Ypsilanti

These Ypsi-area companies are global successes, but little-known in their hometown

These dynamic firms are stars in their own industry but not well-known to residents who live down the same street. 
 
Diana Wong, co-founder of Ypsilanti's Back Office Studio, says there's "an underrecognized global aspect to Ypsilanti." She notes that Ypsilanti-based AGC Automotive, a company providing automotive glass for new vehicles around the world, "does research that has global impact."

"I have seen [AGC] go through important changes as their innovations serve a global market," Wong says, speaking of AGC's special glass that incorporates antennas for radio, smartphones, GPS, and other technologies.

AGC Automotive is far from the only business of its kind in the Ypsilanti area, however. The area is home to a number of dynamic firms with global reach that are stars in their own industry but not well-known to residents who live down the same street. 

"It's a critical part of our mission to support innovative businesses as they grow from local to global reach," says Kristine Nash-Wong, director of entrepreneurial services at the Ann Arbor SPARK East Innovation Center. “Being located here in downtown Ypsilanti provides us with an opportunity to serve companies ranging from small startups to thriving international organizations.” 

Many global businesses call Ypsilanti home

White Pine Technologies co-founder Robert Smith has lived in Ypsilanti for over 30 years, so it was natural for him to consider moving into office space in the city after graduating from the SPARK East business incubator. However, White Pine's building had to have solid, state-of-the-art technology in order to handle huge packets of engineering data for the company's clients, which are mostly engineering and automotive companies around the world.

"The growth in the volume of this data is just astronomical," Smith says. "Keeping track of that and managing it and making sure it meets all the government requirements is not a trivial problem for companies. As consultants, we help bring in a standard and organize and manage that data and build out the infrastructure to handle the flood of data."

Luckily, White Pine received an Innovate Ypsi grant in 2017 that allowed it to add technology infrastructure and fiber optic internet access to its office space in a historic Ypsilanti building on Huron Street.

"That grant really worked out well for us and allowed us to get connected into the fiber optic network in Ypsi," Smith says. "Without that network, we probably wouldn't have been able to survive COVID, with everyone working remotely."

The company struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic and had to downsize its staff, but Smith sees business at partner firms picking up.

"There's been a lot of activity with our customers and partners, lots of planning and progress for the next year," he says.
Whiplash Vice President of IT Mark Dickson in the company's Depot Town office.
E-commerce company Whiplash is now headquartered in California, with another office in New Jersey, but the firm still maintains a hub of developers in Ypsilanti's Depot Town, above Hyperion Coffee.

The company started as an e-commerce fulfillment arm of VG Kids, a screen printing company still headquartered in Ypsilanti. After a few years, the company decided to offload its warehouses and focus on e-commerce.

"Now we see ourselves as a software company with great logistics," says Mark Dickson, Whiplash's vice president of IT.

Whiplash was acquired about two and a half years ago by a larger company, Port Logistic Group. Dickson says that, in a "strange twist," Port Logistic Group took the name Whiplash.

"They took it to a marketing firm, and the marketing firm told them, 'You have a great name here. Just use it,'" Dickson says. "They had to hear it from an outside source, because it was unusual [for the larger company to take the smaller company's name]."

Cargo airline Kalitta Air is also based in the Ypsilanti area, operating out of Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti Township.

Kalitta Senior Vice President Heath Nicholl says many people might have seen a Kalitta airplane in the sky without realizing it. Package delivery firms UPS and FedEx have their own fleets, but smaller shipping companies like DHL contract out to companies like Kalitta. So, if you see a plane in the red and yellow of DHL's logo, you might be seeing a Kalitta aircraft.

Benefits and downsides of being "undercover"

A business called LiquidGoldConcept is currently headquartered in Pittsfield Township, but it was located on Pearl Street in Ypsilanti for several years before it outgrew the space.

Four University of Michigan graduate students started the company in 2015 with a vision of creating technology to help improve breastfeeding outcomes, according to COO Sam Chuisano. LiquidGoldConcept now makes simulated breasts and model infants so that health professionals can demonstrate positions and latching techniques for parents who want to breastfeed.

Health professionals typically provide training using LiquidGoldConcept products in person, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, the company developed a virtual training program called On-Demand Telesimulation for trainers to use.

"It allows aspiring lactation consultants to have online training opportunities," says Abigail Worthington, LiquidGoldConcept's director of marketing and brand. "We have a real person, an actor-educator we call a standardized patient, who wears the breast model and utilizes the [model] baby to show a variety of situations that parents may come across on their breastfeeding journey."

The company bounced around a few locations in its early years, ending up in Ypsilanti in 2019, right above the Ypsi Alehouse. Chuisano says the staff loved being within walking distance of cool places to eat and drink, like the Alehouse and the now-closed Beezy's Cafe.

"And so many cool startups were right around the corner at SPARK East," she says. "There are really innovative things that people have no idea are being done in Ypsilanti."

Chuisano says being "undercover" locally has its downsides, and one of those is not doing as much outreach as the company would like to.

"There are certain populations, particularly low-income ones, that typically need more breastfeeding support," Chuisano says. "I'd like to be able to advocate for our community and let people know we're there."
White Pine Technologies co-founder Robert Smith in the company's office in the former Ypsilanti City Hall building.
At White Pine, Smith says he isn't worried about flying under the radar in his own town.

"Our kind of business isn't like retail. We're active in the industry and we're known by people who know the standards," Smith says. "A lot of the people we deal with know who we are already. It's not like we have an office people can just walk into."

Nicholl says Kalitta is very well known in its industry, but the company would like to have a higher profile in Washtenaw County, since that could help with recruiting quality employees. There has been a pilot shortage for a number of years that slowed down during the pandemic, but Nicholl says the situation is getting worse again.

Nicholl says working for Kalitta pays well, but isn't as glamorous as flying for a big-name passenger airline.

"I'd like to highlight our organization and tap into local communities, trade schools, and community colleges to get students focused on the dispatch or pilot program right in their backyard," Nicholl says. "They can come here, make a good living, travel the world, and fly interesting airplanes."

He notes that a big passenger airline will start a pilot off with a good paycheck, but possibly a dull and repetitive domestic route. In contrast, a Kalitta cargo pilot could be flying to Europe, Asia, or Australia. 

"At Delta, it could be years before a pilot gets to go international," Nicholl says. "I think we have a lot of appeal."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.