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Creative firm Agency 720 expands across U.S., adds staff in downtown Detroit

For a creative agency, it's good to work with a major automaker’s brand. It's even better when you’re the recommended tier 2 marketing agency for Chevrolet.

That's the case with Agency 720, which has been growing its presence across North America steadily over the last year. It is now in 141 markets across the continent, mainly handling advertising work for Chevy dealerships across the U.S.

"They are a fabulous partner," says Harold Kobakof, president & CEO of Agency 720.

The downtown Detroit-based firm’s has added seven markets over the last year. It has also added work outside of the automotive industry, handling work with Pulte Homes. Most of Agency 720’s work, however, comes from Chevrolet dealerships.

"We're looking to expand into seven more markets this year," Kobakof says.

That expansion has allowed the four-year-old firm to expand its staff to 110 people after hiring 10 over the last year. Those new jobs include account managers and directors. Agency 720 is also in the process of hiring a graphic designer.

Source: Harold Kobakof, president & CEO of Agency 720
Writer: Jon Zemke

Credit Union One merges with Good Shepherd Credit Union

Another consolidation among local credit unions is underway now that Credit Union One is absorbing Good Shepherd Credit Union.

The Ferndale-based credit union is taking over Good Shepherd as part of its plan to grow its membership and extend its reach across metro Detroit. Lincoln Park-based Good Shepherd has 8,300 members and branches in Lincoln Park and Woodhaven.

"Growing into downriver has always been a goal of ours from a geographic standpoint," says Gary Moody, president & CEO of Credit Union One. "Adding 8,000 members also made sense."

The merger, if approved, will be complete by the end of June. The addition of Good Shepherd Credit Union will add $93 million in assets to Credit Union One's existing $860 million in assets. Credit Union One has 120,000 members and 18 branches mainly spread across Oakland and Macomb counties. It also has branches in Grand Rapids and Traverse City.

Credit Union One has grown its assets and membership by 10 percent over the last year. It has also grown its deposits and loans by 20 percent to $765 million and $715 million respectively. The credit union employs a staff of 302 people and has one intern. It has hired 13 people over the last year and is looking to add to that number.

"We're always hiring branch staff," Moody says.

Source: Gary Moody, president & CEO of Credit Union One
Writer: Jon Zemke

H2Bid aims to grow business through analytics in 2015

For most of its eight years, H2Bid has been know as a place for water utilities to save money by taking their business online. Now it’s looking to bring those utilities more savings through data analytics.

"We have a ton of data we have collected over the years," says Glenn Oliver, president & CEO of H2Bid. "Basically it's procurement information from water utilities."

The four-person firm's software platform helps water utilities bid out projects over the Internet, enabling them to strike the best deal in the most cost-effective manner. It is now looking to work with some of Michigan research universities to add data analytics to its list of services. The idea is to help the downtown Detroit-based firm’s customers make smarter decisions about everything from pricing to procurement.

H2Bid hopes to execute on that pivot later this winter and spring. It is also looking at developing a procurement platform later this year to help add more value to its customers.

"It's kind of a natural fit for us," Oliver says. "It's something we're excited about."

Source: Glenn Oliver, president & CEO of H2Bid
Writer: Jon Zemke

Morpace adds staff as it diversifies client base

Morpace, a Farmington Hills-based market research and consulting firm, is looking to continue growing its revenue, adding staff, and diversifying its clientele in 2015.

"We want to build on our current growth," says Duncan Lawrence, president & CEO of Morpace.

The firm helps its clients figure out and overcome marketing challenges through product development, customer experience, and brand strategy. It has grown its revenue by almost 10 percent over the last year. That has allowed it to hire 30 people, expanding its staff to 220 employees and a handful of interns. It also recently promoted Lawrence, who has been with the company since 1994, to CEO.

"I have hired six people so far this year," Lawrence says.

Morpace has been able to keep growing by diversifying its client base. It has traditionally focused on the automotive industry, but has expanded into a number of other sectors like financial services, retail, and healthcare.

"Healthcare is our fastest growing vertical," Lawrence says. "It has doubled over the last couple of years."

That doesn't mean the 40-year-old firm is ignoring its roots. It is aiming to grow its workload with existing clients and is looking to find more work in overlooked areas in automotive, such as commercial trucks, or power train.

"It's in an area where no one has any deep expertise," Lawrence says. "It's also going through deep change."

Source: Duncan Lawrence, president & CEO of Morpace
Writer: Jon Zemke

Truscott Rossman adds four new employees at RenCen office

Truscott Rossman's Detroit office has come a long way since its opened a little more than a year ago. The public relations agency now employs a staff of four people in the Renaissance Center.

"We felt a commitment to go above and beyond for our Detroit clients rather than just working out of the Lansing office," says Kelly Rossman-McKinney, CEO of Truscott Rossman.

The Lansing-based firm got its start four years ago when Rossman-McKinney and John Truscott merged their well-known PR firms into what is now Truscott Rossman. The new company now has satellite offices in Grand Rapids and Detroit.

It has hired nine people over the last year, including four former interns, expanding its staff to 25 employees. Among its recent hires in Detroit are digital media director Chad Cyrowski, account executive Dan Herrick, account executive Matt Brady, and strategic communications leader John Bailey.

Truscott Rossman currently serves a number of clients in Detroit and surrounding suburbs. Some of those include DTE Energy, Detroit Medical Center, the city of Detroit, and the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department.

"I expect we will have at least 10 clients coming out of southeast Michigan," says Rossman-McKinney, who describes the Detroit market as "bursting with opportunities."

"I would like to add at least two more professionals."

Source: Kelly Rossman-McKinney, CEO of Truscott Rossman
Writer: Jon Zemke

U-M student startup app helps track loved ones

A group of students at the University of Michigan are trying to bring campus safety into the 21st Century with a new mobile app called Companion.

The five students began working on the app a few months ago after noticing there wasn't a comprehensive public safety tool that worked with their smartphones.

"It was the culmination of a number of experiences we have had for years," says Danny Freed, co-founder of Companion. "We would get crime alerts that are 12 hours old and useless or there are the blue safety stations that no one uses."

Companion's mobile app harnesses real-time walking data that allows for family and friends to keep an eye on you as you walk home late at night. It matches that data with historical walking pattern and a predictive engine so local campus police can determine the optimal placement of officers.

Companion won the Pryor-Hale Award for Best Business at the Michigan Business Plan Competition. That came with $20,000 in seed capital. The team, all U-M undergraduates, also won the Most Successful Undergraduate team award for $2,500 as well as the Marketing Award sponsored by Marketing Associates for $2,500.

That $25,000 will go toward further developing the app. A Beta version is currently available in the Apple App Store, but the team is looking to enhance its capability.

"We are continuously adding features," Freed says.

Source: Danny Freed, co-founder of Companion
Writer: Jon Zemke

Michigan Israel Business Bridge grows team in Bloomfield Hills

The Michigan Israel Business Bridge is growing its staff and its influence in metro Detroit.

The Bloomfield Hills-based, chamber-of-commerce-like organization has been making connections between the entrepreneurial ecosystems of Michigan and Israel since its launch in 2007. That includes helping companies from both regions do more business with each other and bridging not-so-obvious divides.

"It's also two different cultures you need to bridge," says Pamela Lippitt, executive director of the Michigan Israel Business Bridge. "In Israel a handshake means more than what it means here."

The non-profit, which recently doubled its staff to two people, works with both high-tech and low-tech businesses. For instance, it is hosting a roadshow for four medical device startups from Israel on March 25th. The Michigan Israel Business Bridge also helped organize Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent economic development visit to Israel.

Michigan Israel Business Bridge's members include two Israel-based auto cyber security firms (TowerSec and Argus Cyber Security) which opened North American offices in Michigan. It's all part of a long effort to further connect the two economies.

"It's a long process that you have to be patient with," Lippitt says.

Source: Pamela Lippitt, executive director of the Michigan Israel Business Bridge
Writer: Jon Zemke

Renaissance Venture Capital Fund closes on second fund worth $79M

The Renaissance Venture Capital Fund has closed on its second investment vehicle, a $79 million fund destined for Michigan-based startups and the venture capital firms investing in them.

The 6-year-old firm, which has offices in Ann Arbor and Detroit, is a fund of funds, meaning it invests in smaller venture capital firms. It closed on its first fund for $45 million in 2010 with an idea of helping grow Michigan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem by infusing it with more seed capital and attracting more outside investors.

Some of Michigan's biggest corporations have contributed to Renaissance Venture Capital Fund’s investment vehicles. The hope is by including them they will help these startups grow by providing revenues and potential acquisitions. The fund also invests in out-of-state venture capital firms looking to invest in Michigan-based startups.

"For every $1 we put in them they put $4 into the state," says Chris Rizik, CEO of the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund. "It has worked out very well."

For instance, the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund made an investment in Houston-based Mercury Fund, which opened its Midwestern office in Ann Arbor. Mercury Fund has invested in Ann Arbor-based startups like DeepField and Swift Biosciences.

The Renaissance Venture Capital Fund and its team of four people have already made eight investments in venture capital firms and is aiming to make three side-by-side investments in startups with those VCs. The second fund has been active for two years and is looking to continue to keep going this year.

"We probably have another 3-4 years left to invest," Rizik says.

Source: Chris Rizik, CEO of the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund
Writer: Jon Zemke

Stratos launches all-in-one credit card for your wallet

Stratos is launching its all-in-one payment card this week, a product that aims to consolidate the contents of your wallet into one piece of durable, dynamic plastic.

"It's a next generation card that can hold all of the cards in your wallet," says Thiago Olson, CEO of Stratos.

The Stratos Bluetooth Connected Card consolidates an unlimited number of plastic cards into one and can work anywhere traditional credit cards are accepted. That means the Stratos Card can load credit, debit, loyalty, membership and gift cards into a familiar, universally accepted card that can instantly change into the card you need on demand.

The Stratos Card comes equipped with Bluetooth technology that consolidates your cards helps make sure the right one is ready to go when the user is ready to check out. Check out a video describing it here.

"If I simple double tap this card it will say, 'Based on your location you are near Macy's. Do you want to use your Macy’s card?'" Olson says.

Users can access the Stratos card on a subscription basis for $95 per year or $145 for two years. Customers can sign up now and expect the cards to be shipped in April. The cards are made of a durable plastic that comes with a scratch-proof coating.

"It's more resistant to wear and tear than an average credit card," Olson says.

Stratos launched a little more than two years ago in downtown Ann Arbor. It has grown into a new office space in Kerrytown, taking over the former home of Duo Security. It currently employs a staff of 50, including 25 people and a few interns in Ann Arbor. It has hired about 15 people over the last year and it looking to hire another 14. You can check out the open positions here.

Source: Thiago Olson, CEO of Stratos
Writer: Jon Zemke

Message Blocks eyes expansion into event software with new hires

If slow and steady wins the race it also can build the business. That's what the team behind Message Blocks is learning.

The Ann Arbor-based startup offers a comprehensive event-planning software platform that streamlines the event-planning process. The platform focuses on the event planner's experience, allowing users to share documents and presenters to use plug-in presentations. Message Blocks launched this platform in the fall of 2013 and has built it up ever since.

"We have kept every customer," says Len Gauger, founder & CEO of Message Blocks. "Our retention rate is quite high."

The 2-year-old startup has also attracted new clients. It landed the Michigan Realtors Association, which is using the platform for everything from events to media releases. Message Blocks also has pilot programs with new customers underway in Michigan, California, and Washington, D.C. This year the company is looking to take on bigger events, such as concerts.

"We are looking at out-of-the-box verticals that deal with large amounts of people," Gauger says. "It's about helping their team organize better."

Message Blocks currently employs a team of seven people and is looking for a few summer interns this year. It has hired three people over the last year and is looking to add another three right now.

Source: Len Gauger, founder & CEO of Message Blocks
Writer: Jon Zemke

Detroit Materials joins Automation Alley’s 7Cs program

Steel startup Detroit Materials is looking to leverage one of the regions new up-and-coming business support programs to help it commercialize its high-performance steel.

The Wixom-based firm has joined Automation Alley's new 7Cs program, which helps fledgling businesses leverage advanced manufacturing.

"You try to build your business as much as you can, but it's difficult," says Pedro Guillen, CEO of Detroit Materials.

The advanced materials startup spun out of Wayne State University a little more than a year ago. Its technology is commercializing ultra-high performance structural cast steels. Its steel is both lighter and stronger and has applications in a broad range of industries, including defense, infrastructure, and automotive.

"Our basic technology is developed," Guillen says. "It's being validated right now."

The two-person team is currently working to raise a $500,000 seed round this year. It is also working to get its first orders under its belt later this year, which it hopes the 7Cs program will help make possible.

Source: Pedro Guillen, CEO of Detroit Materials
Writer: Jon Zemke

Amplifinity settles into additional space at existing location

Increased sales, additional employees, and a larger office to match -- software company Amplifinity has grown into expanded space on the Ann Arbor’s north side.

Amplifinity recently doubled its office square footage from 6,500 to 13,500 at its location at 912 N. Main St., taking over the whole building after two other companies moved to new space, explained company president Eric Jacobson.

"Our head count has about doubled in the last year," he says, from 25 to 43 employees. "We're growing fast and selling a lot of software."

Amplifinity makes software for companies to manage brand advocacy marketing programs on social networks, and its popularity helped lead the company to its expansion. After employees became more and more packed into their previous space, Jacobson was able to work out an arrangement with landlord Peter Allen & Associates for the whole building, in no small part because he loves the location -- still within walking distance to downtown yet near the Huron River and its adjoining nature trails, and much more inspiring to creativity than a bland office park.

"Being able to walk out and walk away from your computer screen, sit by the river, watch the water flowing by -- it clears your head and allows you to solve problems in a completely different environment, rather than letters and numbers on a crystal display," he says.

Source: Eric Jacobson, president of Amplifinity
Writer: Kristin Lukowski

Inforum's inGAGE program aims to help women-led firms

The Inforum Center for Leadership is looking for a few good women, specifically women entrepreneurs.

The downtown Detroit-based organization works to support women in business. Its inGAGE strategy focuses on supporting women-led, high-growth companies.

"This is really to support women in disruptive companies in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) industries," says Rachele Downs, vice president of entrepreneurial strategy at the Inforum Center for Leadership.

The inGAGE program is in its third year. It’s first two cohorts had 33 graduates. Those women helped launch or grow 16 companies which created 43 new jobs. Those companies have raised $10 million in seed capital. And all of it adds up to a more experienced network of female entrepreneurs in Michigan.

The new inGAGE program will feature a "Growth" section that teaches women the basics of what it takes to launch a new business venture and a "Master Class" that focuses on emerging second stage entrepreneurs. The "Role Model and Investor Series" creates a supportive community of women entrepreneurs through angel investors.

"The more representatives we have in the investor class the more investment we will have in women-owned companies," Downs says.

Applications for inGAGE classes will be accepted until Feb 28. For information, click here. The Inforum Center for Leadership currently employs a team of 10 people. It is looking to hire a program manager.

Source: Rachele Downs, vice president of entrepreneurial strategy at the Inforum Center for Leadership
Writer: Jon Zemke

Stout Systems takes aim at record growth year in Ann Arbor

Stout Systems has been riding a nice wave of success since the Great Recession hit, and it looks like the ride has yet to crest for the tech firm.

"If it keeps going this way for us it will be a record year for us," says John W. Stout, founder & president of Stout Systems. "It was already a record January for us."

The Ann Arbor-based company providing staffing and consulting services in the software and IT sectors. It's fourth quarter last year produced the best sales ever for the 22-year-old firm. That allowed it to add to its staff, including four hires in January and another one coming onboard this month. The firm currently employs 35 people, including a dozen that work at client sites.

"The area we have grown the most is our consulting business," Stout says. "It has really taken off in the last few years."

Stout Systems also recently won the Corp! Magazine's 2015 DiSciTech Award in the Science and Technology category for its innovative and cost effective project management system. The DiSciTech awards are presented to Michigan companies and educational organizations that are leading the way in science, technology and digital initiatives through innovation, research and applied science.

Source: John W. Stout, founder & president of Stout Systems
Writer: Jon Zemke

Sales of Another Rinse’s recycled goods spread across U.S.

It didn't take much for Another Rinse's made-from-recycled-materials products to carve out their own little niche. The thing is, the Ann Arbor-based company’s never stopped carving.

The one-year-old company gives new life to old things by turning them into a refinished product with a new purpose. For instance, it turns old wooden golf clubs into bottle openers. And its sales have been growing exponentially since its launch. They can now be found in 37 states and three countries.

"Michigan is our top sales state followed by New York," says Michael Sydlowski, owner of Another Rinse. "We have been streamlining our sales online sales process."

Sydlowski worked in sales and marketing before launching Another Rinse out of his basement. At the time he wanted to find a new use for old golf clubs collecting dust there. He turned them into bottle openers and coat hooks. He added old wooden tennis rackets and baseball bats into the mix, along with turning old golf balls into corkscrews. Now he is looking to add reclaimed wood products to his lineup.

Another Rinse's products have recently shown up in consignment shops in Wisconsin and Indiana. The company’s products mostly end up being sold online. Sydlowski estimates 90 percent are either bought or gifted to men.

"I never thought the split would be that way," Sydlowski says.

Another Rinse is run by a core team of three people.

Source: Michael Sydlowski, owner of Another Rinse
Writer: Jon Zemke
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