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Detroitists wanted: Challenge Detroit, DTX, NextEnergy seek applicants

The new year is well underway and that means one thing for current and aspiring Detroiters looking for an opportunity: it's application time.

Several of the Motor City's top fellowship programs and incubators are currently taking applications, including Challenge Detroit, TechTown's DTX Launch Detroit, and NextEnergy.

DTX Launch Detroit is accepting applications for its student tech accelerator. The 10-week program is geared toward college students and recent graduates, helping them figure out their startup's value proposition, conduct customer discovery, and build a team. An information session for the program will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at TechTown, 440 Burroughs in New Center.

NextEnergy is looking for entrepreneurs and researchers for its I-Corps Energy and Transportation program. The commercialization training program equips researchers and entrepreneurs with tech-to-market skills to move their ideas out of the lab and into the market.

Challenge Detroit is recruiting applicants for its yearlong leadership-development program aimed at attracting and retaining talent in Detroit. The fellowship program, which is aimed at recent college graduates, provides a living stipend, a full-time job, and community development opportunities.

Challenge Detroit has been bringing in dozens of fellows each year since its launch in 2012. It currently has 90 alumni and 30 people in its 2015-16 fellowship class. It plans to bring on another 30 fellows starting this summer. To shake it up, the nonprofit is recruiting participating host companies to nominate existing employees this year.

"We realized we want to be more inclusive of companies that want to participate in Challenge Detroit but can't afford a new hire," says Shelley Danner, program director for Challenge Detroit. "It's also a way for us to broaden our network."

Source: Shelley Danner, program director for Challenge Detroit
Writer: Jon Zemke

Bundled finds success making gift baskets from Michiganís best products

Courtney Taylor and Chelsea Gheesling have been writing a blog called Chick in the Mitt for the past few years, covering food, fashion, and social life.

Chick in the Mitt became so popular that retailers and brands started sending them products to review on the blog. What started as a cool fringe benefit turned into a regular routine, and then it became a business idea last fall.

"We decided to put the products together and sell them," Taylor says.

Bundled finds the best products in Michigan and offers to bundle them into themed and customized gift boxes for men, women, and babies. The variety of bundle themes include housewarming goods and Michigan grab bags. The bundles cost between $35 to $50 (shipping included) and are filled with items that retail for roughly double that amount. The idea is to help introduce more of the great products made in the Great Lakes State to a broader audience.

"Customers can choose from a catalog of 30 items and ship them anywhere they want," Taylor says.

A special education teacher for her day job, Taylor employs young people with special needs to help package and ship the bundles. Bundled now ships an average of 50 bundles each month, but the three co-founders of the company plan to scale that number later this year.

Source: Courtney Taylor, co-founder of Bundled
Writer: Jon Zemke

Apprentice program keeps talent pipeline gushing at Detroit Labs

Creating jobs for software developers is not difficult. It seems like every company with a toe in the new economy pool needs at least a developer or two on its team. Creating software developers, on the other hand, is not so easy.

But Detroit Labs is making the difficult look easy these days. The downtown Detroit-based tech firm makes custom apps for clients both big and small, such as DTE Energy and Fathead. To meet those needs the company has grown to 90 employees since its launch in 2011, including a dozen new hires over the last year.

"We're always looking for new talent," says Bill Camp, planning and development overlord with Detroit Labs.

Many of the firm's new hires come from the company's apprentice program, which trains software developers and paves the way for full-time employment at the company. It has helped professionals from a number of different industries make the career switch to software. Detroit Labs has run three classes of its apprentice program, which have resulted in 20 new hires in each of the first two and 11 hires in the most recent. Those new hires end up working at Detroit Labs or for one of its clients.

"We highly value our developers," Camp says. "We offer them a great package at Detroit Labs, like flexible schedule and time to work on their own projects. We are also a very flat structure so people can take charge in leading their projects."

It also comes with a number of other perks, such as an in-house fitness program. There employees can sign up for everything from a masseuse to yoga to cardio workouts.

"We had 20-30 people at one point in this fitness program," says Will McDowell, an analyst for Detroit Labs.

All of this has added up to a growing business. Detroit Labs' income has doubled over the last year. That has resulted in it filling out its two floors at1520 Woodward in the [email protected] Block of downtown Detroit. The company can still fit all of its employees in its current offices, but it is starting to explore ways to expand that space.

"There is some space in the building we are looking at, but nothing official," Camp says.

Source: Bill Camp & Will McDowell, Detroit Labs
Writer: Jon Zemke

Detroit redevelopment work leads to growth for Giffels Webster

There are lots of signs that real-estate development in Detroit is back, from rising home prices to the construction of the M-1 Rail line moving ahead at full steam. And then there is growth of an infrastructure consulting firm like Giffels Webster.

The downtown Detroit-based firm has watched its revenue grow by up to 40 percent over the last five years, including a 15 percent jump over the last year. Its staff has spiked from 55 people in 2010 to 86 people today, including 10 new hires. It also promoted three of its managers to partners in a move to assure its future growth.

"We have had a very sustained growth over the last five years," says Scott Clein, president of Giffels Webster.

The Giffels Webster team is made up of everyone from civil engineers to landscape architects to city planners to surveyors. The firm typically handles the macro end of real-estate development, such as helping municipalities figure out long-range development plans or developers maximize what they can get out of redeveloping property.

Work typically divides into public works and private land deals. The public portion has played a critical role in the firm’s growth, providing a solid base for it to profit from.

"It helped keep us on an even keel during the recession," Clein says.

But the private land portion is where the growth is at today.

"There has been great growth on all segments," Clein says. "But it has been mainly driven by the private-land side."

While Giffels Webster has enjoyed private-sector growth at its satellite offices in Macomb and Oakland counties, its Detroit work, most of which is coming from redevelopment of existing buildings and even some new build work, is leading the way.

Source: Scott Clein, president of Giffels Webster
Writer: Jon Zemke

Arbor Brewing Co debuts "gastro street fare" in renovated brewpub

Arbor Brewing Co is not only showing off its newly renovated space in downtown Ann Arbor, but also an eclectic new menu to go with it. Rene Greff, who co-owns Arbor Brewing Co with her husband Matt Greff, describes the new menu as "gastro street fare," that emphasizes fresh, locally sourced food made from scratch. Think everything from vegetarian dishes to burgers to shared plates to a selection of French fries.

"The most decadent one is fries fried in duck fat," Rene Greff says.

Arbor Brewing Co recently turned 20 years old and celebrated by renovating its downtown Ann Arbor brewpub after the holidays ended. The project includes a revamped bar, dining room seating, entryway, kitchen, and bathrooms.

The overall theme is to modernize the facilities and make it more accessible. The entryway was reconfigured so the door is on the side of the entry vestibule. The bar was redesigned into a U shape by removing a faux wall behind the existing bar, opening it up to more seating and more room for people to navigate the dinning area.

"We are 98 percent done," Rene Greff says. "We are waiting for our new stools to arrive and a few other things like that."

Source: Rene Greff, co-owner of Arbor Brewing Co
Writer: Jon Zemke

Growth spike pushes Portal Architects to release new software

The team at Portal Architects have enjoyed so much success with their software that they have begun to focus on the next generation of their technology. The Ann Arbor-based company launched SkySync a couple years ago. The platform helps companies better connect IT systems to the cloud through a Windows app. The end result is a smoother, shorter ride when it comes from synchronizing and moving files across digital storage systems.

"We solved a major pain point," says Mark Brazeau, CEO of Portal Architects. "Anytime you can solve a major pain point and do it in a way that people can just download and install, you will get a lot of traction."

That means 357 percent revenue growth over the last year. It now has nearly 2,000 clients, including a lot of Fortune 500 clients. The company has hired 16 people, mainly software professionals, expanding its staff to 27 employees.

"The lion's share of your growth is from new clients," Brazeau says.

Portal Architects is now working toward the release of the second generation of its software. Brazeau describes it as a federate search of digital files that enables users to find what they’re looking for in a matter of a few clicks.

"If you think of what we do is enabling then this is game changing," Brazeau says. "Jaws dropped when we have shared the concept."

Portal Architects is working to release the new platform as part of a rolling roll out in April.

Source: Mark Brazeau, CEO of Portal Architects
Writer: Jon Zemke

Visual Compass expands into mobile app development

For most of its 17 years Visual Compass has been a side project for Vince Chmielewski. The technology firm started out of Chmielewski's University of Michigan dorm room in the 1990s where he put together websites for family and friends. It has incrementally grown since, going through a range of names, such as VC Web Designs, VC Web Services, Visual Compass Web Design, and now Visual Compass.

But it had always been a side project for Chmielewski while he worked a full-time job at U-M. Even when the tech firm was graduating from Ann Arbor SPARK's East Incubator, hiring a handful of people, and moving into new offices in Ypsilanti, Chmielewski still pulled double time, managing the firm and commuting to his job in Ann Arbor.

That changed about a year ago. Chmielewski finally left the security of his full-time job to focus on running Visual Compass the right way.

"Things were growing pretty quickly," Chmielewski says. "I needed to hire somebody to do the day-to-day management duties or do it myself. The time was right."

Visual Compass isn’t missing a beat. The company hired a new graphic designer a couple months ago and now has a staff of eight employees and handful of 1099s in its new office space in Depot Town. The company moved into the space a little more than a year ago to accommodate its growth and give it more room to do more creative things for digital marketing. It even has a photo studio that the company occasionally subleases out to freelance photographers.

"It's not full yet but some days it seems pretty crowded," Chmielewski says.

Visual Compass has traditionally stuck to website design but is now expanding into other areas of digital marketing and technology. It has started doing more custom mobile app creation for customers and is gearing up to release its own app later this year.

"It's a Pinterest recipe app," Chmielewski says.

All of that work adds up to some solid growth for the firm. Its revenue has jumped 40 percent over the last year as it adds more customers and more work from existing customers.

"We are doing more stuff with the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University," Chmielewski says. "We also picked up some big industrial clients."

Source: Vince Chmielewski, president of Visual Compass
Writer: Jon Zemke

Giffels Webster promotes from within to find 3 new partners

Infrastructure consulting firm Giffels Webster recently brought on three new partners to its practice, a move it didn't need to go far to execute.

All of three of the new partners in the Detroit-based firm have worked there for numerous years.

"We tend to promote from within," says Scott Clein, president of Giffels Webster. "It goes back to before my time. It was 30-40 years ago when someone came in from outside and became a partner."

There are a couple of reasons behind the promote-from-within philosophy. This way the firm knows the new partners are a good culture fit since they have excelled there for years. Giffels Webster's leadership will also feel secure in knowing that the partners have made a long-term commitment to the practice because of their history with the company.

Giffels Webster has grown significantly over last five years, creating 30-plus jobs. Its staff of 86 people now help local municipalities make longterm development planning decisions and private developers best maximize their real-estate holdings. The 64-year-old firm is headquartered in Detroit and has offices in Macomb and Oakland counties. One of each of the three new partners will be based in each of the region's three main counties: Michael Kozak will work out of Macomb County, Michael Marks will work out of Detroit, and Jason Mayer will work out of Oakland County.

Giffels Webster, which now has 10 partners, has never before added three partners at once. The idea behind this latest round of promotions is to help bring more youth and fresh ideas into the company's leadership.

"There is nothing normal in what we have done this time," Clein says. "We made a strategic decision to broaden the ownership of our firm."

Source: Scott Clein, president of Giffels Webster
Writer: Jon Zemke

Digitization drives Image Data Conversion growth in Saline

The world is full of more paperwork than anyone could, or want to, read in a lifetime. Image Data Conversion is building a business by digitizing all of it for the 21st Century.

The Saline-based company owns three subsidiaries that digitize documents. It acquired eBeam Film in 2011, launched Reveal Digital in 2011, and acquired NA Publishing in 2013. All of them are working to corner the digitizing markets, such as helping libraries put large collections online.

"Now they are generating more service offerings to help libraries solve the problems they have today," says Joe Mills, managing director of Image Data Conversion.

Specifically NA Publishing is working to digitize every issue of Publishers Weekly. That means cover-to-cover of each issue dating from 1872 to today.

That sort of work has allowed Image Data Conversion to notch double-digit revenue gains in each of the last couple of years. It has more than doubled its staff since 2010, going from 32 employees to 70 people today. It expects that growth curve to remain steady as it keeps moving forward this year.

"We are adding a lot of staff," Mills says. "We are investing a lot in these businesses."

Source: Joe Mills, managing director of Image Data Conversion
Writer: Jon Zemke

Football helmet designed at U-M may decrease head injuries

For those of you who weren't put off by Steve Almond's provocative "Against Football: A Reluctant Manifesto" but still worry about the concussions that plague football players, researchers at U-M are developing a more shock-absorbing helmet system for players.


"The engineering researchers making the system, called Mitigatium, were recently funded by a group that includes the National Football League. Their early prototype could lead to a lightweight and affordable helmet that effectively dissipates the energy from hit after hit on the field. Current helmets can't do this, and that's one of the reasons they aren't very good at preventing brain injury."

Read the rest here.

U-M researchers are developing injectable radios

Yeah, it brings to mind creepy science Fiction movies, but U-M researchers are developing implantable radios. And that could mean big advances in medical devices like pacemakers and health monitoring sensors.


"Implantable medical devices usually have to trade smarts for size. Pacemakers and other active devices with processors on board are typically about a cubic centimeter in size, and must be implanted surgically. Smaller implantable electronics tend to be passive, lacking computing smarts and the ability to actively broadcast signals, says David Blaauw, a professor of electrical engineer and computer science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor."

Read the rest here.

Wolverine State Brewing Co expands, doubles barrel production

Wolverine State Brewing Co. is going big this year. The Ann Arbor-based craft brewery is in the midst of wrapping up an expansion project that includes an expanded kitchen space, additional brewing space, and a larger cooler.

"More beer, more space, more space to keep it cold," says Josh Evans, front of the house manager for Wolverine State Brewing Co.

Wolverine State Brewing Co specializes in brewing lagers, a lighter style of beer that requires more time and energy to brew. Craft breweries usually stick to ales, stouts and porters because of the shorter brewing time and less demanding temperature requirements.

Wolverine State Brewing Co opened its tap room in 2010 in the back half of the old Big George's space on Stadium Boulevard. It has since expanded that space to accommodate food service and events. Last year it embarked on a 6,000-square-foot expansion to that it is just now putting the finishing touches on.

"We're in the home stretch of it right now," Evans says. "The last steps of the process are happening."

The kitchen expansion is a major component of the project. It is significantly larger to accommodate the brewery’s status as a destination to eat, drink and be merry. It will also give its growing staff of 20-some employees, including a handful of new hires, room to work more comfortably.

"It went from a little room to quite a big space," Evans says. "Our growing sales meant we needed a bigger kitchen space."

The craft brewery is also making a significant jump in its production capacity. Before its facilities could handle producing 2,200 barrels annually. When this project is done it will be able to handle a shade under 5,000 barrels a year. Work crews are in the process of installing new fermentation tanks this winter, which will accommodate several years of projected growth.

The newly expanded brewery will also enable the brewers to experiment with more flavors. In December it debuted a new seasonal brew called Vertl'avant, a lager brewed with Bartlett pears in oak chardonnay barrels. The brew was released as part of Wolverine State Brewing Co's five-year anniversary at the location.

"It gave it this very soft and tart taste to it," Evans says. "It's a bit of a departure of what we have done in the past. It was hugely popular."

Source: Josh Evans, front of the house manager for Wolverine State Brewing Co
Writer: Jon Zemke

Fast-growing tech firm QStride moves into One Woodward Avenue

QStride recently made the move from Troy to downtown Detroit, taking up the 16th floor of the One Woodward Avenue.

The Minoru Yamasaki-designed skyscraper was a predecessor in design to the World Trade Center's twin towers. It offers panoramic views of the Detroit River and the central business district. The new space, designed by dPOP!, will offer enough room for the tech firm to grow.

"We needed to expand and get additional office space," says Shane Gianino, CEO of QStride. "We feel Detroit and its tech community is where we needed to be and where we can grow even more."

QStride specializes in everything from business intelligence solutions to IT staffing services. It currently employs 25 people, 15 of whom are internal employees. It has hired eight people over the last year and is looking to fill 30 positions right now. The company’s revenue climbed from $1.3 million 2013 to $1.7 million in 2014 to $2.1 million last year.

QStride is not a stranger to downtown Detroit. The firm, which turns four years old in April, opened a sales office in the Chrysler House in downtown Detroit three years ago. It has been steadily gravitating toward consolidating its operations in Detroit ever since. Moving its headquarters to downtown brings another 10 people to the central business district.

"We want to make a point that we are here," Gianino says. "We believe in this city."

Source: Shane Gianino, CEO of QStride
Writer: Jon Zemke

Red Panda starts selling next generation of digital guitar pedals

Red Panda's claim to fame is building the next generation of guitar pedal that relies on digital technology. After this year it's going to have several claims to fame as the Midtown-based startup releases a new line of products.

Guitar pedals normally utilize analog technology. Red Panda started selling digital guitar pedals four years ago as a way of bringing the technology into the 21st century. They sold well, enabling the company's owner to quit his day job as an electrical engineer and focus on growing Red Panda.

"We have a couple more in the works," says Curt Malouin, owner of Red Panda. "This year we will release 2-3 more products."

One of Red Panda's most recent product releases is the Raster, guitar pedal with a digital delay with a pitch shifter integrated into the feedback loop. The company's website describes the Raster as delivering "a wide range of sounds including harmonized delays, reverse delays, chorus, arpeggios, infinite descents, chaotic self-oscillation, and continuously evolving soundscapes."

Red Panda's guitar pedals are built in the company’s recently expanded space in the Green Garage by a staff of four people. Growing demand for the guitar pedals has prompted Red Panda to add a new hire over the last year and fill out its 600 square feet of space.

"It's getting a little more crowded in there now," Malouin says.

Red Panda has been profitable over the last year after clocking consistently strong sales growth of 60 percent. It sells its guitar pedals directly to retailers in North America, but recently moved to selling to distributors in Europe. The company is looking to increase sales by beefing up both sales channels in 2016.

"We're expanding production and adding new dealers," Malouin says.

Source: Curt Malouin, owner of Red Panda
Writer: Jon Zemke

LLamasoft moves into Google space shows best value comes from local firms

Drive through downtown Ann Arbor and it's hard to miss the giant Google sign atop one of the city's premier office buildings. For years it has been one of the corporate names locals like to point to with pride. Now it's coming down as the tech giant plans to build its own office on the city's outskirts.

And that's a good thing.

LLamasoft, an Ann Arbor-based supply chain software firm, is taking up the lions share of prime downtown office space Google is leaving behind. The move is necessary to accommodate the firm’s rapid growth. Yes, rapid growth is a term thrown around much too often in today's media but LLamasoft is the real deal.

The 13-year-old company has raised tens of millions of dollars in seed capital, including $50 million from Goldman, Sachs & Co to fund its growth. It has hired nearly 100 people in the last year, rounding its staff out to 400 folks around the world. The bulk of them, 220 people, are in Ann Arbor. Its downtown offices are so cramped the company’s leadership doesn’t know where it’s going to put its new hires between now and when it moves into the new space later this summer.

"The 6-month wait we have is painful," says Toby Brzoznowski, co-founder & executive vice president of LLamasoft. "I am looking at ways to give up my office so 2-3 more people can cram into it so we can make it work until we move."

LLamasoft will take up the second and third floors of the McKinley Towne Centre, at 401 E. Liberty. That’s 60,000 square feet in one central location. Today, LLamasoft’s downtown Ann Arbor headquarters is split between several floors of the 201 S Main St building. Brzoznowski expects the new headquarters will give it the headroom the company needs to grow.

"There is absolutely room for growth," Brzoznowski says. "We have averaged 50 percent growth every year."

Betting against LLamasoft growth is not where the smart money is going these days. The company is one of the handful of tech darlings that is surpassing its big expectations. Google's AdWords office in downtown Ann Arbor never really lived up to its expectations. Where people expected a growth leader of a company that would be the center of the local tech scene turned into a side note in elevator pitches.

Yes, Ann Arborites are happy Google is here and prefer it in Tree Town, homegrown startups like LLamasoft are the real future. LLamasoft's executives are the ones who will create gobs of jobs and serve as one of the main leaders in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Homegrown companies like LLamasoft are the ones that deserve to have their names in big lights atop Ann Arbor's skyline.

Source: Toby Brzoznowski, co-founder & executive vice president of LLamasoft
Writer: Jon Zemke
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