North American location outside of Silicon Valley at 2830 Baker Rd., Suite 200, in Dexter.

 

The new office officially opened May 1 with a staff of four, led by Arft. He says he expects "rapid growth" and that the Michigan location will become "a key contributor to the company’s future success."

 

SiTime produces microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)-based timing solutions used in products ranging from mobile phones to self-driving vehicles. Arft, the company's senior director of systems engineering, has been working for SiTime since 2006. After going back to Dexter for a family visit in 2015, Arft proposed to SiTime CEO Rajesh Vashist that SiTime open a Michigan office in Arft's hometown.

 

The greater Ann Arbor area was a good choice, Arft says, because of "the tremendous talent and research" coming out of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Having an office in southeast Michigan also allows SiTime to collaborate more closely with automotive companies that are driving the growth of automated and connected vehicle innovations.

 

Arft says Dexter offers a great quality of life, a top-ranked school system, and more affordable and varied housing options for employees than Ann Arbor does. He says he thinks Dexter is on the cusp of a big transformation and is excited for SiTime to be part of that.

 

"Between 2000 and 2010, the population of Dexter almost doubled, making it one of the fastest-growing communities in the state," he says. "Interestingly, the median household income in Dexter is now higher than Ann Arbor. What this says to me is that successful people are choosing to relocate to Dexter in significant numbers."

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Ann Arbor SPARK.


Iconic restaurant makes unusual move – from Ypsi to Ann Arbor

Downtown Ypsilanti's iconic Dalat restaurant has seemed on the brink of closure multiple times in recent years. However, a new generation is now taking over the business and making the unusual move of relocating it from Ypsi to Ann Arbor.

 

Once legal paperwork is finalized, Son Le, the son of previous owners Lang Bui and Hoanh Le, will be the Vietnamese restaurant's new manager, and his wife, Tran Nguyen, will serve as the new owner. The pair are aiming for an early June opening at a space in the Woodland Plaza shopping center off South Main Street in Ann Arbor.

 

Original owner Lang Bui opened Dalat at 421 Cross St. in Ypsi, but the restaurant proved so popular that she moved to a larger location at the corner of Michigan Avenue and North Huron Street in 2000.

 

In 2010, Bui was speaking publicly about the demands of the restaurant and looking forward to passing the restaurant into other hands when she retired. In December 2014, Bui put the building up for sale so she could retire, but said at that time that the next generation in the family-run business had no interest in taking over operations.

 

However, the restaurant seemed to be doing business as usual through the end of 2017, until an announcement appeared on the restaurant's Facebook page Jan. 4 noting that it was moving to Ann Arbor, with a reopening date unspecified.

 

Son Le says having a building in an older historic district was difficult and prompted the move. He says most property owners have difficulty understanding construction codes for maintenance and renovations.

 

"We just don't have enough energy or funds to keep the building in good shape," he says.

 

Le says his parents retired Nov. 23 and took a trip to southeast Asia, coming back to sign the sales agreement. It took the previous owners much longer than expected to sell the old property at 100 W. Michigan Ave., he says, and the deal wasn't finalized until Jan. 19.

 

Le says he is hoping to open the restaurant in early June, but the timing will depend on how quickly he and Nguyen can get all the necessary city and county permits.

 

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

 

Photo by Patrick Dunn.


New event to celebrate Ypsi's arts and culture ecosystem

Riverside Arts Center (RAC), 76 N. Huron St. in Ypsilanti, will host its first ever Fly Trap event, a combination of a fundraiser and celebration of Ypsi's growing arts and culture ecosystem, from 5-9 p.m. Saturday, May 5.

 

"While for many years we have had a successful fall event, a donor auction and dinner, we needed a handshake with the community," says Ariel Moore, outreach manager for RAC. "The idea was to have an event that was free and embraced all community members, sort of a bookend to the traditional fall event many organizations have."

 

The event is open to all ages and is free, though donations of $10 are encouraged to support RAC's youth art programs. Moore says the event will feature "something for everybody," and will include hands-on events for children and adults, as well as live music, free food from Go! Ice Cream and Panaderia La Bendicion Bakery, and a cash bar courtesy of Cultivate.

 

Kids will have a chance to make shadow puppets, and all ages are invited to make slime. Models will be provided for live figure drawing, courtesy of Love at First Try, and temporary tattoos will be available courtesy of Ypsilanti tattoo studio Brite Idea. Moore says that's part of an outreach effort with local businesses to let them know that RAC can provide a venue to enhance their business as well.

 

The FLY Trap event will celebrate the many partnerships and collaborations that RAC is facilitating, especially over the last year.

 

"Riverside has reignited its strategic plan with a focus on community-building and building an arts ecosystem," Moore says.

 

In 2017, RAC merged with the 10-year-old nonprofit FLY Children's Art Center, which is now an initiative of RAC under the name FLY Creativity Lab. Also in 2017, RAC received a grant from Sappi Paper Co. to rebrand and has changed its logo, color palette, and signage.

 

Additionally, RAC has been pursuing collaborations with Grove Studios, Eastern Michigan University's Bright Futures program, and the Parkridge Summer Festival. More recently, Riverside received funding from the Buhr Foundation to give scholarships to children who would like to attend summer art camps but don't have the means to do so.

 

"Our new brand reflects this work we're doing to be at the center of a lot of other people's work, using our space," Moore says. "Others have great ideas, too, and we want to be that base where people can make their creative ideas come true."

 

For more information about the event, visit riversidearts.org or RAC's Facebook page.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Riverside Arts Center.


Teens generate 25 new business ideas at new workshop for young entrepreneurs

Twenty-three middle schoolers and 13 high schoolers created 25 business or nonprofit ideas in the first two-hour Running Start workshop for young entrepreneurs last month.

 

Local entrepreneur Debra Power, owner of Power Marketing Research, announced Running Start's launch in autumn 2017 with the goal of having an initial workshop series start in February 2018. She later decided that was overly ambitious and moved the first series to April 21. This four-week run of the program will continue until May 12. The weekly workshops are held at GO Where Meetings Matter, 4735 Washtenaw Ave. in Ann Arbor.

 

The first round of participants heard presentations from Jonathan Goldstein and Komal Doshi of Ann Arbor SPARK; Brian Christian of The Inovo Group; Beth Simon of NewFoundry; and Naja Prince, a 14-year-old who started her own business called Wag Your Tail Doggie Treats at age 11.

 

The first workshop had participants working through a 40-page workbook and asking themselves questions to generate a viable business ideas, including "What problem do you want to solve in the world?" and "What's a product you'd like to have that doesn't already exist?"

 

Power says business ideas ranged from upcycling clothing to nonprofits benefiting homeless youth to a way to provide more exposure to high school athletes.

 

During the second week, attendees worked on a "business grid," thinking through who their business' target demographics are and how they will sell a product. Staff members from accounting firm Plante Moran will help participants with budget exercises that show how businesses make money, and how they have to spend money on items such as employee payroll, utilities, and rent.

 

Power says she is learning as she goes along and may cap attendance at future sessions.

 

"We're learning a little about the dynamics of how these workshops work, and in the future, the ideal number of students will probably be around 20," she says. "That allows for the ultimate amount of interaction."

 

Power says that when she started the program, she was thinking of how she could help others, but she's surprised at what she is already gaining from it.

 

"I never envisioned it would be this incredibly rewarding experience for myself and volunteers," she says. "Everyone involved has said that it's one of those classic situations where you get more than you give. I am so inspired by the fact that youth are thinking entrepreneurially. It gives me hope for the future."

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Running Start.


Pittsfield Township-based technology firm Dynics to expand, add jobs

Pittsfield Township-based industrial computer systems firm Dynics is poised to grow in 2018, adding employees and square footage to its building at 620 Technology Dr.

 

During the Pittsfield Township board of trustees meeting April 11, the company was awarded a tax abatement on new construction with the understanding that the company will spend more than $800,000 improving the property and hiring 10 new employees to add to its current team of 77.

 

Dynics president and founder Ed Gatt says the improvements will add 11,200 square feet to the building for a total of 37,400 square feet, making more room for both inventory and staff.

 

Dynics was founded in 1997 and expanded in 2005 when it acquired Ann Arbor Technologies. The company began with an emphasis on industrial computer hardware, but over time the company has shifted its focus to adding more software and bundling it with hardware.

 

"The software helps sell the hardware," Gatt says. "People want to get more information off their devices so they can predict, analyze, and identify where they can work on efficiencies."

 

He says the new hires will work both on hardware and software, but the majority will be software engineers.

 

Automotive and auto parts companies including Ford and Chrysler make up a large part of Dynics' client base, but Gatt says Dynics has users in a variety of industries, including the food industry.

 

The company already has salespeople servicing Mexico, China, and Germany, and Gatt says he believes Dynics is well positioned to keep growing in both national and international sales.

 

"Software integration services are going to play a big role in industry in the future, and we're barely getting into it," he says. "We're carving a nice niche for our products so that users can collect data, manage it, and present it."

 

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 Ed Gatt.


Ann Arbor employers launch summer program designed to retain young talent

Local employers are partnering on a new summer program for college interns and young professionals in an effort to highlight some of the many opportunities Washtenaw County has to offer.

 

AfterWork will offer social and professional programming to participants in an effort to help them connect with one another, their community, and other businesses and organizations. The ultimate goal is to encourage college students and recent graduates to continue to live, work, and play in Washtenaw County.

 

"We’re really excited about it," says chief matchmaker Amy Cell, whose company, Amy Cell Talent, is managing the program. "We know that this will really support the region in terms of attracting and retaining the talent that we need."

 

AfterWork's founding sponsors are Ann Arbor SPARK, Arbormoon Software, Arbor Networks, Bank of Ann Arbor, ITHAKA, and Thomson Reuters. Together, the companies have committed more than 60 interns to the program. Since the goal is to get upwards of 300 interns involved, the program is still seeking additional community partners.

 

Throughout a decade of work in talent attraction, Cell has learned people will decide where they want to live and work based on opportunity and experience. AfterWork will call attention to the region's density of professional opportunities and its variety of social and recreational opportunities.

 

At least 10 outings will be hosted throughout the summer as part of the program. Some of the events include a tour of Michigan Stadium, a Gallup Park cleanup, and an Ann Arbor Art Fair meetup.

 

College interns, young professionals, or local employers interested in participating in AfterWork should call (734) 747-2936 or email info@AmyCellTalent.com to learn more.

 

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 Amy Cell Talent.


Study's early findings suggest high demand for Ann Arbor-to-Traverse City passenger rail

Passenger rail service between Ann Arbor and the Traverse City area is one step closer to reality based on early findings of a six-month feasibility study scheduled to wrap up in June.

 

Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, an advocacy group based in Traverse City, is leading the initiative to bring back regular passenger train service between southeast and northwest Michigan, with a goal of having it operational by 2025. Groundwork partnered with the Bay Area Transit Authority to apply for federal funds and announced that a grant was secured in early 2017.

 

Groundwork deputy director Jim Bruckbauer says his organization is looking at this particular route because the tracks are already in place for freight service, the state owns the tracks, and they're "still in pretty good shape."

 

A feasibility study for the service is being conducted by consultant firm Transportation Economics and Management Systems. Bruckbauer says the study looked at existing public input data from 2012, when the state of Michigan created a statewide trail plan, as well as at existing track conditions and travel patterns in the communities between Ann Arbor and Traverse City.

 

Early findings about how many people would likely use the passenger rail service are encouraging, particularly the fact that visits to the Traverse City region have been growing 4 percent per year.

 

"So now Traverse City and Petoskey are saying, 'Can we get a percentage of these visitors to come up by train?' The consultants are saying that, based on initial findings, there's a good case for that," Bruckbauer says.

 

He notes that passenger rail service would likely be rolled out in stages. The first stage would likely have special event trains taking passengers north for the National Cherry Festival, the Traverse City Film Festival, or a fall color tour, as well as taking Traverse City-area residents downstate for major events like the Ann Arbor Art Fair.

 

Bruckbauer says those special-event runs would allow organizers to test the market to see how many people are willing to travel the route by train.

 

"Then you can start building the service as demand and interest increases," he says.

 

Consultants are also looking at what it would take to get trains running at 60 mph along that corridor with the goal of making a five-hour trip from Ann Arbor to Traverse. Next, they'll look into what it would take to get trains going more than 100 mph, decreasing travel time even more.

 

A likely next step after completing the feasibility study would be deciding on the best operating structure, whether that would entail having a nonprofit or for-profit company operating the trains.

 

Bruckbauer says some of the money for the feasibility study came from a federal grant, but funding also came from Rotary Charities of Traverse City, the National Association of Realtors, and Traverse City-area real estate organizations.

 

"It's interesting to see the private-sector real estate community coming together around this idea," Bruckbauer says. "They see what rail does for the economy, for development and real estate values, when a rail goes through communities."

 

Though the feasibility study isn't finished yet, Bruckbauer says it's already "pretty clear that it is going to take an incremental approach to building long-term service."

 

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


Images courtesy of Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities.

EMU's Digital Divas program marks eight years of encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers

Last week Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) Digital Divas program celebrated its eighth year of encouraging girls to consider STEM careers, and organizer Bia Hamed says it's getting "stronger, better, and bigger."

 

The biannual program invites high school girls to a day-long conference in April, with a November session targeting middle school girls. The conference features a keynote speaker and choice of two breakout sessions.

 

Hamed says the program began when EMU computer science professor Skip Lawber noticed there were only a few women in his classroom. He asked female students if they would run some STEM sessions for local high school girls.

 

"And every year since then, we've grown and grown," Hamed says, noting that the program is free to all. Organizers will even use money from private sponsors including DTE Energy and AT&T to help pay for transportation so that more girls can attend.

 

About 600 girls from high schools all over southeast Michigan attended this year's high school event on April 13. Approximately 6,000 girls have participated since the program's inception.

 

"Girls actually outperform boys in elementary school in science and math, but they get intimidated by the lack of good female role models in science," Hamed says.

 

Digital Divas' goal is to empower girls to change that culture. Professional women from various industries lead 90-minute hands-on breakout sessions on topics ranging from how to fly a drone to how to make your own cosmetics to how to build a mobile app.

 

This year, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell opened the event, and the keynote speaker was Neetu Seth, president and CEO of Ann Arbor data management company NITS Solutions. Seth earned both her bachelor's degree and her MBA from EMU and came back to inspire the next generation of girls interested in STEM careers.

 

Hamed says many EMU alumni have returned to give back to the program.

 

"Several of Skip Lawber's students who have graduated and are working in various fields came back to host breakout sessions," she says, adding that a number of volunteers at this year's events were participants in past Digital Divas programs.

 

"There was an almost-magical energy in the room," Hamed says of the event. "It has been a great experience."

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Eastern Michigan University/Debra Burke.


SPARK annual meeting highlights: Tackling Michigan's fear of the future and a new summer tech event

At Ann Arbor SPARK's annual meeting Tuesday, keynote speaker David Egner told the crowd at Eastern Michigan University's Student Center that he could sum up all the things that hold Michigan back in one word: fear.

 

Egner, president and CEO of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, made an unlikely comparison between southeast Michigan's response to the decline of the auto industry and New Orleans' response to Hurricane Katrina. Egner said Michigan had "the same natural disaster" as New Orleans, but our response to that disaster has been far slower and less confident.

 

"I still hear the phrase once in a while: 'We're only one good Chevy away from the best rebound in the history of southeast Michigan,'" Egner said. "Although the (automakers) have done a very good job of diversifying, especially around this issue of mobility, we still are holding on to that past because we're fearful of what lies ahead."

 

Egner said that fear leads to multiple liabilities for our region and the state, including our talent deficit, high barriers to college education, crumbling infrastructure, and low self-image. He said those liabilities hold us back from our potential to be a national or international leader in mobility, freshwater research, inclusivity, and other areas.

 

Egner outlined three solutions to that problem: carefully crafting a vision of our future, creating opportunity for reasonable discourse, and working to connect our present to our future. He emphasized the idea that the baby-boomer-era tradition of "climbing the ladder" to career success is antiquated, suggesting rock climbing as a more apt modern metaphor.

 

"(Rock climbers) never go straight up," Egner said. "They have to find the opportunity for the next big toehold, moving up, and a lot of times they have to move backwards or move sideways to move up."

 

Egner's themes of envisioning and embracing the future echoed several announcements SPARK made at the annual meeting about its short- and longer-term organizational plans. SPARK president and CEO Paul Krutko celebrated the conclusion of the economic development organization's 2012 five-year plan, and announced its new 2018 strategic plan.

 

The plan includes some interesting new goals. Among them are helping more companies to scale as Duo Security has, encouraging company location and growth east of US-23 in Washtenaw County, and working with the city of Ann Arbor to improve the attractiveness of the State Street-Eisenhower Parkway corridor.

 

Krutko also announced a new SPARK event called A2Tech360, which will run June 13-15. A2Tech360 serves as an expansion of SPARK's successful Tech Trek and Tech Talk programs, which respectively offer a self-guided walking tour of Ann Arbor tech businesses and TED-style talks by local tech leaders. Tech Trek and Tech Talk were held on the same day last year, but this year they'll be just two components of the multi-day A2Tech360 event.

 

A2Tech360 activities on Wednesday, June 13, will be focused on connecting local companies to investors. Programming on Thursday, June 14, will include the new Meeting of the Minds summit for local mobility leaders and SPARK's annual FastTrack awards for high-growth businesses. Tech Trek and Tech Talk will take place on Friday, June 15. Washington Street between Division Street and Fifth Avenue downtown will be closed June 15 for two new events: Live at Tech Trek, a musical event featuring two live bands and a DJ; and Mobility Row, where 20 mobility companies will show off new technology to the public.

 

Krutko also announced that SPARK plans to continue scaling up A2Tech360 to eventually become a weeklong event. The event is one of SPARK's key goals under the talent attraction focus area of its new strategic plan.

 

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications.

 

Photos courtesy of Ann Arbor SPARK.


WCC hosts Smart Cities Symposium focused on using technology to solve urban challenges

A Smart Cities Symposium April 6 at Washtenaw Community College brought together about 140 city planners, engineers, administrators, mayors, and economic development leaders for a day of discussion on how to use technology to meet the new challenges cities face.

 

Michelle Mueller, vice president for economic, community, and college development at WCC, says there are a few common misconceptions about "smart cities."

 

"A lot of people think smart cities are about making the city digital and about technology, but it's really about solving complex community problems using technology as a vehicle to pinpoint where we are and using information to solve those issues," Mueller says.

 

Mueller says much of the conversation around "smart cities" has been focused on connected and autonomous vehicles. But symposium organizers wanted to feature talks and panels that included energy and smart grids, water issues, and more.

 

Ken Washington, vice president of research and advanced engineering and chief technology officer at Ford Motor Co., was the first speaker of the day, "setting the stage for what's happening in the auto industry," Mueller says.

 

Next up was Dr. Toni Antonucci, professor of psychology and senior research scientist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research Life Course, who talked about the demographics of aging and what that means for city planners.

 

Other speakers included Paul Krutko, president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK, on how technology and big data can make cities more inclusive and prosperous by attracting and retaining talent; Camilo Serna, vice president of corporate strategy at DTE Energy, talking about the smart grid and how to improve energy infrastructure; and Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, talking about the future of transportation infrastructure in Michigan.

 

The event concluded with a panel discussion featuring James R. Sayer, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute; Craig Hupy, public service area administrator for the city of Ann Arbor; and Eugene W. Grant, mayor of Seat Pleasant, Maryland.

 

"A lot of folks think that if they're from a small town, they don't have to deal with smart city issues or don't have the competitive advantage to bring in business," Mueller says. "But Mayor Grant is from a small rural town of about 5,000 people, and he did it."

 

Serving as an example of gathering data for making data-driven decisions, Grant made the case to taxpayers that a vacant house pulls down the value of houses around it by as much as 13 percent. He created a business case for buying up vacant properties, fixing them up, and reselling them, investing the funds raised back into development.

 

"It addressed the societal problem of vacant houses and, by showing that the program would raise the value of all homes in the city, residents were really able to get behind it," Mueller says.

 

Mueller says WCC would like to build on the symposium's momentum by applying to the National Science Foundation to have the college designated a "regional center of excellence."

 

"We've done so much work in this area. I think we're positioned well," Mueller says.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Washtenaw Community College.


Duo Security opens Detroit office in Bamboo Detroit coworking space

Opening a Detroit office was always a matter of "when" more than "if" for Ann Arbor tech company Duo Security.

 

That's according to Duo chief information officer Raffaele Mautone, who helped lead the company's recent expansion into Detroit. Duo celebrated its first day in business at co-working space Bamboo Detroit, 1420 Washington Blvd. in Detroit, on April 9.

 

Duo began its search for the right location in Detroit about a year ago. The company has been a part of the Detroit community for years, Mautone says, and it's been "watching Detroit being disruptive and grow."

 

"We looked at other locations, but Bamboo aligned with our culture and had what we look for in a building and in a partner," Mautone says.

 

Duo transferred 30 employees from its Ann Arbor team of around 300 to the Detroit office, where they are currently occupying temporary digs. Mautone says the company chose employees for the Detroit office based partly on what roles needed to be filled and partly on which employees already lived closer to Detroit than to Ann Arbor.

 

Before the year is out, Duo's Detroit team expects to take over the entire 9,000-square-foot sixth floor at Bamboo. That space will allow the Detroit office to grow to somewhere between 75 and 90 employees, depending on how the space is designed during the build-out phase, Mautone says.

 

Mautone says that although he is focused on growing the Detroit office, Duo continues to expand in Ann Arbor as well. He expects growth to happen at both locations "organically."

 

"We love doing tech talks and doing community outreach, and we've joined events here where people from Ann Arbor were invited to talk about the region and how we can grow together," Mautone says. "We think adding the Detroit office complements what's already going on between the two cities and creates a region that allows the local tech community to grow."

 

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

 

Bamboo photos courtesy of Bamboo Detroit. Raffaele Mautone photo courtesy of Duo Security.


Ypsi's National Society of Black Engineers Jr. wins endurance race at its first national competition

Ypsilanti Community High School's (YCHS) chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Jr. is brand new, but its Student Racing Challenge team is already making waves at the national level.

 

Ypsi's student chapter of the engineering society was just revived during the 2017-2018 school year. But the team recently returned from NSBE Jr.'s 44th annual national convention, which took place March 20-25 in Pittsburgh, having won first place in the endurance challenge of the Ten80 race. Ten80 is a STEM initiative of NSBE Jr. that teaches science and engineering concepts through modifying and racing remote-control cars.

 

The YCHS team had only competed once before in Ypsi before being invited to compete at the national level, says the chapter's advisor, Lynne Settles.

 

"The judges were pretty impressed and were surprised we had just started our chapter," Settles says. "They put in a lot of hard work in a short period to get to this level."

 

Student teams are given a basic kit for the car and have to decorate it as well as modify it to go faster. They are required to document the entire process on a display board as part of a presentation at the national conference.

 

A total of 50 teams from around the United States competed at the national level, including YCHS' team of seven 11th-grade students: Alexis Smith, Deahja Tigner, Iyana Morgan, Bennie Williams, Maximilian Harper, Horus McDaniel, and Duane Thomas.

 

The Ten80 challenge involved various races, and other teams won in the speed category, but the YCHS team's car won the endurance race that required the cars to make the most laps in an obstacle course without crashing into other cars or obstacles.

 

Settles says the kids had to raise about $8,000 to make the trip. They were helped by the University of Michigan's sponsor chapter, small local businesses, and nonprofits like the Rotary Club of Ypsilanti. For $25, local individuals or organizations could have their name listed on a sponsorship T-shirt worn by the YCHS team as well.

 

Settles says this was a unique "real world experience" for the Ypsi students, none of whom had ever been to a national conference before.

 

"It was a first for them, meeting this many people from around the country, and an opportunity to meet other high school student and college students from all over country, as well as professional engineers from every area of engineering from all over the country," she says. "It's an experience I don't think they will forget."

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Lynne Settles.


Ann Arbor's IndustryStar Solutions marks steady growth in supply chain field

IndustryStar Solutions, based at 330 E. Liberty St., Suite 3F in Ann Arbor, is a small but fast-growing software company with potential to change the supply chain management field.

 

Founded in 2013 by William Crane, Tony Lancione, and Matt Forster, the company provides "supply chain as a service," as well as offering a supply chain management software platform that client companies can choose to use or not.

 

Crane and Forster met while earning their MBAs at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and started the company as a class project. They later added Lancione, whom Crane had known since junior high.

 

In 2014, the startup moved to TechArb, the university's student venture accelerator, then moved into a small office in the lower level of Ann Arbor SPARK Central in early 2015. Since the autumn of 2015, the company has been operating out of the third floor of the same building that houses SPARK.

 

Ben Ludy, IndustryStar's senior manager for marketing and design, says the company has grown "steadily" every year since it was founded. Although last year was a slower year for the company, it still added a few new employees and landed some larger clients. ChicagoInno recently featured the company as one of 15 Ann Arbor Tech Companies to Watch.

 

The executive team's Michigan roots aren't the only reason the company has stayed in the Ann Arbor area, Ludy says.

 

"We've found a lot of talented software engineers and programmers right here in southeast Michigan, especially ones who have gone to schools like the University of Michigan," he says.

 

He adds that Michigan State University and Western Michigan University house some of the best supply chain management programs in the state, and many IndustryStar employees come from those schools as well. Additionally, automotive companies were some of IndustryStar's first clients, so staying in Michigan made sense from that standpoint as well.

 

On the "supply chain as a service" front, IndustryStar helps companies with strategy, procurement, quality, and logistics. For instance, a customer may have intellectual property rights to a new technology, but he or she isn't sure how to get it built.

 

"They come to us, and we source the parts to build their widget and manage any further production after that," Ludy says. IndustryStar can also use its network to help the client find appropriate people to assemble the parts and manage the process, he adds.

 

The company's supply chain software program is the real innovation, though. Ludy says the current industry standard is managing projects in spreadsheets, but IndustryStar's supply chain management platform goes beyond the spreadsheet's capabilities.

 

"We turned our spreadsheets into software applications so you can manage everything all in one place online, have it be accessible from anywhere, and have multiple people work inside the project simultaneously making changes or deleting data, with the ability to see the change history," Ludy says. "We're telling clients, 'Scrap your spreadsheet. We have a better way to manage this sort of data.'"

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.


Nexient to invest $4 million, add 300 jobs in Ann Arbor area

Nexient, a Silicon Valley-based software company with two locations in Michigan, recently committed to spending $4.17 million on expansion and adding 300 jobs at its Pittsfield Township facility over the next three years.

 

The expansion will be helped by a $1.5 million Michigan Business Development Program performance-based grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

 

Nexient has already added 25 jobs in Washtenaw County since January of 2018 and has plans to increase that to the 300 skilled jobs the performance-based grant calls for. A large number of new jobs will go to software developers, but the company also plans to add quality engineers, business analysts, user experience designers, and support staff.

 

Nexient established its tech hub in Pittsfield Township in 2010, and also has a smaller center in Okemos. In 2015, Nexient took over the lease next door to its Pittsfield hub, making room for 500 or more employees.

 

Southeast Michigan has a great pool of both recent graduates and candidates for mid-level and senior talent, according to Nexient CEO Mark Orttung.

 

"Michigan has been a fantastic environment for us, with the combination of access to the University of Michigan and another 20 universities within a few hundred miles," Orttung says. He says Ann Arbor is a "great place to live" and it isn't difficult to recruit employees to the area.

 

"We have plenty of room to grow, and we're aggressively investing to grow the team," Orttung says.

 

Nexient serves a number of industries from healthcare to auto manufacturing with "agile" software – software that is built incrementally and collaboratively, and is modified according to feedback from clients and end users. It's not rigid, but meant to evolve.

 

"We like to talk about a product-minded approach," Orttung says, noting that some companies release parts of a new piece of software in two-week "sprints." A company might have the ultimate goal of a six-month roadmap for releasing new software but will release pieces of it every two weeks, getting feedback and tweaking the product as the process goes on.

 

"It's a very fast-paced and nimble way to create software," he says. "As you use the software, you'll notice little things that could make it better, so you can make adjustments along the way, and three to six months down the road, you've already taken into account what end-users would find to make it a better, more usable product."

 

Orttung says that clients are continually looking for more of the "product-minded approach" that agile software brings to the table.

 

"I expect to see demand growing in the marketplace, and we're looking forward to growing in Ann Arbor," Orttung says.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Nexient.


Portland, Ore. nonprofit installs free public phone in Ypsi

The new pay phone at Landline Creative Labs, 209 Pearl St. in Ypsilanti, looks ordinary, but it's got a unique twist: thanks to Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit Futel, you don't have to pay to use it at all.

 

The phone across from the Ypsilanti Transit Center is only the seventh Futel has installed and its first outside the Portland area. Conceived as a combination of social mission and public art project, Futel was born out of the disappearance of the public pay phone.

 

"As someone who grew up in the '80s, the phone was a piece of urban hardware we never expected to go away," says Futel founder Karl Anderson. Calling the pay phone a "seminal cultural hub," Anderson notes that phones, especially pay phones, were a "key part of hacker history."

 

"The origins of experimentation with computers and networking revolved around the phone, and the phone was the first computer network most people interacted with," he says.

 

Anderson works for Ann Arbor-based Duo Security and splits his time between Ann Arbor and Portland. Through Duo co-founder Dug Song, Anderson became acquainted with Mark Maynard, co-owner of Landline.

 

Anderson was searching for a grant, and Maynard wanted a pay phone at his building. A grant from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation connected all the pieces, and the Futel phone on Pearl Street became operational in early March.

 

Futel phones have a dial tone, an operator standing by, and other features that any other pay phone has. Additionally, the phones offer the option for users to set up a voicemail inbox, as well as a directory of important and useful numbers.

 

The difference from the average pay phone is that Futel is run entirely by volunteers and paid for with donations, and all calls are free.

 

"What we are is a phone company buying services and then giving them away," Anderson says. "We buy various phone services, from call time to outgoing and incoming phone numbers to 911 service and server time for internet connectivity."

 

Anderson says people use Futel phones for all sorts of things, often for emergencies, but just as often for social reasons.

 

"The line between essential and nonessential, between emergency and non-emergency, is not so important. People need to communicate," he says.

 

To hear an overview of Futel's offerings or set up a voicemail box, call (503) 468-1337. An in-depth interview with Anderson is available at MarkMaynard.com.

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Futel.


U-M grad turns love of travel into boutique travel agency

Vinal Desai Burbeck is often asked if there is still a place for travel agents in an age when anybody can book a hotel or a flight on the internet. Her answer is an emphatic "yes."

 

Burbeck caught the travel bug about eight years ago and in 2015 she started her own Ann Arbor-based boutique travel agency, Wanderlark. She saw the business as a way to share with others her love of wandering off the beaten path. Burbeck didn't travel much as a child but, as an undergrad at the University of Michigan, she leapt at the chance to study literature abroad in London.

 

"It changed my life and opened my eyes to all the possibilities and the joy of travel," she says.

 

She knew she wanted to see more of the world but wasn't able to do that until around 2010 while she worked for Google, traveling both within the U.S. and also to Ireland as part of her job.

 

Burbeck considers herself a "Type A planner" and began using her skills and love for travel to create itineraries for family and friends. Realizing how excited she got about discussing travel with others, she decided she might be able to make a career from it. After a few years of planning, she launched Wanderlark, making it her full-time job.

 

Burbeck says travelers who don't mind a one-size-fits-all approach to travel may be happy going to chain restaurants and seeing the tourist attractions everybody else visits. However, the clients who seek her out want a customized travel plan filled with mom-and-pop restaurants and other hidden gems.

 

"I'm like a hunting dog or a truffle pig, seeking out the really good stuff that's hard to find," Burbeck says. "The average person doesn't have the time, energy, or expertise to find those better experiences themselves, and I do all of that legwork for them."

 

Her clients receive a complete and customized itinerary full of experiences that are tailored to their interests, but also includes some flexibility so they don't feel they have to frantically rush from place to place, she says.

 

Burbeck says she likes to use the term "consultant" rather than "travel agent," because agents work on commission and are often focused on up-selling rather than creating a unique experience for a client.
 

"I want to be client-centric, whether somebody's budget (for travel planning) is $100 or $10,000 or more," she says. "At the end of the day, I want to make sure they have the best possible experience that will keep them traveling. I feel like you can't put a price tag on that."

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Vinal Desai Burbeck.


"Blue Ocean Shift" co-author to appear at two Ann Arbor events March 30

Renee Mauborgne, who with W. Chan Kim co-authored two business books, Blue Ocean Strategy and Blue Ocean Shift, will speak at two Ann Arbor events Friday, March 30.

 

Mauborgne will first speak at an Ann Arbor SPARK fireside chat at 10 a.m. at SPARK Central, 330 E. Liberty in Ann Arbor. At noon, she will be the featured speaker at an Entrepreneurship Hour sponsored by the University of Michigan's Center for Entrepreneurship, held in Stamps Auditorium on north campus. Both events are open to the public.

 

Mauborgne will talk about the principles behind the two books. Blue Ocean Strategy outlined a plan for finding "uncontested market spaces," or "blue oceans," rather than competing head-to-head in markets already saturated with competition, which the co-authors call "red oceans". The follow-up book, Blue Ocean Shift, looked at companies that were putting the first book's strategies into practice. Ann Arbor businessman Ted Dacko's success story was featured in the authors' second book.

 

Mauborgne says the two authors' journey started in the Midwest during the economic downturn of the mid-'80s and seeing Detroit "crumble before our eyes."

 

"That's when the Midwest shifted from being the vibrant economy it once was to the 'rustbelt' of America. It was a very sad time," Mauborgne says. "We set out to understand what it would take to thrive, not merely survive, as competition heated up across the globe."

 

When asked why the Blue Ocean books stand out in a world full of self-help and business strategy advice, Mauborgne and Kim say there are three main criteria: relevance, actionability, and rigor.

 

The two authors note that Blue Ocean Shift is a culmination of research that initially involved a study of more than 150 strategic moves in more than 30 industries across 100 years.

 

"By studying and understanding what works, what doesn't, and how to avoid the potential pitfalls in making a blue ocean shift in a variety of sectors ... Blue Ocean Shift lays out a systematic step-by-step process for inspiring people’s confidence and seizing new growth," Mauborgne says.

 

More information about the SPARK fireside chat is available at SPARK's events page. To learn more about the Entrepreneurship Hour event, visit the Center for Entrepreneurship website.

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Melanie Boscherie.


FastTrack Awards for high-growth Washtenaw County businesses open for applications

Midwesterners tend to have both a great work ethic and a humility that means they don't like to brag. But they need to put that aside at least once a year, according to Phil Santer, senior vice president and chief of staff for Ann Arbor SPARK, sponsor of the FastTrack Business Awards.

 

The program, which celebrates Washtenaw County companies that demonstrate consistent year-to-year growth, is now accepting applications through May 1.

 

"I think some companies are resistant to apply because they don't want to look like they are patting themselves on the back," Santer says. "But the companies that qualify for these awards have achieved a significant milestone and should be rewarded."

 

To qualify for the awards, public or private companies must be headquartered in Washtenaw County and must have had at least $100,000 in gross revenue in 2014 with an annual average growth of at least 20 percent for the following three years.

 

Companies self-report their revenue but must provide support documents that are reviewed by CPA firm and FastTrack Awards partner Yeo and Yeo.

 

Businesses are welcome to apply every year that they qualify, and that means some companies have been named FastTrack winners for several years in a row. Last year, Ann Arbor software firm LLamasoft qualified for the awards for its 10th year in a row.

 

Santer notes that while many winners have come from high-tech fields, that's just because high-tech companies tend to have that sort of quick growth. However, Washtenaw-based companies in any industry are welcome to apply. Previous winners have come from industries ranging from real estate to manufacturing, Santer says.

 

The FastTrack Business Awards were formerly part of a larger business awards ceremony, Deals of the Year, but SPARK has been running the awards independently for the last three years.

 

Last year, the awards ceremony was paired with SPARK's annual meeting. This year, the FastTrack Business Awards ceremony will take place June 14 as part of a series of events including SPARK's annual Tech Trek and a discussion around mobility.

 

Santer says the awards ceremony has turned out to be a good networking opportunity as well. Speaking of last year's awards ceremony, he says it was "energizing" to see representatives from a variety of industries who wouldn't normally hang out in the same circle mingling at the ceremony.
 

"It was an opportunity to say, 'Here are people doing great things in your backyard that are not already a part of your network,'" he says.

 

The application form for the awards ceremony can be found through the Ann Arbor SPARK website.

 

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


Photo by Doug Coombe courtesy of Ann Arbor SPARK.

U-M's first VegWeek highlights issue of food waste with "waste dinner"

A "waste dinner" demonstrating the usefulness of commonly discarded food items was the culminating event of the University of Michigan's (U-M) first-ever VegWeek, which ran March 12-16.

 

VegWeek was billed as "a week dedicated to animals, the environment, and health." Aaron Brodkey, vice president of the Michigan Animal Respect Society (MARS), the lead organizing group for VegWeek, says calling the week's final event a "waste dinner" was a calculated gamble. He says the "shock factor" got people's attention, but also made marketing the event a little difficult.

 

"We had to clarify it was pre-consumer waste, like clippings from vegetables or day-old bread, not leftovers from someone's cafeteria lunch tray," Brodkey says.

 

The dinner was meant to raise awareness about the issue of food waste, and included small "food bites" served at five different stations. A stew made from vegetable scraps and desserts made with spent grain from the beer brewing process were two of the menu items highlighting how food can be used creatively rather than thrown away or composted, Brodkey says.

 

The nonprofit VegMichigan has hosted a "Veg Week" in the Ann Arbor area for years, but the March event was a first for the U-M campus. It was organized and sponsored by MDining (representing U-M's dining halls), Planet Blue student leaders, MARS, the U-M Sustainable Food Program, and other campus groups dedicated to sustainability.

 

Events earlier in the week included a talk by Dr. Joel Kahn, a U-M alum and cardiologist, about the health benefits of a plant-based diet; a screening of the documentary Forks Over Knives; and a panel discussion with U-M professors who have adopted a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Before the waste dinner, Dr. Will Tuttle (author of The World Peace Diet) and Daniel McKernan (founder and executive director of Barn Sanctuary, based in Chelsea) discussed the environmental and ethical benefits of a plant-centric diet.

 

Brodkey says that each VegWeek event attracted at least 120 participants, and more than 200 came to the Waste Dinner. The chef had prepared enough food for about 150 people, and the event ran out of food.

 

Brodkey, a senior, won't be around to help organize a second VegWeek in 2019, but he feels like VegWeek created some momentum.

 

"I'm hoping that, with that momentum, MARS and the rest of the organizers will see it was valuable and move forward with it again next year," he says.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of the University of Michigan.


U-M's new Center for Social Media Responsibility aims to quickly make accountability tools public

Garlin Gilchrist II, the executive director of the University of Michigan's new Center for Social Media Responsibility (CSMR), considers himself a "technologist and engineer" who loves the way technology connects people.

 

"I am a graduate of University of Michigan engineering, and engineering and computer science have been a love of mine since I was a child," he says. "When I was a software developer at Microsoft, I felt we were using technology to help people connect, lift up their voices in the community, and do political organizing."

 

CSMR's goal is to address concerns about social media's negative effects by creating metrics to assess social media companies' accountability, as well as a public forum to discuss the topic. Gilchrist sees that as a continuation of his work as director of innovation and emerging technology for his hometown of Detroit, using technology to address inequities, he says. He hopes to work on related issues in his new role and says he sees CSMR as an "opportunity to go deeper."

 

While one facet of the new center's work will be on curbing negative behaviors like aggressive online comments, cyber-bullying, and the spread of "fake news," Gilchrist says the main focus is on the positive goal of making online interactions "better and richer."

 

That end goal can be achieved through applying groundbreaking research already being done at the university, Gilchrist says.

 

"Faculty and researchers are doing some of the most important scholarship in the world around how information flows through social networks, both online and offline," Gilchrist says. "They're researching how social media impacts users and broader media and conversations, so the School of Information is the perfect home for the center."

 

He says the goal is to "activate" that research and make it usable for media makers and users so they can improve their experience, whether that's implementing better commenting platforms and guidelines for civil conversation or figuring out what sort of networks encourage or discourage the spread of information from unreliable sources.

 

"I've just come on board in February, and I really want to hit the ground running," Gilchrist says, adding that he wants to be "aggressive" in looking for opportunities to show what researchers are doing and how their work can improve the world of social media.

 

"We want to make tools available to the public soon, so this becomes a center of action," he says. "As social media continues to grow as a primary way so many people get information about the world, it's important that those experiences and lenses to the outside world are designed with care. I see the center as an opportunity to make sure they're designed in a conscientious way."

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Garlin Gilchrist II.


Desai Accelerator's new program manager aims to double intern staff, build program's reputation

Katy Lind brings a variety of entrepreneurial experience to her new role as program manager for the University of Michigan's Desai Accelerator, but her journey into entrepreneurship was not a straight line.

 

Lind officially started at Desai March 5 after the previous manager, Alison Todak, left to serve as managing director of Ann Arbor co-working space Cahoots. As an undergrad, Lind studied dance and theater, but toward the end of her undergrad experience, she decided she wanted to go into business.

 

"I'm a curious person and I've always pursued things I'm excited about," she says.

 

She earned an MBA in entrepreneurship and marketing from Indiana University and went on to work in film marketing for three years. After that she worked with a marketing company that consults with Fortune 500 companies, and then spent 14 months working for startup Duo Security in Ann Arbor.

 

But as Duo grew, so did Lind's desire to start a business of her own. Her first venture, Nasty Soap, didn't work out, but Lind says she doesn't like the word "failure."

 

"I learned so much, and I wouldn't have been able to start Pincause if I hadn't gone through that," she says.

 

Pincause was the brainchild of Lind and her partner Nate Stevens. It's an online platform that commissions artists to create pins highlighting various causes, and funding those causes with a portion of the purchase price. In 14 months after the January 2017 launch, Pincause has raised about half a million dollars for various causes. Stevens continues to run the day-to-day operations there so Lind can concentrate full-time on her role at Desai.

 

One of her first initiatives at Desai is to double the program's intern staff from five to 10.

 

"What differentiates Desai from other business accelerator programs is that we have interns, period," she says. "When you're starting a business, it's difficult getting talent, and you don't usually need that talent as full-time employees. By doubling the intern staff, we give these startups even more access to highly-skilled talent so we can stay competitive with other accelerators."

 

Those interns will help the six startups that will make up the summer 2018 cohort at the accelerator. Applications closed in early March, and Desai staff are still going through applications to see which six startups will be chosen for the program that runs from June 11 to Sept. 28. Desai's summer program in previous years has been the launch pad for big startup successes, including MySwimPro and SAHI Cosmetics.

 

"I'm excited to be here, supporting entrepreneurs with the day-to-day issues they encounter," Lind says. "I'll be that person out in the field with them, and I've been where they are. Any problems they encounter, we will get through that together."

 

Along with growing the intern staff, Lind wants to grow Desai's reputation.

 

"We want Desai to gain recognition as a linchpin in the support network across the Midwest for our tech startups," she says. "We're a growing presence, and we're doing amazing things."

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Desai Accelerator.


Threads interdisciplinary art festival moves to Ypsi, scales up for 2018

The organizers of the Threads All Arts Festival learned a lot from their event's first iteration in Ann Arbor in 2016 and are planning a second, bigger, and better festival in Ypsilanti this weekend.

 

The interdisciplinary festival featuring music, poetry, dance, film, and visual arts runs from 1 p.m. March 10 to 10:30 p.m. March 11 at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, 100 Market Place in Ypsi. The first Threads festival grew out of casual music nights and related events that Nicole Patrick and fellow students from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance had organized.

 

Wanting to get more exposure for their bands, dance troupes, and other artistic projects, Patrick and a few other founders pulled together a proposal and won a grant to launch an interdisciplinary arts festival. They organized the event in just four months and hosted it at the Yellow Barn in Ann Arbor in 2016.

 

The group aimed to host a second festival in summer 2017, but finding a venue proved difficult. The Yellow Barn had been taken over by Theatre Nova and was no longer available for rent, so the date was postponed and the hunt for a new venue began.

 

Patrick, along with festival co-organizer Meri Bobber, toured several spaces before winding up in Ypsi. They say their "jaws dropped" when they walked into the Freighthouse, located in Ypsi's historic Depot Town district.

 

"The space is one big, gorgeous room with rafters and natural light," Patrick says. "The sound is good, and it had the space we needed to build gallery walls and put in two stages, and even have food there. It's what we'd been looking for the whole time."

 

The new location means that the festival can feature acts nonstop, with larger ensembles and acts on the main stage, and smaller, quieter acts on a cozier second stage. A gallery will feature works by local visual artists.

 

Patrick says organizers already had a great lineup of artists who had applied to participate in the festival, but once they knew the festival's new home would be in Ypsilanti, they opened up a second call for artists targeted specifically at Ypsi residents.

 

"We knew that if we were moving into that community, the representation of Ypsi-based artists needed to be stronger in the lineup, so we got them more involved," Bobber says.

 

Patrick says she is pleased that the festival is acting as a launching pad for artistic careers and new works.

 

"One thing that excites me a lot is the number of premieres of works happening at the performance," Patrick says. "There will be a composer premiering a chamber ensemble, and a few bands are using it as a way to get the word out that they're going to release an album soon."

 

Continuing the focus on all things local, food will be available for purchase by El Harissa, Pilar's Tamales, and Veg-O-Rama, with drinks by Stovetop Roasters and the Corner Brewery.

 

Single-day passes cost $10, with full festival passes costing $15. Children under 12 get in free. A full schedule for the festival is available here.

 

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


Photos by Theo Schear.

Solar Marketplace aims to help houses of worship finance eco-friendly projects

Local houses of worship had a chance to learn about eco-friendly projects undertaken by local faith communities during a "solar open house" in December, and a "Solar Marketplace" this weekend will help them figure out how to finance their own.

 

The Solar Marketplace is being organized by Solar Faithful, an initiative from the city of Ann Arbor’s energy office in partnership with Michigan Interfaith Power and Light, which aims to promote solar projects in houses of worship. The city's climate action plan calls for reducing community-wide emissions by 25 percent before 2025, and as part of that plan, the city has set a goal of generating 2.4 megawatts of solar energy each year. With 400 houses of worship in the greater Ann Arbor area, the city believes that making houses of worship more energy-efficient will help achieve those goals.

 

The marketplace, scheduled from 2-4 p.m. March 11 at Campus Chapel, 1236 Washtenaw Court in Ann Arbor, will host eight to 10 solar installers who consistently get high customer ratings, including two or three with experience in financing for solar projects.

 

"Neither the city nor IPL are advocating for any one vendor," says Jane Vogel, past board president of Michigan IPL and current liaison to the Solar Faithful team. "We're simply facilitating the process of enabling houses of worship to talk with solar installers."

 

Currently, Vogel says, the main two strategies for financing a solar panel installation on a house of worship involves fundraising through a capital campaign or taking out a loan, but Michigan IPL and Solar Faithful are interested in helping houses of worship find creative ways to finance solar projects.

 

For instance, a 30 percent tax credit for solar projects is available to residential homeowners, but nonprofits and churches can't take advantage of that tax credit.

 

"But that opens the door to thinking about collaborating with an investor who can harvest the tax credits while helping a house of worship," Vogel says.

 

Houses of worship that aren't yet ready to fund a large solar project can still make their facilities more energy-efficient, and attendees can learn about how to do that during the event as well. A program offered in conjunction with Michigan Saves and DTE Energy provides zero percent financing on energy-efficiency measures, and more details about that program will be available during the solar marketplace.

 

"It's important to get the energy load of the building lowered through good energy-efficiency actions so that, by the time you're thinking of installing solar, you'll have lower energy use demand in the building," Vogel says.

 

While the March 11 presentation will be geared toward faith communities, the marketplace is free and open to all area residents and nonprofit organizations. Those interested in attending are asked to RSVP to Jennifer Young, project manager with Michigan IPL, at projectmanager@miipl.org or (248) 463-8811.

 

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


Ann Arbor-based ISP finds long-lasting success with all-in-one tech deployment

MCI and other early internet service providers (ISPs) have gone the way of the dodo, but Ann Arbor-based Synergy Fiber, founded in 1998, has outlasted those other ISPs by thinking strategically about the future. That continues with the company's current focus on being an "all-in-one" internet technology vendor that recently connected the largest single-phase student housing complex ever built in the United States.

 

When a developer builds a new office complex or a student dormitory, traditionally several different companies have been involved in technology infrastructure. One company runs wiring, another company provides phone service, another provides internet service, another provides video surveillance and security, and so on. Synergy Fiber simplifies the process by providing all those services and more through one vendor.

 

The company's recent record-setting student housing project is located at Texas A&M University, but the company has also done several large projects in Washtenaw County, including 411 Lofts student housing and the luxury apartments that comprise Foundry Lofts.

 

Synergy Fiber CEO Norman Roe says the company started as a "small mom and pop ISP" and has expanded over the last 20 years due to the current trend of "ubiquitous wireless availability and a little bit of luck." From those first few lean years, the company has grown to employ about 50 full-time staffers. About 25 of them are located at the company's headquarters at 3131 S. State St. and the rest are spread out at the company's other locations around the globe. The company now sees yearly gross revenues of more than $10 million.

 

Roe says there may be some narrow-band service providers still in existence after 20 years, but Synergy is one of the first broadband service providers and has outlasted most of the competition.

 

"It was a natural evolution, but we survived," Roe says. "There aren't many 20-year-old broadband ISPs in the entire country."

 

Roe says he thinks that the future for Synergy Fiber and others doing this kind of comprehensive IT deployment is "extraordinarily bright." He says his company's methods will "fundamentally change" building management systems and put more power in property owners' hands.

 

"We have a very specific niche that has lots of legs for the future of how IT services are deployed," Roe says.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Synergy Fiber/Andres Gomez.


Stroke treatment device wins $25,000 top prize at Michigan Business Challenge

A student business plan for a medical device that safely and quickly removes blood clots during treatment for strokes has won the $25,000 top prize in the University of Michigan's (U-M) 2018 Michigan Business Challenge.

 

The campus-wide, multi-round business plan competition hosted by the Zell Lurie Institute gives student teams an opportunity to win cash prizes, network with others, and get mentoring and advice from local business leaders. The final round took place Feb. 16.

 

The idea behind the winning plan, which is called Clot Buster, stemmed from an earlier collaboration between U-M students and faculty, including founder Yang Liu, Dr. Luis Savastano, professor Aditya Pandey, and several other students.

 

Liu was working on a device to remove plaque, and while talking with Savastano and his team, he wondered if a similar mechanism could be used to remove clots.

 

"Savastano is a neurosurgeon and does a lot of stroke treatments at the University of Michigan, and we thought this might have good potential," Liu says. "Within one month, we built a prototype that proved the idea, and we believe it's really going to work."

 

Devices already exist to suck out clots, but the catheter used for the procedure quickly gets jammed, Liu says.

 

"How Clot Buster works is that there is a rotating wire in the shaft that breaks the clot into pieces as it's being sucked into the catheter, so the catheter never gets clogged," Liu says. "This enables uninterrupted, nonstop clot removal."

 

Liu says he knew Clot Buster had a great product and a great team but it was still a "pleasant surprise" to take the top honors during the competition.

 

The prize money will go toward development of the device, taking it from the research and development phase to a marketable product.


"We're currently just in the R&D phase, but within this year, we'll use the money to improve and optimize the device so it can be tested in animals," Liu says.

 

Two other finalists won $2,500: Advanced LIDAR Semantics, which creates devices with enhanced object recognition for use in autonomous vehicles, and Sonodontics, creator of technology that uses ultrasound to scan for gum disease.

 

Teams with a business idea that includes a social mission were eligible to participate in the Seigle Impact Track. PedalCell, which creates bicycle-powered phone chargers for the bike share industry, took home the $15,000 top prize in the Impact Track.

 

A full list of prize winners is available at the Zell Lurie website.

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Emily Brourman.


Ann Arbor to expand presence this year at SXSW's "Michigan House"

The connection between Michigan and Austin, Texas may not seem an obvious one. But the "Michigan House" spotlighting Michigan leaders and products has grown steadily at Austin's annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and will this year expand again to include more significant representation for Ann Arbor.

 

This year's SXSW, which runs March 9-18, will be the fourth for Michigan House, a project of Detroit-based nonprofit Creative Many Michigan (formerly ArtServe Michigan). Creative Many has had a presence at the media, music, film, and tech conference in Austin for at least 10 years, according to Joe Voss, the organization's director of strategic partnerships.

 

Creative Many members would attend and also send speakers to SXSW, since Creative Many's mission is to foster the development of creative professionals in Michigan. They'd also take ideas back to Michigan from SXSW.

 

Five years ago, Voss noticed that a lot of Michigan groups, companies, and individuals were attending SXSW, and thought that they could do even more if they worked together. From that came the first Michigan House in 2015.

 

"We essentially rented a house, took everything out of the house, and put all Michigan stuff in it," Voss says. "It became a hospitality experience for Michigan-connected organizations, companies, and individuals, and it's grown from there."

 

For the 2018 conference, the Michigan House will move into a venue right downtown near the Austin Convention Center. Creative Many worked out a deal with SXSW so that its members get discounted admission to the conference. Michigan House panels on March 10 will be part of SXSW's official programming, though other Michigan-related panels are scheduled throughout the conference.

 

There has been some Ann Arbor participation from the first Michigan House, but that has expanded in 2018 to include more panelists with Washtenaw County connections, including representatives of Ann Arbor SPARK, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor coworking space Cahoots, and autonomous microtransit company May Mobility, in addition to many representatives from Detroit, Lansing, and Grand Rapids.

 

Voss says that a Michigan story that sparked a lot of interest this year was the issue of mobility, so several panel discussions will feature that topic. Many Michigan House panels will also focus on the issue of water and the Great Lakes, as well as some community health issues.

 

"It's awesome to have Ann Arbor in the mix more than ever," Voss says.

 

A full list of participants and a schedule of Michigan House panels is available here.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Michigan House.


Zingerman's Coffee Co. grand reopening to feature new toast bar, expanded seating

Zingerman's Coffee Co., 3723 Plaza Dr. in Ann Arbor, will celebrate a remodeling project and expansion of its seating area during a grand re-opening Feb. 24 and 25.

 

"We're in the middle of an industrial complex, and it's not a place you'd expect to be super busy," says Steve Mangigian, managing partner of Zingerman’s Coffee Co. "But we identified very quickly that this has become a hot spot, and you'd see standing room only and lines out the door on weekends."

 

Remodeling that took place from July through November of 2017 more than doubled the available seating from around 40 before to 100 afterward, when including a few seasonal outdoor seats.

 

More room was made for kitchen and seating areas by moving offices to a space above sister business Zingerman's Candy Manufactory instead, Mangigian says.

 

Management took the opportunity to expand the kitchen and the menu as well, adding a new toast bar. Mangigian says the cafe had been operating with an extremely limited selection of pastries but wasn't offering many savory options, and that was something customers were consistently asking for.

 

"We're using ingredients like the Zingerman's Creamery cream cheese, black cumin, and other really great Zingerman's ingredients for exotic and filling toasts," Mangigian says. "It's a nice way of leveraging our sister businesses and giving customers a taste of what other Zingerman businesses offer."

 

The two-day grand reopening will feature special brews and events.

 

"We launched an internal contest, featuring a different kind of toast with toppings just for that weekend, and I am going to be hand-roasting and serving one of the rarest coffees, Panamanian Geisha, just for that weekend," Mangigian says.

 

Mangigian will also host a tour of the space Saturday, and a specialty coffee drink will be unveiled just for the grand re-opening. Visitors will have a chance to sign up for a coffee gift set giveaway as well.

 

"We were looking for a refresh," Mangigian says. "We have an opportunity with the bigger seating area and the toast bar to take it to another level."

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Zingerman's.


Saline mouthguard manufacturer Akervall Technologies attracts local, national accolades

Saline-based Akervall Technologies, maker of the SISU Mouthguard, has been making national headlines in recent months.

 

The company was named a finalist in the "Injury and Disease Prevention" category in the 2018 Edison Awards, a national program that recognizes innovation. The winners will be announced during a ceremony April 11 in New York City.

 

Additionally, the company was selected for addition to the network of high-impact Michigan entrepreneurs that make up Endeavor Detroit, and Crain's Detroit Business named Akervall CEO Sassa Akervall a Notable Woman in Manufacturing.

 

The company's success comes after many years of scaling up what started as a kitchen-table business.

 

"My husband invented a guard for surgery originally, and when we moved here from Sweden in 2004, he had already used the guards in his practice as an ear, nose, and throat oncology doctor," Sassa Akervall says.

 

A few years after moving to the U.S., the Akervalls' daughter was about to join a field hockey team. Sassa's husband, Jan Akervall, tried a variation of the mouthguard on their daughter, replacing the bulky old-fashioned ones with a smaller but tougher version that made it easier to breathe, talk, and hydrate during a game. Their daughter tested a prototype, and the whole team eventually adopted them, Sassa says.

 

From there, Jan became the chief medical officer and Sassa the CEO of a company with "a mission to save teeth," Sassa says. "It's been exciting to run the company and see how it has grown from virtually nothing. We have a really great product, and we've probably saved millions of teeth by now."

 

Akervall says the SISU is quite different from anything else on the market, with the standard model only 1.6 millimeters thick, or 2.4 millimeters thick for the mouthguards marketed for high-impact sports like boxing. The guard is made of a non-compressible material that distributes force throughout the material, where it is absorbed before it can make it to the teeth.

 

"They come flat, and you put them in hot water. They become soft and pliable, and you mold them to your teeth. You get a perfect, snug fit," Akervall says.

 

The Akervalls are always looking to expand their product line. They recently created a partnership with another company to sell a nighttime mouthguard for people who grind their teeth in their sleep, and will be co-branding with a company that makes Placker's Grind-No-More mouthguards.

 

The company is now also producing a mouthguard to protect teeth during the intubation process in medical procedures.

 

"The intubation guard is where Jan started the whole thing, and now it has come full circle," Akervall says.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Akervall Technologies.


CNN's Sanjay Gupta to sponsor, appear at new U-M health hackathon

CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta will sponsor and appear at a new health communication hackathon event at the University of Michigan (U-M).

 

The U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation (IHPI) is now accepting applications from students and professionals who are interested in taking part in the jointly-run Gupta Family Hackathon for Health Communication. The inaugural hackathon will kick off on the evening of Friday, March 23 and run through Sunday, March 25. The deadline to apply for the event is March 1.

 

Elyse Aurbach, program development associate with IHPI, says there are already a couple of health hackathons active in Ann Arbor, including a U-M-run one for students and another run by the nonprofit A2 Health Hacks. But those hackathons tend to focus on technology, while the Gupta-sponsored hackathon concentrates on communication issues in a healthcare setting.

 

Aurbach says participants can pitch a technology solution to communication problems, but ideas not based in technology are welcome as well. The communication hacks can be directed from physicians to patients, from a health system to the general public, or from one medical team member to another.

 

As an example of a communication difficulty in the healthcare setting, Aurbach noted that medical professionals are challenged by helping patients understand that colds are caused by viruses and can't be effectively treated with antibiotics. Part of that communication challenge also includes relaying best practices for preventing the transmission of the cold virus.

 

Aurbach also notes that communication from one health professional to another can often use improvement. For instance, she says, making sure that information gets transferred between two attending physicians during a shift change can have a "dramatic impact" on the patient's health outcomes.

 

After the kick-off reception Friday with Dr. Gupta and his wife Rebecca Gupta at Michigan Stadium, the hacking part of the weekend starts on Saturday at U-M's Taubman Biomedical Science Research Building. Participants will have a chance to talk about their ideas or hear from other participants and form teams organically around shared interests, Aurbach says.

 

From noon on Saturday through noon on Sunday, teams will develop their ideas. Judging, including cash prizes, will take place Sunday afternoon.

 

The hackathon is open to students and professionals from a variety of backgrounds.

 

"What we're looking for is enthusiasm about the topic and a commitment to participate," Aurbach says. "We hope to get participants from lots of different backgrounds, from design to community programming to healthcare research."

 

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


Inspired by transgender bathroom debate, U-M holds conference on inclusive design

The University of Michigan Taubman (U-M) College of Architecture and Urban Planning hosted a symposium on inclusive design last week, harnessing public interest in recent debates about transgender people's use of public restrooms.

 

The symposium, called "Stalled!," ran Feb. 7-8. Taubman College partnered with the U-M Initiative on Disability Studies, the U-M Spectrum Center, and the U-M Women’s Studies department for the symposium. Speakers from Yale; the University of California, Berkeley; and the United Kingdom were also in attendance.

 

Adam Smith and Lisa Sauve, designers and owners of Ann Arbor design studio Synecdoche, also attended to talk about designing a gender-neutral bathroom for Nightcap bar, a first for the city of Ann Arbor.

 

Jonathan Massey, dean and professor at the Taubman College, says the symposium started with controversies around gendered bathrooms and transgender individuals because they're a concrete example of how design can be inclusive or not. But he says the topic was just a launching pad to "open up bigger conversations."

 

Massey says people with different gender identities and especially disabled people generate knowledge about cities and architecture by the creative methods they devise to get around.

 

"They're hacking the city," Massey says. "They have to come up with creative workarounds just to enjoy access to things other people take for granted."

 

For example, speaker Joel Sanders from Yale began working with a trans activist on gender-inclusive restrooms. But the pair quickly began to understand there were other challenges and opportunities for inclusion in restrooms, such as including foot-washing stations for Muslims who need to do their daily ablutions in airport bathrooms.

 

Smith and Sauve talked about building a restroom for Nightcap that was both beautiful and inclusive, combining a shared washing area with sinks and a mirror and individual rooms for the toilets.

 

"In one way, it was no big deal, just a small shift in what we're used to," Massey says. "But they talked in the panel about how much negotiation it took to get planning approval and permits. Ultimately, the city of Ann Arbor was happy to work with them, once they all got on the same page."

 

Massey says building gender-neutral or accessible bathrooms in new buildings isn't difficult or particularly expensive, but retrofitting old buildings can be.

 

"But the Americans with Disabilities act was passed in 1991, and people have had more than 25 years to get used to this idea. It shouldn't be a surprise or a big deal," Massey says. Architects and building owners need to start thinking of accessibility requirements on the same level as other safety code upgrades like needing a better sprinkler system for a larger space, he says.

 

Massey says there is a social justice component to these issues, but these issues also force architects and designers to be more creative in a way that could benefit everyone. He says the best outcome of the symposium was building relationships between individuals and departments that don't often get together.

 

"There were lots of new faces that had never been to Taubman College, and they were learning about us and what we do here and vice versa," he says.

 

Massey says he hopes that in two or three years, Taubman will become the sort of place where nobody would think of building binary gender restrooms.

 

"Right now, there's a culture here of teaching standard practice and then adding on disability access as a second phase or afterthought," he says. "This was the beginning of a conversation that will help us to pivot the college to a condition where people start from the premise of maximizing opportunity for everyone."


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

Washtenaw County seeks to scale up summer youth employment program in 2018

A successful summer youth employment program in Washtenaw County is hoping to double the number of young people served and is looking for more employers to participate.

 

The program, called Summer18 this year, started as a 10-week pilot program in 2016 with 26 businesses employing 50 youth in paid summer jobs. It was founded as a collaboration between Michigan Works Association and the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development. The University of Michigan (U-M) joined as a partner last year, and the number of youth employed increased to 75.

 

Shamar Herron, deputy director for Michigan Works Southeast, says that adding U-M brought "university-sized resources" to the program, including money and staff time. Various U-M departments also serve as employers in the program.

 

Julia Weinert, assistant director of U-M's Poverty Solutions, says her organization got on board with the summer employment program because the university believes these types of programs are effective in addressing the root causes of poverty.

 

"It's hard to find your first job as a young person," she says. "A lot of times, your parents will get you in with someone they know. But if you don't have that network and are coming from a place of minimal resources, an opportunity to get into a job is a huge first step that launches you into whatever you want to do, whether that's a specific career path or going to college."

 

This year, program organizers have an ambitious goal to serve 150 young people between 16 and 24.

 

Employers must commit to interviewing potential employees, and then providing training and orientation. They also have to commit to paying the participants $10 an hour for those without a high school degree and $12 an hour for those who do have a degree.

 

Participating youth must commit to attending an entire month of "soft skills" training before being matched with employers, and then working a minimum of 20 hours per week for the remainder of the summer program.

 

"The key message we want businesses to understand is that we're sending out a quality product in terms of these young people," Herron says. "We run them through a month's worth of soft skills like how to show up on time and communicate effectively, and how to dress appropriately."

 

Herron says the program tries to coordinate the interests of each youth with a summer employer, but sometimes, an exact match can't be made. Still, Herron says, every effort is made to make as close a match as possible and explain to the employee why they were paired with a particular business.

 

Benefits for participating youth are obvious, but there are upsides for employers as well, Herron says. Youth who are kept busy during the summer are less likely to get into trouble with the law, which is a benefit to the community as a whole. More specifically, youth who have a good experience with an employer are likely to talk about that workplace to friends and family, creating good public relations between the community and the employer, Herron says.

 

"This is our opportunity to help young people understand what it takes to go to work," Herron says. "If we don't do this, 20 years from now we'll be kicking ourselves over the missed opportunity to prepare the next generation of our workforce."

 

Interested youth and local business may apply to take part in the program here.

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of U-M.


Arbor Insight software enables easier reporting of harassment, other workplace incidents

Arbor Insight has landed a second major client for its software allowing employees to anonymously report workplace incidents ranging from fraud to sexual harassment.

 

Comerica was the first client for the Ann Arbor-based company's Neighborhood Watch for Corporations platform. The second client is a large regional credit union, but Arbor Insight has not yet released the name of the business publicly.

 

Arbor Insight CEO Scott LaVictor says the first two client companies have been financial institutions because they are in one of a few industries, along with healthcare and advanced manufacturing, that have a regulatory requirement to protect employees by implementing a reporting protocol.

 

With sexual harassment in the national news in recent months, Arbor Insight's software addresses some of the barriers to reporting harassment and other workplace concerns. A company survey showed that people who experience workplace harassment often don't report it because they don't know how to do it or they worry about anonymity or retaliation.

 

Neighborhood Watch provides a third-party-controlled tool that not only makes it easy to report workplace incidents but makes it easier for management to respond appropriately. Instead of an ad hoc group of phone hotlines, paper forms, or online platforms, Arbor Insight's tool provides ease of access and a smarter way to help both employees and management.

 

LaVictor says that's because Arbor Insight's tool and the machine intelligence that powers it provides important context for managers responding to these types of reports.

 

"Our tech has evolved to make sure that what's being reported is not just what users want to say, but what the client needs to hear," LaVictor says. "Often, there's a big difference in context, and we always say that context is king – or queen."

 

For example, a traditional risk management investigation into a stolen laptop computer would simply ask when and where it happened, who was involved, and would request contact information.

 

LaVictor says those basic queries miss context and require a lot of follow-up by the investigator.

 

"Where our tool really shines is that, once it recognizes the topic is computer theft, it's trained to ask those basic questions but also asks was the device used for work, was it password-protected or encrypted, does anyone else in the office use it, or was a thumb drive inserted in the computer?" LaVictor says.

 

LaVictor says this kind of reporting could potentially head off workplace violence as well.


"I've done a lot of workplace violence investigations, and there were always indicators," he says.

 

In interviews, he found there were always at least two or three people who heard comments, saw things, or were told stories that suggested the incident was likely to occur. If employees were able to report those concerns, it would have provided key context that could have resulted in an appropriate intervention such as counseling for the troubled employee, LaVictor says.

 

"We're at an important point with our second client, who is committed to helping us grow," LaVictor says. "Our survey results clearly indicate that a platform like ours is accessible and intelligent and something that people want."

 

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.

RITMO app introduces on-demand mass transit at U-M, with plans to expand

A new app is revolutionizing public transportation on the University of Michigan's (U-M) north campus by combining the efficiency of a fixed-route bus service with the convenience of a ridesharing service.

 

The app, called Reinventing Urban Transportation and Mobility (RITMO), uses a sophisticated algorithm to figure out the best route and combination of transportation methods to help a rider reach his or her destination. That could mean taking a small RITMO shuttle vehicle for the entire route or having a shuttle take the rider to a bus stop to continue his or her trip on a traditional U-M bus. The system offers almost door-to-door service, a la Uber or Lyft, but still operates within the framework (and much more affordable price point) of public transit.

 

Pascal Van Hentenryck, the Seth Bonder Collegiate professor at the U-M College of Engineering, has been working on related projects for years. But he had the idea for RITMO after seeing empty buses traveling across campus.

 

He noted that fixed-route buses make sense in busy corridors with a high density of riders, but in other areas, the buses were not being used efficiently. A U-M team did some surveys about how students and faculty use transportation options to come up with new, more efficient options.

 

Van Hentenryck says the future of transportation is "on-demand and multi-modal," and notes that RITMO's advantages are that it is "dynamic and completely integrated."

 

"We are bringing transit into the 20th century instead of using technology from 30 years ago," he says.

 

Van Hentenryck notes that the project has created new jobs for shuttle drivers but hasn't increased U-M's transportation budget. As employee costs went up, infrastructure costs were reduced.

 

Van Hentenryck says he and his team would like to eventually expand their service to the entire U-M campus, as well as neighborhoods a few miles north of campus. While the app and shuttle and bus rides are completely free to students and faculty right now, a small fee comparable to a municipal bus fare may be charged in the future for off-campus destinations, Van Hentenryck says.

 

Right now, the system is limited to north campus and solely to the hours of 7-11 p.m., but extended hours will be rolled out in a staged deployment, adding RITMO service from 7-11 a.m. and then from 3-7 p.m. Future plans also include using electric vehicles and, eventually, autonomous shuttles.

 

Van Hentenryck says RITMO organizers hope to continue studying the system to see if people will change their habits as a result of using RITMO.

 

"Another motivation for this is the significant pressure on parking," Van Hentenryck says. "With a new, interesting transit system, we will see if they are willing to not drive to campus. If we can get people on this transit system, it decreases that parking pressure, we won't have to build new parking lots, and it'll be good for everyone."

 

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

 
Images courtesy of RITMO.

Concluding "a good Michigan story," Armune BioSciences sells off pioneering cancer-detection tech

David Esposito, president and CEO of Armune BioScience, says a recent transaction in which Wisconsin-based Exact Sciences acquired Armune's underlying technology is the final chapter of "a good Michigan story."

 

The transaction was announced at the JP Morgan Healthcare conference in San Francisco in December, but details of the transaction were not released.

 

Esposito says that Armune, headquartered in Kalamazoo with lab operations in Ann Arbor, has been a Michigan success story from its founding in 2008, when it launched at the University of Michigan (U-M). It was supported by angel groups based in the state, received financial help and mentorship through U-M's Biomedical Research Council, and expanded its Ann Arbor lab operations after landing $700,000 in seed capital in 2015. Additionally, a Michigan consulting firm, EMA Partners, helped broker the deal with Exact Sciences.

 

"The only blood-based non-PSA cancer testing in the world was supported by the Michigan life science community," Esposito says.

 

Armune was the maker of Apifiny, a blood test that helps doctors diagnose prostate cancer without relying on prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests.

 

Esposito notes that PSA tests give a lot of false positives, because high PSA levels can be related to normal changes from aging or other changes in the prostate that aren't cancer. In contrast, Apifiny uses biomarkers that indicate the immune system is responding to cancer.

 

The match with Exact Sciences was a good one, since both companies had a goal to tackle the most commonly-diagnosed cancers. Exact Sciences is on a mission to address the 10 deadliest cancers, including breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancers, and one of Exact Sciences' earliest products was Cologuard, a screening test for colon cancer.

 

Cologuard, however, is a fecal test, and Esposito says Armune's complementary technology will help Exact Sciences develop more blood-based tests for cancers.

 

With Exact Sciences having purchased the underlying technology, Armune BioScience still exists as a company name, but has ceased lab operations. Esposito says the Armune team is looking for the next great technology to build another company on.

 

"Most of our team is looking for another innovation to scale up and see how it goes," he says.

 

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


Photo courtesy of David Esposito.

Duo Security launches film showcase emphasizing diverse creators and tech themes

Last week's A2 Tech Film Showcase drew 600-700 attendees to the Michigan Theater – an impressive turnout for an event originally planned as a small filmmakers' get-together in the basement of Ann Arbor's Duo Security.

 

Rik Cordero, senior media producer at Duo and founder of the showcase, says the Jan. 19 event grew out of discussions among Duo employees about a lack of diversity in both independent filmmaking and in the tech world.

 

"We wanted to create a platform for underrepresented voices in the indie filmmaking and tech industries through short films," Cordero says.

 

He says bringing diverse voices to the table is ingrained into Duo's company culture.

 

"We want to show that the way we solve problems is to have multiple perspectives, because we can focus on the wrong things or miss problems when everyone has the same point of view," Cordero says.

 

Response to Duo's early announcements about the film showcase was strong, and Cordero didn't want to leave anybody out.

 

"We were going to have a small get-together in the basement of Duo, but we started to see the RSVP response climb very rapidly, and we hit our ceiling for capacity at Duo," he says.

 

Duo reached out to a few sponsors, including ad agency Q+M and Ann Arbor SPARK, and booked the main theater at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater for the event. Cordero says organizers envisioned the event as a showcase rather than as a competition. First-time filmmakers and more seasoned filmmakers both participated, and several participants helped other filmmaking teams with editing or acting.

 

The two basic guidelines were that films had to be made by women or people of color and/or had to feature women and people of color in the storyline, he says. The second guideline was that all films should embrace and explore the consequences or side effects of technology in films of about 10 minutes.

 

Concepts touched on in the showcase ranged from social media addiction to genetic editing to rampaging artificial intelligence, but many of the themes related to realities we're all living right now, Cordero says. The films also ranged from more traditional narratives to more experimental short films.

 

"With the experimental stuff, they were using all kinds of nontraditional techniques, and that was sort of the point with this technology angle being highlighted," he says.

 

Cordero says Duo staff members are already making plans for a second A2 Tech Film Showcase, working out an application that ensures that a range of diverse voices will be represented. The themes for future showcases haven't been worked out yet, but Cordero says staffers are brainstorming a list of potential new themes.

 

"This was a genuinely positive event, and we couldn't have hoped for a better response," he says.

 

Information about the short films and filmmakers is available here.

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Q+M.


Pitch@WCC competition returns, offering opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs

Washtenaw Community College (WCC) is gearing up for its third annual Pitch@WCC competition, which provides an increasingly popular opportunity for early-stage entrepreneurs to win cash and gain business skills.

 

Kristin Gapske, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at WCC, says a pitch competition with an educational component was one of the first big projects she and others at the center focused on after the center opened in September 2014. WCC launched the first Pitch@WCC competition in April of 2016, attracting nine participants and filling all 50 slots for audience members.

 

The competition grew in 2017, attracting 15 pitches and about 120 audience members. This year, organizers expect the competition to grow again.

 

As part of the educational component, participants aren't just thrown in to sink or swim but rather learn many useful skills along the way.

 

"Applicants are supported throughout the process," Gapske says. "We teach them how to identify their target market, understand how to market to them, and all the other components that go into a successful pitch."

 

Participants in this year's competition must apply online by Feb. 9. Those who make it through the online process are required to attend additional meetings and workshops before the final event, set for 6 p.m. May 15.

 

Participants must come to an organizational meeting to get more details about the competition process and requirements. They must also attend three Entrepreneurial Center workshops, one about storytelling, one about crafting a pitch, and a third of the participant's choice. Finally, participants are required to come to a practice session to hone their pitches in front of the competition judges.

 

The entire process, including applying and attending workshops, is free for participants, and Gapske says an added bonus is that participants often get many networking opportunities.

 

"They get connected to each other, and you'll see the participants working with each other and rooting for each other," she says.

 

The competition has three tiers for entrepreneurs who are at different stages in the process: start, build, and grow. A top prize and a runner-up is named in each category, earning winners $1,000 in the "start category," $1,250 in the "build category," and $1,500 in the "grow" category. There's also a $500 prize for the audience choice winner.

 

Judges are open to many different types of businesses. Winners in the past have included a company producing a natural deodorizer, an apparel company, a cake maker, a massage therapist, and a custom tutoring business for Japanese expatriates.

 

Gapske says the pitch competition provides a smaller, more local opportunity for startups that aren't yet ready for larger and tougher business plan competitions. The competition also furthers the Entrepreneurship Center's overall mission in helping students.

 

"It aligns with what we're doing here at the center in terms of creating a co-curricular experience," Gapske says. "Students are getting skills with photography and graphic design and HVAC and construction, and some of them will be going out and needing to run a business. This gives them a chance to articulate what the business is and develop a succinct and effective pitch."

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of WCC/Victoria Bennett.


Ann Arbor companies' new app doubles typing speeds for the severely disabled

Two Ann Arbor companies, Atomic Object and Koester Performance Research (KPR), recently collaborated to create a tool called Scanning Wizard that makes it easier for people with severe disabilities to use computers and smartphones.

 

Technology already exists to help people with severe disabilities, including those who can't speak, to use adaptive "switches" that can be operated with a small muscle twitch to navigate online, write documents, or send texts on their smartphones. If a user is writing an essay, for instance, the switch will activate a menu and then do something similar to playing "20 questions" with the user, according to KPR founder Heidi Koester.

 

"The computer starts going through groups of items, and when the user hits the switch, it chooses the thing you wanted and narrows it down from there," Koester says.

 

The process is complicated, and it takes a long time to do anything with these menus, even when they're tailored to the individual users. Currently, many switch systems allow the user to write at about one word per minute.

 

"Imagine someone being in on a conversation at one word a minute," she says. "That makes it hard for them to participate on a full basis with their peers and do the things they want to do."

 

The innovation that Scanning Wizard brings to the table is making the fine-tuning process smarter and more efficient. The application is called a "wizard" because it walks a user – or more typically the user's caregiver, relative, or teacher – step by step through the process of tailoring the switch system's settings to the user.

 

Koester says she wanted the app to be available as a simple website that would be accessible to the average person with no special training. Atomic Object managing partner John Fisher notes that, after the first online session, the application is cached and can be used offline in areas where internet access might be spotty.

 

Small pilot studies showed that Scanning Wizard allowed users to double their text entry speed on average. Fisher says increasing speed from one word per minute to two or three per minute doesn't seem like much.

 

"But imagine if you could type three times faster. How would that impact your life?" Fisher says.

 

Koester came to Atomic Object with her idea and some development experience, but she wasn't a professional app developer.

 

"We worked with her to define what her high-level priorities were, came up with a comprehensive design for the software, and built the application," Fisher says. "We delivered the first version of the product and handed the code base over to her, and she enhanced it with the knowledge she'd gained working alongside our team."

 

The application is available for free at scanningwizard.com.

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Atomic Object.


Ann Arbor's SkySpecs raises $8 million to expand reach of drone wind turbine inspection tech

SkySpecs, an Ann Arbor-based company that uses automated drones to inspect wind turbines, recently landed $8 million in financing that will allow the company to expand globally and add to its product line.

 

The most recent round of financing came from Statkraft Ventures, UL Ventures, and Capital Midwest with follow-on investments from Venture Investors, Huron River Ventures, and additional existing investors.

 

Co-founder and CEO Danny Ellis says SkySpecs' 2017 was focused on using research and development to commercialize the company's product. The company began tracking inspections in April of 2017 and completed 3,600 turbine inspections at more than 70 wind farms in the U.S. and Europe.

 

Ellis says the latest round of financing will allow the company to "focus on improving robotics and data analytics and taking it worldwide to customers everywhere." Ellis says the initial wave of expansion will occur in Europe, where the wind energy industry is more mature. But SkySpecs plans to target Australia and South America shortly after that.

 

Ellis says the technology could be extended to other applications, but since many of the company's existing clients are in the energy industry, energy infrastructure is likely to remain a strong focus.

 

There are a number of advantages to automated drone inspections, including speed, safety, and accuracy of data. Inspections of all three blades of a wind turbine can be done in 15 minutes and don't involve the dangers of having a human inspector hanging from ropes or standing on a crane, Ellis says. Automated drone inspections are also more uniform.

 

"The data is measurable and repeatable, because each inspection is done the same way," Ellis says. The automated drones can repeat their procedure exactly in a way a manual drone flight or a camera inspection from the ground cannot, due to variations in user input.
 

"Typically, they are looking for normal wear and tear, erosion, any sort of splitting or delamination of the fiberglass," Ellis says. The drones are not only looking for signs of potential catastrophic failure but also pinpointing areas where the turbines might not be working efficiently.

 

The data gathered allows SkySpecs to recommend if something needs to be repaired or replaced right away, or if it can be put off for a few months or a year.

 

"If you need to repair everything, you should, but not everyone has that flexibility in the budget, and we can help them set priorities," Ellis 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.

 

All photos courtesy of SkySpecs.


Pitch Ypsi competition addresses criticism through community feedback forum

Pitch Ypsi, a business pitch competition started in 2017, is asking for community feedback to shape the future of the competition. Organizers are hosting a community feedback forum from 4:30-7 p.m. at SPARK East, 215 W. Michigan Ave. in downtown Ypsilanti on Wednesday, Jan. 10.

 

The nonprofit gave away a $5,000 prize at each of two competitions in 2017, both of which drew strong interest, according to competition founder and Ann Arbor serial entrepreneur Al Newman.

 

"The planning committee's original goal was to get 50 people to attend the first event," Newman says, but 195 of the free tickets to the event were snapped up almost immediately, and 62 applicants applied for the competition. "The response far exceeded our expectations."

 

However, organizers received some constructive criticism that has led them to rethink a few aspects of the competition.

 

"The leadership team should more reflect the community," Newman says, so broadening the planning team and leadership is a top priority.

 

At least one participant at the last pitch competition was upset that a company based in Pittsfield Township won the second competition in 2017, and Newman says the parameters for the competition should have been better explained to the community.

 

"The planning team understand that the contestants needed to be from the two eastern Washtenaw County ZIP codes (48197 and 48198) but didn't communicate that very well," Newman says. He adds that though the word "Ypsi" is in the title of the competition, the goal is really to promote entrepreneurship and business growth in the whole eastern half of the county.

 

Community members are invited to tonight's meeting to provide any and all feedback. Newman says the plan is to have at least one Pitch Ypsi event in 2018, with the first probably happening in the second quarter of the year, but no dates have been set yet.

 

More information about the community feedback forum is available at Pitch Ypsi's Facebook event page.


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

Continuing decade of turnaround, ADI set to invest $4m and create 100 jobs in Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor-based Applied Dynamics International (ADI) recently announced that it will invest almost $4.4 million and create 100 or more jobs in Ann Arbor as part of a planned expansion.

 

The business, known for its flight simulator platform used by Boeing and the U.S. Air Force, received a $650,000 performance-based grant from the Michigan Business Development Program (MBDP) based on plans to add jobs in Michigan. MBDP is an incentive program available from the Michigan Strategic Fund in cooperation with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
 

ADI considered expanding its presence in the UK or Seattle but chose to expand in Ann Arbor, according to CEO Scott James.

 

"There were a lot of reasons why, in the end, we decided to go this route," James says. "More than anything, it was the access to talent. Also, the support the state of Michigan offers is what made it happen."

 

ADI was founded in 1957 and has undergone ownership changes as well as changes in focus. James says the company was close to bankruptcy when he took over as CEO in 2008. As part of his plan to make ADI profitable, he decided the company needed to focus on the most promising pieces of technology.

 

Out of that decision grew ADI's real-time distributed computation platform, which allows a computational load to be distributed over a network of inexpensive computers. The technology allows complex feedback data to be provided in real time, lending itself not only to simulation software like ADI's flight simulator but also to analytics and data handling. James says the underlying technology could also be applied to modernizing next-generation utility grids.

 

ADI has been growing both in revenue and in employee numbers over the last few years. ADI's revenues were about $5 million in 2014 and about $9 million in 2017, with $11 million projected for 2018. The company's headcount has grown from 36 in 2014 to its current team of 67.

 

The company plans to add at least 100 jobs, most of them software development engineers, and to build out its current building off Stone School Road. Some of the existing space is currently being remodeled, and a new wing of the building will be added soon. James says he expects to break ground on the addition within the next 18 months.

 

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 by Sarah Rigg.


Chelsea couple turns soapmaking hobby into full-time business, with help from Etsy and Amazon

Little Flower Soap Co. in Chelsea started as a small hobby business and has grown into a full-time job for owner Holly Rutt and her husband Justin.

 

Holly Rutt's interest in handmade soap dates back to 2010, when a college friend gave her the first bar of handmade soap she'd ever tried. She fell in love immediately and asked the friend for more information about handmade soaps. Rutt went on to learn soapmaking from that friend's sister in a one-room log cabin, an experience she describes as "magical."

 

The problem was that the initial recipe she used made 125 bars of soap, much more than the Rutts needed. They gave much of that first batch of soap away as wedding favors when they married in 2010.

 

"The favors were really well received. Guests were sniffing each other's soap," Holly Rutt says. Several friends also encouraged her to market her soaps.

 

Her first try at selling soap was an art fair fundraiser for the roller derby team the Derby Dimes, but she was unsure who would pay $4.50 for a bar of soap or $20 for five.

 

"But everybody bought five, and we sold out," Rutt says. That's when she knew it could be more than a hobby and began selling her goods online through Etsy.

 

Justin Rutt is an osteopathic doctor with an interest in herbs, and Holly Rutt also runs a floral business, Sweet Pea Floral Design. The two areas of expertise work well together in the bath and body business.

 

The couple went on to create lotions, bath balms, lip balms, candles, and other bath and body products. Justin Rutt writes the "recipes" for all products except the original soap, while Holly Rutt hopes to farm enough lavender to create all the essential oils she'll need for her soaps and other products.

 

Rutt says she was worried that 2016 was going to be an "off" year for the business, since sales on Etsy were down. But then she got in on the ground floor of a new Amazon program called Amazon Handmade, which provides a market for artisans offering unique homemade goods.

 

"If it wasn't for Amazon Handmade, we would have had a down year, but we ended up with an up year in 2016, and we've done 50 percent more in sales this year, too," Rutt says.

 

Rutt says a surprising side effect of this decision was picking up more male customers. Customers at Etsy had been 95 percent women, but the mix of customers from Amazon is closer to 50/50 men and women, she says.

 

The business has grown steadily since 2010. Now, in addition to Holly and Justin Rutt, the Little Flower Soap Co. has one full-time employee and two part-timers who work year-round, as well as 15 temp workers filling orders during the holiday rush. The Rutts also sell their products wholesale to about 200 small shops around the U.S.

 

Holly Rutt continues to run her flower arranging business in the ground floor of the old barn on the Rutts' Chelsea property, while the soap factory operates upstairs.

 

In the future, the Rutts are hoping to add an all-natural deodorant to the product line and, after the success of a recent offering of bourbon-flavored lip balm, more booze-inspired lip care products. Holly Rutt also hopes to offer various classes on flower arranging, soapmaking, and candlemaking.

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 Little Flower Soap Co.


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.