Entrepreneurship :Innovation & Job News

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MyInsuranceExpert expands into life insurance, adds 10 jobs

MyInsuranceExpert.com was cruising along in its first year, employing 90 people who helped individuals find health-insurance plans. Then the health-care reform laws took place, cutting in half the Troy-based firm's average compensation per policy.

Faced with shrinking revenue streams, MyInsuranceExpert reinvented itself as the life-insurance version of its former self. That forced it to shrink to 40 people, but allowed it to regroup for future growth.

"It was a defining moment for us," says Lorne Zalesin, CEO of MyInsuranceExpert. "It was clear that it was a must have, not a maybe. It was either change or go out of business in the next 18 months."

The change quickly turned into new jobs. MyInsuranceExpert has hired 10 people over the last few months and hopes to hire another 100 people over the next year. The company sold 900 term life insurance policies in its first month and now ranks in the Top 20 in its industry.

"Our goal is to be the second-biggest company in the next 18 months," Zalesin says.

Source: Lorne Zalesin, CEO of MyInsuranceExpert
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

DASI Solutions grows with rapid prototyping machines, adding staff

DASI Solutions got its start with engineering software work for automotive companies 15 years ago.

Today the Pontiac-based company has diversified not only its own client base in that area, but also its offerings. It recently began selling a rapid prototyping machine from Israel-based Objet that creates 3-D prototypes in a matter of hours instead of the standard weeks-long timeline. The new offering allowed DASI Solutions to take on a number of new clients, such as Stryker and Rousch Racing.

"The flood gates opened at the end of this last year," says David Darbyshire, engineer and partner of DASI Solutions. "We sold $2 million of these machines. We normally do $6 million in business."
The machines retail for between $20,000 and $250,000 apiece.

The company now has 28 employees, two independent contractors, and an intern after hiring four people in the last year. It expects to add two more jobs by this summer to keep up with demand for its services. Expanding into the prototyping field has the added advantage of finding new customers in different sectors it wouldn't normally come into contact with.

"It's fun," Darbyshire says. "It makes me feel like an entrepreneur again."

Source: David Darbyshire, engineer and partner of DASI Solutions
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Ferndale's Paper Street Motors fills with 14 tenants, looks to open more spaces

Metro Detroit's new economy can often be found in aged shells of the old economy. Case in point: Paper Street Motors.

Paper Street Motors began when Andy Didorosi stumbled upon an old, empty warehouse a year ago in Ferndale, just southeast of its downtown. The 20-something didn't see the tattered relic of an old automotive industry, but a place for small businesses to take root and grow,
where they'd have the flexibility to get their feet under them financially without breaking the bank.

The Russell Industrial Center-style small business incubator at 1151 Jarvis filled up with a number of emerging businesses almost immediately. The 14 tenants in the 22,000-square-foot space include Green Light Go Music Publicity, a national band promoter. A year later, Didorosi is sprucing the place up both through its aesthetics and service offerings.

"Basically this place was a depressing battleship grey," Didorosi says. "Now we're completely redoing it."

Part of the Paper Street Motors (Paper Street is a reference to Fight Club) redesign is the installation of cubicles and a dynamic office environment. He is also looking at setting up additional locations in downtown Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Detroit, where members could utilize all of the spaces like a gym membership.

"So if you're a member of one then you're a member of all of them," he says.

Source: Andy Didorosi, president of Paper Street Motors
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Luna Tech Designs digitizes cities, enters travel, tourism markets

Luna Tech Designs got its start three years ago, digitizing downtown Plymouth into a Google Earth-style world where people could experience the city center online as if they were walking through it themselves.

Today the start-up is utilizing partnerships outside of its backyard to augment its staff to three employees and six independent contractors. It plans to hire a few more people this spring to keep up with work in new markets, such as Charlotte, N.C., and Branson, Mo.

"Now we're moving into other areas, like travel and tourism, creating technology for hotels and way-finding systems," says Doug Willett, president of Luna Tech Designs.

Luna Tech Designs began to hit its stride when it formed a partnership with multi-touch system developer Innovative Computers. The Belleville-based firm was working with Luna Tech Designs to digitize Central Michigan University's campus for Google Earth. The firm hopes to create at least four more similar partnerships.

"It's about creating relationships with other entities in other markets," Willett says. "We're not going to set up brick-and-mortar operations in Charlotte. We're going to find a partner down there."

Source: Doug Willett, president of Luna Tech Designs
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

ePrize CEO Josh Linkner's creativity book hits top of Amazon, Barnes & Noble sales

Say the word creative around Josh Linkner and you'll probably repeat what he just said. The chairman of ePrize and CEO of Detroit Venture Partners has had creativity in the workplace on the mind for a while and now has it on paper with his new book, Disciplined Dreaming.

The self-proclaimed "proven system for driving breakthrough creativity" focuses on helping entrepreneurs and their companies become more imaginative and thus more effective in the 21st Century workplace. The book was released on Sunday and climbed to the top of the sales charts for both Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites Monday and Tuesday.

"Creativity is the most important skill that individuals and companies should be nurturing," Linkner says. "It's the one thing that can't be outsourced."

One of Linkner's favorite mantras is that entrepreneurs should be trying to invent the next Groupon instead of copying the idea. He points out that pioneers in certain new economy segments are often outdone by late-coming rivals (Friendster by Facebook and AltaVista by Google) and Linkner will counter that continued innovation is what made the latecomers first.

"They were able to outcreate their competitors even though they were late out the gate," Linkner says.

He offers local start-up hireMYway as an example of a building force in Metro Detroit's emerging new economy. The website for hiredMYway features technology that uses a dating-service model on the Web to help people find jobs. It basically pairs employers and job seekers with matching needs and skills in the same way a dating service would.

"They used creativity to fundamentally displace the complacent incumbents," Linkner says.

Source: Josh Linkner, chairman of ePrize, CEO of Detroit Venture Partners and author of Disciplined Dreaming
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

B. Nektar Meadery doubles production, expands to 9 states

It's hard not to see B. Nektar Meadery's blue bottles on grocery store shelves in Metro Detroit, but the craft brewer has expanded way beyond Michigan to the eastern half of the U.S. and it has plans to go even further this year.

The Ferndale-based maker of fine honey wines doubled its production in 2010 and expects to do so again this year. That allowed the company to hire two people last year, and it's looking to add one more now and a few others later this year.

"We have been expanding outward into other states," says Brad Dahlhofer, co-founder of B. Nektar Meadery. "Last year was a big expansion year for us. We're in nine states right now, including Michigan."

They include Wisconsin, Maine, and Florida, and a number of other East Coast states. The company also plans to keep that North American expansion going, along with going international. Plans are in the works to open markets in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

That's a big leap for a company that seriously began production in August of 2008. Dahlhofer and his wife Keri, longtime home brewers of meade, began making their version of the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man in 1,500 square feet on Jarvis Street.

"We knew this was what we wanted to do," Dahlhofer says. "It's nice that people responded so well. It makes the job of expanding easier."

Source: Brad Dahlhofer, co-founder of B. Nektar Meadery
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Enginer grows to 15 people in first two years of hybrid vehicle retrofit business

When oil prices started to spike a few years ago and $4-a-gallon gas was seen as a big problem, Jack Chen came up with a solution.

That solution
turned into Enginer, a Troy-based start-up developing technology that improves the fuel efficiency of hybrid vehicles. The company went from just Chen, a former automotive engineering consultant, to 15 people today. It shipped 200-300 of its retrofit units last year and is aiming to break the 1,000 barrier in 2011.

"We'd like to be a leader in the automotive conversion market," Chen says. "We're second to A123 Systems right now."

Chen and a small group of colleagues first developed the technology at the X PRIZE competition a few years ago. Now their automotive retrofits make hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius 40 percent more fuel efficient. The company sells these conversion kits for $3,500 apiece, which compares quite favorably to competing products that often demand five figures.

"A lot of people can afford our product," Chen says.

Source: Jack Chen, president & chief engineer of Enginer
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Wi-Fi firm RF Connect doubles revenue, opens offices in Texas, Ohio, and Florida

RF Connect is clocking big growth gains today, but that's not the way it started for the Wi-Fi firm from Farmington Hills. Six years ago it was just four people trying to make their small business go.

"It takes a while to get some momentum going with a start-up," says Jeff Hipchen, one of the co-founders of RF Connect. "You cast a big net at the beginning and refine your business from there."

Today RF Connect employs about 30 people, plus another 10-20 independent contractors and interns. Staffing climbed by 50 percent in 2010 and Hipchen expects his company's employment numbers to go up at a similar rate this year. The company has watched its revenue increase by triple digits over the last couple of years, landing some marquee customers such as the Nationwide Insurance and The Cleveland Clinic. That has allowed it to open new offices in Texas, Ohio, and Florida.

RF Connect is mainly selling its wireless network expertise, which ranges from Wi-Fi to helping increase cell phone reception. One of its rapidly growing segments is a distributed antenna system that improves cell phone reception.  

"For a small business in 5,000 square feet or less, it's a great solution," Hipchen says.

Source: Jeff Hipchen, one of the co-founders of RF Connect
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

TextsFromLastNight's new offerings include apps, TV show

Ben Bator never intended his website hobby to become his full-time job, but that's what happened to the founding partner of TextsFromLastNight.

Bator and Lauren Leto started the website showcasing funny text messages a little over two years ago when they were attending law school at Wayne State University. TextsFromLastNight's popularity quickly took off and before the pair knew it, they had a full-blown business on their hands.

"The moment we realized we weren't going back to law school was in May of 2009 when we received five unsolicited book deal offers," says Bator.

TextsFromLastNight now employs four people. The practically virtual company calls downtown Royal Oak home because that's where Bator and his little brother (the website's editor) live. Leto is now based in Brooklyn, New York.

The company released its book last year, streamlined the site and devised its social media strategy of one feature text post per day. It receives 5,000-7,000 text submissions each day and profiles 30 of them. Bator and company have more planned for this year, including a smartphone application and a couple of potential hires.

"We're close to finding out when our TV show will be scheduled," Bator says. "We expect to hear on that in the next few weeks."

Source: Ben Bator, founding partner of TextsFromLastNight
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Sphinx Technology Solutions doubles client base, plans first hire

Ryan O'Hara had that safe job. The kind that is rooted in the new economy and paid for by the big corporation. But after a few years of working in IT and other computer-related fields for SBC and Quicken Loans, O'Hara knew there was more out there for him.

O'Hara started Sphinx Technology Solutions in Dearborn two years ago, working his day job while helping customers choose the best technology. Demand for his company's expertise soon outstripped the time he could put toward it while working for someone else, so he made that leap of faith into self-employment.

"More people were leaving these so-called safe jobs to do their own thing," O'Hara says. "For me it was equal parts fear and excitement."

Sphinx Technology Solutions
, a Mac and PC support specialist, has grown exponentially over the last 6-8 months, growing from 10 clients to 20 in that time. O'Hara is expecting that growth to continue and is planning to bring on his first intern and hire this year to keep up.

Source: Ryan O'Hara, owner of Sphinx Technology Solutions
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

AutoHarvest to connect local IP with auto industry

Metro Detroit is sometimes referred to as its own worst enemy when it comes to building businesses and creating jobs. A new non-profit called AutoHarvest is ready to make the region its own best asset by capitalizing on its plethora of intellectual property.

"We think of the auto industry as low-tech and behind," says David Cole, chairman and co-founder of AutoHarvest. "It's not that at all. This is the most complicated industry in the world."

AutoHarvest plans to help connect the automotive industry and Metro Detroit's entrepreneurial ecosystem with the immense amount of intellectual property in the region. The idea is that making these connections will accelerate the deal flow and job creation in both the local auto industry and other emerging sectors.

Cole points out that there are six major automakers with operations in the region and another 350 auto suppliers. Pair those with its two research universities, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, and its handful of business accelerators and there are not only enough sources of intellectual property but players who can use it. It's only a matter of connecting one to the other.

"This is a marketplace to facilitating collaboration around intellectual property," Cole says. "We think it's going to work."

AutoHarvest is working with each of the Big 3, the Michigan Economic Development Corp, local foundations and business accelerators, and creating a peer group of 50 organizations to draw support from. The non-profit is headquartered in Ann Arbor SPARK's central offices but is also keeping offices in Detroit's TechTown and the University of Michigan's North Campus Research Complex.

Source: David Cole, chairman and co-founder of AutoHarvest
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Mom turns super hero capes biz into flyaway success

Boil down the description of the PowerCapes.com business to one word, and what comes to mind is "serendipitous".

The Livonia-based business got its start four years ago at a birthday party for Holly Bartman's son's fourth birthday. The special education teacher made her son and all of his guests superhero capes. The gift turned into such a hit at the party that one of the mothers suggested that Bartman sell them.

Bartman took the bait and began selling the superhero capes on eBay and Etsy, an e-commerce site for handmade or vintage items, art and supplies. Demand soon dictated that Bartman move from her home operation to a small studio at the old Winery building in Farmington Hills, where she deployed a few commercial sewing machines and hired her first employee.

Justin Draplin, owner of a social media and signage firm called CityDrip, happened to be next door. Soon he was designing a website for Bartman's superhero capes and wholesaling them. Now he is a managing partner of PowerCapes.com, a company that employs eight people (mostly mothers on a part-time basis) and has a goal of reaching $1 million in revenue this year.

"The next thing I know I am in the superhero cape business," Draplin says. "I never thought I would be in this business or that it would take off. We have been growing exponentially month over month."

PowerCapes.com plans to buy its own building this year to accommodate its growth. Draplin expects its staff to hit 12-15 people by the end of the year as it continues to sell simple, non-branded capes made for budding superheroes. It's also looking to expand its product offering to tutus.

Source: Justin Draplin, managing partner of PowerCapes.com
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund hits $11.6M in loans

The Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund, a part of the Michigan Microloan Fund, closed out 2010 with some big numbers, shelling out $2.5 million in microloans to Metro Detroit start-ups in 2010.

Each microloan is tailored to the needs of a start-up, averaging about $50,000. The loans provide cash (and validation) to companies in dire need of capital due to the financial crisis. More times than not, that money goes toward commercializing the startup's first product.

The Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund has provided this $11.6 million to 52 start-ups, such as Innovative Surgical Solutions, a Southfield-based start-up that made the finals of the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition. These firms employ 285 people and the microloans have helped them attract another $16.4 million in outside investment.

The future of the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund is up in the air. Officials from the state of Michigan's 21st Century Jobs Fund have not yet decided whether to invest in the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund this year. The first loans aren't due to be paid back until next year, so its future is in limbo for 2011.

The Michigan Microloan Fund was the first of its kind, proving quite popular. It inspired a number of similar-yet-smaller funds across Metro Detroit. However, those funds each measure about six figures in size and are focused on specific municipalities. Skip Simms, interim CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK and administrator of the Michigan Microloan Fund, believes these newer funds aren't big enough to make up for the potential loss of the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund, which is by far
the largest of the funds in the Ann Arbor SPARK-run Michigan Microloan Fund pool.

"They're not that large of funds," Simms says. "For instance, our $275,000 fund for Ann Arbor is a nice fund but the demand is 4-5 times that."

The smaller funds also aren't as flexible as the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund. Each of those is specifically set up to provide financing to start-ups in specific municipalities. The Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund can make microloans to any in-state start-up.

Source: Skip Simms, interim CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Accelerate Michigan showcases state's new economy future

One phrase came to mind when summing up the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition -- the future.

The new event showed off start-ups that organizers hope will be the future long-term leaders in Michigan's new economy to what they hope will be future near-term investors. The event was held in the University of Michigan's new North Campus Research Complex and featured Michigan's future governor as its keynote speaker. Future Michigan Economic Development Corp head Michael Finney even hinted at bigger prizes for the next Accelerate Michigan competition in the not-too-distant future.

"We're looking forward," Finney said during his remarks at the event. "We're looking at where we're going to go in the next 3-4 years in this state."

The potential of those next few years looked pretty good on stage last Saturday when the 10 finalists made their pitches. Metro Detroit had a healthy contingent among them, including Southfield's Innovating Surgical Solutions, Madison Heights/Ann Arbor's Gravikor, and a number of firms from Ann Arbor. Bloomfield Hills-based ENRG Power Systems, Troy-based MatchRX, and Farmington Hills-based CSquared Innovations each won $25,000 in the Advanced Transportation, Information Technology, and Next Gen Manufacturing categories, respectively.

Kalamazoo-based Armune BioScience (a U-M spin-off) and Arbor Photonics of Ann Arbor took first ($500,000) and second ($150,000) places. Four start-ups from U-M students swept the student competition and its $60,000 in prizes.
In addition to the prize money, most of the entrants raved about the exposure to potential investors that the Accelerate Michigan competition provided. To many of them it was an opportunity to expect a brighter future for their start-ups.

"We have a very bright future," Gov.-elect Snyder said during his speech. "We just need to execute now."

Sources: Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition; Michael Finney, former CEO & president of Ann Arbor SPARK and current head of the Michigan Economic Development Corp; and Rick Snyder, governor-elect of Michigan
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Boston entrepreneur impressed by SE Michigan's biz-development unity

Alden Zecha left Ann Arbor this weekend impressed not only with the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition, but the unity its organizers displayed.

The CFO and strategist made the elevator pitch for Massachusetts-based Sproxil during the finals of the $1 million business plan competition. When all was said and done, Zecha was pleasantly surprised by how well the Business Accelerator Network for Southeast Michigan (Ann Arbor SPARK, Automation Alley, TechTown and the Macomb-OU INCubator) worked together to make it all happen.

"That is fairly unusual," Zecha says. "Usually those competitions are put together by a single entity, frequently an academic institution. (At those competitions) I wouldn't normally see any animosity between organizations. I see a lot of autonomous organizations that are competing with each other."

Sproxil won the $10,000 People's Choice award for its drug-intelligence software. The winners of the grand-prize ($500,000) would have to agree to move to Michigan. Sproxil and its staff of four were ready to do that had they won, but will remain in Massachusetts for now. The $500,000 would have justified the costs of moving, Zecha says.

Source: Alden Zecha, CFO & strategist for Sproxil
Writer: Jon Zemke

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