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U-M launches nonprofit to help entrepreneurs in developing countries

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of MADE.


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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Midwestern Consulting.


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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Mi Padrino.


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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


Photo by Doug Coombe.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of John Fisher.


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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Bløm Meadworks.


GenZe builds smart, connected electric bicycles in Ann Arbor

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of GenZe.


Community partnerships to expand college scholarships for Ypsi students

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.


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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Images courtesy of Aquaro Histology.


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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Aniruddh Gala.


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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of MCRN and MEDC.


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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Photos courtesy of Solartonic.


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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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