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Local chip-maker expands its operations

Uncle Ray's is one of those bags of chips you can find in just about any party store or grocery in Detroit. But the people behind the potato chip maker are optimistic that it could become a go-to brand of chips in retailers across the country.

"We think Uncle Ray's has the kind of upside where we could double our current volume in the short-term," says Brian Gaggin, vice president of Uncle Ray's. "We could probably do that within five to six years."

Uncle Ray's is named for Ray Jenkins who started selling potato chips out of the back of his car in 1965. The chip maker became a wholly-owned subsidiary of The H.T. Hackney Co, one of the largest wholesale distributors in the U.S., in 2006. Uncle Ray's is now based on the city's west side, near the intersection of I-96 and Wyoming, where 175 of the company's 200 employees works. Over the last year, it's hired over 20 new employees for production work.

"About 80 percent of our employees are city residents," says Gaggin. "If our growth trend continues, we'll be adding even more people."

Uncle Ray's has lodged close to 20 percent growth over the last two years, expanding sales of its low-priced chips into a number of new retailers across middle America, including Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Georgia and Alabama. They also recently signed a deal with Minor League Baseball to become the league's official potato chip.

"It's an ideal fit," Gaggin says. "It's a family event, a reasonably priced, family fun activity."

Systems in Motion becomes Nexient, doubles Ann Arbor office space, adds staff

Change has been in the air at the Ann Arbor office of Systems in Motion, and it's been a welcome transition. The California-based IT firm rebranded itself to Nexient, doubled its office space in Ann Arbor, and made a score of new hires locally.

"I could see us adding 100 people over the next 2-3 years," says Colin Chapman, chief delivery officer for Nexient. He adds, "I expect it (hiring) will pick up with the pipeline we have right now."

Nexient specializes in application development, information management and testing services. It uses an Agile software development methodology, which makes the creation of software viable through a system of incremental improvements. That system enables it to be cost-competitive with overseas companies, bringing more outsourced jobs back to the U.S. Nexient rebranded itself from Systems in Motion last spring in an effort to help it differentiate itself from other tech firms.

Nexient employs about 250 people in Ann Arbor after hiring 20 people over the last year. That hiring pace is a bit slower than in recent years because the company ran out of room at its offices.

"We were facilities constrained," Chapman says. "Our current building could only seat 230."

It did double its space early this year, taking over the lease in an adjacent space. Nexient went from 35,000 square feet to 75,000 square feet with that move. That should give it enough space to grow at an accelerate pace for the next two years.

"I expect the renovations (of the new space) to finish in the next month," Chapman says.

Source: Colin Chapman, chief delivery officer for Nexient
Writer: Jon Zemke

Knight Arts Challenge Detroit accepting submissions now through May 2

For the fourth straight year, the Knight Foundation will be awarding up to $3 million in grants to Detroit artists. The submission period begins today, April 4, and runs through May 2.

The Knight Arts Challenge has a broad concept, and is "open to anyone with an idea for engaging and enriching Detroit through the arts." The application is also simple. All you need to do is distill your project idea into 150 words and follow these three guidelines: 1) The idea must be about the arts. 2) The project must take place in or benefit Detroit. 3) The grant recipients must find funds to match Knight’s commitment.

Two of the 170 prior winners include Hardcore Detroit, which explored the ‘70s Detroit dance craze in a documentary, and Detroit Fiber Works, a gallery and learning space that claims to be the only fiber arts studio in Detroit. 

“Almost everywhere you go in Detroit, you see Knight Arts Challenge winners inspiring and engaging our city,” said Katy Locker, Detroit program director for Knight Foundation, in a press release. “What’s next? We can’t wait to see what Detroit comes up with.”

The Knight Foundation will host two free community events on April 11 at the MOCAD and April 15 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The events are meant to support potential applicants, with past challenge winners and Knight Foundation arts program director Bahia Ramos in attendance. 

To submit your application to the challenge, click here

Tech startup aims to raise $1M for visual content platform

This is the year tech startup TernPro expects to take off.

They believe its visual content software platform, Slope, will gain traction with customers and hit some significant milestones. The biggest one TernPro is closing a $1 million seed round later this spring. It's also looking to bring its platform, which is currently in private Beta, online to the public.

"This year it's really about product development and customers," says Brian Bosche, co-founder & CEO of TernPro. "Once we close this round we want to perfect the product and get it out in the field."

Bosche is a member of the inaugural 2012 class of Venture for America, a two-year program that pairs talented college grads with startups in economically challenged cities like Detroit. He worked with the leadership team at the Bizdom startup accelerator in downtown Detroit during his fellowship, helping many of the startups in the incubator tell their stories through short videos.

Bosche and fellow VFAer Dan Bloom launched TernPro in downtown Detroit two years ago, primarily as a full-service digital video agency. Not long after they started developing Slope, a software platform that enables novice digital media users to design, store, produce, and collaborate on creating visual content.

TernPro was accepted to the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator last year, a program that helps startups build their technology and scale their products. The TernPro team was attracted to it because of Microsoft's expertise in developing enterprise software, and opened an office in Seattle after completing the accelerator.

"We still work very closely with them," Bosche says. "It's been a great relationship."

TernPro has a team of eight people after hiring three in UIX design and software development in the last year. The company recently moved to the Elevator Building overlooking the Detroit Riverfront.

The company released Slope in private Beta in late 2015, and plans to make it public later this year to start building out its customer base.

"It's a fully functioning product but we are still building it out," Bosche says. "We even got our first paying customer."

Build Institute hosts speed coaching event for small business owners

If you're a beverage, food, or hospitality small business owner, you should consider attending a free coaching event at the Build Institute Wednesday, April 13.

Dubbed "Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream Speed Coaching," entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to get advice from experts in marketing, finance, legal advice, and much more. Attendees can sign up for stations most relevant to their business needs and receive quick consulting sessions. The organizers encourage entrepreneurs to bring samples of their product and come prepared with specific questions to facilitate the process. 

The proceeds begin at 6:00 p.m. with networking, and light fare and beverages, followed by speed coaching. 

The event takes place the Build Institute, a small business support organization that helps small businesses through classes, networking events, mentorship, and connecting owners to resources. 

Attendance to the American Dream Speed Coaching event is free. You must be over 21 to attend. To learn more, visit the facebook event page. To reserve your spot, visit the eventbrite page

Exxodus Pictures expands workload with 3D modeling, animation

Exxodus Pictures made a name for itself when it premiered its first feature-length film, "Jinn," a couple years ago. Since then, the 6-year old firm has expanded into several other areas, including developing television commercials and handling 3D modeling and animation work for the auto industry.

"A lot of our business comes from the commercial side," says Ajmal Zaher, co-founder & owner of Exxodus Pictures.

The downtown Detroit-based firm, whose offices are in M@dison Building, has done a lot of regional commercial work. Its largest customer for television commercials, however, is One Reverse Mortgage, for which Exxodus Pictures handles all of its national spots.

Exxodus Pictures has also taken on work creating computer graphics for industrial clients. That includes General Motors, which hired Exxodus Pictures to do 3D modeling and animation work.

Even though Exxodus Pictures has diversified its revenue streams, it still hasn’t stopped making movies. The firm received $1.3 million in tax incentives from the state of Michigan to film three made-in-Michigan movies last year. One such film is "My Soul to Keep," which follows 9-year old Eli Braverman, who is terrified of his basement and the evil that might lurk there.

"Remember when you were little and thought there was something living in your basement?" Zaher says. "This movie explores that."

Exxodus Pictures and its core team of five people -- which staffs much more when a film is in production -- has finished shooting "My Soul to Keep" and is in the process of editing it. Zaher expects to release the movie in late 2016 or early 2017.

Armune BioScience lands $4M investment, chases another $25M

Armune BioScience closed on a newly expanded Series A worth $4 million last week, and the life sciences firms has its eyes on even bigger things this year.

"We're on hunt for a $25 million Series B round," says David Esposito, president & CEO of Armune BioScience. "We have brought on Mavericks Capital out of Palo Alto to help us land it."

The Kalamazoo-based company, it also has a laboratory in Ann Arbor, is developing an innovative, non-PSA blood test to aid in the early detection of prostate cancer. Apifiny went to market last year with Armune BioScience hope to sell 1,500 tests.

"We have done a little more than 5,000 billable tests," Esposito says. "That exceeded our expectations for the test for our first year on the market."

That growth allowed Armune BioScience to expand its Series A by $1.5 million. It also prompted the company to hire another three people, all of them medical techs, for the Ann Arbor lab. The company now employs 10 salaried employees and another 10 consultants. The new infusion of seed capital is expected to add more staff this year.

"We'll probably go another five people in the laboratory by the end of the year," Esposito says. "Those will probably be medical techs and PhDs."

Source: David Esposito, president & CEO of Armune BioScience
Writer: Jon Zemke

PreDxion Bio's tech helps tailor treatments to patient's immune system

The team at PreDxion Bio isn't just trying to come up with new technology to help sick people. It's trying to help really really sick people. The University of Michigan spinoff is in the early stages of developing a diagnostic device to help create custom diagnosis. The technology is coming from U-M's Pediatric Critical Care Precision Laboratory.

"One of the main thrusts of our lab is to develop new diagnostic tools to treat these really sick patients," says Walker McHugh, co-founder of PreDxion Bio and a biomedical engineering graduate student at the University of Michigan. He is launching the startup with Dr. Timothy Cornell, a physician at U-M, and Caroline Landau, an MBA student at U-M's Ross School of Business.

PreDxion Bio's technology is a patent-pending diagnostic device that gives doctors the information they need to precisely tailor treatments to a specific patient's immune response. The idea is to make precision care more available to people in intensive care.

The team has created a prototype and is currently entering it into a variety of high-profile business plan competitions. It is one of two U-M startups to make it to the Rice Business Plan Competition next week where it will compete for $1 million in prizes.

The company plans to use any winnings from business plan competitions and any seed capital it can raise to develop a next generation version of its technology that will be manufacturing grade. It hopes to then submit it for clinical trials that will eventually lead to FDA approval in 3-5 years. In the meantime PreDxion Bio's team is looking for interested parties to help it get to the next step.

"We're talking with strategic partners," McHugh says.

Source: Walker McHugh and Caroline Landau, co-founders of PreDxion Bio
Writer: Jon Zemke

Tech staffing firm rebrands itself and broadens staffing services

Troy-based iTalent got its start in 2011 as your typical tech staffing firm, matching IT workers with IT jobs. Today it’s rebranding itself to ektello to reflect its growing variety of staffing services.

"We're always expanding," says Chrystal Merriam, director of marketing for ektello.

Now ektello handles staffing work for tech firms but also creative-based work, such as marketing and similar professions. The meaning of the company's new name demonstrates these changes.

"It's a Greek word for performance or execution," Merriam says. "It plays to our mission to work with talent to help them meet their career goals."

The core staff at ektello has grown with eight new hires in sales and recruiting, topping off its staff at 25 employees. It also has between 200 to 250 contractors working out on the field for its staffing clients. The company's goal is to expand its core staff by 12 and the number of the contractors out in the field to 350.

The firm has also developed to a national presence, doing work in Florida, New York, Boston, Chicago, and along the east coast. "We do a lot of business in those key markets," Merriam says.

Plymouth-based Celsee finds customers for its cancer-detection technology worldwide

Plymouth-based Celsee Diagnostics firm is currently building out its team and growing revenue streams that support its cancer-detection technology.

The life sciences startup formerly known as DeNovo Sciences employs 11 full-time employees and 10 part-time employees after hiring two more over the last year. Those new hires include a new chief science officer and vice president of commercial operations.

"We're building out a leadership team to get our commercialization up and moving quickly," says Kalyan Handique, CEO of Celsee Diagnostics.

Celsee Diagnostics is developing a platform for early detection of cancer from blood samples. Its fully automated system can detect cancer, primarily breast and colon cancers. The idea is to create a less-invasive method than the traditionally painful route of biopsies. Celsee is in the midst of starting clinical trials on this platform. The trials for European approval are expected to be done within six months. U.S. trials are expected to run into next year.

Celsee Diagnostics also raised a small amount of money from investors last year, but it is focusing on generating more revenues to cover its expenses, selling its platform to researchers in the U.S. and overseas.

"We expect to cross $1 million this year," Handique says. "It will make investing in our product easier."

Celsee Diagnostics is also selling its platform in Israel and some developing countries, including Brazil and China.

"We're starting to get more traction in those countries," Handique says.

Source: Kalyan Handique, CEO of Celsee Diagnostics
Writer: Jon Zemke

New data suggest that metro Detroit's 'brain drain' is over

For over a decade, conventional wisdom has had it that metro Detroit is hemorrhaging its college grads to more prosperous metro areas. It's a phenomenon known as the "brain drain," and it's a problem that metro Detroit's policy makers and leaders have been trying to solve for years.
New data from the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, however, suggest that it is simply not the case that hordes of local college grads are fleeing the region post-graduation. In fact, metro Detroit (the Detroit-Warren-Livonia statistical area) leads the nation's largest metro regions in retention of graduates of local two- and four-year colleges, ahead of Houston, New York City, and Seattle, it's closest competitors. Over 77 percent of graduates of area colleges stay in metro Detroit after
Economist Richard Florida writes in CityLab, "This high retention level is likely due to the fact that the University of Michigan is located nearby, while smaller colleges and universities like Wayne State and the University of Detroit Mercy, as well as community colleges, serve a more locally based group of students."
Read more: CityLab

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.

Wheelhouse Detroit to open new bike shop in downtown Hamtramck

Wheelhouse Detroit, the popular bike shop on Detroit's RiverWalk, is opening a second location in May on Joseph Campau in downtown Hamtramck. At 2,600 sq. ft., the second Wheelhouse will be larger than the riverfront location, allowing owner Kelli Kavanaugh to offer more bicycles, accessories, and active wear. The Hamtramck location will also feature a robust service department.

"We see the two Wheelhouse locations complementing one another," Kavanaugh says. "The Riverfront spot will continue to be the anchor for Greater Downtown residents and workers and will serve as the primary spot for tours and rentals. Our Hamtramck location offers more retail space to increase our inventory of bicycles, accessories, gear, clothing and a large service department, while serving Hamtramck and surrounding Detroit neighborhoods."

Kavanaugh says she'll highlight American-made products at the store, including the Detroit Bikes line. Other bikes carried include Sun Bicycles, Kona Bikes, and Brooklyn Bicycle Co., among others. Accessories include products from Green Guru, Chrome Industries, and Timbuk2.

Wheelhouse is a store of many distinctions. The National Bicycle Dealers Association named Wheelhouse Detroit one of the best bike shops in the United States in 2015. It's the only woman-owned bike shop in metro Detroit. Wheelhouse will also be the only bike shop in the city of Hamtramck. Kavanaugh sits on the board of the National Bicycle Dealers Association, is the ride director for Tour de Troit, and is a former Model D development news editor.

Kavanaugh has tapped Christian-Hurttienne Architects to help with the design and buildout of a storefront in a building owned by John Grossi of Amicci's Pizza. Invest Detroit’s Urban Retail Loan Fund and Technical Assistance Grant contributed to the expansion.

The second Wheelhouse Detroit is located at 9401 Joseph Campau St. in Hamtramck.

Aqaba Technologies grows by developing Web presence of clients in healthcare, manufacturing

Healthcare and manufacturing are two sectors where Sterling Heights-based software company Aqaba Technologies sees opportunities to bring client companies into the 21st century.

"They're very under-developed," says Ramsey Sweis, founder and president of Aqaba Technologies.

How under-developed? Sweis describes some of them as having websites designed a decade ago and others without any Web presence at all. Mobile technology is more of an abstract concept to them than a business practice. When Aqaba Technologies brings companies on as customers, its first goal is to teach them why and how technology can help their business.

"It's like going from a beeper to a smartphone," Sweis says.

He points out that while an increased use of technology might not always help with the day-to-day operations of a manufacturer, it does help in less tangible ways. For instance, an increased web presence helps build credibility with future customers. Use of mobile technology helps attract new talent.

Aqaba Technologies also recently picked up a certification in mobile app development from Proscape. That and becoming a Google Certified Partner a couple years ago has helped it gain credibility when comes to convincing its clients to adopt mobile technology.

"That's something that we are focusing hard on," Sweis says. "We have always built apps but never had certification before."

All of this has allowed Aqaba Technologies to grow its revenue by 30 percent over the last year. It also hired three people, expanding its staff to nine employees and an intern.

Source: Ramsey Sweis, founder & president of Aqaba Technologies
Writer: Jon Zemke

Troy-based Expetec hits $1 million milestone, emphasizes veteran hiring

Expetec is looking to expand its team by hiring a few good women and men who have served their country.

"We're starting to place a bigger emphasis on veteran hiring," says Mike St. John, partner at Expetec.

St. John, a veteran himself, believes that experience can vets better adjust to civilian life and become more successful. He also sees their military experience as an asset to his technology firm.

"They (veterans) have more discipline," St. John says. "They perform well under pressure. They are well seasoned when it comes to working together as a team."

Thanks to a spike in revenue, the Troy-based IT firm has already hired two people over the last year, and it's looking to hire another two people now. Those hires will bring the 10-year-old company's staff to 15 people. 

Expetec's revenue passed the $1 million milestone last year, and its aiming to hit $2 million by the end of 2016. Part of that growth is organic, coming from both new clients and expanding work with existing customers. The other part comes from a merger with BCL Computing a year ago, a company that had reached its growth ceiling.

"We had a marketing and operations departments," St. John says. "It allowed the owner to focus on clients."

Source: Mike St. John, partner at Expetec
Writer: Jon Zemke
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