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Pre-Seed Capital Fund hits three Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti businesses

Three new businesses in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area are about to get by with a little help from their new friend - Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund.

White Pine Systems, OcuSciences and RealKidz (all Ann Arbor SPARK-sponsored start-ups) received between $142,000 and $250,000 in seed money. Ann Arbor SPARK administers this money.

"We hope this acts as an incentive to bring an angel (investor) to the table to make an investment," says Skip Simms, administrator of the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund.

Ann Arbor-based White Pine Systems will use its $225,000 to further its internet-based medical records service. That service securely stores and manages personal information, such as medical and legal records.

University of Michigan spin-off OcuSciences has $250,000 to develop its OcuMet line of ocular metabolic imaging products. The Ann Arbor-based firm’s products allow detection of several diseases through indicators in the eye, several years earlier than current clinical methods.

Ypsilanti-based RealKidz, an on-line retailer, plans to use its $142,000 to further its development of large size kids clothing and social network. RealKidz is a tenant of SPARK East business incubator.

The Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund, a collaborative effort of Michigan's 15 SmartZones, is an equity investment fund. It receives the same returns as a private third-party investor. Ann Arbor SPARK is one of these SmartZones. Thirty-four companies from across the state have received seed money from the fund since its inception.

Source:
Skip Simms, administrator of the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund
Writer: Jon Zemke

Sensei Change sets up shop at Ypsilanti's SPARK East

Diana Wong is a person who specializes in change. One might even call her an expert. But it doesn't take her well-trained eye to recognize the change that's washing over downtown Ypsilanti.

"It's an incredibly dynamic place," Wong says. "The energy there is dynamic. It's in the early stages of renewal and renaissance. Not everybody sees it but there are a lot of pieces in place."

One of those key places is Ann Arbor SPARK's new East Incubator. The office space for entrepreneurs on Michigan Avenue next to Bombadill's Café is where Wong choose to set up the office for her new start-up – Sensei Change.

The Eastern Michigan University business professor's firm specializes in handling change in the business world. That could be everything from helping professionals switch career paths to helping corporate executives make a successful switch to entrepreneurism. Wong makes sure these people make the changes in their strategies and technique to enable a successful switch.

"I find that a lot of strategy doesn't happen without fundamental change," Wong says.

What's staying consistent is the size of the 5-year-old company. Right now it's just her and four independent contractors. She hopes to change that by adding more independent contractors and even an employee or two when she starts taking on more work.

Source: Diana Wong, president and CEO of Sensei Change
Writer: Jon Zemke

VAL-IT teaches IT, moves into Ypsilanti's SPARK East

Many IT start-ups begin with the idea of providing superior service to small and medium-sized businesses. Not so with VAL-IT.

The Ypsilanti-based firm specializing in teaching IT skills first and foremost, and is targeting the big boys of the business world – like corporations, university student bodies and major industrial clients. The idea is that IT is such a fast-growing sector, someone has to train the people for all of those new knowledge-based economy jobs.

"It's to address the needs of knowledge professionals," says William Bathgate, CEO of VAL-IT. "They are needed over all industries."

VAL-IT's three employees and handful of independent contractors all have extensive backgrounds in the IT world. Bathgate wants to leverage those into a profitable business. He choose to set up shop in Ann Arbor SPARK's East Incubator in downtown Ypsilanti to be near the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw County's east industrial core.

Bathgate has no plans to hire right away, but can see adding jobs when the classes start rolling in and the need warrants the extra workers.

Source: William Bathgate, CEO of VAL-IT
Writer: Jon Zemke

LaVision anchors its office in Ypsilanti's new SPARK East

The anchor tenant for Ann Arbor SPARK's East business incubator, LaVision, isn't new to the area or to business, but it's found a good home there, amongst a gaggle of start-ups.

LaVision is a subsidiary of a European parent company that provides laser-imaging systems for advanced manufacturing systems. It leased space in the Key Bank building in Ypsilanti for about a decade before moving to SPARK East's new digs on Michigan Avenue next to Bombadills Cafe in downtown.

"I like it here," says Callum Gray, CEO of LaVision. "There are great places to eat and the price per square foot is great compared to downtown Ann Arbor."

He also likes its close proximity to Metro Airport, an option that lets him go anywhere in the world after a few minutes drive.

LaVision has a staff of four people and an intern at its new Ypsilanti offices. It plans to add another person or two to it within the next five years.

Source: Callum Gray, CEO of LaVision
Writer: Jon Zemke

Eastern Leaders sets sights on micro loans, land bank

The Eastern Leaders Group has some lofty ambitions for Washtenaw County, but they all seem attainable when looking at their 33 page plan.

The group is made up of local leaders from the public, private and university community dedicated toward improving the eastern half of the county. The idea is to harness their collective power and influence to make these improvements, such as building on Eastern Michigan University's reputation and resources.

One of their checked-off goals includes the opening of the Ann Arbor SPARK East business incubator in downtown Ypsilanti this year. The group expects the incubator to help make Ypsilanti and the surrounding area more attractive to new economy firms and the high-paying jobs they create.

The Eastern Leaders Group also plans to push for a number of other tools, such as the creation of land bank and micro loans for promising start-ups. The land bank is expected to help save foreclosed property from demolition, put them back on the tax roles quickly and stabilize area with heavy foreclosure rates. The micro loans would help fledgling small businesses grow, especially in this time known for its credit crisis. They're part of larger goals aimed at stabilizing the area and developing local businesses.

These tools, especially the land bank, will also help the Eastern Leaders Group bring in more federal money to push its programs forward.

"What we're trying to do is leverage all of that funding," says James McFarlane, a project manager for Eastern Leaders Group.

Source: James McFarlane, project manager for Eastern Leaders Group
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ypsilanti's SPARK East to show off new digs this Friday

The doors of Ann Arbor SPARK's East incubator have been open for a few months, but now the public can come on in and have a looksee this Friday afternoon.

Anyone and everyone is invited to drop in at the new economy business incubator in downtown Ypsilanti between 1:30 and 8 p.m. Ann Arbor SPARK employees will be showing off the new, edgy digs in the restored Mack & Mack building with tour and a press conference.

The incubator will also be showing off its first eight tenants. They range from LaVision, the anchor tenant, to a number of start-ups like Smart Dining and Brainstorm Creative. The incubator is only half full so far, and has plenty of room for virtual tenants.

"We have the same opportunity in SPARK East as we do in SPARK Central (downtown Ann Arbor) to be a virtual tenant," says Elizabeth Parkison, managing director of marketing and public relation for Ann Arbor SPARK.

A virtual tenant is sort of the cheapest, bare bones way of taking advantage of an Ann Arbor SPARK incubator. Virtual tenants pay $95 a month and can take advantage of things like the conference rooms, drop in to use the office space and the business acceleration services. The big difference between virtual tenant and actual tenants is the actual tenants can use the space as their everyday office.

All of these options and more will be available during Friday's open house. SPARK East is located in the ground floor space of 215 E Michigan Ave next to Bombadills Café. For information, call (734) 372-4070.

Source: Elizabeth Parkinson, managing director of marketing and public relation for Ann Arbor SPARK
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ypsilanti Brainstorm Creative bets big on lotto tech, hopes to add 25-30 people

Investing in the lottery isn’t normally regarded as a sound investment, but it's one that the people behind Brainstorm Creative are getting ready to really cash in on this year.

The downtown Ypsilanti-based firm believes its newest lotto-based technology, Millionairesgreetings.com, will let it quintuple its staff this year. Right now Brainstorm Creative employs six people. It hopes to add 25-30 people as it starts to put the technology out in a pilot phase in October.

"We are optimistic about a full launch," says Joseph Gough, president of Brainstorm Creative.

Millionairesgreetings.com is service where customers can send a card to someone that comes with a lottery ticket. If the person who receives the card wins, they get 80 percent of the prize while the send gets 20 percent.

"It's a marriage between greeting cards and lottery games," Gough says.

Brainstorm Creative, a spin-off of Indian Trail Productions, recently set up shop in Ann Arbor SPARK’s East Incubator in downtown Ypsilanti. It won a free one-year lease starting this month during the ACE Awards.

"I really like it," Gough says. "I think they have some pretty progressive ideas about setting up a creative community there."

Source: Joseph Gough, president of Brainstorm Creative
Writer: Jon Zemke

Smart Dining sets its table at Ypsilanti SPARK office

Making a choice about going out to dinner takes lots of information, especially when a group is making that decision. Enter Smart Dining, the company that strives to provide.

The downtown Ypsilanti-based firm serves as a resource for local restaurant websites, menus, reviews and discounts. A click on its website can provide easy access to all of this valuable information, making dinner choices easier.

Of course it's never as easy as it sounds. The company started off with a partnership with The Ann Arbor News two years ago and lots of immediate promise. Unfortunately, The Ann Arbor News' plans changed. Smart Dining is focused on avoiding that same fate, revamping its website and business model.

"How do you create an advertising vehicle that isn’t an in-your-face piece of junk mail?" says David Kanaan, president and co-owner of Smart Dining.

Smart Dining's four people are doing this in Ann Arbor SPARK's new East Incubator in downtown Ypsilanti.

"It's a fantastic place," Kanaan says. "If you saw what they offer to small businesses it would be stupid to go elsewhere. What they offer is unbeatable."

He is taking those vibes and getting ready to go forward on them. He thinks Smart Dining is one year away from hitting on all cylinders and then sky is the limit.

"The chance for expansion is infinite," Kanaan says. "It's all about gaining traction in one market and moving onto the next."

Source: David Kanaan, president and co-owner of Smart Dining
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ypsilanti’s LookInTheAttic named 1 of Michigan’s 50 companies to watch

It's not hard to find LookInTheAttic these days, especially now that the downtown Ypsilanti-based firm has been named one of the Edward Lowe Foundation's Michigan 50 Companies to Watch.

It's easy to see why when you look at the company's year-to-year growth. Steady success has allowed the eight-person firm to add one more person to its staff and open yet another position. It hopes to create yet another job later this year, as the company continues on its growth track.

"We're consistently seeing 20-30 percent growth every year, even in this recession," says John Coleman, president of LookInTheAttic.

The store specializes in selling antique reproduction hardware and housewares both at its storefront and online. Although the store is based out of a historic storefront in downtown, most of its sales (about 85 percent) are from online purchases. That percentage of business inspired the owners to start Silver & Gold, an online jewelry store.

Coleman didn't decided to open up in downtown Ypsilanti because of what it could be but because of what it is today.

"The building prices are right," Coleman says. "It gives us a billboard on Michigan Avenue and a nice place to work."

Source: John Coleman, president of LookInTheAttic
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ypsilanti's ETCS looks to pair local talent with jobs at job fair

For years Washtenaw County's Employment Training and Community Services has been all about connecting employers with future employees, and vice versa.

Now the Ypsilanti-based agency is reaching out beyond the county's borders, taking part in the 2009 Livingston Regional Job Fair in Howell on April 22. The idea is to combine the workforce and employers of both neighboring counties to get more local people employed.

"We're trying to do as much outreach as possible to let employers know how much talent there is available here," says Dorion Holbrook, corporate and business services representative for ETCS.

Businesses looking for new employees and workers looking for new jobs are both invited to come to the event at Crystal Gardens Banquet Center, 5768 E. Grand River Ave. in Howell.

For information, contact Dorion Holbrook at holbrookd@ewashtenaw.org or (734) 544-2952.

Source: Dorion Holbrook, corporate and business services representative for ETCS
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti pushes envelope with news consumption

A media revolution is taking place in Washtenaw County and the first casualty appears to be The Ann Arbor News, a venerable 174-year-old local institution.

Replacing it will be a news website, AnnArbor.com, and a newspaper that publishes every Thursday and Sunday. The Ann Arbor News as we know it will cease to be in July. Booth Newspapers, which owns the paper, plans to continue providing news coverage in the Ann Arbor area.

The purpose of reporting on local news will be the same, but the website's staff will be significantly smaller than the newspaper's current staff. How that reporting is done, what it looks like and how it's presented are still details that are being worked out.

"This is not the end of local journalism in Ann Arbor," says Laurel Champion, publisher of The Ann Arbor News and who will serve as the executive vice president of AnnArbor.com. "This is just a changing in how it's served."

But what happens next for local journalism is not as clear. A number of independent, web-based news organizations have popped up in recent years, including this publication, YpsiNews.com, The Ann Arbor Chronicle and the Ypsilanti Citizen. Local blogish websites, Mark Maynard and Arbor Update, have also surfaced as information alternatives.

Much of the initial conversation in the aftermath of The Ann Arbor News' announcement has centered on how the business model for newspapers is irreparably broken, leaving a huge void when it comes to a community voice and watchdog. Some are not so certain.

"The model of current journalism is broken," says Steve Pierce, owner and managing editor of YpsiNews.com. "It's not unusual that the people who broke that model are running around saying the sky is falling."

Almost in the same breath, Pierce says the recent developments with The Ann Arbor News are a "huge concern for me." Pierce started his website in 2006 after he thought local news coverage in his community was lacking and decided to step up. He isn't a journalist by trade, but his sometimes muckraking site has served as a watchdog of local government and events.

But he concedes the community needs more than just him. He credits The Ann Arbor News for having the wherewithal and deep pockets to go after the hard investigative stories.

"There is no way my little media outlet can afford to do that," Pierce says. "The Ann Arbor News has been willing to spend the money on important fights like the President's house and the EMU murders. Even if The Ann Arbor Chronicle, Ypsilanti Citizen and Ypsi News combined resources there is no way we could take the EMU lawyers to task."

He is currently looking at other avenues to help deepen local pockets, like Spot.us, and keep local media watchdogs barking. Not that there aren't working watchdogs today. It's just that they are more in the puppy stage of life. But they have been able to bark loud enough recently to make local government meetings more accessible and open to the public.

"There is this notion that real journalists are doing investigative reporting, routing out corruption, asking tough questions," says Dave Askins, editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. "There is the idea of the Fourth Estate. We aspire to some extent to fill that."

Source: Steve Pierce, owner and managing editor of YpsiNews.com, Dave Askins, editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle and Laurel Champion, publisher of The Ann Arbor News
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ypsilanti's ISSYS plans to hire 10-15 new people this year

ISSYS is betting its newest product, the ISDS-08, is going to make a big splash this year. Big enough that the Ypsilanti-based firm expects to hire 10-15 new people on the strength of its release.

"There has just been such a demand for it," says Doug Sparks, vice president of ISSYS.

The ISDS-08 is an in-line density meter. That means its measures and keeps track of things like fuel delivery in manufacturing applications. It can detect fuel quality, temperature and whether there is water in the line.

ISSYS spun-off from the University of Michigan in 1995 and uses micro fluids for research in products like fuel cells. Today it employs 30 people and the occasional intern and independent contractor. It's looking to hire a couple of engineers right now.

The company recently received a patent for developing a process of making microtube and microfluidic devices. These types of technologies are helping the company streamline the microfluidic process, making it cheaper.

Source: Doug Sparks, vice president of ISSYS
Writer: Jon Zemke

EMU MBA student healthcare research wins award

Most students write papers so they can graduate but at least one Eastern Michigan University student is writing papers that win awards.

The Association for Marketing and Health Care Research honored EMU MBA student Jarrod Sandel for his paper on healthcare. The Ann Arbor native's paper, which he co-wrote with the head of EMU’s Marketing Department, deals mainly with providing healthcare at home and the role technology plays.

The paper follows the development of home healthcare (an option becoming increasingly popular as Baby Boomers age and finances tighten) and its market. It also expands on the how technology has evolved to play a role in this situation.

And this is all from a supply chain management major in EMU's business school. However, he does work for the IT Dept in the University of Michigan Health System.

Source: Eastern Michigan University
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ypsilanti-born ShadePlex starts to grow up with investment

The important thing to keep in mind isn't that ShadePlex now calls Toledo its home. It's that the idea for the start-up was born and nurtured in Ypsilanti.

Concentrate first reported on ShadePlex a year ago when it was just a start-up started among friends with an idea of putting solar cells on things like tents, struggling to get it off the ground. They're doing that now, however, from the University of Toledo's Energy Incubator.

The company made the move because it received a $50,000 product development grant from Toledo-based Rocket Ventures. Start-ups usually go where the venture capital firms that invest in them tell them to go. One of the company's co-founders, Brian Tell, still lives in Ypsilanti. The other co-founders live in Downriver and northern Ohio. The company hopes to hire 20-25 people in the next three years and hit $30 million by 2013.

ShadePlex is developing solar cells fabrics that can generate electricity. The idea is that putting them on something like a tent will allow a business or homeowner to generate more electricity somewhere that before only helped create a heat island.

Source: Brian Tell, president and co-founder of ShadePlex
Writer: Jon Zemke

EMU speaker to talk about buyouts, entrepreneurship in Ypsilanti

Eastern Michigan University has a few ideas about what locals can do with their buyout checks – start their own business.

The university's College of Business is hosting entrepreneur Robert J. Skandalaris on Friday morning for its "Breakfast with the Dean" series.

Skandalaris isn't exactly a household name but he has lived the life that most people would remember. He founded Noble International, a tech company listed on the NASDAQ that specializes in supplying laser-welded blanks and structural tube parts to the automotive industry.

Quantum Ventures of Michigan is another notch on his belt. The company acquires and development of middle-market firms. He also wrote "Rebuilding the American Dream," a book about innovation and entrepreneurship.

He will be speaking about "the economy and its impact on the buyout world."

The event will begin at 7:30 a.m. and will take place in room 114 of the College of Business, 300 W. Michigan Ave. in downtown Ypsilanti. Free parking is available in the college’s parking structure on Pearl Street. For information, call Shirley Wentz at (734) 487-4140.

Source: Eastern Michigan University
Writer: Jon Zemke
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