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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

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


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


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


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

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 or (248) 463-8811.


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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
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