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This Detroit manufacturer is making prefabricated houses cool—and green

There's a hundred-year-old manufacturing building on Detroit's near east side not unlike many on that side of town. Drive by it and one might have little idea that behind those old brick walls is a company at the forefront of a potential trendsetting technology. 

What once was an automobile manufacturing plant a century ago is now home to Phoenix Haus, a designer and builder of prefabricated building components for super-high efficiency homes.

Phoenix Haus subscribes to the Passive House approach of high-energy efficiency building design and construction. This means that the building envelopes are super insulated, air-tight, consider the angle of the sun, and have high standards of ventilation. By prefabricating the components at their Detroit warehouse and then shipping the products to the construction site, Phoenix Haus is able to keep prices down and the technology more attractive.

Of course prefabricated building envelopes weren't invented yesterday. But it's a construction method yet to be embraced in the United States, and especially the Midwest, says Bill McDonald, founder and principal of Phoenix Haus. It can, however, be found all over Europe. 

But McDonald thinks that Detroit is primed for their style of building and is considering a parcel in the city, perhaps Corktown, where they can construct one of their homes as a demonstration of the finished product.

"Prefab is the answer," McDonald says. "There's a ton of companies looking into this mindset. There's a ton of pent-up demand for it. It's the next step.

"It's a level of innovation that hasn't existed in the housing industry in years. We've been building houses like we have since the 1940s and '50s, basically. There've been a few changes here and there but it's basically the same theory. It's like building your car in the front lawn."

While prefab is important to McDonald, the ultimate goal is to make buildings as energy efficient as possible—prefabrication is simply the means by which Phoenix Haus can make it happen. By employing the Passive House method, net zero energy homes is that much more attainable. A net zero building is one that matches the energy it consumes by producing its own energy, typically through methods like super efficient insulation and solar power.

Phoenix Haus is a family business, owned and operated by the McDonald family of Saginaw. It was born out of another family business, Cech Corp., founded in 1936. The mother, Hilde, who still runs Cech, is an investor and co-owner of Phoenix Haus. The son, Bill, started Phoenix in 2011. And Kate, his sister, recently joined on as project manager.

The McDonalds purchased the building at 1000 Mount Elliott St. in 2015, renovating for both their offices and production facility. The high ceilings and open space give the office a contemporary feel—and that's not to mention Bill's drum kit, set up just outside his own office. They're excited about Detroit and their place in it, hoping to see the city be at the forefront of another industry yet again.

"Detroit has a manufacturing mindset," Bill says. "So the people we're looking to hire, CAD designers or the people working in the shop—the city lends itself well to that kind of manufacturing. We've got a good pool of people to hire from."

It's a mindset that started a century ago, in buildings like the one they currently occupy. 

Quick Facts on Bill McDonald
 
Title: Principle of Passive Haus
 
Date of Opening: 2011
 
One interesting job held before Phoenix Haus: cafeteria dish washer, Marquette University 
 
What's your favorite TED talk: Sir Ken Robinson (Education reform activist)
 
Favorite drummer: Patrick Carney of the Black Keys

Bill McDonald will be giving a TED Talk on the Passive House methodology at the TEDxDetroit event at the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit on Thursday, Oct. 6.

Solar panel work powers triple-digit growth at GreenLancer

To say GreenLancer has been on a growth streak in recent years might be a bit of an understatement.

The alternative energy startup watched its revenue jump 340 percent last year, including a 1,440-percent spike in permit-ready plan sets for solar projects produced in that time. That allowed GreenLancer to hire a couple dozen people, going from 10 employees in January 2015 to 34 today. The new hires included solar engineers, software developers, human resources, and accountants.

"Really all across the board," says Zac MacVoy, CEO of GreenLancer.

The downtown Detroit-based startup, with offices in the Ford Building, facilitates the design and execution of permit-ready plans for installing solar panels. Its software platform and team provides its customers with everything needed to install alternative energy infrastructure. That ranges from feasibility studies to concept designs to permit packages to installers.

"GreenLancer helps solar panel installation companies scale and be more efficient," MacVoy says. "We help them sell and install more, and improve their inefficiencies."

GreenLancer works primarily in solar energy, which has become increasingly popular now that costs to install a solar array have dropped significant in recent years. Almost all of GreenLancer’s projects are on the residential side, but GreenLancer is looking to generate more work from commercial projects in 2016.

"It's all going to depend on the traction we can get," MacVoy says.

MacVoy came onto the GreenLancer team as CEO early last year shortly after the startup raised a $5 million Series B round. The company is currently looking to raise a "substantially bigger" Series C in 2017, but MacVoy wants to spend more time in the interim on building up the company's clientele and fine-tuning its business model.

Inventev halfway to raising $1.5M seed round for commercial truck tech

Inventev recently landed a $500,000 federal grant, which represents a large chunk of the TechTown-based startup's upcoming seed round.

The 4-year-old clean-tech startup has raised $750,000 in seed capital, including the half-a-million-dollar grant, a matching $50,000 grant from the state of Michigan, and $200,000 worth of in-kind contributions. The $500,000 grant is from the ARPA-E agency of the U.S. Department of Energy.

"This satisfies about 50 percent of our seed round," says Dave Stenson, founder and CEO of Inventev. "We hope to close that as soon as possible."

Inventev and its team of four people are developing a hybrid-electric system for commercial trucks. Unlike traditional plug-in electric technology that helps propel a vehicle, Inventev's new transmission architecture allows electric machines to operate other aspects of the trucks. That way the trucks' diesel engines don't need to idle while operating their hydraulic lift to dump a load material.

The $1.5-million seed round, which Stenson hopes to close by at least the second quarter of this year, will go toward building out the first prototype of the platform. Specifically it will be a lab-based delivery vehicle. The second half of the seed round is expected to fund the creation of a road-worthy prototype.

"This is our first hardware set," Stenson says. "It's fair to call it proof of concept prototype."

Source: Dave Stenson, founder & CEO of Inventev
Writer: Jon Zemke

Accio Energy scores $4.5M to field test wind-energy tech

Accio Energy just landed a lot of money. And that means further development of its innovative wind energy generation systems. And the Ann Arbor-based startup has its eyes on raising even more in busy 2016.

The 7-year-old startup received a $4.5 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy to fund the field testing of Accio Energy's technology. Accio Energy plans to spend next year laying the groundwork to field test its off-shore wind energy generation systems off the coast of Maine in 2017.

"This is our opportunity to scale it more than 10 times and take it offshore," says Jen Baird, CEO of Accio Energy.

Accio Energy's technology generates alternative energy from the wind without the turbine. Its aerovoltaic technology harnesses the electrokinetic energy of the wind (think static electricity) through a screen-like piece of equipment with no moving parts. The technology has been proven in wind tunnels, but this new funding means it can be built up for field testing in Penobscot Bay of Maine near the town of Castine.

The federal funding is a bit more than a grant because the feds will have an active role in the project, but the money is still non-dilutable government funding. It will also allow Accio Energy to hire a few more people to its staff of eight employees. The federal partnership comes with a 10 percent match requirement for Accio Energy and Baird expects to begin raising a multi-million-dollar seed round next year.

"It's a big step," Baird says.

Source: Jen Baird, CEO of Accio Energy
Writer: Jon Zemke

DTE opens huge solar farm next to Domino's Farms

The largest solar farm in Michigan is generating clean energy next to Domino's Farms this fall.

DTE Energy and Domino's Farms flipped the switch on the 1.1 megawatt solar array on Ann Arbor's northeast side earlier this month. Motorist driving past Domino’s Farms at the M-14/US 23 intersection will notice the 4,000 panels on the north side of M-14. DTE Energy owns the solar farm and will operate it for 20 years. It is leasing the land from Domino's Farms.

"We were identified (as a potential home for the solar farm) because we are one of the larger landowners in the Ann Arbor area," says John Petz, director of real-estate and public affairs for Domino's Farms. "We also have a lot of freeway frontage."

The solar farm is putting the undeveloped and underutilized land to use as part of DTE Energy's initiative to generate 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources as mandated by state law. The Domino’s Farms solar array will generate enough electricity for 200 homes at any given time and is part of the 11 megawatts of solar farms run by DTE Energy at 23 sites across Michigan.

The electricity generated at the Domino's Farms solar array will be enough to offset one quarter of its electrical needs, although the power will be sent directly to DTE Energy's grid. The solar array is part of Domino’s Farms overall effort to become more energy efficient, such as switching the green lights that make up the main building's outline to LED lights. Today Domino's Farms uses as much electricity as it did before it added 200,000 square feet of space several years ago.

"We have been doing those sorts of things for a number of years," Petz says.

Source: John Petz, director of real-estate and public affairs for Domino’s Farms
Writer: Jon Zemke

HeatSpring scores in sustainability education, adds staff

It took HeatSpring a few years to find its footing in the online sustainability education world, however, now the company is sprinting forward with some significant revenue gains.

The Ann Arbor-based business grew at a slow pace during its first four years. In the last two years, however, it has scored 30 percent annual revenue gains, thanks to online education going mainstream and a strong economy interested in learning more about sustainability.

"It's all building energy and sustainability (courses)," says Brian Hayden, president of HeatSpring. "It's where we have been since the beginning. We have key partnerships that are strong today."

Those partnerships include creating classes for SolarPro Magazine, Renewable Energy World, and Greentech Media. That learning material has been decisively niche in nature such teaching about advanced solar storage for utilities.

"It's built for top 5 percent of solar users," Hayden says.

That bump in work has allowed HeatSpring to add to its staff. It has hired a content strategist over the last year, expanding the number of employees to five people.

Source: Brian Hayden, president of HeatSpring
Writer: Jon Zemke

Huron Capital Partners goes on acquisition tear

Huron Capital Partners recently announced one of its portfolio companies, Albireo Energy, had acquired GxP Automation, a small provider of building automation solutions predominately for the life sciences industry. It is the latest in a long string of acquisitions that has made this a newsworthy year for the downtown Detroit-based private equity firm.

Huron Capital Partners and its portfolio companies have made a dozen acquisition so far this year. Last year the number of acquisition hit 20.

"We really are on a tear," says Gretchen Perkins, partner with Huron Capital Partners. "We have a couple of platforms that lend themselves to this."

Those two portfolio firms, also known as platforms, are Jensen Hughes and Albireo Energy. Albireo Energy specializes in making commercial and institutional buildings more energy efficient and streamlined. Jensen Hughes provides fire protection engineering services.

Jensen Hughes and Albireo Energy have been acquiring small companies, a practice often called add-ons, to build a larger, more efficient business operating on a national level. The team at Huron Capital Partners looks for fragmented industries and then rounds up a number of small but significant players in the space to create larger businesses that can be sold at significant profit.

"We're doing it the hard way," Perkins says. "It's hard to do 12 add-on acquisitions. They're small companies with less sophisticated systems."

Huron Capital Partners has become more sophisticated itself, expanding its team to 22 employees. It is about to welcome three new people, including two analysts and one administrative assistant. Those new team members are expected to continue to help Huron Capital Partners keep expanding its company portfolio at a rapid pace.

"We seek to continue this pace," Perkins says. "There should be more add-ons for other platforms."

Source: Gretchen Perkins, partner with Huron Capital Partners
Writer: Jon Zemke

PSI Repair Services hires 5, completes 20,000th wind turbine repair

PSI Repair Services got its start well before wind turbines became fashionable generators of electricity. Today the Livonia-based is hitting a major milestone: repairing its 20,000th wind turbine.

The 48-year-old firm, a subsidiary of Phillips Service Industries, specializes in repair and engineering services for everything from electronics to hydraulics. Wind turbine repair has become a fast-growing part of the company's bottom line since 2009 when it started doing work for some large wind farms.

That work has allowed the PSI Repair Services to grow its staff. It has hired five people over the last year, expanding its team to 120 employees. The new jobs include electronic technicians, engineers, and shipping and receiving personnel. It’s also looking to hire electronic techs who can perform circuit card repairs down to the component level.

"Our strategic goal is to grow 10 percent year over year," John Greulich, sales director at PSI Repair Services, wrote in an email.

Wind turbine work isn't the only growing part of PSI Repair Services revenue stream. It's also growing in the automotive, semi-conductor, and defense industries.

Source: John Greulich, sales director at PSI Repair Services
Writer: Jon Zemke

Eagle Thread Verifer aims to diversify client base

The five-person team behind the Eagle Thread Verifer has some big plans to diversify what has primarily been an automotive industry company.

The Sterling Heights-based firm's principal product is a patented automatic thread gauge that catches 99 percent of all thread problems in any manufacturing process, such as removing weld spatter in projected welded nuts. It is designed to operate in the rigorous production environment of automotive industry plants, preventing improperly tapped parts from reaching final assembly.

But the company wants to market its product to customers beyond the automotive industry.

"It can apply to all industries that drill or use tap holes," says Gordon Taylor, president of Eagle Thread Verifer.

Eagle Thread Verifier got its start in 1990 when the father-son team of Alphonso and Thomas Peplinski started tinkering with the idea of an automatic thread gauge verification system in their engineering design shop, Eagle Design. It came to the market just before Alphonso Peplinski's death in 2004 when it was installed at American Axle & Manufacturing.

Taylor, a long time sales engineer for the company, succeeded Alphonso Peplinski. Taylor and his team are looking to begin selling this tool’s services more thoroughly to Tier 1 auto suppliers and into more industries, such as oil-and-gas and wind energy.

"There is no end to the use of this tool," Taylor says. "It used to be just about autos."

Source: Gordon Taylor, president of Eagle Thread Verifer
Writer: Jon Zemke

GreenLancer hires new CEO, begins raising Series B financing

GreenLancer is making some big hires and raising some big money this year. The downtown Detroit-based startup has hired its first CEO and is in the midst of raising a significant round of seed capital.

The new CEO is Zac MacVoy, a graduate of Lake Superior State University and most recently a vice president of sales at United Lighting Standards. MacVoy is leading GreenLancer's efforts to raise a multi-million dollar Series B round. It has closed half of its goal and will close on the rest later this spring.

"We feel he will be a key component as we scale to meet demand," says Michael Sharber, executive vice president of GreenLancer.

GreenLancer is a product of the Bizdom accelerator program. It developed a software platform that guides businesses through the process of integrating green technology into their operations, such as solar panels. The platform provides high quality solar system designs needed to build and install solar electric systems, enabling contractors to manage projects, get quotes, order, and receive design services from one centralized place.

"We produce the design that the contractors use to install solar systems," Sharber says.

GreenLancer started by offering these services to commercial clients. It is now looking to expand into the residential market. The Series B will help the company with marketing, product development, and staff expansion. It has hired 14 people over the last year and now employs a staff of 22. It is also looking to hire a handful of web developers.

Source: Michael Sharber, executive vice president of GreenLancer
Writer: Jon Zemke

New Eagle expands staff at new facility in Ann Arbor

New Eagle moved into a new office in Ann Arbor last year and has been growing its staff and bottom line since.

The automotive, energy-efficiency company took over a 21,000-square-foot space on the city's western outskirts. It has spent equal parts of the last few months working on its hybrid technology and modernizing its new home.

"We took it from an old, dingy commercial space to a collaborative office," says Rich Swortzel, president of New Eagle. "It's open. It’s a fun environment."

The 6-year-old company specializes in hybrid technology for the automotive sector. Its recently released Raptor platform helps create fuel-savings for heavy vehicles like garbage trucks. It accomplishes that with a connected and distributed control system that is advanced, scalable, self-diagnosing, and remotely controllable.

"The goal is to mature it and grow it," Swortzel says.

New Eagle has enjoyed growing sales of technology both domestically and internationally recently. International sales accounted for half of the company’s revenue over the last year. That has allowed the company hire a handful of people over the last year.

Source: Rich Swortzel, president of New Eagle
Writer: Jon Zemke

KTISIS doubles staff as it develops natural gas technology

KTISIS is a growing startup that is both diversifying Metro Detroit's economy and catering to its strongest economic asset..

"We are catering to the natural gas industry, especially transportation," says Stephen Chue, principal of KTISIS.

The Sterling Heights-based company offers consulting services dealing with alternative fuels and technologies.  It’s currently working on a gas tank for automobiles that would facilitate both liquified and compressed natural gas. Currently vehicles that run on natural gas are only able to utilize one or the other.

"We'll be able to break down that barrier," Chue says.

The KTISIS natural gas tank is currently in the development phase while the company tests a prototype at the Macomb-OU INCubator. It recently received a $15,000 grant from the state of Michigan to push along this development.

"The target is to role it out before the end of the year," Chue says.

KTISIS currently employs five people after hiring an engineer and a technician over the last year. It is currently looking to hire another engineer and a marketing professional.

Source: Stephen Chue, principal of KTISIS
Writer: Jon Zemke

How Ann Arbor's Skyspecs got off the ground

Ann Arbor-based drone firm Skyspecs lays out the story of its path to investment and product development in Crains' interesting business series, "Startup diaries," analyzing how new metro Detroit businesses find their feet.

Excerpt:

"But these startups hardly have it easy. They slog through early years developing often-complicated technology and spending just as much time chasing money. It's a drawn-out, gambling lead-up to one day having sales that reward the effort. 

SkySpecs launched on paper in 2012, but that was just one small first step. The company's first few years were spent honing its product and chasing money, whether at business plan competitions or from investors. "

Read the rest here.
 

Current Motor launches new product line, Mini-fleets-in-a-Box

Current Motor Co is launching a new product line this winter, expanding on its core offering of electric scooters.

The Ann Arbor-based company's Mini-fleet-in-a-Box product consists of four Current Motor Co’s new Nb Electric Cargo Motorcycles inside a shipping container that also acts as a solar charging station. That way the patent-pending product can be transported to remote locations with everything from a train to a helicopter. The standard Mini-fleet-in-a-Box comes in a standard 20-foot shipping container but can be made to fit a larger container as necessary.

"We can do a large one as well," says Lauren Flanagan, executive chair of Current Motor Co. "It's not a problem. I like to say they work outside of the box."

Current Motor Co is targeting customers that need self-supportive transportation options in remote locations, such as international mining and manufacturing companies. The 5-year-old firm has completely redesigned its electric scooter to create the Nb Electric Cargo Motorcycle, a 100-percent electric vehicle.

The Nb Electric Cargo Motorcycle is advertised as very low maintenance requirements because it has no belts, chains or gears. It has a top speed of 70 mph, and can go up to 50 miles per charge. The motorcycle’s frame has been made stronger to carry more cargo (a driver and substantial cargo or two passengers and light cargo) through the use of high-strength Niobium (Nb) micro-alloyed steel.

Current Motor Co's Nb Solar Charging Station can easily fit in a standard shipping container, allowing it to house four Nb Electric Cargo Motorcycles. The station can charge the bikes in five hours with its solar-powered 22-kilowatt-hour battery. The whole package starts retailing at $130,000 and can reach as much as $300,000 depending on the extras.

"It really depends on what you put on it," Flanagan says. She adds, "We build it out to fit that need."

Current Motor Co has hired five people over the last year. Those new jobs include business development professionals, technicians, engineers, and skilled labor. The company currently has a staff of 17 employees. That team is looking to start shipping the first orders of the firm’s Mini-fleet-in-a-Box this month.

"I think we’re going to have a very good year," Flanagan says.

Source: Lauren Flanagan, executive chair of Current Motor Co
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ann Arbor-based Advanced Photonix grows with merger

Ann Arbor's Advanced Photonix is about to become part of a merger that will turn it into a $50 million company. That's pretty darn impressive for a firm we've been watch grow year after year. In fact, since Concentrate launched in 2008.

Excerpt:

"The board of Ann Arbor-based Advanced Photonix Inc., a supplier of optoelectronic sensors, devices and measurement instrumentation for the telecommunications, defense, industrial and medical markets, has agreed to merge with Luna Innovations Inc., which makes fiber-optic sensing and test and measurement products for the same industries."

Read the rest here.
214 Alternative Energy Articles | Page: | Show All
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