Ann Arbor Startups That Don't Start in Ann Arbor (But We Wish They Did)

Ann Arbor has become an incubator for numerous tech startups with exciting new ideas to offer the world. But not all of them start at home when it comes to getting their technologies out there. Concentrate identified three Ann Arbor-hatched technologies that we'd like to see used more here. We tracked down the folks behind them to discuss their future plans for Ann Arbor and what barriers, if any, stand in their way.
Larky: New frontiers at home
The discount-tracking app Larky has yet to really branch out in its hometown of Ann Arbor, but cofounder Andrew Bank says that's about to change. Bank and partner Gregg Hammerman are currently in talks with several Ann Arbor businesses about introducing their unique service: an app that tracks users' membership discounts and alerts them when deals are close at hand. 
"Most companies promote employee perks and discounts in a PDF file on a company intranet page," Bank says. "They've negotiated all these discounts but nobody knows about them. From sunrise to sunset, Larky will alert you at the right time and place and tell you you have a discount."
Currently, the only Ann Arbor business or organization partnered with the Larky app is getDowntown's go!pass, an ideal match given go!pass' numerous user discounts. Although Bank and Hammerman had originally intended to market Larky to university alumni associations, they're in the midst of changing their focus to employee engagement programs – like go!pass, but on the corporate side. That means bringing the product directly to the companies who manage those little-seen intranet PDF pages, including 10 to 15 companies in Larky's hometown. 
"We've had really good reception from most of them," Bank says. "Hopefully we'll have some good news to announce in the future."
But while Bank is enthusiastic about the local prospects, they're still just one piece of a bigger picture. He says Larky is also courting about 60 other businesses elsewhere in Michigan, and more beyond state lines. 
"There are a lot of great companies all over southeast Michigan and central and west Michigan that would probably benefit from employee engagement programs," Bank says. "There's nothing that makes it easier or harder to work in Ann Arbor, but we're not a home type of business. We're branching out to be a national business."
Arborwind: Zoned out
Arborwind is about to put its unique vertical-axis wind turbines into production after four years of development work, and orders have come from all over the world -- but not from the company's hometown. 
Arborwind CEO Dilip Nigam says the company has received letters of intent to install Arborwind turbines from locations as far-flung as Kentucky, Dubai and California, but no closer to home than Canton. Nigam says Arborwind could use to build its brand awareness in Ann Arbor, but he also cites increased bureaucratic hang-ups. 
"People object: 'Not in my backyard,'" Nigam says. "So we tend to try not to go through the headaches of zoning approvals. We don't have the luxury of waiting and waiting and waiting."
Utility issues can come into play as well. Nigam says DTE doesn't make it easy to connect a new turbine to their grid. That leads Arborwind to favor sites like Marshall, at the intersection of I-69 and I-94, where the company has installed its first and only turbine so far. Nigam says the site was ideal because Marshall's electric grid is municipally owned
"They own their own utilities," he says. "They said, 'Come on in. We'll help you.'"
Nigam says he's still hopeful to make in-roads at home. But on top of Ann Arbor's added obstacles, he says he still has to make a case against the usual arguments that wind turbines are too noisy or unsightly. 
"There's a lot of negativity out there, especially from the fossil fuel industry, but there is a better solution," Nigam says. "It's cheaper than anything in the world, it's cleaner than nuclear or coal and yet we don't have to sacrifice money for it. So why wouldn't you want to do it? That's the message we want to get out."
Saagara: An international business rethinks local
Bobby Peddi's business is already national -- international, in fact -- but he's now looking back to focus some new sales efforts at home. Peddi is the founder and CEO of Saagara, a Kerrytown-based subscription service offering eight different health and meditation apps. Although Saagara started off with a single meditation app, Pranayama, it's grown to attract 3 million downloads from around the world. Peddi says China and America are closely tied as Saagara's two biggest markets, with Europe in third place.
Peddi says southeast Michiganders use Saagara apps over 100,000 times per year, and he's aiming to increase those numbers. Like Larky, Saagara recently shook up its approach, uniting its multiple apps under a single service. Peddi is hoping to entice companies to sign up to provide the service as a relaxation technique for their employees, and he's currently in talks with what he calls a "very good" business in Ann Arbor. From there, he hopes to move on to larger corporations in town and beyond. 
"Employees are often present for work but not productive," he says. "Employees can use this as a stress-reduction tool, it's easy to implement and it doesn't use a lot of resources." 
Peddi's also hoping to make in-roads at the U-M Health System, but he acknowledges that that could be a harder battle. 

"We're basically trying to get to U-M and say, ‘Hey. Our breathing app is really good for patients who are in post-operative care and physical therapy,'" he says. "This is one of the reasons I designed these apps. You can just set it up on your iPad and get patients to do it." 
In general, though, Peddi says Ann Arbor presents no more barriers than anywhere else. "We're looking to get the local thing off the ground," he says. "But for us, it's proving to be just as easy to get the national thing off the ground."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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