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Pillar Tech moves downtown to accommodate growing staff

Pillar Technology Group is on the move in Ann Arbor and is hiring about as many people as it can find.

The Columbus-based technology firm specializes in software and consulting services. It customer base is spread across the Great Lakes region and features companies in a broad range of industries, such as automotive, financial, and telecommunications, among many others.

About a third of its workforce (45 people) is based in Ann Arbor. For a long time, the Ann Arbor office called Tech Brewery home but a recent spate of hires (15 software developers over last year) meant it had to find a bigger home quickly.

"It was a nice space but it was just too small," says Charles Fry, regional vice president of Pillar Technology Group. Tech Brewery has made a name for itself as a entrepreneurial collective for tech startups. Think a large collective of startup teams of six people or less.

Pillar Technology Group has just signed a lease to take the entire seventh floor (10,000 square feet) of the office building at 301 E Liberty St. The company expects to move into the space by this fall, at which point it should have filled a number of the 20 open positions it has right now.

"We will probably be at 50 or 60 people by the time we move in," Fry says. "As long as the economy doesn't do something stupid on us we could see being at 100 people over the next couple of years."

Pillar Technology Group also considered a number of other different locations for its new home. Some of them include offices outside of Ann Arbor, including Detroit.

"Our team really like Ann Arbor," Fry says. "Most of the people have made their life decisions to live in or near Ann Arbor."

Source: Charles Fry, regional vice president of Pillar Technology Group
Writer: Jon Zemke

Electronics manufacturer EDP Co. makes 3 hires in Livonia

Launching EDP Co. was an easy decision for Richard Bezerko. The electrical engineer has spent his career working in electronics. He also aspired to be his own boss, so when the opportunity to start his own electronics manufacturing company presented itself, "It was a natural thing for me to do," Bezerko says.

That was 32 years ago. Today the Livonia-based business employs 17 people after making three replacement hires over the last year. It has also landed a handful of new customers in that time. Those new customers include companies in the after-market electronics and medical technologies industries.

Most of the new work for EDP Co. has come from traditional sources, like word-of-mouth referrals, and newer ones, like search engine hits on the company’s website. Bezerko expects to add more customers over the next year.

"We're on a steady growth path," Bezerko says. "We're not trying to grow too fast."

Source: Richard Bezerko, president of EDP Co
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ruma Organics brings natural spin on deodorant

Today Sylvia Ruma finds herself as the founder and president of her own business, Ruma Organics. A year ago she didn't think she would be building her own organic deodorant company.

"I never intended to start the business at the time," Ruma says. "I have always loved making my own organic products. It's just what I love to do."

The Macomb Township resident started blending deodorant in her kitchen for personal and family-member use. At the time she couldn't find an effective deodorant made of natural products so she started making her own. She gave a few samples out to family and friends, which prompted a grass-roots demand for it.

"I couldn't believe it worked," Ruma says. "It worked better than I ever imagined. The more I passed it out the more people liked it."

Ruma attended entrepreneurial courses at the Blackstone LaunchPad program at Walsh College in Troy. That gave her the foundation to begin selling Ruma Organics online and then in retail stores. She and one of her team members (a relative) have acquired production equipment that should help Ruma's team keep up with demand.

"Now we can make 18-24 jars at a time," Ruma says.

Source: Sylvia Ruma, founder & president of Ruma Organics
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Model Behavior Hair Salon expands in Mexicantown

Four years ago, Helen Shaw turned a layoff from her factory job into an opportunity to start her own business, Model Behavior Hair Salon. Today, she is moving her company into a bigger space, adding staff, and working to launch a product line.

Shaw worked at a Budd Co plant as a press operator and a hi-low driver, leveraging the company's perks to further her education into cosmetology school. Not long after Shaw was laid off, she opened Model Behavior Hair Salon on West Vernor Avenue.

She is now building out a larger space at 7721 W. Vernor Hwy. thanks in part to an entrepreneurial education course and a $25,000 loan from ProsperUS Detroit. The new location is nearly 50 percent larger than her old one and has space for an office above the salon. The new home, which is set to open by the end of the month, is in the center of the business district on that section of West Vernor.

"I like southwest Detroit because it's a central location for east side, west side, and downtown," Shaw says. "It's easy to get to, and my clientele has tripled since I started four years ago."

She plans to hire four stylists when Model Behavior Hair Salon opens. She is also applying for an NEIdeas $10,000 grant so she can launch her own hair-care products line. Model Behavior Hair Salon specializes in African-American hair, but Shaw says she counts women of all races and ages as her customers.

"I can do all hair," Shaw says. "I welcome all."

Source: Helen Shaw, owner & operator of Model Behavior Hair Salon
Writer: Jon Zemke

MyoAlert develops tech for early detection of cardiac problems

Tragedy inspired Kabir Maiga to launch MyoAlert, a startup that produces technology that helps people self-diagnose potential cardiac arrest.

A close friend of Maiga's died of a heart attack last year while at work. The friend had felt symptoms but didn’t seek medical help for a few hours, missing a crucial window to help save his life.

"He delayed three hours before calling for help," Maiga says. "That was the difference between life or death for him."

This February, Maiga (a masters of entrepreneurship student at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business) formed a team of four people to create MyoAlert. The TechArb-based startup is creating an undershirt with built-in sensors that can help people at risk of cardiac problems determine whether they are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack or just everyday annoyances like heartburn.

"It gives people at high risk of a heart attack a tool they can use for detection," Maiga says.

MyoAlert has developed a pre-Alpha prototype of the technolog and is currently working on alpha prototypes. It has already raised a few thousand dollars from U-M's Center for Entrepreneurship and Ann Arbor SPARK to fund the initial development.

"Our hope is this July we will begin a clinical study," Maiga says.

Source: Kabir Maiga, founder of MyoAlert
Writer: Jon Zemke

MGCS, Duo Security headline Ann Arbor entrepreneurial roundup

It's been a busy week for Ann Arbor's new economy. Here is a quick roundup of stories that appeared recently and a big event about to come back to Washtenaw County.

The Michigan Growth Capital Symposium makes it return for its 32nd-annual conference. The event will be held at the Marriott Resort at Eaglecrest in Ypsilanti on June 17-18th. The Michigan Growth Capital Symposium is known as the best of the midwest conferences when it comes to showcasing startups with high-growth potential. The list of companies presenting this year was just released and can be found here.

Duo Security plans to move to 123 N Ashley St. The tech startup that specializes in duel-factor authentication got its start in the Tech Brewery in 2009 before moving to its current office in Kerrytown. The company has been hiring at such a steady clip (it currently has nine openings that can be found here) that is needs to find a bigger home to accommodate the growth. It plans to take 14,000 square feet in downtown to make that happen.

Seelio, a startup launched by University of Michigan students, has been acquired by PlattForm, which is based in Kansas City. Ann Arbor-based Seelio is a service-based student portfolio solution for higher education institutions while PlattForm specializes in marketing and enrollment management for institutions of higher learning. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Ann Arbor SPARK, Washtenaw County, A2Y Chamber of Commerce, and New Zealand-based QLBS are launching the Virtual Business Advisor. The self-assessment tool assists entrepreneurs and early stage businesses work toward their next stage of growth. Virtual Business Advisor identifies the strengths and weakness of personal and company while benchmarking them against other companies in the region.

Writer: Jon Zemke

Plex scores $50M in private-equity funding

Plex finds itself $50 million richer this summer after landing big financing investments from T. Rowe Price and Accel Partners.

The Troy-based company makes cloud-based ERP software for manufacturers. Plex describes its software platform as built from the plant floor up, enabling users to increase productivity and profitability at existing facilities by streamlining the manufacturing process.

The 19-year-old tech company was acquired in 2012 by Francisco Partners, a private-equity firm based in Silicon Valley. Plex also received a $30 million investment in 2012 from Accel Partners, a venture capital firm also located in Silicon Valley. The new $50 million capital infusion is considered an equity investment.

Plex plans to use its new round of seed capital to grow the sales and marketing efforts of its software platform. It is also planning to put some of that money into research and development of new technology.

"We have been working on a new user-interface over the last year," says Katy Teer, a corporate communications manager for Plex.

Plex has a staff of close to 400 employees and 20 interns. It has hired 156 people since January of last year. It also has 27 openings for everything from sales to senior technical writers right now. More information on those jobs is here.

"We're in an aggressive hiring plan right now," Teer says, adding she was employee No. 220 when she started at Plex two years ago. The firm expects to cross the 400-employee threshold later this year. "We're a really fast-growing tech company here in Metro Detroit."

Source: Katy Teer, corporate communications manager for Plex
Writer: Jon Zemke

Arbor Teas finds innovative ways to stand out, thrive

Arbor Teas is a family business, and it has many of the stereotypical traits of one. It started by a husband-and-wife teams, was built from scratch, and has grown to a staff of seven today. But it also has its distinctive features.

First off, it got its initial start because said wife of the team, Aubrey Lopatin, realized she didn’t want to be an architect anymore.

"One day she woke up and said, 'Why am I going to architecture school when this is not what I want to do?'" says Jeremy Lopatin, co-founder of Arbor Teas. He adds they got the first website for their business shortly after that through a trade. They agreed to paint the living room of a friend in exchange for him building that website.

"While we were priming and painting he was working on his computer, building our website," Jeremy Lopatin says.

That was 10 years ago. Today the Ann Arbor-based business specializes is selling a broad variety of organic-certified teas from around the world. It recently added teas from Kenya, Korea, and Hawaii.

"We are responding to an incredibly growing demand for home-grown (made in the U.S.) tea," Jeremy Lopatin says.

Arbor Teas has also made sure it limits it packaging and that its packaging is compostable. It went so far to create packaging for the tea that is backyard compostable so it minimizes its carbon footprint. Most other packaging for teas is only compostable in commercial operations.

"You can dig a hole in your backyard, put our package in it, and a month or two later it will be gone," Jeremy Lopatin says.

Source: Jeremy Lopatin, co-founder of Arbor Teas
Writer: Jon Zemke

Steel startup Detroit Materials spins out of Wayne State

A new startup spinning out of Wayne State University believes it can make a stronger steel that will have applications in a broad range of industries, including defense, infrastructure, and automotive.

Detroit Materials technology promises to create a high-quality steel that is both lighter and stronger than current options. The steel alloy is expected to help create efficiencies in areas like energy sustainability, pollution reduction, increased safety, and lower production costs.

"We're in the process of revalidating the technology so we can show that everything we say can happen in a lab can happen in a production facility," says Pedro Guillen, CEO of Detroit Materials.

The technology was developed by a research team led by Wayne State University Engineering Profesor Susil Putatunda. The team focused on creating advanced materials with high-yield strength, fracture toughness, and ductility. A $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and $25,000 from the Michigan Emerging Technologies Fund got the technology to the point where it could be considered for commercialization.

Detroit Materials is also partaking in the New Economy Initiative's Technology Development Incubator Program, which opened the door for a licensing agreement and the creation of the startup last September. Detroit Materials is currently working from the Invest Detroit offices in the Renaissance Center while it looks for a permanent office in the greater downtown Detroit area.

Detroit Materials currently has a staff of two, including its CEO. Guillen worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence for the Detroit Technology Exchange. The company is also looking to hire two part-time engineers while it works to secure three pilot programs for its steel technology by the end of this year. It is also preparing to raise a Series A round of seed capital.

"Our goal is to raise a Series A within the next six months," Guillen says.

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

Level One Bank hires 18, grows assets 25 percent

Level One Bank is well on its way to the next level, thanks to a spike in its asset size and staff.

The Farmington Hills-based bank’s assets have grown 25 percent over the last year, topping out at $630 million. Its deposits also stand at $545 million. That has allowed the company to grow its staff to 145 people at its seven branches across the region. It has hired 18 people over the last year, mostly in lending. The bank currently has four open positions.

"Our primary businesses are focused on commercial loans," says Patrick Fehring, president & CEO of Level One Bank. "We're seeing a lot of action in our loans to entrepreneurs. We're also seeing an increase in our residential mortgage loans."

Fehring expects his bank to grow another 15 percent this year. He sees Level One Bank's status as a local bank as a key ingredient to its success at a time when an increasing number of people don’t trust large financial institutions.

"We think that gives us a distinct competitive advantage," Fehring says. "It's easier to connect with a decision maker at Level One Bank."

Source: Patrick Fehring, president & CEO of Level One Bank
Writer: Jon Zemke

AltaFlux adds 12 staff on demand for cloud computing services

Cloud computing is taking tech firms like AltaFlux to higher places these days.

The Troy-based firm has hired 12 people over the last year, thanks largely to the increasing demand for its cloud computing services. The company now employs 30 people with most of its new hires consisting of IT consultants.

"We have been growing steadily," says Vijay Nachimuthu, CEO of AltaFlux. "Quarter over quarter we have seen double-digit growth."

AltaFlux specializes in technology consulting services. It offers cloud applications and data and integration technology services. Many of AltaFlux’s customers have been leveraging its cloud computing services, specifically to get on board with the latest trend in tech, and also to create cost savings by optimizing existing operations and talent.

"Businesses are warming up to a lot of things they have ignored over the last five years," Nachimuthu says.

Source: Vijay Nachimuthu, CEO of AltaFlux
Writer: Jon Zemke

Rockbridge Growth Equity acquires Gas Station TV

Rockbridge Growth Equity has acquired GSTV, aka Gas Station TV, in a deal aimed at growing the downtown Birmingham-based startup rapidly.

GSTV got its start in 2006 by putting TVs on top of gas pumps showing news and advertisements. The idea is to catch drivers at a natural pause in the person’s day where their attention can easily be captured. It now has a network across North America with a monthly viewership of 50 million people.

"David (Leider, GSTV’s CEO) and his team developed a new industry that is growing very, very quickly," says Kevin Prokop, managing director of Rockbridge Growth Equity. "It's a very nascent industry. It has really developed over the last eight years."

The downtown Detroit-based private equity firm (part of the Quicken Loans family of companies) plans to keep GSTV at its home in downtown Birmingham while it focuses on growing the business. Prokop says a decision on a permanent home could be made within the next year, (many Quicken Loans-related businesses have moved to downtown Detroit in recent years) but he knows it will stay in Metro Detroit.

"We have a lease here," Leider says. "We're focused on working with Rockbridge on the business now."

GSTV employs a staff of 65 people, the bulk of which are based in downtown Birmingham. It has hired 10 people over the last year and has four open positions right now. More information on those here.

Source: David Leider, CEO of GSTV, and Kevin Prokop, managing director of Rockbridge Growth Equity
Writer: Jon Zemke

Varnum targets Metro Detroit with 12 newer hires for Novi office

The Varnum law firm has been around a long time. One hundred and twenty-five years, to be exact. And the Grand Rapids-based firm sees a big part of its future in Metro Detroit.

Varnum offers a broad range of legal services, ranging from technology development to employee litigation. It opened an office in Novi 12 years ago, and it has grown significantly in the last year.

"Our firm has concluded that the Metro Detroit area is a place where we have many current clients and many opportunities with clients," says Rich Hewlett, partner at Varnum. "We see a lot of really good attorneys here as well."

Varnum has hired eight attorneys and four paralegals at its Novi office over the last 18 months. It currently has a staff of 29 attorneys, eight paralegals and 18 support staff in Novi. Hewlett expects the Novi office to continue growing for the foreseeable future.

"We have a lot of really good things going on here," Hewlett says. "We see this area as a place that is very favorable to us."

Source: Rich Hewlett, partner at Varnum
Writer: Jon Zemke

SAMSA moves into bigger office in downtown Ypsilanti

A little more than a year ago, tech firm SAMSA opened an office in downtown Ypsilanti. This spring it’s moving to bigger office at 7 S Washington to accommodate its growth.

The Saginaw-based software firm choose to open its southeast Michigan satellite office in Ypsilanti because of it offered a vibrant urban area at a low price point. It is also in a central location of the region’s tech hubs in Ann Arbor and downtown Detroit.

"I like Ypsilanti because it's strategically between Ann Arbor and Detroit," says Mike Stackhouse, president of SAMSA. "It just feels good."

The 25-year-old company employs 20 people, including two in Ypsilanti. It is currently looking to add two more software and computer technology professionals to its Ypsilanti office.

SAMSA is also looking to do more marketing in southeast Michigan to drum up more business for its software services. It will be aimed at more mid-sized clients as the company takes a measured approach to its future growth.

"We're already quite busy," Stackhouse says. "We're taking an approach where we’re not looking for fast growth at all costs."

Source: Mike Stackhouse, president of SAMSA
Writer: Jon Zemke

TurtleCell launches iPhone case with retractable headphones

Every time I take my cell phone out of my pocket, I usually have to untangle a small web of earbuds. It’s the type of frustrating process that makes me wonder why I even want to use earbuds to begin with.

The team at TurtleCell believes it has an answer to this problem. The Ann Arbor-based startup is launching a new product, a cell phone case with retractable earphones. It’s not the first time the fledgling startup has tried this. Last year is started floating the idea for the product, even launching an ill-fated crowd-funding campaign.

Then it went back to the drawing board. The actual drawing board. The three-man team redesigned their product, upgraded the headphones, streamlined its business approach. They created a cell phone case (for iPhone 5 and above) they are excited to use every time they take it out of their pocket.

"Every aspect has been improved," says Nick Turnbull, director of business development for TurtleCell.

TurtleCell started taking pre-orders for its first run of products this week. Buyers can get the product for $39.95 (which includes $10 off the full retail price) and expect to have it delivered in October. The company expects to make tens of thousands of its cell phone case in time for the holiday shopping season.

"It's somewhat up in the air but it will be more than 100,000," Turnbull says.

Making all this possible is a successful seed capital round. The company has raised $250,000 from angel investors, allowing it to bypass another crowd funding campaign and just move forward with production.

"We raised almost all of it over the last month," Turnbull says.

Source: Nick Turnbull, director of business development for TurtleCell
Writer: Jon Zemke
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