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Ann Arbor SPARK brokers Liebherr-Aerospace expansion in Saline

Ann Arbor SPARK has made its work practically synonymous with growing start-ups, but the business accelerator is doing more to grow other new economy segments of the region's entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The latest example of that is the expansion of Liebherr-Aerospace's operations in Saline. The aerospace supplier is expanding its 100,000-square-foot facility by another 33,000 square feet for landing gear manufacturing. It's an expansion that will mean the hiring of 15-20 new people by next spring.

"We think there are more opportunities to work with companies in the area," says Paul Krutko, president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK. "We want to build an aerospace cluster in this area."

The Ann Arbor area has a number of aerospace companies, mainly clustered around the Ann Arbor airport. This existing base, paired with the area's manufacturing capability, creates a viable opportunity for further growth in the industry.

Source: Paul Krutko, president & CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Saline-based DesignHub adds 10 new clients

When the economy tanked a few years ago, DesignHub didn't start to feel the pinch until early 2010. Since then the website-design company has landed more clients and done some high-profile work, particularly over the last year.

"The last year has been good," says Chris Kochmanski, partner at DesignHub. "We experienced a slowdown in the first half of 2010 but it has picked up steadily since then."

DesignHub has landed 10 new clients, including the likes of Ann Arbor's Tower Plaza and BioMedware, a bio-tech software consulting firm. That has allowed the Saline-based company to keep its staff of four employees and an independent contractor busy.

Kochmanski is cautiously optimistic about growth for the company over the next year, growth that might allow the company to expand its staff.

"We have a lot of new business proposals in the works," Kochmanski says.

Source: Chris Kochmanski, partner at DesignHub
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Saline's Latitude Learning to add interns, up to 20 jobs this year

Jeff Walter began to notice the economy turn as 2010 closed out. That's when businesses opened up their budgets and the sales at his company, Latitude Learning, took off.

"What we're seeing now is contracts close now where the interest began last year," says Walter, president of Latitude Learning. "After Labor Day, there was a marked increase in interest."

That interest has led to a number of new job opportunities at the Saline-based company. It currently has half a dozen openings right now in the business analyst and technical developer areas. Walter expects the company's staff to go from about 30
employees today to 50 by the end of the year. He is also in the process of recruiting some interns for this summer.

Driving all of this is Latitude Learning's software as a service learning management system. That SaaS system and its new pricing has led to six new clients and increased business from existing clients.

"Since the recession hit, we have really committed the organization to making the software as the lead product and getting it out there as SaaS," Walter says.

Source: Jeff Walter, president of Latitude Learning
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Sensors plans for 10-20% growth, more hires

Sensors isn't your run-of-the-mill Washtenaw County small business specializing in new technology.

First off, the Saline-based firm is too old to be called a start-up since it was formed by five University of Michigan professors in 1969. Second, the then new "thermopile infrared detectors for a new state-of-the-art exhaust gas analyzer" it started out developing aren't that far off of the innovative gas analysis technology it develops for the transportation industry today.

What is different is its size. The company has grown to 80 people (mostly housed in Saline) and an office in Germany. Sensors has been impacted by the recent recession, growing a little here and holding its own there over the last few years, but now the company is set to grow in 2011.

"The business came back as the market got better," says Rob Wilson, vice president of marketing for Sensors.

Sensors recently made the semifinals for the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition. Wilson expects that success coupled with the launch of new products (he declined to elaborate on what they are) will help propel Sensors to 10-20 percent growth this year, along with adding two more jobs in Saline.

Source: Rob Wilson, vice president of marketing for Sensors
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Ann Arbor start-ups dominate Accelerate Michigan semi-finals

Ann Arbor-based start-ups are dominating the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition, taking half of the 50 spaces in the semi-finals.

Elizabeth Parkinson, director of marking and public relations for Ann Arbor SPARK, says this sort of showing isn't an anomaly. Tree Town-based start-ups regularly take half of the cash from Michigan's statewide Pre-Seed Capital and Microloan funds.

"We used judges from across the state," says Parkinson. Ann Arbor SPARK is the lead organizer behind the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition. "Everyone has three looks from three different judges. Everybody got a fair look."

And Ann Arbor firms shined through. On top of that another three startups are based in (Saline-based Sensors and Brighton-based Spinal Ventures) or have ties to (ShadePlex started in Ypsilanti) communities nearby. The list includes a number of firms that are well known for a variety of reasons, including Discera, which emerged as an issue in the recent gubernatorial race.

Among the companies are Accio Energy, Advanced Battery Control and POWERleap in alternative energy, along with Arbor Photonics and ePack in next generation manufacturing. The medical device companies include Compendia Bioscience, Epsilon Imaging, Hygieia, OcuSciences, Vir(Sn) and ImBio. The life science firms are FreeStride Therapeutics, Life Magnatics, NextGen Metabolomics, and RetroSense Theraputics. The rest include Current Motor Company (advanced transportation); ElectroDynamic Applications and Mayaterials (both in advanced materials); Evigia Systems and Pixel Velocity (both defense & homeland security); Ix Innovations and Monarch Antenna (both products and services); TherapyCharts, and Reveal Design (IT).

The Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition is offering $1 million in prizes to start-ups in Michigan or planning to move to Michigan. The idea is to showcase the state's entrepreneurial ecosystem to a large audience of investors in town for the Big Chill hockey game at Michigan Stadium on Dec. 11.

Source: Elizabeth Parkinson, director of marking & public relations for Ann Arbor SPARK
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Saline's JAC Products to add 87 jobs; diversifies into lithium ion batteries and solar panel racks

The diversification of JAC Products is a move that is allowing the Saline-based automotive supplier to add dozens of jobs.

The 43-year-old Tier 1 supplier recently received a $572,000 state tax credit over the next five years to help fund its expansion. The deal should mean another 87 jobs, thanks to a $6.2 million project. Most of those jobs will be created in the first few years of the tax credit, which was awarded by the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

JAC Products primarily makes automotive exterior parts, such as roof racks. It has recently expanded into manufacturing both lithium ion batteries and solar panel racks. The tax credit helped persuade the company to expand at its work spaces in Saline and Shelby Township instead of its plant in Georgia.

"It (the diversification) will help dampen the cycles in the auto industry," says Dan Smoke, CFO for JAC Products. "They call this a cyclical industry for a reason."

The new expansion will add 30,000 square feet to the company's Saline operations. That's where the bulk of its workforce is located. The company employs 412 people, with about 35 located at its Shelby Township plant and a few engineers in Pontiac.

Source: Dan Smoke, CFO for JAC Products
Writer: Jon Zemke

Quantum Signal invests $1.29M, plans 47 hires

Quantum Signal is sending all of the right messages these days - hiring half a dozen people, about to hire another 47, and making a $1.29 million investment in the Ann Arbor community.

The 10-year-old firm
recently added six people, rounding out its staff to 35 with another 2-3 interns. That's up from a headcount of just under 30 when we checked in with the company in January. The Ann Arbor-based firm plans to hire 9-10 people per year over the next five years so it can hit its target of 47 new employees in that same time period.

"We're very much in growth mode right now," says Mitch Rohde, COO of Quantum Signal. "We have a lot of projects in the pipeline so we have to expand our facilities. We're constantly understaffed."

Quantum Signal uses high-end engineering mathematics and algorithms to extract information from visual data. Think the type of software used in face-recognition devices. It also develops military training simulations and commercial video games under its Reactor Zero subsidiary. It took a lot of these algorithms from the likes of the University of Michigan.

"We wanted to take something out of the ivory tower and apply it worldwide," Rohde says.

The Michigan Economic Development Corp gave Quantum Signal a $206,083 tax credit over five years, helping it make the choice to expand in Michigan instead of Washington, D.C. The firm also plans to move to Saline as part of its expansion.

Source: Mitch Rohde, COO of Quantum Signal
Writer: Jon Zemke

Pair of Docs co-founder becomes CEO of Inpore Tech

Gerry Roston's plan for Pair of Docs is working quite well. The Saline-based entrepreneur has used the consulting firm to help secure a top executive position at up-and-coming firm Inpore Technologies.

Roston is now the CEO of the East Lansing-based
plastic polymers manufacturer. He is helping the Michigan State University spin-off finish its first round of angel investments this summer. He expects it to be fully operational and profitable within a year or two and to have 7-8 employees (there are now three) by the end of this year.

"That model is working very well now," Roston says.

Pair of Docs won't just fade away with Roston's exit. His partner in the Saline-based business will fill in as Roston focuses on Inpore Technologies.

Inpore Technologies makes a polymer additive to make plastics stronger and more flexible - no easy task. Its product is biodegradable, thereby shortening the time that automotive plastics spend in landfills to a few years rather than indefinitely. It also makes the plastic more fire retardant and non-toxic if it actually does burn.

"There are all sorts of neat opportunities with this product," Roston says.

Source: Gerry Roston, partner with Pair of Docs and CEO of Inpore Technologies
Writer: Jon Zemke

Womenís Exchange of Washtenaw wins SBA champion award

Women's Exchange of Washtenaw is making room on its shelf for a new award and room in its ranks for a new chapter or two.

The U.S. Small Business Administration will present the non-profit's co-founders, Carrie Hensel and Debra Power, with the "U.S. Small Business Administrationís Michigan Women in Business Champion of the Year for 2010" award later this week. That will come as the duo make preparations to grow the organization across the state in the near future.

"We think we have found something very unique and special and we want to share it," Power says.

Women's Exchange of Washtenaw was founded two years ago as a place for businesswomen to network and create new business opportunities, generate referrals and find work. It now has a database of 800 women who partake in the organization. Women's Exchange of Washtenaw is not a membership organization, which allows participants the freedom to pay as they go.

Hensel and Powers have enjoyed quite a bit of success with this model, creating an open and engaging environment for entrepreneurs without a Y chromosome. They expect to try and spread this model into the Lansing market later this year.

Women's Exchange of Washtenaw will host the Women's Exchange of Washtenaw Forum 10 on May 21 at Kensington Court, 610 Hilton Blvd in Ann Arbor. The all-day event will feature regional speakers, workshops, breakout sessions and networking activities to engage the business community and work through the common issues women business leaders face in their efforts to grow and improve their companies. The event costs $75 before May 1 and $95 after. For information, click here.

Source: Debra Power, co-founder of Women's Exchange of Washtenaw
Writer: Jon Zemke

Saline's Latitude Learning plans to hire 5-10

Latitude Learning knows how to take a punch and come back swinging. That's what the Saline-based firm did after the recent recession clocked it good last year, setting up the firm for a comeback.

The technology consulting company cut its staff in half after the Big Three took it on the chin last year, leaving the downtown-based firm with 30 people and a couple of independent contractors. However, the software-as-a-service product it launched last year is starting to gain traction this year, allowing the firm to begin hiring 5-10 people later this year.

"This year we started to roll out marketing full force," says Jeff Walter, president of Latitude Learning. "We're adding people and we expect to grow."

Its new learning management system product allows companies to train employees and track their training through systems large and small, local and global. Its open source philosophy has made it flexible and popular with its customers.

"It's very functionally rich," Walter says.

Source: Jeff Walter, president of Latitude Learning
Writer: Jon Zemke

Google Fiber means 2 things to Ann Arbor: Choice, opportunity

When Steve Pierce thinks about what Google's Fiber community would mean for Ann Arbor or Saline/Pittsfield Township he weighs the long-term impact. The co-founder of Wireless Ypsi and expert of just about all things Internet sees the Google pilot program providing two things most people aren't talking about: Opportunity and choice.

Choice, as in competition between Internet service providers, who will be forced to provide better service at an even better price. Opportunity, as in the economic opportunities this will provide for Washtenaw County.

"That connection provides opportunity for entrepreneurs whether itís a start-up or a big company," says Pierce, who lives in downtown Ypsilanti and runs his business from his laptop. "Bandwidth is king. No matter how fast your connection is you could always use more."

Google plans to build and test ultra-high speed broadband networks in a small number of communities across the country. These lines will stream data at 1 gigabit per second, about 100 times faster than most Americans get through their current cable and DSL providers.

Ann Arbor got on the bandwagon quickly, launching A2Fiber, a Facebook fan page, a YouTube contest and other online efforts to rally support for its application. The University of Michigan and Ypsilanti are backing Ann Arbor's effort. Saline and Pittsfield Township are filing a competing joint application. As for the local media's talk of competition
between the two applications, Pierce thinks its irrelevant.

"It doesn't matter who the heck wins," Pierce says. "We just need to get this to the county. We need to get past the first round so the Google people will come here and check us out."

Pierce believes that Google is looking for a community of about 250,000 people, meaning it wouldn't just be Ann Arbor or Saline/Pittsfield Township alone. It would probably be Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, such as the city, the adjacent townships and probably some nearby towns.

That would actually play to Washtenaw County's favor because the general Ann Arbor area features both urban, suburban and rural settings for Google to test. Local municipalities also have an educated population and business community with an almost unquenchable demand for Internet. But even if Google just choose to set up the project in downtown Ann Arbor, the economic ripple affects would be felt for miles away.

"It's still going to help Ypsilanti because it's going to attract more people to the community," Pierce says. "Where are they going to live? Some are going to live in Ypsilanti. Some are going to shop and eat in Ypsilanti. It's going to be huge for the community if we can land these guys here."

Source: Steve Pierce, co-founder of Wireless Ypsi.
Writer: Jon Zemke

Saline's Flatout Flatbread Co scores capital infusion

Capital might not be flowing with the force it once did, but a couple of Saline entrepreneurs have found a big enough trickle to quench their thirst.

Flatout Flatbread Co. recently received a capital infusion (terms and amount were not released) from the private equity firm North Castle Partners. The Saline-based firm was founded by Stacey and Mike Marsh. It specializes in making, surprise, flatbread and wraps.

Greenwich, Conn.-based North Castle has worked with and helped build niche brands before, such as Naked Juice and Nutrition Solutions. The private equity firm focuses on investing in consumer businesses that promote health and wellness. It also plans to lend expertise in strategy, marketing, operations and IT to help grow the Flatout brand.

Glencoe Capital and the Michigan Opportunities Fund also participated in making the deal happen. Glencoe Capital is a private equity firm focused on lead-sponsored acquisitions and growth equity investments in lower middle-market companies. It participates in the InvestMichigan! initiative established by the state in 2008.

Source: Flatout Flatbread Co.
Writer: Jon Zemke

Successful ACE shows Mich ahead of the entrepreneurial curve

There is a new bit of conventional wisdom forming in local circles: Michigan (the Ann Arbor area especially) is way ahead of the rest of nation when it comes to building small businesses and cultivating entrepreneurs.

Some concrete evidence of that popped up last week at the Annual Collaboration for Entrepreneurship in Ann Arbor's Skyline High School. Attendance almost doubled, going from 550 last year to 917 last week. That helped create a buzz of optimism about the state's small business climate that seems to be hitting a tipping point.

"Michigan really does do certain things well," says Gerry Roston, chair of the planning committee for this year's ACE and owner of the Pair of Docs Consulting in Saline. "There are a number of organizations that support entrepreneurship. We seem to have a lot more of these than other states and they work together really well."

He points to newcomers like Ann Arbor SPARK as gaining traction and working well with established organizations, like the New Enterprise Forum. A main focus of groups like this revolve around the idea of what's best for the entrepreneur. It's ethos like this that have attracted economic development agencies from Delaware and California to this year's ACE.

"They come to Michigan to see how it's done," Roston says.

That's not to say the local entrepreneur community has arrived. There is a lot of work to be done to support these burgeoning small businesses. Chief among those is start-up capital in an environment where it seems lenders are frozen in carbonite Han Solo style.

"We need to grow our venture capital community," Roston says. "We have funds here. They're great funds but they're smaller funds."

Which might explain one of the reasons why ACE was so popular this year. The event holds several contests that feature cold, hard start-up cash for the winners. Some of those include $1,000 for Intercollegiate Business Idea Pitch Competition (won by Ken Lange of Saginaw Valley State University for a telescoping dock), a year of corporate membership for NEF and virtual incubator tenancy in Ann Arbor SPARK (won by Howard Brown of Franklin-based CircleBuilder) and even $140 for the Twitter Biz Idea Contest, which was won by Barbara OíConnell of Ypsilanti's WhereToFindCare.com.

On top of all of that, it was announced that Great Lake Entrepreneur Quest is partnering with the SmartZones/Michigan Economic Development Corp to offer a $100,000 pre-seed investment through the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund, which is administered by Ann Arbor SPARK.

Source: Gerry Roston, chair of the planning committee for Annual Collaboration for Entrepreneurship
Writer: Jon Zemke

eVjump makes move from Saline to downtown Ann Arbor

The high price of installing solar panels isn't all wrapped up in research and development. Some of it involves good old American manufacturing.

Saline-based eVjump specializes in lowering solar installation costs through the latter, and it's going to do it in downtown Ann Arbor. The year-old start-up is moving to Ann Arbor SPARK's central incubator with all eight of its employees.

"It's not so much the technology of the solar cell but how you go about it," says Mike Medvec, head of business development for eVjump.

The idea is that driving down the manufacturing and installation costs can make solar panel installation more feasible for more consumers. That way the technology can arrive to the mass market sooner by finding efficiencies elsewhere in the process.

The company's name is a reference to an electron volt, specifically when an electron jumps off its rotation to create electricity in alternative energy fields like solar.

Source: Mike Medvec, head of business development for eVjump
Writer: Jon Zemke

Michigan makes loan to hire Pfizer talent in Saline

The Pfizer-is-leaving announcement seems farther and farther away with each passing day, but state officials are still working to keep that drug development talent in Michigan.

Saline- and Kalamazoo-based firms have received loans from the Company Formation and Growth fund, a state-based initiative to keep Pfizer talent and assets in Michigan.

Research Essential Services of Saline will receive $200,000 so it can occupy space in the newly opened Michigan Life Science and Innovation Center in Plymouth. That money will also allow the company to hire four ex-Pfizer scientists and purchase some old Pfizer assets.

The other winner is Kalamazoo-based Kalexsyn, which will use its $150,000 to hire three ex-Pfizer scientists. The Company Formation and Growth fund has approved $7.25 million in loans for 34 life-sciences firms in the Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo and Metro Detroit communities since Pfizer announced it was leaving Michigan.

Source: Michigan Economic Development Corporation
Writer: Jon Zemke
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