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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

VC Web Design graduates from SPARK East, hires 5 in Ypsilanti

Meet VC Web Design, the first graduate of Ann Arbor SPARK's East Incubator in downtown Ypsilanti.

The web design firm was one of the first tenants in the business incubator when it opened last spring. Then it was a two-person start-up looking for a little direction. Today it employs seven people and intern and is moving into its own commercial space a few doors down from the incubator in downtown Ypsilanti on Washington Street.

"We wanted to be around people in a downtown area," says Vince Chmielewski, president of VC Wed Design. "We couldn't fit at SPARK anymore because we kept adding people. Plus, we wanted our own storefront for higher visibility."

Chmielewski caught the entrepreneurial bug when he was attending the University of Michigan in the mid 1990s. The computer science major always ended up as a go-to resource among friend interested in creating websites, which turned into a nice stream of cash on the side.

"People would ask me questions and I would sell websites to them," Chmielewski says.

It has remained a nice side income for him ever since. He still maintains his full-time job at U-M but is also now putting 40 hours a week into VC Web Design. How long he can keep that up is a little in question. VC Web Design is set to more than double its revenue this year and Chmielewski expects to add another person or two this year.

Good thing he has the SPARK East incubator degree and some new space to accommodate all of that growth.

Source: Vince Chmielewski, president of VC Wed Design
Writer: Jon Zemke

OnlyMyEmail adds staff in downtown Ypsilanti

The people behind the OnlyMyEmail didn't start their company as the first step of building an empire. They want to solve a problem Ė email spam.

Necessity, the mother of invention, forced the three co-founders to come up with a better mousetrap for spam email. Today the company of less than 20 people (it recently hired one more person) in downtown Ypsilanti is positioning itself to keep up with the numerous forms of email spam and so it could potentially be acquired by a future partner corporation.

"We don't really have anything else that we need to innovate or do beside keep ahead of the daily onslaught of spam," says Stephen Canale, co-founder of OnlyMyEmail.

The company's software has 31 separate layers of protection for every form of spam, such as zombie, malware and corporate marketing. Of those numerous layers, six of them are there to make sure the important messages people want to read make it through all of that protection.

OnlyMyEmail is rolling out an archive system. It has also grown to the point where the company runs the email systems for its customers that just don't want to put up with the headache of managing all of those messages.

"There is no magic bullet," Canale says. "It's a very complicated problem."

Source: Stephen Canale, co-founder of OnlyMyEmail
Writer: Jon Zemke

Growing Hope continues hiring in Ypsilanti

Growing Hope is taking root and flourishing in downtown Ypsilanti as it expands it budget and gets ready to go on a hiring spree.

The non-profit has cultivated its budget from nothing in 2003 to a little more than $300,000 this year. That has allowed it to grow it staff to 11 people (nine full-time and two part-time) and it expects to fill another eight positions this spring. Those jobs are the equivalent of 10-week summer internships that pay about $900 a month and come with a $1,200 education tax credit.

"The growth has been tremendous," says Amanda Maria Edmonds, executive director of Growing Hope.

And its not just staff wise. The non-profit has helped grow downtown Ypsilanti's Farmer's market from $20,000 in sales a few years ago to $108,000 in sales last year. That includes about $20,000 in sales that came from seniors or economically disadvantage people utilizing government programs like Bridge Cards. It expects to grow the farmer's market even more this year.

Another growth area that is attracting attention to Growing Hope is its hoop house. That has allowed the non-profit to raise crops year round and attract hundreds of volunteers. Those volunteers range from people donating one day of their time to one day a week during the growing season.

"The hoop house has been the biggest attraction," Edmonds says. "It continues to draw people to us. It's pretty amazing to see people harvesting spinach in February when there is snow outside."

The hoop house is next to Growing Hope's new home, a house on Michigan Avenue in the midst of restoration. The donated Tudor has benefited from a number of organizations, including Washtenaw Community College's construction program, the local plumbers union which roughed in $7,500 worth of kitchen plumbing and the generosity of the Next Generation Philanthropy, which works out of the Ann Arbor-based Community Foundation.

Source: Amanda Maria Edmonds, executive director of Growing Hope
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

Ethics of entrepreneurship, Q&A with Chris Hall

Business and job growth are seen as paramount when it comes to the local economy, but where does developing a local set of business ethics for all of this new commercial activity fit in? Chris Hall has an idea or two about that and plans to make them public at Eastern Michigan University's Ethos Week today.

The president of RepairClinic.com, online appliance parts retailer, will speak about "Ethics and Entrepreneurship" at 5:30 p.m. in Room 114 at the EMU's College of Business. The former appliance repairman will elaborate on the ethical challenges facing today's entrepreneurs as they navigate a tough economy, while sharing his own experience as an entrepreneur for the last decade.

Hall recently answered some ethics questions for Concentrate via email. Think of it as a taste test of what you can expect to hear from him this evening.

The Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area has a developing entrepreneurial ecosystem that is seen as crucial to the development of Michigan's new economy. What ethical issues will or should this ecosystem confront as it develops?

As we move further from our manufacturing roots in Michigan, and more into a service economy, I believe we need to relearn what it means to serve others - whether customers or employees. We, as a nation, have become too self-absorbed. Too often we put business interests ahead of the people those businesses are supposed to serve.

The line between university research and spinning off that technology for commercial purposes is not always clear. What ethical pitfalls should the local academia and entrepreneurial communities be in the new economy wary of while developing this relationship?

Michigan has a rare and unique opportunity. We have a strong manufacturing and technology base in our universities and businesses. And, we know that auto manufacturing isn't going to support Michigan single-handedly in the future. I believe we can become the leader in green technology. To do that, universities and businesses are going to have to share more of their research with each other. As a nation, we're leaning more toward protectionism. As a state, I believe we need to do the opposite. There are many entrepreneurs that would be able to move some of the green technology forward if they were given the chance.

When it comes to ethics and entrepreneurs, where should Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti look for guidance?

In our own backyard there are two large companies that I believe have been exceptional models of ethical leadership - Ford and Whirlpool. While they haven't been perfect, overall they have set a good example of how to do the right thing by their customers and their employees. On a smaller scale, Zingerman's in Ann Arbor sets a great example of how to do the right thing.

Name one thing would you change about the local business area when it comes to business ethics?

I would love to see the local communities get together and develop a code of ethics. Then, have local businesses opt in to be randomly audited for compliance to that code of ethics. Finally, build a website where local residents could check out the rankings of a business, and submit complaints for resolution. Kind of like the BBB but with a better resolution process and more transparency in the rankings.

Source: Chris Hall, president of RepairClinic.com
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor start-ups take big bite of microloans

The Current Motor Co sees a promising future for its business, especially now that it has received a small-yet-significant chunk of change from the Michigan Microloan Fund Program.

The company and its staff of six makes electric mopeds and motorcycles. It will use the money to develop a new moped scooter, among other things.

"We're using it to help expand our market and protect our intellectual property by writing patents," says John Harding, founder of Current Motor Co.

The Ypsilanti-based start-up is one of four companies to split $155,000 in loans from the Michigan Microloan Fund Program. The other company's include Avicenna Medical Systems, Shepherd Intelligent Systems and TRIG Tires and Wheels. These companies will use the loans, which range between $10,000 and $50,000, to help further develop and market their products and build their core business.

Avicenna Medical Systems, a University of Michigan spin-off based in Ann Arbor, develops health-care software applications. Shepherd Intelligent Systems, another U-M spin out based in Ann Arbor, creates software that predicts arrival times for mass transit vehicles, like buses. Southfield-based TRIG Tires and Wheels is developing a anti-roll off and run-flat system for vehicle tires.

The $1.5 million Michigan Microloan Fund Program is made up of three distinct microloan funds, including the Eastern Washtenaw Microloan Fund ($225,000), Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund ($1 million) and the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Local Development Financing Authority ($275,000). The Michigan Microloan Fund Program, which is administered by Ann Arbor SPARK, has distributed $911,500 to 23 companies since last year.

Source: John Harding, president of Current Motor Co.
Writer: Jon Zemke

EMU start-ups win seed capital from Skandalaris Biz Plan Competition

Not all business plan competitions are for high-powered start-ups geared toward the new economy. Some, like the The Skandalaris Business Plan Competition, give opportunities for younger entrepreneurs or people who want to start a good, old-fashioned business.

The winners of the Eastern Michigan University Center for Entrepreneurship-based competition include Saline High School alumna and EMU student Carrie Eichler for her business plan called Carrieís Consignments and fellow EMU student Deborah Merz who won for her plan called Healthcare Integrators. Both received $1,000.

Bill Shaffer took home $700 for his plan called The Shaffer Boys and its presentation. That business plan centers around a carpentry business for commercial buildings. The 23-year-old journeyman carpenter is a senior majoring in construction management at EMU. Shaffer was inspired by his father and uncles who once owned their own carpentry business.

"My whole family is in the carpentry business," Shaffer says.

All business plans were welcome to the competition, which presented its plans at the Sesi Midwest Entrepreneurship Conference. About 300 students, educators and future entrepreneurs attended the annual conference this year.

Source: Eastern Michigan University and Bill Shaffer, owner of The Shaffer Boys
Writer: Jon Zemke

Schoolpictures.com hires 7 in Ypsilanti, plans to add 7-10

Schoolpictures.com has a lot of room to grow in its new home near Eastern Michigan University, and the Ypsilanti-based firm is already starting to fill out the space.

The 5-year-old company hired seven people in 2009, rounding out its staff to 41 employees, along with 30 more interns and independent contractors. It expects to hire 7-10 people this year, and all of that is organic growth.

"We've increased the size of our business by growing our mission," says Skip Cerier, CEO of Schoolpictures.com. "Our goal is to continue to raise money for schools. As cuts came down from the state, schools are in such dire straits that they are looking for other revenues. Schoolpictures.com provides a unique business model that allows us to sustain and grow our business while we raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for schools."

That includes $540,000 for 180 schools in 2009. Cerier believes that number would have been much higher in a healthier economy. He has big aspirations for beating that number this year, partly because of an improving economy and partly because of the company's new home.

Schoolpictures.com took over the Ave Maria University campus, turning the old mid-20th Century elementary school and other even older structures into a silver LEED campus. Itís first pre-1950 building to reach LEED silver status in Michigan. Now the 21,000 square feet of space that was prime fodder to become building rubble stands as a shinning example of sustainability and economic opportunity.

The old Victorian house is being remodeled into a child portrait studio. The idea is the architecture provides a comforting feeling for both kids and families. The school's old gym is now a 2,400-square-foot photography studio that gives the firm's photographers and creatives a lot of freedom.

"There has been a monumental change in the attitude of my employees," Cerier says. "They are much happier when they have space of their own."

Source: Skip Cerier, CEO of Schoolpictures.com
Writer: Jon Zemke

Sesi Midwest to showcase Ypsilanti entrepreneurship

Eastern Michigan University is working to encourage more students to dip their toes into the entrepreneurship pool with it latest offering Sesi Midwest Entrepreneurship Conference. Joe Venuto, one of the conference's speakers, is already swimming laps.

Venuto graduated from Eastern Michigan in 2008 with a degree in communications and a minor in entrepreneurship. He started several small businesses in Ypsilanti, ranging from Mobile Consulting (which saves people money on their cell phone bills) to SoPlat, a start-up that runs social media for Varsity Ford in Ann Arbor and Ferndale.

Venuto, 27, credits Eastern Michigan and Ypsilanti with giving him "the platform to be great" when it comes to running his own business. Those institutions helped him go from a dead broke student with little to direction in life to becoming a business owner with five independent contractors under him.

"There are so many resources in Ypsilanti and Eastern Michigan," Venuto says. "SPARK is over in Ann Arbor. They provided all of the resources I needed to be great as a serial entrepreneur. Everyone had an open door, too."

The conference will spotlight other local entrepreneurs and their successes, including people from well-established firms like Zingerman's to new start-ups run by students, like IMU.

The conference will be held at Friday in the EMU Student Center. Call (734) 487-0902 for more information.

Source: Joe Venuto, serial entrepreneur and recent graduate of Eastern Michigan University
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ypsilanti's New Eagle plans to add 10 engineers

A little more than a year ago, Rich and Mickey Swortzel started New Eagle. Today the Ypsilanti-based start-up cuts paychecks for 12, including independent contractors and interns. It hopes to hire another 10 engineers by summer.

New Eagle specializes in creating electronic control modules (think of the computer systems that help make your car run) for hybrids and the engineering services that support them. The Swotzels started New Eagle after the company they worked for (MotoTron) was acquired and moved many of its operations to Colorado.

"We wanted to start our own company," says Mickey Swortzel, business manager of New Eagle. "We wanted to enter this market."

This company is building the brains behind electric and hybrid vehicles. New Eagle's principal product, MotoHawk, facilitates electronic controls. There are more than a dozen such brains in an average car today that control everything from the windows to the locks.

"Picture 20 laptops in your car measuring X and telling your car to do Y if Z happens," Mickey Swortzel says.

New Eagle plans to facilitate its growth this year by pushing its engineering service sales. The idea is they will spark more sales in its principal product.

Source: Mickey Swortzel, business manager of New Eagle
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

Medical marijuana biz leads to 30 new jobs in Ypsilanti

Medical marijuana isn't just a buzz word in downtown Ypsilanti, it's a business with the potential to boom in the near future.

The 3rd Coast Seed Co. (a compassion club for users of medicinal cannabis and their caregivers) and the Michigan Marijuana Chamber of Commerce have set up shop in 7,300 square feet of commercial space, bringing 30 new jobs with them. The organizations' space (where one can eat a marijuana cookie among other cannabis products legally) is ironically in an old Girl Scouts office next to Abe's Coney Island on 19 N Hamilton St.

Anthony Freed, the founder of both organizations, also has plans to open similar offices elsewhere in Michigan. He believes this could create 1,000 jobs in Michigan both directly and indirectly within the next year.

"The ability for this to save Michigan is a very real concept," says Freed, who is also a user of medicinal marijuana. He also was once owned a mortgage company and claims to have been the general manager of Dexter Chevrolet at the age of 23.

As an example he says he is working with a local company that makes air purifying machines that have been used in restaurants to abate second-hand smoke. Instead of that business just going away with the newly passed smoking ban, he hopes to help that company transition its technology to be used as an air filtration system for the grow process of marijuana.

He sees multiple spin-off businesses coming from the new medical marijuana laws. Business that can not only be used by existing companies but can help create new ones, and new jobs, in Michigan. It's part of the reason why he is starting the Michigan Caregivers Cup in Ypsilanti at the end of this month.

"This industry can replace the auto industry at a fast pace," Freed says.

He points to proof of that in California, which is celebrating its 12 anniversary of the enactment of its medical marijuana laws. The medicinal marijuana industry is worth 10 figures and growing. He thinks Michigan is even more adept to hosting such an industry with its abundance of farmland, manufacturing base and research facilities.

"That this industry exists is a fact," Freed says. "It's a billion dollar industry whether you want to recognize it or not."

Source: Anthony Freed, co-founder of the Third Seed Co. and the Michigan Marijuana Chamber of Commerce
Writer: Jon Zemke

Michigan Microloan Fund makes $170K in new loans

The Michigan Microloan Fund Program has struck again, continuing what promises to be a common occurrence in 2010.

The program made $170,000 in loans to CTC Holdings, Energy Management Devices, MemCatch and Motor City Wipers. All of the companies are from southeast Michigan and half of them are from the Ypsilanti-Ann Arbor area.

The micro loans provide funding for start-ups so they can either commercialize their product or accelerate their business growth. The $1.5 million program will make anywhere from 2-4 loans of a few thousand dollars each per month for 2010. That's another 24-48 fledgling local businesses receiving financing during a time when loans for small businesses are almost non-existent.

"I don't think the demand is going to decrease," says Skip Simms, fund manager for the Michigan Microloan Fund Program. "It has become a very popular way for start-ups to get a small amount of capital to get them to a significant milestone."

Ypsilanti-based CTC Holdings is commercializing advanced VOCs-to-Energy Products that convert VOC emissions into concentrated fuel. That fuel can be paired with a Stirling engine, fuel cell, IC engine or micro-turbine to create useful electricity or burned in a boiler to create thermal energy.

MemCatch is creating a social knowledge network that helps users build and share information. The Ann Arbor-based firm's system collects, collaborates, shares and enables sharing of information within a private network or an open database.

Commerce Township-based Energy Management Devices, a spin-out of Sterling Technologies, is commercializing its g-plug family of products. The g-plug monitors a computerís power consumption, and when the computer powers down, it automatically shuts down computer-related peripherals such as laser printers, monitors, and amplified speakers.

Motor City Wipers is developing an advanced windshield wiper system that solves several of the shortcomings of todayís windshield wipers, including the build-up of snow, ice and other solid debris from the windshield wiper blade. It's based in Rochester.

Source: Skip Simms, fund manager for the Michigan Microloan Fund Program
Writer: Jon Zemke

Clean Energy Coalition hires 3 in Ypsilanti's Depot Town

Green jobs are being created in Ypsilanti's Depot Town now that the Clean Energy Coalition is going on a hiring spree.

Nineteen months ago, the 3-year-old non-profit had a staff one, its executive director, Sean Reed. Today it employs eight people, an intern and the occasional independent contractor in its newly opened retail and education space in Depot Town called the Energy Outlet. Three of those hires took place in January and another 2-3 people are expected to be on board by the end of February.

"Our organization has gone through an aggressive ramp up in staffing," says Sean Reed, executive director of the Clean Energy Coalition.

The coalition got its start helping find ways to make commuting in automobiles more sustainable. It has since grow to include things like energy audits for buildings and other sustainability-oriented projects thanks to a $15 million grant it received from the U.S. Dept. of Energy this summer.

Source: Sean Reed, executive director of the Clean Energy Coalition
Writer: Jon Zemke
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