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Estrakon hires 4 as it expands LED signage offerings

Estrakon has been notching double- and triple-digit gains in the recent years and is collecting its fair share of awards hardware to show for it.

The Ann Arbor-based LED sign manufacturer has been named an Ann Arbor SPARK Fast Track award winner this fall, making it the second year it has been recognized for its continued growth.

"We grew very quickly in 2011," says Philip Ochtman, president & CEO of Estrakon. "I think it was 202 percent. That presented some challenges as we consolidated our gains. We had 20 percent growth in 2012 and 40 percent in 2013. We are targeting 80 percent growth in 2014."

Helping fuel this growth is world-wide demand for more energy-efficient products, and LED lights are the most-efficient light system on the market. The company has also expanded its product lineup, moving into digital signage systems and creating software that allows for remote control of them. It is now looking at adding some outdoor signage products in 2014.

"We are now at 15 different products," Ochtman says.

That has allowed Estrakon to hire four people over the last year, including professionals in financial controller, design, sales and administrative work. It currently has a staff of 30 employees and one intern. It also recently opened a satellite office in England.

Source: Philip Ochtman, president & CEO of Estrakon
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Epsilon Imaging closes in on $4M Series B round

Epsilon Imaging is landing more and more investment and the startup is close to closing on a sizable seed round.

The Ann Arbor-based company recently landed a $250,000 investment from Automation Alley's Pre-Seed Fund, which is part of more than $3 million it has raised for a Series B round. It is aiming to raise $4 million, a goal that is within the firm’s grasp.

"There is a small amount left," says Eric Sieczka, CEO of Epsilon Imaging. "We expect to have it closed out by the end of January."

Epsilon Imaging's principal product is EchoInsight, an ultrasound for cardiac imaging that quantitatively measures the strength and weakness of the heart's muscles. The technology helps medical staff analyze and interpret echo studies for cardiac patient care.

The company has been closing on sales since last summer. EchoInsight is now available in 35 hospitals across the U.S. and abroad. "We have been expanding into Europe as well," Sieczka says.

Which has required Epsilon Imaging to hire more staff. It has brought on two new employees (in sales and software development) over the last year and currently employs nine people. More hires are expected in 2014.

"We have lots of business coming at us so we need more sales people," Sieczka says. "We have a lot of business in the pipeline so we need more bodies to pull it through."

Source: Eric Sieczka, CEO of Epsilon Imaging
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Applied Engineering scores grant for wastewater tech

Applied Engineering Technologies has scored a $38,000 grant from the state of Michigan to further the development of its wastewater-treatment technology.

The Ann Arbor-based company has secured five patents on its technology that helps wastewater treatment centers clean dirty water in a more efficient manner. "It's a process-patent technology where we use different processes to treat storm water," says Saad Ghalib, president & founder of Applied Engineering Technologies.

Applied Engineering Technologies installed its first system in Dearborn a few years ago. It is now dealing with three cities and is fielding interest from government agencies in England and South Korea.

That interest has led the company to begin raising some seed capital. It hopes to closed on a $2 million Series A round next year. That money will help them to continue to develop the technology and add to their staff of four employees and two independent contractors. Ghalib is currently looking to add three people to the firm’s staff right now.

"We need several people," Ghalib says. "We need management and sales people and engineers."

Source: Saad Ghalib, president & founder of Applied Engineering Technologies
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Pure Visibility finds inspiration in new, innovative clients

Pure Visibility doesn't just hold up its work with pride, but its clients, too.

The downtown Ann Arbor-based firm services a wide variety of businesses looking for more visibility on the Internet and social media. Among the newest is Novelis, which is developing new, innovative and more sustainable ways to use aluminum, such as in beverage cans.

"It's inspiring to work with them," says Linda Girard, president & CEO of Pure Visibility.

The 8-year-old company is also finding inspiration in its new office mates. Pure Visibility took over the old Menlo Innovations space in Kerrytown last year. Today it shares that space with software firms Blue Newt and Kontextual.

"They fit into our ecosystem quite nicely," Girard says. "It's just a great vibe."

Pure Visibility has hired three people over the last year, including professionals in search engine optimization, marketing and business development. It now has a staff of a dozen employees and one intern-turned-independent contractor.

Girard hopes to add more people in 2014 as her firm looks to create more original, compelling content. That could mean work for both writers and videographers.

"There is a big growth in content generation," Girard says. "Mobile is also a piece of the puzzle. I need the right people to pull off these social media-marketing strategies."

Source: Linda Girard, president & CEO of Pure Visibility
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

FamilyMint grows reach of financial literacy workbook

FamilyMint, a financial literacy startup, is gearing up to take its workbook for middle school kids national next year.

The 4-year-old company launched in Ann Arbor with a web tool that helps parents teach their children about the values of saving and financial planning. The company, which is a client of Ann Arbor SPARK, has evolved overtime, taking on clients in the credit union space. Those clients encouraged FamilyMint to make a workbook for its curriculum, which has taken off over the last year.

"That went over well," says Bob Masterson, president of FamilyMint. "It has been very well received in schools."

Bank of Ann Arbor
and Ann Arbor State Bank sponsored the rollout of the workbook in Ann Arbor Public Schools last summer. The Youth Financial Literacy Foundation also came on as a client and are looking at sponsoring a much bigger roll out in 2014.

"They are introducing it to schools across the country," Masterson says. "They're testing it right now and plan to do a national rollout next year."

Oddly, the workbook is proving to be a more effective tool in reaching kids. It is easy to used and there is a low barrier of entry because it can be held. Compare that to families that might have limited access to the Internet or don’t excel at keeping up with technology trends.

"It's more in-line with what the kids are doing and how they are learning," Masterson says. He adds that FamilyMint is looking at creating similar workbooks for elementary and high school students next year.

Source: Bob Masterson, president of FamilyMint
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Xoran Technologies hires 12, aims to add 5 more

Bio-tech firm Xoran Technologies has hired 12 people over the last year and is in the processing of bringing five more onboard right now.

The Ann Arbor-based firm has openings in software development, quality control and customer service. It has hired people who specialize in sales, operations, customer service, quality control and executive team.

"We hired in pretty every single department," says Rachel Gajda, marketing manager for Xoran Technologies. She adds that the firm expects to continuing hiring in 2014.

The portable CAT scan company's principal product is MiniCat, a which the company's website describes as "a compact, upright volume computed tomography system designed for high-resolution bone window imaging of the sinuses, temporal bones and skull base." Xoran Technologies has installed hundreds of these scanners around the world, which set the stage for the firm to make 2013 its best growth year since 2008.

The 12-year-old company is gearing up to launch its second product release, xCAT, a mobile, interoperative CT scanner this winter. The firm's website describes xCAT as "a fully integrated, mobile, cone beam computed tomography system designed to acquire a variety of high resolution, 3-dimensional images. The design of the xCAT allows clinicians the ability to very quickly and easily acquire and access images virtually anywhere."

"It's really going to expand our presence into new markets," Gajda says.

Source: Rachel Gajda, marketing manager for Xoran Technologies
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

ArborWind to begin wind turbine production in 2014

Dilip Nigam believes his company, ArborWind, is ready to take alternative energy to the next level with its wind turbine design.

What makes the Ann Arbor-based firm's product unique is its design. While traditional wind turbines look like pinwheels on steroids, ArborWind's wind turbine resembles the shape of a balloon. Where traditional wind turbines have a horizontal-axis design that must face into the wind, ArborWind's product operates on a vertical-access design that allows it to generate power regardless of which way the wind is blowing. Check a video explaining the technology here.
"We have the best wind turbine in the world," Nigam says. "We can't wait to get it into production."

The alternative energy firm and its core team of four people have already erected a prototype of the wind turbine in Marshall. "It has proven everything we wanted it to," Nigam says.

ArborWind is aiming to begin production of its wind turbines next year. It is targeting customers in rural areas, such as farmers looking for a green power source for irrigation pumps in fields far away from utility lines.

"We have gotten a lot of inquiries from around the world," Nigam says. "We want to focus on that market to start."

Source: Dilip Nigam, president & CEO of ArborWind
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Lavin Lift Strap expands staff in downtown Ypsilanti

The Lavin Lift Strap is a classic example of an invention born out of necessity that evolved into a growing small business based in downtown Ypsilanti.

Donna Gilkey-Lavin explains the company got its start when her father-in-law reached the end of his life. The family didn't want to put him into a nursing home and instead decided to take care of him at home. That meant overcoming some big challenges.

"This was developed out of need," Gilkey-Lavin says. "His father was a very large man with Alzheimer’s who had become incontinent."

It took three to four people to lift and clean him after a visit to the bathroom. The first version of the Lavin Lift Strap made it easy for a single person to perform the job. The technology acts as a mini crane that helps raise the patient's legs or entire lower half off the bed. The family turned the invention into a product and began selling it to people and companies specializing in elder care. Sales mostly came through word-of-mouth and the firm’s website.

Lavin Lift Strap
reached out to Ann Arbor SPARK a little more than a year ago. The small business accelerator helped the company improve its marketing strategy, overhaul its website to better facilitate sales, apply for patents and gave it an office in the SPARK East incubator in downtown Ypsilanti. SPARK East also helped it develop more iterations of the lift strap, including a disposable version. Check out videos of the different products here.

"The product has really morphed in the last year and a half," Gilkey-Lavin says.

That helped the company expand its customer base and spike its sales over the last year. It is on target for a 65 percent jump in revenues in 2013, and it has hired 10 people over the last 18 months. It now sells the Lavin Lift Strap to hospice centers, home healthcare centers and other sorts of medical facilities. The firm is looking to begin delivering its products to larger healthcare institutions next year.

Ann Arbor SPARK helped make that possible by showing the company how to mass market its product and establish a dealer network. The product has gained so much notice that Amazon.com came knocking, asking if it could sell the product through its website.

"They (Ann Arbor SPARK) were instrumental in giving a small company like us the resources we need," Gilkey-Lavin says.

Source: Donna Gilkey-Lavin, vice president of sales & marketing for Lavin Lift Strap
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

CentriCycle grows team, works on product in India

CentriCycle is expanding its team and starting to test its innovative centrifuge technology in India.

The Ann Arbor-based startup is developing a sustainable, portable medical centrifuge that runs without electricity. The idea is to help medical professionals in rural areas of the third world perform diagnostic tests in places where electricity isn't consistently or even readily available. The two-person team is currently testing the technology in India. Check out a detailed explanation of the centrifuge here.

"We are in the midst of doing some informal field testing," says Katherine Kirsch, business operations manager for CentriCycle. "We plan to come back to Michigan to do more testing."

Kirsch came on board with the startup in October. The Fulbright Scholarship recipient had been teaching English in Rawanda and taking an interest in the startup culture that was developing in Africa. Then opportunity to join CentriCycle came up and she jumped.

"I'd be able to do a startup and use my education background," Kirsch says.

CentriCycle is looking at returning to Michigan early next year. It is looking at moving to Grand Rapids or Detroit as it continues testing its technology and working toward raising $500,000 in seed capital. Earlier this year it won a University of Michigan Dare to Dream grant worth $7,500 from the Erb Award for Sustainability.

Source: Katherine Kirsch, business operations manager for CentriCycle
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Clean-tech startup picoSpray lines up potential customers

Clean-tech startup picoSpray is putting together a lengthy list of customers for its small-engine technology and is well on its way to proving the viability of its concept.

The Ann Arbor-based start-up's technology is basically a low-cost electronic fuel injection system for small engines. The product will help make small engines (think lawn mowers or chainsaws or go-carts) more energy efficient and help reduce their emissions. Check out a video on the technology here. The technology can reduce fuel consumption by 10-15 percent, depending on the type of engine, calibration, and the speed it runs at.

"For different customers there are different valuations," says Lihang Nong, founder of picoSpray.

He adds that picoSpray has already proven the concept behind its technology to one large manufacturer of small engines. He declined to identify the firm. He did say that his firm continues to test its technology in 2014 and is lining up potential customers.

The startup is one year away from commercializing its technology. It is currently working to raise some seed capital to help push the commercialization process forward faster.

"We're in the process of raising a seed round in the area of $1 million," Nong says. "We plan to prove the technology in 2014."

Nong and his team of seven people are all recent engineering graduates of the University of Michigan. They started working on picoSpray at a business plan competition. It eventually moved into the TechArb, a startup incubator for U-M students in downtown Ann Arbor, and landed a microloan from the Michigan Microloan Fund last year. It is now working independently of the University of Michigan.

Source: Lihang Nong, founder of picoSpray
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

BBC keeps slow, steady pace of growth going

Slow and steady wins the proverbial race but it's not a phrase that is mentioned too often in today's business world. Except in the case of BBC Entrepreneurial Training & Consulting.

The near-downtown-Ann Arbor-based firm, formerly Biotechnology Business Consultants, has carved out a niche for itself in the life sciences/bio-tech consulting world with is tortoise-like growth over 23 years. The company experienced another small bump in revenue in 2013, which is exactly what it was aiming for.

"We like what we do and we’re happy to keep doing it," Lisa Kurek, managing partner of BBC Entrepreneurial Training & Consulting.

Part of that is the nature of the work the company performs. It specializes in helping bio-tech startups develop their technologies and nurture their business, a process that often takes several years and millions of dollars worth of investment. There are no quick-flip startups that come to Kurek and her staff of seven people (it added a new employee about a year ago) looking for help.

But it does mean that governments come calling. It has contracts with agencies in the federal, state of Michigan and municipal governments. It recently renewed its contract with the New York City Economic Development Corp to run a similar, but smaller, program that it does for the state of Michigan. BBC Entrepreneurial Training & Consulting also breathed a sign of relief a little more than a year ago when the federal government renewed its committment to the SBIR and STTR programs.

"That gave us a little bit of stability," Kurek says. "That reassured our clients."

Source: Lisa Kurek, managing partner of BBC Entrepreneurial Training & Consulting
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Covaron takes 2nd place, $100K at Accelerate Michigan

Covaron Advanced Materials took second place in the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition last month, a win that put $100,000 in cash into the startup's kitty.

That money will go toward its seed capital round. The firm raised a total of $300,000 in seed capital and also landed a $250,000 loan from the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund prior to the win last month. Covaron Advanced Materials is also looking to raise a $5 million Series A.

"We're just starting to solicit that now," says Dave Hatfield, CEO of Covaron Advanced Materials.?

The Ann Arbor-based start-up, formerly Kymeira Advanced Materials, is developing a new chemistry for ceramics, which brings the benefits of existing advanced ceramics to new parts and markets. The 1-year-old company won the student portion of the Accelerate Michigan competition last year. This year the startup and its team of six people (it just hired one of its interns) leveraged that experience to turn in another winning effort.

"We had a good story," Hatfield says. "To win both of those competitions and through the vetting for the business loan from the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund means you have a pretty good business plan. It’s a great confirmation for us."

Source: Dave Hatfield, CEO of Covaron Advanced Materials
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Oxford Companies doubles size with Arch Realty acquisition

Oxford Companies made a big acquisition over the last year, buying Arch Realty.

The two Ann Arbor-based companies were well-known quantities in local real-estate circles. Oxford for commercial realty and Arch Realty for off-campus student housing in Ann Arbor. Oxford rebranded Arch Realty to Oxford Property Management with the acquisition.

"We essentially doubled in size when we acquired Arch Realty," says Deborah Pearson, director of marketing for Oxford Companies.

The 15-year-old firm now employs 50 people, adding up to 10 people over the last year for administrative and property management work. The company is also looking to hire a COO within the next few weeks.

Oxford Companies has also raised a $4 million investment fund over the last year. The company expects to use it as an "opportunity fund" to acquire local properties or businesses in the Ann Arbor area in 2014.

"The money we have available right now is available for residential or commercial properties," says Andrew Selinger, investment analyst for Oxford Companies.

Selinger and Pearson says Oxford Companies admired the Zingerman's philosophy of doing business, i.e. staying locally focused by creating side businesses under one large brand. They would like to do the same thing with real-estate in the Washtenaw County area, focusing on quality work instead of growth for growth’s sake.

That point of view allowed Oxford Companies to be named as one of Ann Arbor SPARK's Fast Track award winners this year. Winning companies receive the awards for its consistent growth. FastTrack companies need to have revenue of at least $100,000 in 2009, with a verified annual growth of 20 percent for the following three years.

Source: Deborah Pearson, director of marketing for Oxford Companies and Andrew Selinger, investment analyst for Oxford Companies
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

TurtleCell aims to release 1st iPhone cases in early 2014

TurtleCell is quickly becoming a popular startup in Michigan and the proof is in the pudding at business plan competitions.

The iPhone accessory startup made the semifinals of this year's Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition and then scored the People's Choice award and $10,000 in seed capital at the competition in Detroit last month. The Ann Arbor-based firm is using that cash along with some other seed capital it has raised to make a few hundred prototypes of its iPhone cases this winter.

TurtleCell has created an iPhone case that comes with retractable earbuds. The case would allow full access to the smartphone’s buttons and have a four-foot-long headphone that easily retracts back into the case when not being used. The earbuds will be higher-quality, comparable to Beats by Dre.

"We have pretty much completed the prototype stage," says Paul Schrems, CTO of TurtleCell. "We’re getting ready to start our Beta testing with 500 users."

TurleCell's team of five people will put out those first prototypes will go out in early 2014. It will then take that experience to help spearhead a crowdfunding campaign next spring. The company tried to crowdfund $50,000 earlier this year. It only hit $20,000 but the startup’s team took a lot away from the experience.

"That was the best thing for us," says Nick Turnbull, CEO of TurtleCell. "We used that time we would have used to ship orders to finalize the product’s design and do some fundraising."

Source: Paul Schrems, CTO of TurtleCell and Nick Turnbull, CEO of TurtleCell
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Ex-HandyLab exec launches own startup, PlanReaction

When BD acquired HandyLab in 2009, Michael Kaye was in the thick of it, serving as the Ann Arbor-based startup’s chief engineer. So much so that a number of HandyLab executives advised him to start his own firm.

The Ann Arbor resident liked the idea but was much more familiar with engineering that running a business. So Kaye bumped around Ann Arbor SPARK's Central Incubator in downtown Ann Arbor for a few years after the HandyLab acquisition figuring out what the best startup would be for him. The result is PlanReaction, a software platform that automatically generates building floor plans and furniture layouts.

"I used to say I have no business being in a business because I have no business background," Kaye says. "I jokingly refer to my business as a multi-hundred-dollar company."

Those characterization no longer apply. PlanReaction made the semifinals of this year's Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition and then won the business-plan competition's IT award and the $25,000 in seed capital that came with it. Kaye credits the competition with giving him the basic tools to pitch his startup, such as a pitch deck and a tighter business plan.

PlanReaction is developing software that help completes the initial design phase of building out commercial real estate spaces. Think generating floor plans and designs for office spaces. PlanReaction streamlines the process of bringing those plans to reality. Kaye has finished the initial development of the software and is looking for a software developer to put the finishing touches on the program.

"I am looking to expand right away," Kaye says. "I am looking to bring on a developer so we can produce a minimum-viable product so we can get to the pilot stage."

Source: Michael Kaye, founder & CEO of PlanReaction
Writer: Jon Zemke

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