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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

Ann Arbor's ForeSee launches product to help banks better connect with customers in the digital age

As technology changes every industry, banks and financial institutions that focus on creating positive customer experiences will have the edge – but how banks will do that isn't always clear.

 

That's according to Jason Conrad, vice president at Ann Arbor-based customer analytics firm ForeSee and head of its retail banking practice. While some banks are betting that automated tellers and mobile banking apps will mean they can close physical branches, others are refocusing on brick and mortar.

 

"Some banks are opening more branches to reinforce that connection with the community as a strategic, competitive advantage," Conrad says.

 

Choosing the right strategy can be tough, but ForeSee thinks its new retail banking solution, an extension of its existing customer experience product suite, can help banks better understand their customers.

 

ForeSee's new retail banking solution is a suite of tools and apps added to its preexisting ForeSee CX Suite. It measures customer data across various channels from desktop web applications to mobile apps to physical branches and call centers and helps banks analyze who their customers are.

 

"Banks are facing technological upheaval in digital space," says Conrad. "There are literally hundreds of companies making them rethink how they are serving customers. Banks that measure success through the eyes of customers will thrive in the era of technological disruption."

 

Conrad says research with a dozen retail banks showed they were all nervous about the rise of financial technology, or "fintech," and what it means for traditional banks. They want to know what drives customer satisfaction as well as how to improve retention and customer loyalty.

 

Banks need to develop a clear understanding of who their customers are, and then decide the "next best action," which Conrad describes as combining what the customer wants from the bank with figuring out how the bank can best focus limited time and resources.

 

Next comes taking action on the information the bank has gathered so it can optimize its customers' experience across all points of contact, whether an online portal or a physical bank branch.

 

Finally, Conrad says, banks should take a holistic view of the products and services they offer, understanding not just the technicalities but the human side of things, since banks often interact with customers during huge milestones such as buying a first car or first home or saving for college.

 

"Banks need to move from simply retaining business and earning loyalty to connecting with customers in an authentic, meaningful way," Conrad says. "And then a funny thing happens: they sell more and make more money, the consumer is happy, and everyone wins."

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of ForeSee.


Clinc closes $6.3 million funding round, eyes major clients for AI financial assistant

Ann Arbor-based artificial intelligence (AI) company Clinc has closed a $6.3 million series A funding round, hot off the launch of Finie, the company's voice-controlled AI platform for banking.

Clinc was founded in 2015 by Jason Mars and Lingjia Tang, both University of Michigan professors specializing in AI and systems research. The new funding round, led by Columbus, Ohio-based Drive Capital, brings Clinc's total investment to $7.75 million just six months after the company closed a $1.2 million seed funding round.

The new funding will allow Clinc to add as many as 20 employees to its current staff of 21, and to further develop and market Finie. Finie's AI technology is able to understand natural speech and then allow users to converse with their bank accounts without using special keywords or question templates. The technology can be integrated into multiple platforms, from mobile apps to chatbots to Facebook messenger.

With the new round of funding, Clinc's technology could soon be integrated into Amazon's virtual assistant, Alexa, or into the Google Chrome browser. Mars says he doesn't like to try to convince investors by telling them about Finie but rather just enjoys showing them what it can do.

"People recognize when they are seeing something they haven't seen before," he says. "I show them how to use it, and they say, 'Okay, I get it. I'm in.'"

Mars attributes the company's success to a combination of great timing and having the best technology in the field. He says financial institutions have been making promises in terms of what they want to do with AI, but until now technology has lagged behind.

"What they want to do requires absolute state-of-the-art technology, and we have the smoking gun," Mars says.

Clinc doesn't want end users to have to install yet another app, Mars says. The aim is to have Clinc's technology incorporated into apps they are already using.

"Say they already have the Chase or Bank of America app on their phone. Finie would be just a new button or a new experience added onto the app as a sort of feature," he says.

Mars says the public should be on the lookout for a "blockbuster" announcement from Clinc this summer.

"We're working very closely with a top financial institute to integrate our technology into, potentially, two of their products, and that could be released to users as soon as June or July," he says.

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

PriceLocal aims to divert more Internet sales to local retailers

PriceLocal thinks has a way to help local retailers take back some of the sales they have lost to e-commerce over the last decade.

The Ann Arbor-based web service givers local stores the opportunity to match the online price for a product when shoppers are searching Amazon. The idea is to harness the momentum of the shop-local movement and pair it with savings consumers traditionally have only gotten online.

"Local stores have an advantage over Amazon no matter how many drones they say they are going to fly," says Matt Chosid, founder & CEO PriceLocal. "The local store can put a book in your hand today."

Chosid knows a thing or two about that. He worked on the litigation team at Borders from the 1990s until it closed. He saw the good years and bad ones. He saw how consumers increasingly used Borders as a showroom for their online purchases.

"They would take a book and say I can get this cheaper at Amazon," Chosid says. "They would walk out of the store and buy the book on Amazon. I am not saying that is the only reason for Borders' demise, but we didn’t have a response for that."

PriceLocal is that response. Chosid and the tech team at Alfa Jango created a web-browser plug-in that consumers can download at getpricelocal.com. Once its installed, shoppers can click on the PriceLocal button and send a price request to local stores to see if they will match it. If a local store has the item and can match the online price, shoppers get a coupon for the item at the Amazon price.

PriceLocal is launching with more than a dozen Ann Arbor retail partners. It has received requests from retailers ranging from Royal Oak to California.

Source: Matt Chosid, founder & CEO PriceLocal
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Lyons Consulting Group adds 19 to Ann Arbor office

Lyons Consulting Group is well on its way of meeting its goal of creating new jobs one year into the expansion of its office in Ann Arbor.

The Chicago-based firm specializes in digital marketing and its Ann Arbor office focuses on e-commerce.  Last year it announced that it wanted to create 30 jobs at the office as part of a $1.1 million investment. Today Lyons Consulting Group employs 19 people in Ann Arbor, up from just five a year ago.

"We have been able to hire a core group of people and build around them," says Norman Alesi, COO & CFO of Lyons Consulting Group. He adds, "That office is scheduled to be at 24 people by the end of the year."

The Michigan Economic Development Corp struck a deal with Lyons Consulting Group last year, giving the company $300,000 in incentives in exchanges for the $1.1 million expansion. The Ann Arbor office now serves 40 customers from around the world.

Lyons Consulting Group choose Ann Arbor in part because of its deep talent pool. It has hired a number of recent graduates from the University of Michigan and other local universities, while also working with the state of Michigan and Ann Arbor SPARK to fill out its staff.

"The state of Michigan has been very helpful for us getting set up there," Alesi says. "Ann Arbor SPARK has also been very helpful."

Source: Norman Alesi, COO & CFO of Lyons Consulting Group
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Human Element expands office space (twice) to grow

Ben Lorenz and his partners started Human Element a decade ago with the idea of working for themselves and doing less work overall. Their tech company didn't exactly provide for a leisurely work week but the co-founders are more than happy with the bottom line.

"We started this company so we didn’t have to work 80 hours a week," says Ben Lorenz, managing partner with Human Element. "It started off as a lifestyle-change decision. People really liked our company so we ended up working even more."

The downtown Ann Arbor-based company specializes in tech services and e-commerce platforms, specifically the Magento e-commerce platform. It has grown its sales 50 percent each year over the last few years and Lorenz is optimistic his firm will surpass that mark again.

"We will eclipse that by the end of this year," Lorenz says.

That growth has allowed Human Element to make three hires, including software engineers and project managers. It is also looking to hire a software engineer. The company currently employs a dozen employees and six independent contractors. Human Element has had to expand its office space twice in the last two years to accommodate its employee growth.

Source: Ben Lorenz, managing partner with Human Element
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Commerce Guys to launch online mobile shopping app

Commerce Guys is adding to its staff in America, hiring three people in the last year, adding another now, and is looking bring another three on soon.

The Ann Arbor-based tech firm employs 48 people, including 18 in the U.S. The 5-year-old e-commerce company merged with a French firm three years ago. Commerce Guys also has two interns in Ann Arbor, who are French students working in the U.S. It is also in the process of hiring for a new position with a candidate from MichiganWorks! and has three more job openings for software developers.

Commerce Guys
is an e-commerce company that integrates Drupal, a popular open source content management system, with its customer's Internet sales platform. It is transitioning from a service-oriented firm to one that creates its own software platform thanks to a 30-percent jump in revenues. It is in the process of launching Commerce Mobile, a mobile app that brings the online shopping experience to consumers on any Apple mobile device.

"The real value we can add is based around a repeatable product we can sell," says Scott Dahlgren, managing director, North America, for Commerce Guys.

Commerce Guys is also working to make its Commerce Mobile platform customizable for its clients to help accelerate its adoption. "It really has the opportunity to grow adoption very rapidly," Dahlgren says. "It allows somebody to use it easily."

Source: Scott Dahlgren, managing director, North America for Commerce Guys
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Lyons Consulting Group invests $1.1M in new Ann Arbor office

Lyons Consulting Group plans to invest $1.1 million in its Ann Arbor office and hire 30 new people after securing $300,000 in incentives made possible by the Michigan Economic Development Authority and Ann Arbor SPARK.

The Chicago-based firm bills itself as a "digital agency specializing in strategy, ux/design, development, and ongoing support." It opened an office in Ann Arbor last May to take advantage of the area's deep talent pool in e-commerce expertise.

"When you find a patch of good people you capitalize on it," says Norman Alesi, COO & CFO of Lyons Consulting Group. "It's difficult to find a group of people who understand e-commerce the way these people did."

The Ann Arbor office currently stands at 13 people and is growing. Lyons Consulting Group currently has four job openings for a project manager, sales representative, experience architects, and a support and maintenance position.

Alesi and Lyons Consulting Group's founder Richard Lyons are both Metro Detroit natives. Lyons also graduated from the University of Michigan. But Alesi maintains that while those roots helped sway them, their ultimate decision was based on the quality of the people they could hire in Ann Arbor.

"It is predominantly because of the talent base," Alesi says.

Source: Norman Alesi, COO & CFO of Lyons Consulting Group
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

IT staffing firm Imetris hires 33 people in Saline

Imetris has watched its revenue increase by roughly a third in each of the last four years, allowing the Saline-based company to grow from a staff of 25 to 100.

The IT staffing-firm has hired 33 people over the last year to accomodate its success, including eight people since January. Most of its growth is coming from the software and IT sectors, industries in need of new talent.

"It's all organic growth," says Chandru Acharya, president of Imetris. "We haven't done anything special besides focus on our business and do the right thing."

The 12-year-old firm recently moved from Ann Arbor to Saline while maintaining its head of steam, providing tech firms staffing services in North America, Europe and Asia. Acharya expects that to continue as the company sticks to its knitting and plans for another year of 30-35 percent growth.

"We are very much focused on growth right now," Acharya says.

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

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

Ypsilanti's Tree Fort Bikes rides Web for success

Tree Fort Bikes got its start eight years with two guys and a dream of owning a bike shop. Today the Ypsilanti-based business has become a destination for mountain bikers and custom bikes in the e-commerce world.

"About three years ago we went online," says Alan Barnosky, a team member of Tree Fort Bikes. "That has been working very well for us."

The retailer has expanded to eight employees. Three new people over the last year, hired in capacities such as photographer and graphic designer,
serve the company's e-commerce platform. The firm expects to add another 2-3 jobs this year in customer service and web design.

Tree Fort Bikes sells custom bicycles, mostly mountain bikes. They range in price from $250 to $7,000 apiece. It also sells a range of cycling gear. Some purchases are still made in the Ypsilanti store, but most happen over the Internet.

"That's where it's all heading now," Barnosky says. "We have a brick-and-mortar store and we'll maintain it, but 90 percent of our business comes from online."

Source: Alan Barnosky, team member of Tree Fort Bikes
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

ReCellular aims for $100M in sales, moves into former Borders HQ space

Many growing companies talk about making the $1 million club; add a couple of zeroes and that's where ReCellular looks to make its mark. The cell phone recycler plans to become a $100 million operation and is taking its place as one of the Ann Arbor area's big business hitters, leasing space at the headquarters of the once mighty Borders.

"This space represent where we are today," says Mike Newman, vice president of marketing for ReCellular. "Ann Arbor is where we got our start and it's where we're staying. Being in the area is very important to us."

ReCellular got its start in the early 1990s renting out then-costly cell phones. It entered the cell phone recycling business over the last decade as those phones became ubiquitous. It plans to keep its plant operation in Dexter while moving much of its corporate staff to the new space alongside Borders. The 300-person company expects to hire a few dozen people between both locations this year.

Recellular recently closed out its "best year in company history" and expects to hit $100 million in revenue in 2011. The company has evolved its business model to take cell phones directly from consumers through its website and act as a direct reseller of refurbished cell phones. Its eBay operations generate $1 million or more each month. Officials are also looking into expansion into other electronic segments, such as netbooks.

"We're being strategic about the product categories we're entering," Newman says.

Source: Mike Newman, vice president of marketing for ReCellular
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Ypsilanti's RealKidz sells online, plans to hire

RealKidz is changing up its game and getting some points on the board with its new business plan.

The 3-year-old firm, based in Ypsilanti's Depot Town, makes clothing that fits larger children, mainly girls. It started out selling these garments with direct sales,
a la Mary Kay. It has since moved to a primary e-commerce platform after upgrading its website with a proven Internet retailing platform in August.

"We're starting to see some growth from that," says Merrill Guerra, founder and CEO of RealKidz. "We have doubled our website traffic and conversion rate over the last couple of months. It's moving exactly in the direction we were hoping."

The two-person startup, also a former Ann Arbor SPARK East Incubator tenant, is now looking to raise a round of seed capital so it can flesh out its staff and business infrastructure. RealKidz hopes to hires a COO and webmaster, among other positions over the next year, with this capital.

Source: Merrill Guerra, founder and CEO of RealKidz
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Ann Arbor's Fry takes lead in e-commerce platform solutions

Another Ann Arbor-based company has been recognized as a leader and the best in its field.

Forrester Research has recognized Fry as a leading e-commerce solutions provider in its Forrester Wave report for the first quarter of 2009. It points out that Fry’s model allows it to highly customize its software for its clients even though the work is being outsourced.

It also earned the highest score in the "catalog, product content, and site content management" and "professional services" evaluation categories. It tied as the top scoring company in "site management," "product focus,"
and "financial resources to support strategy."

Fry helps online retailers that are replacing or rebuilding their e-commerce platforms. The firm does everything from designing to building to hosting the sites. The list of clients includes a variety of businesses, ranging from The Auto Club Group to Crate & Barrel to Whirlpool.

The company, a subsidiary of MICROS Systems, employs 300 people in Ann Arbor and has offices across the U.S. in cities like San Francisco.

Source: Fry
Writer: Jon Zemke
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