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Ann Arbor startups claim lion's share of Michigan Pre-Seed Fund

Ann Arbor-based startups are taking the lion’s share of the new early stage seed capital from the Michigan Pre-Seed Fund 2.0.

Promising small businesses from Tree Town made up three of the last five recipients from the fund. Ann Arbor-based ventures have also comprised 10 of the 18 investments made so far.

"The recent activity has been concentrated in Ann Arbor," says Charles Moret, president of Invest Michigan, which manages the Michigan Pre-Seed Fund 2.0. He adds that there are plenty of other promising startups at the front of the line for funding, including several from the west side of Michigan and Metro Detroit.

Invest Michigan launched a little more than a year ago and currently employs a staff of four people in downtown Detroit. It oversees the Michigan Pre-Seed Fund 2.0. The $5.8 million fund is capitalized by the Michigan Strategic Fund, which is administered by the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

The Michigan Pre-Seed Fund 2.0 makes small investments ($50,000 to $150,000 in a convertible note or equity investment) in early stage startups looking to rapidly grow their businesses. All companies that receive funding are required to secure a minimum of 1:1 in matching co-investment funds. Some of the industries it is targeting include automotive, agriculture, alternative energy, defense, IT, and life sciences. Startups that do well can receive a follow-on investment worth up to $500,000 from the fund.

"Our strategy in Michigan is to enable investors to pool their money together to support early stage startups," Moret says.

The most recent companies to receive funding include ENT Biotech Solutions, NanoRETE, Arborlight, Cribspot and Picospray. The last three are based in Ann Arbor. Arborlight makes architectural lighting that mimics daylight. Cribspot serves as clearinghouse for rentals on and near college campuses. Picospray is developing technology that makes small engines more fuel efficient and produce fewer emissions.

Moret expects to make another 10-12 investments in Michigan-based startups before the end of the year.

"We have funding for the next two years if we maintain our current pace," Moret says.

Source: Charles Moret, president of Invest Michigan
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Cribspot scores $50K as it adds more U.S. campuses to its off-campus housing service

Cribspot has landed some more seed capital, enabling the Michigan-based startup to start taking its software platform national.

The downtown Ann Arbor-based company (it also has an office in downtown Detroit) recently landed a $50,000 investment from the Michigan Pre-Seed Fund 2.0, a fund capitalized by the Michigan Economic Development Corp to invest in early stage tech startups. That investment brings Cribspots total seed capital raise to $680,000, which includes investments from Ann Arbor-based Huron River Ventures and a number of angel investors.

"It (early stage investments from local funds like the Michigan Pre-Seed Fund 2.0) is extremely important," says Jason Okrasinski, CEO of Cribspot. "The access to state funding, grants, and debt is one big advantage and differentiator from San Francisco."

Cribspot and its team of seven people is creating a centralized online portal for college students looking for off-campus housing. The co-founders, mostly University of Michigan students, were inspired to start the company after struggling with their own searches for off-campus housing that usually entailed Craiglist ads and looking for landlord signs in the sides of buildings.

Cribspot is a product of the Bizdom accelerator program in downtown Detroit. It also won $100,000 when it took second place at last year's Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition. Shortly after that win Cribspot started to spread its presence across the U.S.

"We currently have a presence at 175 campuses," Okrasinski says

Source: Jason Okrasinski, CEO of Cribspot
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Three Leaf Ventures opens Midwest office in downtown Ann Arbor

Three Leaf Ventures is opening an Ann Arbor location to serve as the venture capital firm’s Midwestern office.

The Denver-based firm, an affiliate of The Broe Group, aims to invest in healthcare companies that specializes in everything from IT to genomics to consumer medical devices.

"We have already drummed up a lot of venture capital activity," says Sean Kearney, managing director of Three Leaf Ventures. "We believe a lot of deal flow will come from Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Michigan."

Three Leaf Ventures will lease space in Kerrytown. It's office will be staffed by Kearney who plans to move to Ann Arbor this summer. A couple of part-time staffers are expected to join him later this year.

The 3-year-old venture capital firm is stage agnostic when it comes to its investments, meaning it is willing to invest in either early, middle or late-stage startups. Three Leaf Ventures hasn’t made an investment in a Michigan-based startup yet but Kearney expects that to change before the end of the year because there are already a couple of good candidates in the pipeline.

"That (one investment this year) is a conservative goal," Kearney says.

Source: Sean Kearney, managing director of Three Leaf Ventures
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

DeepField plans to move to bigger space to accommodate growth

DeepField is moving to a bigger office in downtown Ann Arbor, making room for more staff. The extra people are needed to keep up with the demand for the company's IT infrastructure platform. The Ann Arbor-based firm will be moving from its current office above the Michigan Theatre to the second floor of 111 N Ashley, taking over 5,200 square feet of office space.

"It's three times the size of where we are right now," says Lorne Groe, CFO & COO of DeepField.

The 4-year-old startup makes software that helps big companies keep up with the constant changes that come with Internet's back-end IT infrastructure. The platform leverages big-data analytics that correlates telemetry from routers, switches, DNS, and more, decoding that morass of information. The user ends up with a better view of their IT network.

DeepField launched its platform a little more than a year ago with a handful of customers. It had grown that clientele list to nine firms by the end of last year and is now servicing 15 customers today. Groe aims to have 20 big corporations using DeepField's technology by the end of this year.

"We have a number of companies who are testing it right now," Groe says. "Our pipeline is really strong."

DeepField has been hiring quickly to keep up with that demand. It has added 12 people over the last year, including software developers, sales and marketing professionals, and executives. It is also looking to hire another five people right now to add to its staff of 29 employees and four interns.

"We are certainly looking to hire and grow," Groe says. "Our goal is to be at 45 people by the end of the year."

Source: Lorne Groe, CFO & COO of DeepField
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Blaze Medical Devices earns first revenues, new investment and hires up next

Blaze Medical Device accomplished a big milestone many other bio-tech startups never even get close to.

"For the first time we are generating revenues," says David Weaver, CEO of Blaze Medical Devices.

The Ann Arbor-based startup made its first sale of its blood analysis services earlier this year. Blaze Medical Devices' platform enables medical researchers and product developers to better understand blood damage from all causes.

"They didn't want to wait," Weaver says. "It has a huge upside for us. It shows that the market is real."

Blaze Medical Devices is now working on adding more clients by the end of the year. The 9-year-old firm is also in the midst of raising a $2 million angel found. Late last year it landed a $200,000 SBIR grant and has since landed more angel investor capital. So far the company has raised $1.3 million toward its $2 million goal, which it expects to close on by the end of the year.

Blaze Medical Devices employs a staff of six employees and is looking to add some summer interns. It has hired one lab technician earlier this year. Weaver expects his staff to continue to grow as it generates more revenues and closes out on its angel round.

Source: David Weaver, CEO of Blaze Medical Devices
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

RightThereWare’s software improves auto navigation tech

Ever been in your car and end up getting to your destination long after your navigation system said you would? John Heed has, and it inspired him to solve that problem by launching his own startup, RightThereWare.

The Ann Arbor-based company is creating a software platform that gives motorists more reliable and realistic estimated time of arrivals. The idea is to dissect the trip into smaller sections, giving firmer travel time estimates for each leg of the journey.

"Our technology chops the geography into equal surface areas," Heed says. "You can get more reliable ETAs that way."

And create more efficiency for the users, potentially creating double-digit performance improvements. Those gains played a significant role in RightThereWare winning the Global Automotive Innovation Challenge at NextEnergy in Detroit last month.

RightThereWare's team of four people plans to take that win and use it to help it push for a public release of its platform early this fall. It is targeting companies with large fleets of vehicles, such as trucking companies.

"We can optimize in these platforms," Heed says. "We are in discussions with a number of fleet companies."

Source: John Heed, president of RightThereWare
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

HiveLend creates web platform to connect beekeepers, farmers

Bees and farmers make a natural combination. A new startup launching out of Ann Arbor aims to make it profitable one for all involved. HiveLend is developing a web-platform that connects local farmers with hobbyists beekeepers with a matching algorithm. The idea is to connect the two groups to help better pollinate crops while putting some extra cash into the pockets of beekeepers.

This sort of transaction isn't a new one. There are commercial beekeepers who own hundreds if not thousands of hives. Each growing season they sell the placement of those hives to commercial farmers. Prices for a bee hive range from $60-$80 per hive in Michigan to $150-$200 per hive for almond farms in California. HiveLend's founder, Nicholas Zajciw, is a hobbyist beekeeper who wanted to work a similar deal on a small scale with local farmers.

"I realized there was no tool for that online and (making that match between farmer and beekeeper) required a lot of research," Zajciw says.

He launched HiveLend shortly after realizing that earlier this year. The three-person HiveLend team is developing the early versions of the platform now with a public launch date set for July. HiveLend recently won Ann Arbor SPARK's Boot Camp, a crash course in business building that helps entrepreneurs quickly and effectively validates and better focus their business idea.

HiveLend will initially focus on connecting hobbyist beekeepers and local farmers in Michigan this year. Zajciw expects a growing season of working with small customers will enable them to perfect the platform for use by commercial users later on. It's also the easy path for HiveLend to follow for now.

"I have a good network I have built with beekeepers in Michigan," Zajciw says.

Source: Nicholas Zajciw, founder of HiveLend
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Endeavor report calls for focus on gazelle startups to spur job growth

Two things are evident after reading Endeavor’s Detroit office's assessment report of metro Detroit's entrepreneurial ecosystem: the region has lost a lot of jobs since the Great Recession and southeast Michigan's best chance to get them back come from gazelles, i.e. young, fast-growing companies.

Gazelles, also known as scaleups, are small businesses that with tremendous growth potential. They traditionally grow from a couple of employees to a staff of a few dozen people in a matter of months. These are the companies that attract large sums of venture capital investment and make headlines as the new darlings of the local business world.

"Scaleups are a really important part of creating new jobs," says Mike Goodwin, project leader with Endeavor Insight. "They have the most potential for creating new jobs."

However, the "Scaling Up In The Motor City" report, supported by the New Economy Initiative, points out that gazelle growth declined by more than 50 percent between 2007 and 2012, going from 674 to 323. That is the same time Michigan's unemployment rate went from 7.6 percent to 10.1 percent. Michigan needs to create 6,000 more jobs to get back to its 2007 employment levels.

Endeavor opened an office in Detroit with three direct employees and seven members of its board of directors earlier this year with the idea of helping reverse those job-loss numbers. The New York City-based nonprofit helps build regional entrepreneurial ecosystems around the world by helping gazelles grow even faster, introducing them to talent, mentors, and, eventually, investors.

The office in downtown Detroit is currently evaluating a broad range of local gazelles with the idea of picking half a dozen to enter into Endeavor's network by the end of the year, including a number of companies from the Ann Arbor area. Endeavor's Detroit office will start taking on up to eight gazelles each year after that with an eye on supercharging metro Detroit's economic engine.

"We are aiming to accelerate and support the growth of high-impact entrepreneurs and in being successful we expect to contribute to the growth of the the region," says Antonio Luck, managing director of Endeavor’s Detroit office.

Source: Antonio Luck, managing director of Endeavor’s Detroit office and Mike Goodwin, project leader with Endeavor Insight
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Mountain Pass Solutions streamlines faculty hiring process

Managing a major research institution is in no easy task. Too much of the time, it's maddeningly inefficient. A University of Michigan spin-out believes it has a way to simplify and streamline at least one aspect of an institution's responsibilities.

Mountain Pass Solutions has created a web-based platform that manages the hiring, credentialing and on-boarding of university faculty. It also helps manage faculty workflow so the user can optimize things like document creation and the size of their support staff.

The U-M Venture Accelerator-based startup got its start when Deb Komorowski, a director of faculty affairs administration & finance for U-M Medical School, saw the inefficiency of bringing on new staff and faculty. She created the platform and got it noticed by the University of Michigan Office of Technology Transfer.

"It was pretty obvious that what Deb built was satisfying a big need on the market," says Dave Morin, interim CEO of Mountain Pass Solutions.

The 1-year-old startup now employs five people and is further developing its platform with early customers, such as Central Michigan University. The bootstrapped startup plans to start scaling up its client base later this year.

"We will be looking at some rapid U.S. expansion this year," Morin says.

Source: Chris King, Deb Komorowski and Dave Morin, co-founder of Mountain Pass Solutions
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Lavin Lift Strap targets commercial medical facilities for growth

Lavin Lift Strap has made a name for itself by selling a product that makes home healthcare easier for caregivers and family members. Now the downtown Ypsilanti-based firm is aiming for much more rapid growth by targeting bulk sales to acute healthcare providers, big commercial players in the healthcare industry (think hospitals, nursing homes and other large institutions).

"It (our orders) will significantly increase," says Manuel Lavin, president of Lavin Lift Strap. "The home healthcare market is a onsey and twosey. With acute healthcare you're talking boxes, pallets."

The 5-year-old firm got its start when Lavin and his wife, Donna Gilkey-Lavin, had to find a way to help take care of his father who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and obesity. They created a strap and pulley system that made it easy for one person to lift and clean the patient where previously it took multiple people.

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 through word-of-mouth and the firm's website. It leveraged Ann Arbor SPARK's services to further commercialize the product and set up its first office in the SPARK East Business Incubator in downtown Ypsilanti.

Lavin Lift Strap now has three patents and another one pending on its products. It is also planning to file a few more patents later this year. The company has hired a few sales pros to expand its team to 13 people and sales of the Lift Strap are up 25 percent over the last year. The company expects those sales figures to spike over the next year as it starts to fill some large  orders that have been years in the making.

"It's a tough slog," Gilkey-Lavin says. "Hospitals are not as quick to adapt to new technology as you would think. It can take years."

Source: Manuel Lavin, president of Lavin Lift Strap; and 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.

Huron River Ventures raises second fund worth $5M, local firms targeted for investment

Huron River Ventures is nearly done raising its second investment vehicle, a multi-million dollar fund the Ann Arbor-based venture capital firm plans to use to further invest in its portfolio of tech startups.

The 5-year-old firm raised a $11 million fund at its onset, which it used to make early stage investments into 15 startups like FarmLogs and cribspot. Many of them are based in Ann Arbor, including a few that it shares shares office space with in Kerrytown.

The second fund, the Huron River Venture Opportunity Fund, will focus on making follow-on investments into the best of the best of the firm’s portfolio of startups. It has already made a follow-on investment into FarmLogs.

"It's all for follow-on investment in our portfolio," says Ryan Waddington, partner with Huron River Ventures. "But only for companies that reach a certain size or hit certain milestones."

Huron River Ventures has executed a first close worth $3.5 million and expects to do a final close worth a combined $5 million by July.

"This is all private capital in the Opportunity Fund," Waddington says. "It's all individuals and family offices."

Huron River Ventures expects to make one more follow-on investment later this year and a handful more after that. The firm has also hired a new venture partner over the last year, expanding its staff to three people.

Source: Ryan Waddington, partner with Huron River Ventures
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Isabel Healthcare takes technology international, doubles clientele

Isabel Healthcare has doubled its clientele over the last year thanks, in large part, to the healthcare tech firm marketing its product to an international audience. The Ann Arbor-based firm now has clients beyond North America, including China, India, South America and Australia.

"We have expanded our footprint pretty significantly," says Don Bauman, CEO of Isabel Healthcare.

The 15-year-old firm developed a diagnosis checklist tool that helps clinicians broaden their differential diagnosis and recognize a disease faster in order to treat it more effectively. The web-based Isabel tool uses the patient's demographics and clinical features to produce a list of possible diagnoses, including time-sensitive "Don't Miss Diagnoses."

"How do we deliver information to physicians so they can make the best diagnosis?" Bauman says.

Isabel Healthcare also markets a symptom checklist for patients. The idea is to help better educate them about their health and how best to maintain it.

"It empowers them to have a more engaging conversation with the physician" Bauman says.

The 7-person firm has hired one person in client services over the last year.

Source: Don Bauman, CEO of Isabel Healthcare
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Paragon Design + Display hires 4 as it expands workload

Paragon Display Group started out with some humble beginnings in 1982, offering photo finishing for Ann Arbor customers.  The company has since grown into a full-service environmental graphics and printing studio, employing a staff of 34 people and a summer intern. However, getting to this point required a number of pivots to adapt to the market. Paragon Display Group made the move from consumer to commercial work about the same time photos went from primarily hard copies to digital.

"We had to evolve into another type of business," says Gerry Snyder, director of sales for Paragon Design + Display. "The commercial work became much more important to us."

And it grew quickly. Paragon hired four people in the last year, and is looking to hire another sales professional. Over the last year it has spiked its revenue by 29 percent and is on track to hit a similar number in 2015. They accomplished this by completing several large projects, including a number for the University of Michigan Athletic Department, Central Michigan University, and Kettering University. However, downtown Detroit-based Fathead is proving to be its most important customer.

"That is growing astronomically as well," says Bill Van Cleve, president & CEO of Paragon Design + Display. "They are giving us a lot of work."

Fathead's work includes everything from its traditional decal wall stickers of athletes to large decals of things like Star Wars characters. It is also doing a lot of corporate display work for Fathead. Paragon Design + Display would like to expand this sort of work to more small businesses in Michigan in the next year or two.

"We want to help brand their environment," says Holly Schoenfield, director of marketing for Paragon Design + Display.

The firm is also looking to return to its consumer-facing roots to help diversify and grow its revenue streams. Paragon Design Display would like to attract more work from everyday people who would like to print out their important photos and other pieces of artwork for their individual living and work spaces.

"Now we're trying to open it up to consumers," Van Cleve says. "We want them to know they can get fine art printing here."

Source: Bill Van Cleve, president & CEO of Paragon Design + Display; Gerry Snyder, director of sales for Paragon Design + Display; and Holly Schoenfield, director of marketing for Paragon Design + Display
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Arbor Assays scores with 40 percent revenue growth, adds staff

Russ Hart has been so success at growing a business making assay kits he decided to do it again.

Hart and his partners grew Assay Designs in Ann Arbor to the point it got so big it wasn’t fun for them to run it anymore. They exited it in 2007 and launched another, similar firm later that year, Arbor Assays.

"We just like doing what we do," says Hart, partner with Arbor Assays. "It's an opportunity do the things we enjoy and make money while doing it."

The 8-year-old firm is doing well researching and developing high quality assay kits. It has gone from three co-founders to a staff of 11 people, including two hires (sales & marketing, and manufacturing positions) over the last year. Those staff additions are justified by 35-40 percent revenue growth each year since Arbor Assays' founding.

"We sell to a whole bunch of different industries," Hart says. "We sell to pharmaceutical companies and bio-tech companies and academic institutions."

Arbor Assays has grown 40 percent in the last month alone, and expects to do it again each month for the foreseeable future.

"The month before we did slightly better than that," Hart says. "Each month is better than the last one."

Source: Russ Hart, partner with Arbor Assays
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Backyard Brains looks to double revenue with national marketing

Backyard Brains has been chugging along for years, making a nice little business out of neuroscience testing kits with cockroaches. After five years it has hit $500,000 in revenue, but has its sights set on a much bigger number.

"We want that to increase to $1 million," says Tim Marzullo, co-founder & chief science officer of Backyard Brains.

The Ann Arbor-based company is getting ready to embark on a national marketing campaign to close that gap. Marzullo likes to say that when he or members of his sales team show off the company's insect neuroscience kits for grade-school education products, like the RoboRoach, they become instantly popular with teachers and students to the point orders are placed on the spot.

"It shocks us when we go to a neuroscience conference and people haven't heard of us," Marzullo says.

Which is a bit surprising because Backyard Brains is an international firm with a growing office in Chile. It has made five hires over the last year and now employs a team of about a dozen people. Marzullo hopes that team will be able to really make a name for itself this year.

"We want to expand beyond word of mouth," Marzullo says. "We're selling every day but not the numbers we need to be selling."

Source: Tim Marzullo, co-founder & chief science officer of Backyard Brains
Writer: Jon Zemke

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