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Kontextual spins out of Leon Speakers, scores VC investment

Leon Speakers is known for its high-end, custom-built, home-entertainment technology. So why is the Ann Arbor-based company spinning out a tech start-up focused on creating software platforms that helps businesses communicate and run with more ease and efficiency?

Kontextual is the result of a company innovating new ways to overcome operations problems and discovering a whole new business in the process. The 1-year-old start-up's software helps streamline the way companies internally communicate, find information and measure results.

"We have something that seems interesting to people, but we need to see how it creates value and for whom," says Kurt Skifstad, CEO of Kontextual.

That's start-up speak for, 'We think we have a winner but we're still figuring out how to make it profitable.' Kontextual's team of four employees and one intern aren't the only group who believes they have something special. RPM Ventures, an Ann Arbor-based venture capital firm, has invested $200,000 in the start-up. That's one of the early investments in a seed capital round that has reached $650,000 and is aiming to raise about $1 million before the end of the year.

Kontextual describes its technology as a platform that "helps companies build transparent, metric-driven cultures. Our cloud- and mobile-based platform helps companies share important information locked in planning spreadsheets, walled off in expensive enterprise platforms, and lost in the black hole of the corporate inbox. The result is strategic alignment of resources, increased efficiency, and significant cost savings for the business, and greater job satisfaction for employees."

"It's about decreasing the friction to get the information you need in a company," Skifstad says.

Kontextual is in the late stages of its Beta development. It expects to begin shipping the first commercial versions of its software platform in September. It is also looking to hire two more software developers and expects to have a staff of eight people by the end of the year.

Source: Kurt Skifstad, CEO of Kontextual
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Saagara launches community meditation software platform

Saagara, the meditation technology start-up based in Ann Arbor, is launching a new platform that will allow its users to meditate in unison.

See & Do Together is a mobile app that allows users of Saagara's technology to meditate together, similar to the way people interact online in a chat room. The company is also launching an Indiegogo campaign to help fund the platform's launch.

"We really wanted people to take part and experience parts of it," says Dr. Bobby Peddi, CEO of Saagara. "So we made it so people can do it together."

The Kerrytown-based start-up provides a holistic approach to better health, centered around a breathing technique called Pranayama. Dr. Peddi started the company shortly after he left his surgical residency about four years ago. It currently employs a team of 11 employees and two interns after hiring four people in the last year, including a new CTO.

Saagara is also looking to move its business to a full-on subscription model. The firm is also looking at launching a stress-reduction program for businesses to provide to their employees later this year.

Source: Dr. Bobby Peddi, CEO of Saagara
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Tech entrepreneur launches ice cream truck biz, Hello! Ice Cream

Margaret Schankler was a serial entrepreneur with a successful business. Then in 2011 she closed her e-commerce company in Ann Arbor and decided to start something new, an ice cream truck venture.

Hello! Ice Cream specializes in delivering sweet, cold treats from a vintage ice cream truck. The 1-year-old business is enough to employ Schankler and that's just what the Ann Arborite wants.

"One of my goals is to do something that makes people happy," Schankler says. "No one is sad to see your ice cream truck."

She adds that Hello! Ice Cream will be the last business of her career. She spent a year creating a vintage-looking ice cream truck and finding the best recipes to make her own ice cream and other overlooked but important aspects of the business. She is building it one piece at a time, just like every other company she has started.

"I look at a business as a business, it's just a different market," Schankler says.

Hello! Ice Cream has seen an explosion of interest in its first year, according to Schankler. She thought she would be doing mostly farmers' markets and other similar events, but has been overwhelmed by the demand for her to cater private events across Metro Detroit.

"It's something I thought would be a lot of fun, and it is," Schankler says.

Source: Margaret Schankler, proprietor of Hello! Ice Cream
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

AlertWatch leads latest round of Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund

The Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund has sent out $1.5 million more in investments in six Michigan-based start-ups, including three that call Ann Arbor home.

AlertWatch, which is based in the University of Michigan's Venture Accelerator, received a $250,000 investment from the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund. That money is helping the 2-year-old firm hit a couple of its major milestones, hire engineers and developers, and push the development of new products forward.

"This money is absolutely essential to our firm," says Justin Adams, CEO of AlertWatch. "We raised a good amount of money from angels but there is a gap between where we could get without angel money and where we need to be."

AlertWatch is developing patient-monitoring software to help reduce medical errors. It currently employs four people after hiring two others in the last year. It is also looking to hire another software developer.

The other two Ann Arbor-based start-ups to receive Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund investments are:

- IROA Technologies, which develops metabolic profiling tools used to create unique chemical signatures in molecules for accurate biochemical analysis and quantitation in multiple applications including general research, bioprocess, toxicology and diagnostics.

- Patient Provider Communications, which is creating a multilingual interactive bedside care system to improve provider response to and fulfillment of patient requests.

Source: Justin Adams, CEO of AlertWatch
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Accelerate Michigan competition aims to make access a prize

Seed capital is essential to any start-up, especially to new ones being developed by college students. What might be even more important for that segment of new entrepreneurs is establishing ties with the people who control the seed capital purse strings.

The organizers behind this year's Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition are looking at making that sort of access a prize in this year's competition. For instance, the winner of Accelerate Michigan's student competition could take home a few thousand dollars in seed capital and a date for lunch with a prominent local investor.

"It could be something for a company that is totally life changing," says Lauren Bigelow, executive director for the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition.

The business plan competition is held each fall in southeast Michigan. This year's event will be held in mid-November in downtown Detroit. Ann Arbor-based start-ups led by University of Michigan students have traditionally done quite well in the competition; Kymeira Advanced Materials took home first place last year. The company, now known as Covaron Advanced Materials, was developed by a University of Michigan chemistry student.

It also launched the company on a seed capital raise that hit $300,000 earlier this year. Accelerate Michigan would like to see that success replicated again this year with more student-led start-ups.

"The focus this year for the students is getting them more involved with the angel community," Bigelow says.

The deadline to enter the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition student competition is Sept 26. For information, click here.

Source: Lauren Bigelow, executive director for the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

ArborMetrix moves to bigger offices in downtown Ann Arbor

ArborMetrix is preparing to move to a new home in downtown Ann Arbor, taking space next to Google's office on Liberty Street. The move is expected to help accelerate the start-up's growth, which is on track to be exponential.

The health-care software firm has hired 17 people over the last year, mostly new employees in business development, clinical project management and sales. The company now has a staff of 28 employees and two interns and has its sights set on employing 60 people by the end of the year.

"We're fighting for space here," says Brett Furst, CEO of ArborMetrix. "We want to create a destination that will attract talent."

Helping fuel growth is a newly closed Series B round of funding worth $7 million. ArborMetrix closed on a $1.5 million Series A round two years ago. The money will go toward expanding the company's staff and expanding its sales and marketing operations so the firm can go national.

The seed capital will also help ArborMetrix improve its software platform. The start-up offers real-time clinical performance analytics tools for hospitals. The platform helps healthcare providers and payers to improve the quality, safety and cost-effectiveness of surgical and other specialty care.

"We provide the clinical evidence so hospitals and surgeons can make better decisions," Furst says.

Source: Brett Furst, CEO of ArborMetrix
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Damian Farrell Design Group hires 2, moves to new home

Damian Farrell Design Group has expanded its team and moved to new offices as the architecture firm continues to grow.

The 5-year-old firm got its start sharing space with Katherine Catering, which is owned by Damian Farrell's wife. Sharing space at Katherine Catering's offices in Scio Township again made a good argument for reducing overhead expenses.

"She has some extra space in the building and it didn't make sense for both of us to be paying rents so I moved out there," says Farrell, owner of Damian Farrell Design Group.

Damian Farrell specializes in high-end residential design work and energy efficiency projects for local government bodies. Some of its projects include Plymouth Green Crossings, and the new Evans Scholars house.

The Ann Arbor-based business now employs five people and two interns. It recently hired two architecture graduates from the University of Michigan and Lawrence Technological University. They are working to complete their licensing requirements.

"We should be adding another person in the next couple of months," Farrell says. "Maybe even two."

Source: Damian Farrell, owner of Damian Farrell Design Group
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

HeatSpring pivots biz model to leverage growth

HeatSpring got its start by educating businesses about sustainable practices, such as installing alternative energy systems or promoting energy efficiency. Today the Ann Arbor-based company is growing thanks to a pivot in that business plan.

The 7-year-old business is now helping other education firms make the transition to a digital landscape. It provides them with the right tools and knowledge to make that transition happen.

"We're helping them convert it into an online class," says Brian Hayden, president of HeatSpring. "We provide software and expertise to make that happen."

HeatSpring's move to becoming more of a software firm has allowed it make a new hire, a student advocate. The firm now employs four people. The bigger staff is helping the company handle its growing number of customers. The profit margins are lower with the new business model, but it provides other opportunities for the company.

"We think it will allow us to grow quicker and better in the future," Hayden says.

Source: Brian Hayden, president of HeatSpring
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Ann Arbor couple goes entrepreneurial with Stunning Creative

Amanda Ross lost her job so she and her husband, Andy Ross, decided to do something about it and start their own business.

Stunning Creative
specializes in web development and graphic design. Andy handles the technical aspects while Amanda handles the business end. It has allowed the Ann Arbor couple to turn the business into their full-time jobs.

"It has grown by leaps and bounds," Andy says. Most of that growth is from word-of-mouth referrals from its clients, he says. Some of its projects include brochures for Masco's cabinetry division and trade-show presentations for other clients.

Stunning Creative is working to continue its organic growth with improved project quality and the slow, steady addition of new clients. Andy hopes to one day soon turn his company's stable of freelancers into the firm's first employees to help spread some of the work around.

"It (running the business) consumes a lot more of our time," Andy says. "There are a lot more details to deal with."

Source: Andy Ross, owner of Stunning Creative
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Flipsi Bottle aims to reinvent bottle washing

Jeff and Chris Plott really dislike washing bottles. The brothers have a couple of different reasons for this: Jeff because he wishes he had a better way of washing racing bottles. Chris because he would much rather not wash baby bottles at the end of his day.

"He just hates doing it," Jeff says. So the brothers did something about it and created Flipsi Bottle. The new product is a reusable bottle that is bendable enough to turn inside out, making cleaning easier.

"Flipsi Bottle is the marriage of making the cleaning of the reusable bottle cases easier," Jeff says. "We thought, why can't we make the bottle flip inside out? The idea just went from there."

The 4-month-old start-up and its two co-founders are now operating out of TechArb in downtown Ann Arbor. The company has a prototype made out of food-grade silicone. It is in the final stages of perfecting this prototype for the sport bottle version. The Plott brothers expect to launch a crowd-funding campaign early next year to help push forward the first sales.

"We're certainly at least six months out," Jeff says.

Source: Jeff Plott, chairman & CTO of Flipsi Bottle
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Michigan Angel Fund closes 1st investment vehicle at $2M

The recently formed Michigan Angel Fund has closed on its first fund and made its first investment this month.

The angel-investment equity fund, which is managed by Ann Arbor SPARK, will provide early stage investments in Michigan-based start-ups. The idea is to help meet the increased need for seed funding from the Great Lakes State's deepening pool of start-ups.

"Entrepreneurship has grown dramatically in the last decade in our state," says Skip Simms, managing member of the Michigan Angel Fund and a senior vice president at Ann Arbor SPARK. "The demand for early stage capital has grown with it."

The Michigan Angel Fund has 70 members which have contributed $2 million to its first fund. The fund's first investment went to East Lansing-based BioPhotonics Solutions. The Michigan State University spin-out produces technology that automates the process of shaping and compressing ultrashort (femtosecond) laser pulses, ultimately improving their utility.

Simms expects the fund to make 8-10 investments each year. The average investment will range in size from $250,000 to $700,000.

Source: Skip Simms, managing member of the Michigan Angel Fund
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

The Pairasight Project creates new eyeglasses tech in Tech Brewery

The Pairasight Project isn't interested in enabling people to walk in each others' shoes. It wants them to experience life by looking through their eyes.

The Ann Arbor-based start-up which calls the Tech Brewery home is developing eye glasses equipped with a mini computer that can stream the user's perspective in real time to anyone with Internet access.

"It enables users to share their world from a first-person point of view in real time with hands-free technology," says Anthony Blanco, general manager of The Pairasight Project.

The 3-year-old company is presently developing the foundation for the technology and building out the back end of its software. Blanco expects to bring the first public version to market early next year with a focus on business-to-business commercialization.

"This will allow businesses to enhance existing revenue streams and create new ones," Blanco says.

The Pairasight Project currently employs six people and a couple of independent contractors. It has hired three people over the last six months, mostly to fill out its executive team. The firm has made it this far thanks to seed funding from its parent company, Pleasant Lake-based Peak Manufacturing.

Source: Anthony Blanco, general manager of The Pairasight Project
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Northstar Bank expands into Ann Arbor market with new branch

How attractive is Ann Arbor's economy these days? Attractive enough that banks from Michigan's thumb region are setting up shop here and looking for a piece of the action.

Northstar Bank, which is based in Bad Axe, is opening up a loan office and banking branch in Ann Arbor this summer. So far it has resulted in five hires in the area and the full presence is expected to be eight or nine people within the next year.

"We feel it's an area that is continuing to grow," says John Wilkins, senior vice president & group manager for Northstar Bank. "It's a good fit because of the employees available and the market."

Northstar Bank will offer both private banking services and commercial loans in the area. The bank's first five employees are its loan team. The rest will come from opening up its own bank branch later this year.

"We're going to start with a loan-production office," Wilkins says. "It's a good fit because of the employees available and the market."

Source: John Wilkins, senior vice president & group manager for Northstar Bank
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Larky grows business in software for discount-seekers

Last year, Larky was a small start-up with a team of three people made up of its co-founders and an entrepreneurship fellow. A little more than one year into its existence, Larky has five employees, three independent contractors, and is looking to make another three hires.

Product adoption is driving this growth. Larky is developing a software platform that helps its user maximize the discounts and savings available to them through the organizations they are members of, such as alumni associations. The 1-year-old start-up now has 2,000 partner organizations and tens of thousands of users.

"We got thousands of people using it right away," says Gregg Hammerman, co-founder of Larky. "It was more than we expected."

Larky's software is available through both a mobile app and a Web platform. "We found that a third of the people who use Larky use the website," Hammerman says. He adds that the mobile app, which is free, also has location awareness so it can alert users when they are near their discounts.

Larky is currently looking to raise a $1.5 million Series A round of venture capital by early fall. It raised a $650,000 seed round last year. The start-up plans to use its newly raised capital to continue to expand staff so it can lock down more partnerships, such as with big organizations like Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

"We want to be working with more than 100 organizations like that," Hammerman says. He adds that sort of outreach across the country will allow Larky to "consistently surprise and delight our users."

Source: Gregg Hammerman, co-founder of Larky
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

DIIME's Hemafuse technology helps stave off blood loss during birth

DIIME is working on technology that could help healthcare professionals in third-world countries save patients' lives by reusing their own blood when receiving care. The start-up is specifically looking at creating technology to save the lives of mothers and children by putting a lid on hemorrhaging of blood during childbirth.

"We are focusing on maternal and infant healthcare because that's what we saw the most in Africa," says Gillian Henker, president of DIIME.

DIIME got its start as an undergraduate engineering project at the University of Michigan. That project became DIIME and its principal technology, Hemafuse, that helps recycle a patient's blood so it can used again by that patient.

"This can be up to half of their blood volume," Henker says. "We're talking liters of blood."

The Ypsilanti-based start-up and its three co-founders and two interns recently took third place, worth $5,000, in the Emerging Company category of the Pure Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. It is putting that money toward the seed round it is raising. The start-up hopes to raise $600,000 to go toward clinical studies. It has already conducted two pre-clinical studies at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and received positive results.

Source: Gillian Henker, president of DIIME
Writer: Jon Zemke

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