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Virta Labs tests prototypes to protect medical devices from malware

As the healthcare services start to increasingly rely on technology, they need to start thinking about protecting themselves the same way computers do. Or at least that is how the team at Virta Labs sees it.

The Ann Arbor-based startup, which calls the Tech Brewery building home, is developing a technology platform that will defend medical devices from malware attacks. Pace makers and other high-tech pieces of medical technology are vulnerable to cyber attacks because security is largely undeveloped.

One-year-old Virta Labs, which won the Best of Boot Camp award at Ann Arbor SPARK's Entrepreneur Boot Camp last year, focuses on protecting those medical devices. The company has recently built prototypes and is looking to beta test its security technology later this summer.

"The hardware is pretty much complete," says Denis Foo Kune, co-founder of Virta Labs. "We are in the scaling phase of development of our cloud infrastructure."

Virta Labs recently grew its team of 10 people. That staff includes seven PhDs, a fact Foo Kune is quick to point out.

"We pride ourselves on our strong technical team and being engineering driven," Foo Kune says.

That team also recently landed a Phase 1 SBIR grant worth $150,000 to develop its technology. It is also in the midst of raising a six-figure seed capital round.

"We will be closing our seed round very soon," Foo Kune says.

Source: Denis Foo Kune, co-founder of Virta Labs
Writer: Jon Zemke

JVS launches eCycle Opportunities to create low-barrier jobs

JVS is launching a electronic recycling department called eCycle Opportunities. The new operation will focus on harvesting recyclable materials from everyday electronics and employing people facing numerous challenges when it comes to entering the everyday workforce.

"These jobs will be filled by people with significant disabilities or face barriers to employment," says Stacey Lareau, director of new business development for JVS.

The Southfield-based nonprofit provides services for workforce development, youth services, affordable housing, and financial education. It will celebrate its 75th birthday next year and currently employs about 300 people.

The eCycle Opportunities department already employs three people and Lareau expects that number to hit 10 by the end of the year. Those workers will be harvesting precious metals and other raw materials from pieces of electronics like mobile devices and laptops. JVS is already talking to 10 different local companies that would supply them with old electronics in need of recycling.

JVS also has a pipeline of people Lareau and her team see as prime candidates for jobs with eCycle Opportunities.

"We want to have a diverse workforce," Lareau says. "JVS has programming that supports these people. We work with this demographic a lot."

Source: Stacey Lareau, director of new business development for JVS
Writer: Jon Zemke

Lighthouse Molding, Civionics land Automation Alley pre-seed funding

Automation Alley’s Pre-Seed Fund has made two more investments in local startups, Civionics and Lighthouse Molding.

The two companies, based in Ann Arbor and Sterling Heights respectively, received a total of $75,000 in seed capital. The investments are intended to spur expansions in the companies and bring about more job growth.

"We want the jobs," says Tom Kelly, COO of Automation Alley.

The Automation Alley Pre-Seed Fund is worth nearly $9 million. It has made investments in 47 different companies in a little more than a decade. It plans to invest another $100,000 to $200,000 before the end of this year.

"We have been quite active over the years," Kelly says.

Civionics is a University of Michigan spinout commercializing wireless sensor technology primarily used to measure the strength of large-scale manufacturing equipment. Lighthouse Molding is a small electronics manufacturer for automotive firms, specifically low-pressure overmolding to encapsulate and protect electronic assemblies.

Both firms have recently joined Automation Alley's 7Cs program, which is focused on helping local companies integrate more advanced manufacturing methods to their business model. The idea is to help them accelerate their growth and create more jobs.

Source: Tom Kelly, COO of Automation Alley
Writer: Jon Zemke

WorkForce Software hires nearly 100 people

WorkForce Software, a Livonia-based software firm, has added 86 new jobs in 2015, expanding its staff to 520 people, most of whom are based in southeast Michigan.
"We've been on a multi-year growth streak," says Jonathan Corke, director of communications for WorkForce Software. "In addition to expanding our Ann Arbor office, we have been acquiring more real-estate at our home office."

WorkForce Software has grown its downtown Ann Arbor office to 20 people in just three years. More than half of its employee base calls the Livonia headquarters home, which has gone from occupying one floor of its building to three. WorkForce's logo serves as the building's marquee signage on the structure overlooking I-275 and 7 Mile Road.

WorkForce Software makes management software for large-scale employers. Often that software helps them make sure they are conforming to whatever federal, state or local regulation they need to abide by.

"There is a lot more for large employers to deal with," Corke says. "In short, we get compliance right."

It's proven to be a profitable endeavor. The company consistently has grown its revenue by at double-digits in recent years, including a 21 percent bump last year.

"The prior year we grew significantly more than that," Corke says.

He expects that growth to continue as more and more big companies figure out they need help to conform to new laws and streamline their operations.

"We are in a very good position," Corke says.

Source: Jonathan Corke, director of communications for WorkForce Software
Writer: Jon Zemke

ZF North America to expand Northville tech center

ZF North America plans on making a big investment in its Northville facility, an expansion that is expected to bring a few hundred jobs and a few hundred thousand square feet of commercial space.

The automotive supplier, a subsidiary of German-headquartered ZF Friedrichshafen AG, specializes in driveline and chassis technology. It has a technical center in Northville where it plans to make the bulk of its investment. The expansion will allow for additional research and development services to design, develop, and test new vehicle components and systems.

"Michigan has been home to ZF's North American headquarters for more than 15 years and we are excited to continue our growth in the state and in the industries we serve," says Julio Caspari, president of ZF North America.

The firm plans to invest up to $71.2 million to add almost 210,000 square feet at its Northville tech center, an investment that is expected to create 571 jobs. There currently 53 positions open in Northville, which can be found here.

To ensure that investment happens, the state of Michigan is offering ZF North America a performance-based grant worth up to $4 million through the Michigan Strategic Fund. Northville Township is also offering a property tax abatement to the project.

Source: Julio Caspari, president of ZF North America
Writer: Jon Zemke

Greenview Data's solution for zero day viruses drives growth

Sometimes problems are just opportunities in disguise. At least, or so businesses philosophy goes. Greenview Data is proving that mantra is true with the latest edition of its signature product, SpamStopsHere.

The spam prevention software targets an elusive new computer malware called zero day virus. The viruses employ antivirus software signatures that are not yet known to antivirus software.

"We have developed the technology that can find it in an email," says Ted Green, CEO of Greenview Data. "It's working very, very well."

He adds that most software solutions for zero day viruses catch about 20 percent of them trying to get through. Green claims his Ann Arbor-based firm's solution can catch them 99 percent of the time. Rising sales of the SpamStopsHere platform have allowed Greenview Data to spike its overall revenue by 25 percent over the last year and hire three people in that time. Green expects that growth to continue.

"The virus is still out there and it's still in the news," Green says.

Greenview Data is also looking to diversify its revenue streams a bit. The 25-year-old software firm has also recently released a new mobile app called Geoscribe.

"It's an app for sharing information about interesting places," Green says.

He adds that it allows people to share interesting information about places they visit so others can look it up on the app when they are there, too. The product is a departure from Greenview Data's normal work, but that's a good thing for Green.

"It helps to have a change of pace," Green says.

Source: Ted Green, CEO of Greenview Data
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

Ocunelis doubles sales of eye-drop tech since last year's launch

Ocunelis hit a significant milestone earlier this month when it sold its 400th DROPin, the company's signature eye-drop assist technology.

That milestone comes on the heals of the Ann Arbor-based bio-tech startup doubling its sales a little more than one year after launching the business. Ocunelis's DROPin products can be found in a few retailers across Metro Detroit, but the company is aiming for bigger gains elsewhere.

"Our primary sales are through Amazon," says David Lorch, CTO of Ocunelis. "We are selling in almost every state through Amazon."

Lorch and Marius Tijunelis came up with the idea to start Ocunelis while they were working through an entrepreneurial apprenticeship out of the Medical Innovation Center at the University of Michigan's Kellogg Eye Center. They saw eye drop application as a pain point in everyday medicine and came up with a easier, pain-free, eye-drop assist technology called DROPin.

They have since been working to expand sales and create a few partnerships to further expand the use of DROPin. The team is also working on a couple of new products it hopes to release relatively soon.

"I would assume that by 2016 we will be releasing new products," Lorch says.

Source: David Lorch, CTO of Ocunelis
Writer: Jon Zemke

WorkForce Software's Ann Arbor office taps local talent for growth

WorkForce Software can be counted on for adding a handful of jobs to Ann Arbor’s talent pool each year.

The Livonia-based software firm opened its local office about three years ago as a way to leverage more talent coming out of the University of Michigan and other local colleges. It has since grown its Ann Arbor staff to 20 employees and three interns after hiring three software developers in 2014-15.

"It was a huge success," says Ken Olson, vice president of product development for WorkForce Software. "We are firmly rooted here now with the office in Ann Arbor. We will continue to grow and grab local talent."

Internships have become a significant part of that talent retention strategy. Two of the company's three recent hires were former interns promoted into full-time positions. Those hires work out of both the downtown Ann Arbor and WorkForce Software headquarters in Livonia. 

"We have done a very good job of integrating the Ann Arbor office with the Livonia headquarters," Olson says.

WorkForce Software makes management software for large-scale employers. It has grown significantly over recent years, expanding its revenue by about 20 percent each year. It now employs 500 people.

"Ann Arbor is a key piece of that growth," Olson says.

Source: Ken Olson, vice president of product development
Writer: Jon Zemke

Atwater Brewery adds liquor to its adult beverage lineup

Atwater Brewery has specialized in craft beer ever since it opened in Detroit's Rivertown district in 1997. This summer, it is expanding its product line to include craft spirits.

The Detroit-based firm, the third largest brewery in Michigan, is now selling craft spirits at its biergarten in Grosse Pointe Park, including rum, vodka, gin, and whiskey. The whiskey is an 8-year-old whiskey Atwater Brewery purchased in bulk from a distiller in Tennessee and bottled itself.

Atwater Brewery has also purchased a 250L Reflux Distilling System to produce its own spirits and begin selling them at its biergarten, Atwater in the Park, later this year under its own brand. Its first release will be an Atwater Dirty Blond vodka. Gin, rum and whiskey drinks will follow later on.

"We want to get into whiskey and further on down the road some bourbons," says Mark Rieth, owner of Atwater Brewery.

Atwater Brewery acquired a state permit to allow it to make both beer and liquor. However, state regulations say the brewery can only make one at a time, so one shift at its facility will make beer and then the next will work on liquor before the next shift goes back to making beer.

Atwater Brewery has hired 15 people over the last year, expanding its staff to 52 people. Most of those new hires include production and sales employees. The company is currently looking to fill six more positions. Rieth expects to hire more as the brewery begins making and selling spirits en masse.

"We think it's a normal extension of our brand," Rieth says. "The laws now allows to make some unique products."

Source: Mark Rieth, owner of Atwater Brewery
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ellis Infinity Beverage Co grows 300%, expands presence across Midwest

Seven years ago, Nailah Ellis-Brown was selling tea made from a family recipe out of the trunk of her car. Today, her Ellis Island Tea can be found in Whole Foods supermarkets across the Midwest.

"There are only 22 (Whole Foods) stores in the Midwest region that we are not in," Ellis-Brown says. "They want to put us in all of those stores."

Ellis-Brown launched Ellis Infinity Beverage Co. shortly after leaving college. She took an old family recipe for herbal tea made with hibiscus passed down from her great grandfather, Cyril Byron. The Jamaican immigrant came to the U.S. through Ellis Island in the early 20th Century and worked as a master chef on the Black Star Line, a shipping line started by Marcus Garvey.

At first, Ellis-Brown started selling bottles out of her parent's home and eventually found a way to get them into local stores. She caught the attention of Whole Foods a little more than a year ago. Supplying Whole Foods store shelves helped her grow her Ellis Infinity Beverage Co by 300 percent last year, selling 150 cases per month.

"Our goal is to quadruple that," Ellis-Brown says.

And it's possible. Ellis Infinity Beverage Co. moved into its own production space near the Russell Industrial Center last year and has add three people to keep up with production. Ellis-Brown is now looking to hire a handful more people to be brand ambassadors and work in production.

Ellis Infinity Beverage Co. is also working on adding some new flavors to its line of teas. Ellis-Brown's team is currently working on branding and packaging for those items. She hopes to launch them either later this year or early next year.

Source: Nailah Ellis-Brown, owner of Ellis Infinity Beverage Co.
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

NEIdeas makes final push to solicit applicants for $100K prize before June 25 deadline

The New Economy Initiative is making one final push to attract applicants to NEIdeas, a competition that will award two Detroit-, Hamtramck-, or Highland Park-based businesses $100,000 each in prize money. The winners will also receive a suite of business services.

Now in its second year, NEIdeas aims to provide longstanding businesses in inner city neighborhoods capital to help them grow and create more jobs. Last year's winners include everything from an urban farm to a cleaning company to a pallet maker. The competition is industry agnostic with the only requirements being that the company is poised to grow.

"We're looking for the best opportunities that are innovative and can lead to accelerated growth," says Jim Boyle, senior program officer for New Economy Initiative. "We don't pretend to know people's businesses."

The deadline for the competition's $10,000 challenge has already passed, but applications for the $100,000 challenge are still open until June 25. Businesses based in Detroit, Hamtramck, or Highland Park grossing $750,000 to $5 million are eligible to apply. The NEIdeas competition received 80 applications for the $100,000 Challenge last year, and has already collected a few dozen so far. But the New Economy Initiative is still looking for more applicants to help broaden its impact on the local inner city economy.

"The more companies that apply, the more we can circle back with after the competition and offer further assistance," Boyle says.

For more information on applying, click here.

Source: Jim Boyle, senior program officer for New Economy Initiative
Writer: Jon Zemke

3 metro Detroit companies collaborate to launch freight logistics app, Badger Freight Tracking

Badger, a Troy logistics firm, is releasing a logistics management mobile app meant for both freight companies and third-party logistics management firms.

The Badger Freight Tracking app promotes itself as a reliable, timely and hassle-free platform to track freight moving from Point A to Point B and back again. Badger also says its mobile app offers services at a fraction of the price of traditional GPS systems.

"Most trucking companies have many ways to track their trucks," says Parker Stallard, founder & CEO of Badger. He adds that when moving freight, "no one uses just on trucking company."

Badger is meant to bring some uniformity to that. The app features an open shipment dashboard for users to monitor the overall shipping process. Its simple and responsive user interface allows clients to easily view their supply chain in transit in real time, including everything from a shipment’s origin, destination, and completion to its schedule, delays, and automatically updated delivery ETAs.

"We wanted to make it extremely cheap at $99 a month," Stallard says. "It doesn't matter how big your company is or how much you ship."

Badger developed the Badger Freight Tracking app with Detroit-based Detroit Labs and Royal Oak-based iWerk. BMK Solutions managed the business intelligence and integration. Badger currently employs a team of six people to run the app and has 78 companies on board. It's aiming to hit 1,100 customers by the end of the year.

Source: Parker Stallard, founder & CEO of Badger
Writer: Jon Zemke

Entrepreneurial engineers score $5K in #hack4detroit

Lots of people like to bike through Detroit, taking in everything from the city's historic neighborhoods to its vast expanses of urban prairie. Now a mobile app exists to aid cyclists discover new routes through the city.

That app came to fruition last weekend during Automation Alley's #hack4detroit hackathon at Grand Circus in downtown Detroit. A couple of tech engineers won $5,000 for creating Ride4Detroit, a mobile app that helps people discover, create, and share bike routes in the city.

Hackathons are usually 1-to-2-day events where techies gather to create new technology from scratch. The #hack4detroit hackathon challenged participants to build a mobile application using the city of Detroit’s new Open Data Portal.

"It was a fun and intense 24 hours that really got our brains working to come up with a solution that would help the city of Detroit," says Abdul Miah, co-founder and principal engineer at rankedHiRe.

Miah and Imran Raja, senior software engineers at MB Financial, created the app that integrates information on existing bike paths in Detroit.

Second place winners included PishPosh.TV founders Ben Duell Fraser and Michael Evans, who is also a senior developer at Loveland Technologies. The third place winner was Jonathan Werber, a developer at Nexient.

Source: Automation Alley
Writer: Jon Zemke
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