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Compass aims to connect freelancers with small businesses

A couple of Venture For America fellows are looking to better connect small businesses with local freelancers with their new startup, Compass.

The downtown Detroit-based startup aims to draw upon a network of well-vetted freelancers to help small businesses flesh out their online presence with better websites, digital marketing, and social media. Compass clients are guided through an easy process where they get a dedicated freelancer to create an affordable, agency-quality website for their business. In return the startup takes a percentage of the bill for doing the business-side work so the freelancers can focus on their specialty.

"We manage the project," says Mike Wilner, CEO of Compass. "We handle all of the things a freelancer doesn’t want to handle."

Wilner launched Compass with Taylor Sundali seven months ago. Both are part of the 2013 class of Venture For America, a Teach For America-like program that pairs promising recent college grads with startups in economically challenged cities on two-year fellowships. Wilner worked for Social Proof and Sundali worked at Doodle Home before launching Compass.

The inspiration came from the parents of the fellows. Both sets of parents are small business owners and have been asking both 20-somethings for more and more help with beefing up the online presence of their companies.

"My parents sat me down and asked me for a lot of advice," Wilner says. "More than they ever had before."

The Compass team is currently going through the Venture For America Accelerator out east but plans to return to Detroit later this spring. They are already working with four local freelancers to pair with small businesses and plan to expand that stable of independent contractors markedly over this year.

"We want to have a lively community of freelancers working with us," Wilner says.

Source: Mike Wilner, CEO of Compass
Writer: Jon Zemke

Plutonium Paint adds products, grows its color palette

Plutonium Paint has already made a name for itself as a high-end aerosol paint brand, but this year it's looking to expand its product line.

The Southfield-based startup's principal product is a high-end spray paint targeting contemporary creatives, such as street art artists, muralists, arts and crafts enthusiasts, and do-it-yourselfers. Now the 4-year-old company will grow its pallet of colors.

"We have a few new products coming out this year," says Barry Fleischer, president of Plutonium Paint.

Plutonium Paint plans to offer more colors and shades without forcing its retailers to carry each product. The paint will be available in dozens of colors, all flat.

"We are coming out with a clear coat that will protect the paint," Fleischer says. "It will be available in semi-gloss and in gloss."

Plutonium Paint, which has added a few people this year to a staff of six employees and six independent contractors, is also looking to beef up its sales this year. It has traditionally sold its products at hobby stores for DIYers. It is now expanding into hardware chains and traditional paint stores.

"We also received a vendor number from Ace Hardware this year," Fleischer says.

Source: Barry Fleischer, president of Plutonium Paint
Writer: Jon Zemke

New Eagle expands staff at new facility in Ann Arbor

New Eagle moved into a new office in Ann Arbor last year and has been growing its staff and bottom line since.

The automotive, energy-efficiency company took over a 21,000-square-foot space on the city's western outskirts. It has spent equal parts of the last few months working on its hybrid technology and modernizing its new home.

"We took it from an old, dingy commercial space to a collaborative office," says Rich Swortzel, president of New Eagle. "It's open. It’s a fun environment."

The 6-year-old company specializes in hybrid technology for the automotive sector. Its recently released Raptor platform helps create fuel-savings for heavy vehicles like garbage trucks. It accomplishes that with a connected and distributed control system that is advanced, scalable, self-diagnosing, and remotely controllable.

"The goal is to mature it and grow it," Swortzel says.

New Eagle has enjoyed growing sales of technology both domestically and internationally recently. International sales accounted for half of the company’s revenue over the last year. That has allowed the company hire a handful of people over the last year.

Source: Rich Swortzel, president of New Eagle
Writer: Jon Zemke

Exxodus Pictures adds staff thanks to more commercial and film work

Exxodus Pictures is growing from its base in downtown Detroit thanks to more work in both film and commercials.

The M@dison Building-based company released the movie "Jinn" last year. It has also made three commercials and is gearing up to make the first of a slate of three movies later this year.

"Our main thing is movies," says Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad, co-owner of Exxodus Pictures. "But if we get contacted for a commercial job, we don't turn it down."

The 5-year-old firm's first theatrical release, "Jinn," came out last spring. The movie is about an elite class of warriors/monsters who are ancient, supernatural, and made of fire. (Check out the trailer for the film here.) The film was released in 210 theaters in North America. It is set to release across multiple channels like Dish Network and Amazon this week.

Exxodus Pictures employs a core staff of 10 people after hiring two editors and two graphic designers. The company will also crew up to 30 people when it shoots commercials and up to 50 people while shooting a movie.

Exxodus Pictures recently received $1.3 million in tax incentives from the state of Michigan to film three made-in-Michigan movies. Those include "My Soul to Keep," "Swish Master," and "Golem." "Swish Master" is a story about Max Sheffield, a boy who unleashes black magic to put a stop to the bullying he is experiencing at school, but realizes along the way he may not be the one in control after all.

"Golem" centers around Adina Akhavan, who witnesses the annihilation of her village by Nazi soldiers. But then an otherworldly beast emerges and decimates the barbarous soldiers and Adina escapes into the forest. Weeks later, she is befriended by Captain Jaeger and his elite team of SS relic hunters who were sent to investigate the disappearance of the brigade and to secure the ancient beast. Adina has no choice but to hide her true identity, help Captain Jaeger secure the beast, and wait for the perfect moment to enact her revenge.

"My Soul to Keep" follows 9-year-old Eli Braverman, who is terrified of his basement and the evil that he thinks is living there. When his older sister Emily abandons her babysitting duties, Eli is left home alone to confront the darkness and the creature that may be lurking in it.

"We're looking to start shooting that in the spring," Ahmad says.

Source: Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad, co-owner of Exxodus Pictures
Writer: Jon Zemke

Civionics brings wireless sensors to manufacturing

Civionics got its start spinning out of the University of Michigan in 2009 by commercializing wireless sensor technology. The platform was primarily used to measure the strength of large-scale infrastructure, such as bridge supports.

That's changing now. The startup is pivoting from its previous work, which mostly generated revenue from government grants, to a product platform.

"We have a new product we began selling at the end of last year," says Andy Zimmerman, CEO of Civionics. "We hope it will help us enter some new verticals."

That new product is called Constellation. It is based on Civionics original technology but applies it to manufacturing equipment in factories. The idea is to monitor the strength of those machines and avoid breakdowns with well-timed maintenance. The company is aiming to focus on Michigan’s automotive market as a start.

To help make that happen, Civionics has joined Automation Alley's 7Cs program. The program helps small businesses leverage cutting edge manufacturing technology, opening the door for them to go to the next level of production.

"Automation Alley clearly has the connections in the area that we lack," Zimmerman says.

The Ann Arbor-based company currently employs a core team of a handful of people after adding one over the last year. Zimmerman expects to grow that team later this year as it lines up the first customers for Constellation.

Source: Andy Zimmerman, CEO of Civionics
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ash & Anvil to offer Detroit-made clothes for short men


Steven Mazur isn't a tall man. At 5 feet 6 inches, he’s not exactly Peter Dinklage-size, but he is familiar with the challenges people of shorter stature face. It served as the inspiration for, Ash & Anvil, the men's clothing company he co-founded with Eric Huang.

"We were thinking about the challenges we face," Mazur says. "Finding clothes has not been easy."

Ash & Anvil specializes in making clothes for men 5 feet 8 inches and under, addressing many of the challenges shorter people face when buying clothes. For instance, when Mazur buys pants he knows the average inseam is 30 inches, but his measures 28 inches. Ash & Anvil's first line of clothing will launch with a line of casual, button-down shirts. It hopes to expand into jeans, dress pants/shirts, and athletic apparel later this year,

Mazur and Huang are Venture For America fellows who came to Detroit in 2013 as part of the second class of aspiring entrepreneurs in the Motor City. Venture For America pairs recent college grads with startups in economically challenged cities. Detroit was one of the programs first participating cities.

Ash & Anvil are currently working on a crowdfunding campaign to fund its first run of clothes, which will be made in Detroit. The campaign as a goal of raising $10,000 and has already raised more than $9,000.

Source: Stevem Mazur and Eric Huang, co-founder of Ash & Anvil
Writer: Jon Zemke

Creative firm Agency 720 expands across U.S., adds staff in downtown Detroit


For a creative agency, it's good to work with a major automaker’s brand. It's even better when you’re the recommended tier 2 marketing agency for Chevrolet.

That's the case with Agency 720, which has been growing its presence across North America steadily over the last year. It is now in 141 markets across the continent, mainly handling advertising work for Chevy dealerships across the U.S.

"They are a fabulous partner," says Harold Kobakof, president & CEO of Agency 720.

The downtown Detroit-based firm’s has added seven markets over the last year. It has also added work outside of the automotive industry, handling work with Pulte Homes. Most of Agency 720’s work, however, comes from Chevrolet dealerships.

"We're looking to expand into seven more markets this year," Kobakof says.

That expansion has allowed the four-year-old firm to expand its staff to 110 people after hiring 10 over the last year. Those new jobs include account managers and directors. Agency 720 is also in the process of hiring a graphic designer.

Source: Harold Kobakof, president & CEO of Agency 720
Writer: Jon Zemke

Credit Union One merges with Good Shepherd Credit Union

Another consolidation among local credit unions is underway now that Credit Union One is absorbing Good Shepherd Credit Union.

The Ferndale-based credit union is taking over Good Shepherd as part of its plan to grow its membership and extend its reach across metro Detroit. Lincoln Park-based Good Shepherd has 8,300 members and branches in Lincoln Park and Woodhaven.

"Growing into downriver has always been a goal of ours from a geographic standpoint," says Gary Moody, president & CEO of Credit Union One. "Adding 8,000 members also made sense."

The merger, if approved, will be complete by the end of June. The addition of Good Shepherd Credit Union will add $93 million in assets to Credit Union One's existing $860 million in assets. Credit Union One has 120,000 members and 18 branches mainly spread across Oakland and Macomb counties. It also has branches in Grand Rapids and Traverse City.

Credit Union One has grown its assets and membership by 10 percent over the last year. It has also grown its deposits and loans by 20 percent to $765 million and $715 million respectively. The credit union employs a staff of 302 people and has one intern. It has hired 13 people over the last year and is looking to add to that number.

"We're always hiring branch staff," Moody says.

Source: Gary Moody, president & CEO of Credit Union One
Writer: Jon Zemke

Morpace adds staff as it diversifies client base

Morpace, a Farmington Hills-based market research and consulting firm, is looking to continue growing its revenue, adding staff, and diversifying its clientele in 2015.

"We want to build on our current growth," says Duncan Lawrence, president & CEO of Morpace.

The firm helps its clients figure out and overcome marketing challenges through product development, customer experience, and brand strategy. It has grown its revenue by almost 10 percent over the last year. That has allowed it to hire 30 people, expanding its staff to 220 employees and a handful of interns. It also recently promoted Lawrence, who has been with the company since 1994, to CEO.

"I have hired six people so far this year," Lawrence says.

Morpace has been able to keep growing by diversifying its client base. It has traditionally focused on the automotive industry, but has expanded into a number of other sectors like financial services, retail, and healthcare.

"Healthcare is our fastest growing vertical," Lawrence says. "It has doubled over the last couple of years."

That doesn't mean the 40-year-old firm is ignoring its roots. It is aiming to grow its workload with existing clients and is looking to find more work in overlooked areas in automotive, such as commercial trucks, or power train.

"It's in an area where no one has any deep expertise," Lawrence says. "It's also going through deep change."

Source: Duncan Lawrence, president & CEO of Morpace
Writer: Jon Zemke

H2Bid aims to grow business through analytics in 2015

For most of its eight years, H2Bid has been know as a place for water utilities to save money by taking their business online. Now it’s looking to bring those utilities more savings through data analytics.

"We have a ton of data we have collected over the years," says Glenn Oliver, president & CEO of H2Bid. "Basically it's procurement information from water utilities."

The four-person firm's software platform helps water utilities bid out projects over the Internet, enabling them to strike the best deal in the most cost-effective manner. It is now looking to work with some of Michigan research universities to add data analytics to its list of services. The idea is to help the downtown Detroit-based firm’s customers make smarter decisions about everything from pricing to procurement.

H2Bid hopes to execute on that pivot later this winter and spring. It is also looking at developing a procurement platform later this year to help add more value to its customers.

"It's kind of a natural fit for us," Oliver says. "It's something we're excited about."

Source: Glenn Oliver, president & CEO of H2Bid
Writer: Jon Zemke

Truscott Rossman adds four new employees at RenCen office

Truscott Rossman's Detroit office has come a long way since its opened a little more than a year ago. The public relations agency now employs a staff of four people in the Renaissance Center.

"We felt a commitment to go above and beyond for our Detroit clients rather than just working out of the Lansing office," says Kelly Rossman-McKinney, CEO of Truscott Rossman.

The Lansing-based firm got its start four years ago when Rossman-McKinney and John Truscott merged their well-known PR firms into what is now Truscott Rossman. The new company now has satellite offices in Grand Rapids and Detroit.

It has hired nine people over the last year, including four former interns, expanding its staff to 25 employees. Among its recent hires in Detroit are digital media director Chad Cyrowski, account executive Dan Herrick, account executive Matt Brady, and strategic communications leader John Bailey.

Truscott Rossman currently serves a number of clients in Detroit and surrounding suburbs. Some of those include DTE Energy, Detroit Medical Center, the city of Detroit, and the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department.

"I expect we will have at least 10 clients coming out of southeast Michigan," says Rossman-McKinney, who describes the Detroit market as "bursting with opportunities."

"I would like to add at least two more professionals."

Source: Kelly Rossman-McKinney, CEO of Truscott Rossman
Writer: Jon Zemke

U-M student startup app helps track loved ones

A group of students at the University of Michigan are trying to bring campus safety into the 21st Century with a new mobile app called Companion.

The five students began working on the app a few months ago after noticing there wasn't a comprehensive public safety tool that worked with their smartphones.

"It was the culmination of a number of experiences we have had for years," says Danny Freed, co-founder of Companion. "We would get crime alerts that are 12 hours old and useless or there are the blue safety stations that no one uses."

Companion's mobile app harnesses real-time walking data that allows for family and friends to keep an eye on you as you walk home late at night. It matches that data with historical walking pattern and a predictive engine so local campus police can determine the optimal placement of officers.

Companion won the Pryor-Hale Award for Best Business at the Michigan Business Plan Competition. That came with $20,000 in seed capital. The team, all U-M undergraduates, also won the Most Successful Undergraduate team award for $2,500 as well as the Marketing Award sponsored by Marketing Associates for $2,500.

That $25,000 will go toward further developing the app. A Beta version is currently available in the Apple App Store, but the team is looking to enhance its capability.

"We are continuously adding features," Freed says.

Source: Danny Freed, co-founder of Companion
Writer: Jon Zemke

Michigan Israel Business Bridge grows team in Bloomfield Hills

The Michigan Israel Business Bridge is growing its staff and its influence in metro Detroit.

The Bloomfield Hills-based, chamber-of-commerce-like organization has been making connections between the entrepreneurial ecosystems of Michigan and Israel since its launch in 2007. That includes helping companies from both regions do more business with each other and bridging not-so-obvious divides.

"It's also two different cultures you need to bridge," says Pamela Lippitt, executive director of the Michigan Israel Business Bridge. "In Israel a handshake means more than what it means here."

The non-profit, which recently doubled its staff to two people, works with both high-tech and low-tech businesses. For instance, it is hosting a roadshow for four medical device startups from Israel on March 25th. The Michigan Israel Business Bridge also helped organize Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent economic development visit to Israel.

Michigan Israel Business Bridge's members include two Israel-based auto cyber security firms (TowerSec and Argus Cyber Security) which opened North American offices in Michigan. It's all part of a long effort to further connect the two economies.

"It's a long process that you have to be patient with," Lippitt says.

Source: Pamela Lippitt, executive director of the Michigan Israel Business Bridge
Writer: Jon Zemke

Stratos launches all-in-one credit card for your wallet

Stratos is launching its all-in-one payment card this week, a product that aims to consolidate the contents of your wallet into one piece of durable, dynamic plastic.

"It's a next generation card that can hold all of the cards in your wallet," says Thiago Olson, CEO of Stratos.

The Stratos Bluetooth Connected Card consolidates an unlimited number of plastic cards into one and can work anywhere traditional credit cards are accepted. That means the Stratos Card can load credit, debit, loyalty, membership and gift cards into a familiar, universally accepted card that can instantly change into the card you need on demand.

The Stratos Card comes equipped with Bluetooth technology that consolidates your cards helps make sure the right one is ready to go when the user is ready to check out. Check out a video describing it here.

"If I simple double tap this card it will say, 'Based on your location you are near Macy's. Do you want to use your Macy’s card?'" Olson says.

Users can access the Stratos card on a subscription basis for $95 per year or $145 for two years. Customers can sign up now and expect the cards to be shipped in April. The cards are made of a durable plastic that comes with a scratch-proof coating.

"It's more resistant to wear and tear than an average credit card," Olson says.

Stratos launched a little more than two years ago in downtown Ann Arbor. It has grown into a new office space in Kerrytown, taking over the former home of Duo Security. It currently employs a staff of 50, including 25 people and a few interns in Ann Arbor. It has hired about 15 people over the last year and it looking to hire another 14. You can check out the open positions here.

Source: Thiago Olson, CEO of Stratos
Writer: Jon Zemke

Renaissance Venture Capital Fund closes on second fund worth $79M

The Renaissance Venture Capital Fund has closed on its second investment vehicle, a $79 million fund destined for Michigan-based startups and the venture capital firms investing in them.

The 6-year-old firm, which has offices in Ann Arbor and Detroit, is a fund of funds, meaning it invests in smaller venture capital firms. It closed on its first fund for $45 million in 2010 with an idea of helping grow Michigan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem by infusing it with more seed capital and attracting more outside investors.

Some of Michigan's biggest corporations have contributed to Renaissance Venture Capital Fund’s investment vehicles. The hope is by including them they will help these startups grow by providing revenues and potential acquisitions. The fund also invests in out-of-state venture capital firms looking to invest in Michigan-based startups.

"For every $1 we put in them they put $4 into the state," says Chris Rizik, CEO of the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund. "It has worked out very well."

For instance, the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund made an investment in Houston-based Mercury Fund, which opened its Midwestern office in Ann Arbor. Mercury Fund has invested in Ann Arbor-based startups like DeepField and Swift Biosciences.

The Renaissance Venture Capital Fund and its team of four people have already made eight investments in venture capital firms and is aiming to make three side-by-side investments in startups with those VCs. The second fund has been active for two years and is looking to continue to keep going this year.

"We probably have another 3-4 years left to invest," Rizik says.

Source: Chris Rizik, CEO of the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund
Writer: Jon Zemke
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