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Augment Ventures makes 2 investments in lighting startups

Augment Ventures is off to a fast start for 2014, making two investments in clean-tech startups and laying the groundwork to make a couple more before the end of the year.

"Our portfolio is up to five startups right now," says Sonali Vijayavargiya, founder & managing director of Augment Ventures.

Vijayavargiya launched the venture capital firm out of Ann Arbor nearly three years ago. Augment Ventures specializes in making early investments in startups in the clean-tech/sustainability sector. Its most notable investment so far is in downtown Ann Arbor-based logistics tech firm LLamasoft in 2012.

Augment Ventures has made two investments so far this year. Both firms, Revolights and Lumenetix, are based in California. Lumenetix designs, manufactures and sells UL recognized color tunable LED light engines for fixture manufacturers. It is currently working with one of the Big 3 (Vijayavargiya declined to say which one) to integrate its products in the automotive sector. Revolights is working to bring new lighting solutions to bicyclists.

"They're trying to bring 360-degree visibility to commuter bikers," Vijayavargiya says. She adds, "we are very excited about both (startups)."

Augment Ventures has also added a couple of people to its team this year, expanding it to five people. That staff is working to nail down a couple more investments before the end of this year.

"We are actively doing due diligence with five opportunities," Vijayavargiya says. "Two of those firms are Michigan-based."

Source: Sonali Vijayavargiya, founder & managing director of Augment Ventures
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ann Arbor SPARK scores $500K for Michigan Angel Fund

The Michigan Angel Fund has enjoyed so much success in its first year that organizers are coming out with a sequel in 2014.

The Michigan Economic Development Corp is giving Ann Arbor SPARK, which manages the Michigan Angel Fund, $500,000 for the continuation of the Michigan Angel Fund’s first investment vehicle and then some.

"This is allowing us to raise a second fund," says Skip Simms, manager of the Michigan Angel Fund and senior vice president of Ann Arbor SPARK. "The first fund is nearly all invested. It will allow us to continue investing in early stage technology companies across the state."

The Michigan Angel Fund is an angel-investment equity fund that specializes in early stage investments. It only invests in Michigan-based tech start-ups in the hopes of growing the Great Lakes State’s new economy.

It has 72 members and has made six investments in its first year. Those investments range from $100,000 to $250,000 and are part of seed rounds for startups looking to raise between $250,000 and $2 million. Its latest investment is in Larky, an Ann Arbor-based mobile app startup that just closed a $1.76 million Series A round.

"We will probably have a portfolio of 9-10 companies (by the end of the year)," Simms says.

Source: Skip Simms, manager of the Michigan Angel Fund and senior vice president of Ann Arbor SPARK
Writer: Jon Zemke

Grandmont Rosedale coffee shop celebrates one year anniversary

This week marks the official one year anniversary of Always Brewing Detroit. To thank its customers and community, the Grandmont Rosedale coffee shop is celebrating with a week's worth of events including music and poetry performances, massages by a professional masseuse, and a community brunch.

Shop owner Amanda Brewington has been working with Chazzano Coffee of Ferndale to perfect her own blend of house coffee. After several taste tests, Brewington will debut the Always Brewing First Blend this week. She recently achieved her goal of having all of her products locally sourced from within 15 miles of Always Brewing. Even the cups are from nearby.

While downtown Detroit and the Corktown and Midtown neighborhoods have seen their fair share of coffee shops open in recent years, neighborhoods like Grandmont Rosedale, far from the city's core, haven't experienced such the development frenzy. Even when she was opening the shop, Brewington says that people asked her why she wasn't opening somewhere like downtown instead.

"Those places have a ton of coffee shops. They're good. They don't need me," says Brewington. "I wanted to go to a place where there is a need."

She estimates that 80 percent of her customers are people that either live or work in Grandmont Rosedale. With her business humming along, Brewington sees more business opportunities along her stretch of Grand River Avenue. She anticipates a thriving district -- one where the community doesn't have to drive to the suburbs for a good cup of coffee or yoga class.

Amanda's all in on Grandmont Rosedale, having recently purchased a house in the neighborhood. In one short year, she's become a champion of the area, taking joy in hosting her community while also introducing new people to the neighborhood.

"I always try to have people leave with more than a cup of coffee."

Source: Amanda Brewington, owner of Always Brewing Detroit
Writer: MJ Galbraith

Detroit's Venture for America Fellows compete for Innovation Fund startup capital

In recent years, several talent attraction and development fellowship programs have sprung up in Detroit, each pairing young and mid-career professionals with jobs in public, private, and non-profit organizations based in the city.

Venture for America is one such program that began operating in Detroit in 2012. Modeled as a private sector version of Teach for America, VFA, a two year program, pairs recent college grads with startups in cities around the country. Currently 28 VFA fellows are based in Detroit.

"Venture for America 
focuses on entrepreneurship. It's kind of a career accelerator for individuals interested in entrepreneurship and doing creative things in their cities," says VFA fellow Eleanor Meegoda, who works at Detroit Venture Partners, a venture capital firm that backs and seeds early-stage technology companies based in Detroit.

As a part of the fellowship program, VFA fellows are eligible to participate in the semi-annual Innovation Challenge in which they are tasked with crowdfunding for side ventures that solve a problem or satisfy a need that fellows have identified. The ventures that raise the most money will receive additional support from the VFA Innovation Fund, with prizes ranging from $4,000 to $10,000.

This year, Detroit is well represented in VFA's Innovation Challenge. Ventures include Compass, a service that empowers small businesses to better navigate the complicated digital landscape by connecting them with people who know technology; Assembly of Commerce, a new, online-based “chamber of commerce” helping small businesses band together to create “economies of scale” and compete with the giants; Motor City Machine, an effort inviting all Detroiters -- artists, students, businesses, non-profits, faith organizations, Detroit City and Metro Detroiters -- to join in building a giant Rube-Goldberg Machine; Yumness, a platform for restaurateurs & aspiring chefs to connect and collaborate; and Zapenda, an e-commerce platform that connects artisans from the developing world to a global market.

The Detroit ventures and other proposals from VFA fellows around the country can be found at http://www.rockethub.com/projects/partner/vfa.

Detroit VFA fellow Eleanor Meegoda is part of the team behind the Motor City Machine project, which hopes to bring Detroiters together to build a giant Rube Goldberg machine collaboratively.

"The reason I'm doing this is because Detroit is a city of builders and makers," says Meegoda. "It's got a history that's linked with industrialization and the machine. What better way then is there to bring all sorts of Detroiters together?"

You can try your hand at building a Rube Goldberg machine by visiting the Motor City Machine team at Eastern Market's Sunday marketplace.

Source: Eleanor Meegoda, VFA fellow
 

Bean & Tea Co opens third location in Clarkston

For 20 years Raymond Christopher Enterprises has made its way by running franchise eateries, such as Cinnabon and Mrs. Fields Cookies. This year it’s launching its own franchise, Bean & Tea Co.

The Plymouth-based coffee shop specializes in providing locally produced coffee, tea and snacks. It offers a handful of coffee options and offers 25 varieties of loose leaf tea selections including black, oolong, green, white, herbal and fruit infusions.

"This is the first time where it’s our concept from the ground up," says Jill Crawford, manager of the Michigan region for Bean & Tea Co.

Bean & Tea Co has taken over three locations that were once Caribou Coffee stores. It now employs 23 people at the stores. The franchises in Troy and Madison Heights opened earlier this year. A new one in Clarkston is opening this week, bringing another nine jobs into the fold with it.

"The Troy location is our hub location," Crawford says.

Bean & Tea Co is looking at adding more locations before the end of the year, but it's doesn't have definite plans as of right now. Crawford says the company takes advantage of opportunities as they present themselves and moves quickly when it does.

Source: Jill Crawford, manager of the Michigan region for Bean & Tea Co
Writer: Jon Zemke

North Coast Banners eliminates debt to grow business

Many growing companies actively work to increase their debt load in order to expand their business. North Coast Banners works to eliminate its debt load to grow.

The Ann Arbor-based company has spent the last few years focused on eliminating its debt, while enjoying steady growth. It routinely aims for 10 percent revenue growth while making sure it owes as little to other people as possible.

"We have paid down every single nickel of corporate debt," says David A. Abramson, managing partner of North Coast Banners. "This is why we're here and a lot of people aren't."

He adds his company was inspired by Dave Ramsey, a financial author and radio host, and his emphasis on being debt free. That has allowed North Coast Banners to grow its staff to six employees and the occasional intern. It hired its last intern as a graphic designer, and it plans to hire another 1-2 people over the next year.

North Coast Banners has also added new work by making banners for concerts, festivals and events. Abramson says if you watch a local band in concert these days there is a good chance the banner hanging over it was made by North Coast Banners. That has allowed the company to add $250,000 in gross revenue and spike its revenue beyond the $1 million mark. Abramson credits that growth to the new business and his firm’s continued focus on remaining debt free.

"I'm really convinced it's the missing link in a lot of our businesses," Abramson says.

Source: David A. Abramson, managing partner of North Coast Banners
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ann Arbor-based AdAdapted raises $725,000 in seed round

AdAdapted has locked down $725,000 in seed capital to help it scale up its mobile advertising platform.

Among the investors were the University of Michigan’s Zell Lurie Commercialization Fund, Belle Michigan, and Start Garden. The Ann Arbor-based startup plans to initially use part of the money to accelerate its hiring. The 2-year-old company currently employs six people after hiring three over the last year. It's currently looking to hire a software developer and sales professional. After that much of the money will be used to help get the word out about AdAdapted.

"We'll mostly be using it on sales and marketing after that," says Molly McFarland, co-founder & chief marketing officer of AdAdapted.

The startup's advertising platform connects advertisers with developers to create customized native ads in mobile apps. It strives to provide a simple interface so advertisers can find their best  audience. The idea is to do away with intrusive banner ads by replacing them with slicker native ads.

"We have clients right now," McFarland says. "The technology is up and running."

AdAdapted's technology is being used by some advertisers. The startup's staff is currently working to flesh out the platform and expand its client base.

Source: Molly McFarland, co-founder & chief marketing officer of AdAdapted
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Joseph Wesley Black Tea leverages new partnership for growth

Joseph Wesley Black Tea and Anthology Coffee, a Detroit-based specialty coffee roaster, are partnering with Rip van Wafels in a move that should get the Detroit-based craft beverage companies some expanded exposure across the U.S.

San Francisco-based Rip van Wafels makes small wafels designed to sit atop your coffee or teacup so that while the coffee or tea cools, the steam heats the filling and infuses the aroma of the coffee or tea into the wafel. It started a monthly subscription box earlier this year where it pairs its wafels with a different craft coffee and tea selection. Joseph Wesley Black Tea and Anthology Coffee are the selections for a Detroit-themed month of July.

"We'll see where it takes us," says Joe Uhl, founder of Joseph Wesley Black Tea. "We're happy that they recognize what we’re doing."

The partnership got its start in when Anthology Coffee founder Josh Longsdorf met Rip van Wafels' Marketing Manager Ruth La Roux at the 2014 Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Annual Exposition. They recognized each other's committment to the slow food movement and decided to create a partnership. Longsdorf brought in Joseph Wesley Black Tea to complete the partnership.

"We have been working with Josh," Uhl says. "I have a similar outlook on beverages as he does."

Joseph Wesley Black Tea and its team of three people celebrated its first year in business this summer. The slow-tea company specializes in selling high-end, hand-harvested teas. Joseph Wesley Black Tea just released a product line of hand-made teas in teabags. It is also aiming to begin bottling pre-made tea drinks later this year.

Source: Joe Uhl, founder of Joseph Wesley Black Tea
Writer: Jon Zemke

Resident Reach creates service that checks in on seniors

James Abraham and Steven Pikor are launching their third business together this summer, Resident Reach.

The serial entrepreneurs started and sold a marketing company and Christian social network. Resident Reach is a senior-oriented business that periodically checks in with senior citizens on behalf of family to make sure they are fine. The idea is to help busy young people close the gaps so the health of their older loved ones doesn’t fall through the cracks.

"I saw a lot of gaps with the people I worked with," says James Abraham, managing partner of Resident Reach. "Steven and I both grew up with grandparents living with us."

The two person operation is based in Sterling Heights and got its start at the Blackstone LaunchPad at Walsh College. It is looking to build up its clientele in Metro Detroit this year to establish itself. Abraham and Pikor expect Resident Reach will take hold as more and more families have to deal with aging loved ones who want to grow old in place.

"Our services are designed to create independence," Abraham says. "Hopefully, the longer we serve them the longer they can stay in their homes."

Source: James Abraham, managing partner of Resident Reach
Writer: Jon Zemke

Movellus Circuits launches fresh microprocessor technology

A lot of startups struggle to raise money to build prototypes of their technology. Movellus Circuits is flipping the script: it already has its prototypes in hand before any money has been raised.

"We have four working prototypes that prove the technology works," says Muhammad Faisal, CEO of Movellus Circuits.

Faisal graduated from the University of Michigan in April with a PhD in electrical engineering. He is commercializing his research at the university. That technology is a patent-pending clock generator for the microprocessor market. The 1-year-old startup is working to make sure its generators are quicker to design, smaller than competitors, offer higher performance, use lower power, provide more flexible, and while only being for sale at a fraction of the cost of existing solutions.

Movellus Circuits is currently working to line up its first customer to license the technology to. It is also looking at establishing a strategic partnership while gearing up to raise a seed capital round of $1 million later this fall.

"That will give us 18 months of runway," Faisal says.

Source: Muhammad Faisal, CEO of Movellus Circuits
Writer: Jon Zemke

Stik aims to hire 10 as it debuts SocialProof

Stik is looking to hire 10 new employees now that it is publicly launching SocialProof, a new version of its marketing platform designed for large clients.

"This is aimed at bigger companies, whereas Stik is focused on smaller companies," says Nathan Labenz, CEO of Stik. "It does all the same things, like help companies tell their success stories."

Those success stories range from online reviews to customer testimonials. It's a new form of marketing Labenz and his team are branding as "customer success marketing." SocialProof is a more robust version of Stik's customer success marketing platform that already is being used by Quicken Loans and General Motors.

"We would love to be known as the leader in this new form of marketing that we are sort of pioneering," Labenz says. "When people think about customer success marketing, we want them to think about us."

Stik recently won a $100,000 investment from Steve Case, the former CEO of America Online, during Case's Rise of the Rest Road Tour in late June. That money will accelerate Stik’s hiring for its 10 openings. The company already has a staff of 25 employees and a summer intern after hiring 15 people over the last year.

Labenz and Stik co-founder Jay Gierak went to Harvard together and were housemates with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Labenz and Gierak launched Stik in 2010 in Silicon Valley. The pair moved it to downtown Detroit (it's a Detroit Venture Partners portfolio startup) in 2012, landing in the  M@dison Building.

Source: Nathan Labenz, CEO of Stik
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ornicept shifts into sales mode, plans to close on Series A

Ornicept has a new brand for its product, a few new customers, and is making way to raise even more money later this year.

The downtown Ann Arbor-based startup has rebranded its field data collection software (formerly called GeoTraverse) to Specteo. It has gone beyond its Beta launch and started lining up customers as it fleshes out its mobile platform.

"We have been hitting sales mode pretty quickly and heavily," says Justin Otani, co-founder of Ornicept. "We also have been adding features and improving functionality."

Otani co-founded Ornicept with Russell Conard two years ago, originally developing bird monitoring technology for airports and wind farms. Last year it pivoted to creating a mobile software platform that helps researchers and inspectors collect data in the field. It started on Andriod tablets and is expanding beyond that.
 
"We have an iOS version coming out later this year," Conard says.

Ornicept raised a $600,000 angel round last year that helped get its product to market. It is aiming to raise a Series A round of investment later this year. The company has hired four people over the last year (two marketing professionals and another two sales professionals), expanding its staff to 14 people.

Source: Justin Otani and Russell Conard, co-founders of Ornicept
Writer: Jon Zemke

Brooks Kushman expands office, staff in Southfield

Hiring is becoming an increasingly important word at Brooks Kushman this year. The boutique intellectual property law firm has hired 20 people so far this year, filling out new office space it acquired last year.

"We've been getting more work and hiring more people," says Mark Cantor, president of Brooks Kushman. "We need space for all the extra people."

The Southfield-based law practice currently employs 175 people and a handful of interns from a variety of local organizations, such as Challenge Detroit and Detroit's Cristo Rey High School. The 31-year-old firm took on an extra 8,000 square feet to its main office in Southfield last year, It now occupies more than 50,000 square feet.

"We took a whole second floor," Cantor says. "We have two continuous floors in the building."

Brooks Kushman specializes in intellectual property law, such as filing for patents that cover new technology. Cantor says the company is projecting a revenue spike of as much as 20 percent this year. That's up from 3 percent revenue growth the year before. Work from a number of different sectors, ranging from software to automotive, is prompting the current spate of growth.

"We have had growth in many areas," Cantor says.

Source: Mark Cantor, president of Brooks Kushman
Writer: Jon Zemke

ACS opens office in Troy to leverage growing auto sector

The three letters that announce ACS imay not be well known in Metro Detroit but the company hopes to become increasingly visible over the next year or two.

The testing company opened a new office in Troy, ACS Michigan, to attract more clientele from the automotive industry. The two-person office has already landed some work with Tier 1 automotive suppliers and is looking to expand on that.

ACS services the engine- and vehicle-testing markets, making its mark in the heavy industrial and diesel markets. It specializes in the design, construction management, integration, and commissioning of development and production test facilities for engine, vehicle manufacturers. Some of its primary customers are Caterpillar, Cummins, John Deere, and MTU America.

"That space has given us enough space for some significant growth," says Chris Arnold, managing director of ACS Michigan.

ACS Michigan hopes to replicate that success with the automotive industry. It is currently doing work with the likes of Daimler, MAHLE and Umicore.

"We want to take the same delivery methods we used for diesel and use it with automotive," Arnold says.

Source: Chris Arnold, managing director of ACS Michigan
Writer: Jon Zemke

The Refinement Group blends parties with grassroots

The Refinement Group describes itself as "a lifestyle branding company with strong efforts geared toward philanthropy, event production, social awareness, positive influence, music, film, entrepreneurship, mentoring and more. A refined culture."

Put simply, it's a collective group of creatives that are looking to do good by combining events with grassroots causes. The end result is money raised and awareness created for good causes.

"We wanted to give people a purpose for their celebration," says Darren Brown, co-founder of The Refinement Group. "It's celebration with a purpose."

Since Brown and Darius Mitchell started the Refinement Group, the company has grown to a team of 17 people from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, ranging from actors to philanthropists. Brown is a filmmaker.

The organization has thrown parties for the Big Brothers Big Sisters and Lupus Walk. It is currently throwing a party on Sunday at the Post Bar in Dearborn called the Summer Fling.

"In the last year, I want to say we have raised about $8,000 for numerous charities," Brown says.

Source: Darren Brown, co-founder of The Refinement Group
Writer: Jon Zemke
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