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Giffels Webster promotes from within to find 3 new partners

Infrastructure consulting firm Giffels Webster recently brought on three new partners to its practice, a move it didn't need to go far to execute.

All of three of the new partners in the Detroit-based firm have worked there for numerous years.

"We tend to promote from within," says Scott Clein, president of Giffels Webster. "It goes back to before my time. It was 30-40 years ago when someone came in from outside and became a partner."

There are a couple of reasons behind the promote-from-within philosophy. This way the firm knows the new partners are a good culture fit since they have excelled there for years. Giffels Webster's leadership will also feel secure in knowing that the partners have made a long-term commitment to the practice because of their history with the company.

Giffels Webster has grown significantly over last five years, creating 30-plus jobs. Its staff of 86 people now help local municipalities make longterm development planning decisions and private developers best maximize their real-estate holdings. The 64-year-old firm is headquartered in Detroit and has offices in Macomb and Oakland counties. One of each of the three new partners will be based in each of the region's three main counties: Michael Kozak will work out of Macomb County, Michael Marks will work out of Detroit, and Jason Mayer will work out of Oakland County.

Giffels Webster, which now has 10 partners, has never before added three partners at once. The idea behind this latest round of promotions is to help bring more youth and fresh ideas into the company's leadership.

"There is nothing normal in what we have done this time," Clein says. "We made a strategic decision to broaden the ownership of our firm."

Source: Scott Clein, president of Giffels Webster
Writer: Jon Zemke

Digitization drives Image Data Conversion growth in Saline

The world is full of more paperwork than anyone could, or want to, read in a lifetime. Image Data Conversion is building a business by digitizing all of it for the 21st Century.

The Saline-based company owns three subsidiaries that digitize documents. It acquired eBeam Film in 2011, launched Reveal Digital in 2011, and acquired NA Publishing in 2013. All of them are working to corner the digitizing markets, such as helping libraries put large collections online.

"Now they are generating more service offerings to help libraries solve the problems they have today," says Joe Mills, managing director of Image Data Conversion.

Specifically NA Publishing is working to digitize every issue of Publishers Weekly. That means cover-to-cover of each issue dating from 1872 to today.

That sort of work has allowed Image Data Conversion to notch double-digit revenue gains in each of the last couple of years. It has more than doubled its staff since 2010, going from 32 employees to 70 people today. It expects that growth curve to remain steady as it keeps moving forward this year.

"We are adding a lot of staff," Mills says. "We are investing a lot in these businesses."

Source: Joe Mills, managing director of Image Data Conversion
Writer: Jon Zemke

Football helmet designed at U-M may decrease head injuries

For those of you who weren't put off by Steve Almond's provocative "Against Football: A Reluctant Manifesto" but still worry about the concussions that plague football players, researchers at U-M are developing a more shock-absorbing helmet system for players.


"The engineering researchers making the system, called Mitigatium, were recently funded by a group that includes the National Football League. Their early prototype could lead to a lightweight and affordable helmet that effectively dissipates the energy from hit after hit on the field. Current helmets can't do this, and that's one of the reasons they aren't very good at preventing brain injury."

Read the rest here.

U-M researchers are developing injectable radios

Yeah, it brings to mind creepy science Fiction movies, but U-M researchers are developing implantable radios. And that could mean big advances in medical devices like pacemakers and health monitoring sensors.


"Implantable medical devices usually have to trade smarts for size. Pacemakers and other active devices with processors on board are typically about a cubic centimeter in size, and must be implanted surgically. Smaller implantable electronics tend to be passive, lacking computing smarts and the ability to actively broadcast signals, says David Blaauw, a professor of electrical engineer and computer science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor."

Read the rest here.

Wolverine State Brewing Co expands, doubles barrel production

Wolverine State Brewing Co. is going big this year. The Ann Arbor-based craft brewery is in the midst of wrapping up an expansion project that includes an expanded kitchen space, additional brewing space, and a larger cooler.

"More beer, more space, more space to keep it cold," says Josh Evans, front of the house manager for Wolverine State Brewing Co.

Wolverine State Brewing Co specializes in brewing lagers, a lighter style of beer that requires more time and energy to brew. Craft breweries usually stick to ales, stouts and porters because of the shorter brewing time and less demanding temperature requirements.

Wolverine State Brewing Co opened its tap room in 2010 in the back half of the old Big George's space on Stadium Boulevard. It has since expanded that space to accommodate food service and events. Last year it embarked on a 6,000-square-foot expansion to that it is just now putting the finishing touches on.

"We're in the home stretch of it right now," Evans says. "The last steps of the process are happening."

The kitchen expansion is a major component of the project. It is significantly larger to accommodate the brewery’s status as a destination to eat, drink and be merry. It will also give its growing staff of 20-some employees, including a handful of new hires, room to work more comfortably.

"It went from a little room to quite a big space," Evans says. "Our growing sales meant we needed a bigger kitchen space."

The craft brewery is also making a significant jump in its production capacity. Before its facilities could handle producing 2,200 barrels annually. When this project is done it will be able to handle a shade under 5,000 barrels a year. Work crews are in the process of installing new fermentation tanks this winter, which will accommodate several years of projected growth.

The newly expanded brewery will also enable the brewers to experiment with more flavors. In December it debuted a new seasonal brew called Vertl'avant, a lager brewed with Bartlett pears in oak chardonnay barrels. The brew was released as part of Wolverine State Brewing Co's five-year anniversary at the location.

"It gave it this very soft and tart taste to it," Evans says. "It's a bit of a departure of what we have done in the past. It was hugely popular."

Source: Josh Evans, front of the house manager for Wolverine State Brewing Co
Writer: Jon Zemke

Fast-growing tech firm QStride moves into One Woodward Avenue

QStride recently made the move from Troy to downtown Detroit, taking up the 16th floor of the One Woodward Avenue.

The Minoru Yamasaki-designed skyscraper was a predecessor in design to the World Trade Center's twin towers. It offers panoramic views of the Detroit River and the central business district. The new space, designed by dPOP!, will offer enough room for the tech firm to grow.

"We needed to expand and get additional office space," says Shane Gianino, CEO of QStride. "We feel Detroit and its tech community is where we needed to be and where we can grow even more."

QStride specializes in everything from business intelligence solutions to IT staffing services. It currently employs 25 people, 15 of whom are internal employees. It has hired eight people over the last year and is looking to fill 30 positions right now. The company’s revenue climbed from $1.3 million 2013 to $1.7 million in 2014 to $2.1 million last year.

QStride is not a stranger to downtown Detroit. The firm, which turns four years old in April, opened a sales office in the Chrysler House in downtown Detroit three years ago. It has been steadily gravitating toward consolidating its operations in Detroit ever since. Moving its headquarters to downtown brings another 10 people to the central business district.

"We want to make a point that we are here," Gianino says. "We believe in this city."

Source: Shane Gianino, CEO of QStride
Writer: Jon Zemke

Red Panda starts selling next generation of digital guitar pedals

Red Panda's claim to fame is building the next generation of guitar pedal that relies on digital technology. After this year it's going to have several claims to fame as the Midtown-based startup releases a new line of products.

Guitar pedals normally utilize analog technology. Red Panda started selling digital guitar pedals four years ago as a way of bringing the technology into the 21st century. They sold well, enabling the company's owner to quit his day job as an electrical engineer and focus on growing Red Panda.

"We have a couple more in the works," says Curt Malouin, owner of Red Panda. "This year we will release 2-3 more products."

One of Red Panda's most recent product releases is the Raster, guitar pedal with a digital delay with a pitch shifter integrated into the feedback loop. The company's website describes the Raster as delivering "a wide range of sounds including harmonized delays, reverse delays, chorus, arpeggios, infinite descents, chaotic self-oscillation, and continuously evolving soundscapes."

Red Panda's guitar pedals are built in the company’s recently expanded space in the Green Garage by a staff of four people. Growing demand for the guitar pedals has prompted Red Panda to add a new hire over the last year and fill out its 600 square feet of space.

"It's getting a little more crowded in there now," Malouin says.

Red Panda has been profitable over the last year after clocking consistently strong sales growth of 60 percent. It sells its guitar pedals directly to retailers in North America, but recently moved to selling to distributors in Europe. The company is looking to increase sales by beefing up both sales channels in 2016.

"We're expanding production and adding new dealers," Malouin says.

Source: Curt Malouin, owner of Red Panda
Writer: Jon Zemke

LLamasoft moves into Google space shows best value comes from local firms

Drive through downtown Ann Arbor and it's hard to miss the giant Google sign atop one of the city's premier office buildings. For years it has been one of the corporate names locals like to point to with pride. Now it's coming down as the tech giant plans to build its own office on the city's outskirts.

And that's a good thing.

LLamasoft, an Ann Arbor-based supply chain software firm, is taking up the lions share of prime downtown office space Google is leaving behind. The move is necessary to accommodate the firm’s rapid growth. Yes, rapid growth is a term thrown around much too often in today's media but LLamasoft is the real deal.

The 13-year-old company has raised tens of millions of dollars in seed capital, including $50 million from Goldman, Sachs & Co to fund its growth. It has hired nearly 100 people in the last year, rounding its staff out to 400 folks around the world. The bulk of them, 220 people, are in Ann Arbor. Its downtown offices are so cramped the company’s leadership doesn’t know where it’s going to put its new hires between now and when it moves into the new space later this summer.

"The 6-month wait we have is painful," says Toby Brzoznowski, co-founder & executive vice president of LLamasoft. "I am looking at ways to give up my office so 2-3 more people can cram into it so we can make it work until we move."

LLamasoft will take up the second and third floors of the McKinley Towne Centre, at 401 E. Liberty. That’s 60,000 square feet in one central location. Today, LLamasoft’s downtown Ann Arbor headquarters is split between several floors of the 201 S Main St building. Brzoznowski expects the new headquarters will give it the headroom the company needs to grow.

"There is absolutely room for growth," Brzoznowski says. "We have averaged 50 percent growth every year."

Betting against LLamasoft growth is not where the smart money is going these days. The company is one of the handful of tech darlings that is surpassing its big expectations. Google's AdWords office in downtown Ann Arbor never really lived up to its expectations. Where people expected a growth leader of a company that would be the center of the local tech scene turned into a side note in elevator pitches.

Yes, Ann Arborites are happy Google is here and prefer it in Tree Town, homegrown startups like LLamasoft are the real future. LLamasoft's executives are the ones who will create gobs of jobs and serve as one of the main leaders in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Homegrown companies like LLamasoft are the ones that deserve to have their names in big lights atop Ann Arbor's skyline.

Source: Toby Brzoznowski, co-founder & executive vice president of LLamasoft
Writer: Jon Zemke

Michigan eLab bridges the gap between Silicon Valley and Ann Arbor startups

Michigan eLab opened with an idea for bridging the startup economies of Silicon Valley and Ann Arbor. Most people would assume that means focusing on California first, then Michigan. The team at the Ann Arbor-based venture capital firm has found the opposite to be true.

"We just wrapped up our eighth investment with this fund," says Doug Neal, co-founder & managing director of Michigan eLab. "We are on pace to do an investment per quarter. We did two investments in the fourth quarter of last year."

That last investment is in an artificial intelligence startup based in Ann Arbor. Neal declined to disclose the name at this time but believes it can become a household name in tech. The investment before that was in a startup called Rachio, which was co-founded by a University of Michigan alumni. The startup's technology helps maximize the water used by sprinkler systems through wifi and software.

"Think of it as nest for your lawn," Neal says. "It saves people as much as two thirds of the water they would use on their lawn."

Michigan eLab raised nearly $25 million in this investment fund with a focus on investing in early stage tech startups. So far about half of the fund is committed and Neal expects to make a number of investments later this year.

"Were off to a good start," Neal says. "We're close on one right now. That will be our first quarter investment. We have found that deal flow is not a problem for us."

Source: Doug Neal, co-founder & managing director of Michigan eLab
Writer: Jon Zemke

RightBrian Networks continues rapid growth in cloud IT work

Jamie Begin has worked for someone else. He's found himself in an unemployment line. And then he found himself starting his own IT business, RightBrain Networks. Now he's just trying to hold on for dear life.

The Ann Arbor-based company has been on a rapid growth streak. Two years ago it tripled in size. This last year it’s growth is nearly the same... and not showing any signs of slowing down.

"We have doubled in size," Begin says. "We are on schedule to double in size again this year. Our schedule calls for 16 hires but I think we will exceed that. We have really hit our stride."

RightBrain Networks provides IT and cloud-computing services for both large and small companies. Some of its customers include Intuit and the University of California, Berkley. It recently added Toyota’s Ann Arbor research-and-development center to its client list, along with Crown Equipment in Ohio. Today it's clientele is made up of big firms and small startups trying to get their IT needs done.

That has allowed RightBrain Networks to hire 14 people over the last year, including professionals in IT, administration, and sales. The 6-year-old company now has a staff of 24 people and is in the process of trying to hire a handful more right now. Begin is bullish on his firm’s prospects.

"We're expecting to double again," Begin says. "This is such a fast change industry it's hard to budget appropriately. We are just hanging on and enjoying the ride."

Source: Jamie Begin, founder & CEO of RightBrian Networks
Writer: Jon Zemke

Detroit startup Castle kicks off first month at Y Combinator

One of the more promising startups in Detroit's tech scene is making a splash several time zones over. Castle, the property-management startup, is nearly done with its first month of work at the Y Combinator accelerator in Silicon Valley.

The world-famous startup accelerator is the cream of the crop when it comes to tech incubators. More than 1,000 startups have passed through its program since its launch in 2005. Its alumni include some current tech heavy hitters like Reddit, AirBnB, and Dropbox. Getting in is no easy task. It took the Castle team three tries before it got its invitation to the Winter 2016 batch. About 5,000 startups applied and only 89 were selected.

"While we're thrilled that leaders in the startup community have recognized what we've accomplished so far, we know that the real work is yet to come," Max Nussenbaum, CEO of Castle wrote in a recent email. "YC is an opportunity that we’re going to have to work incredibly hard to make the most of, and that’s exactly what we plan to do!"

Castle's software platform streamlines the property management process for landlords and tenants. It provides services for quick fixes, rent collection, and finding new tenants for a flat, monthly fee of $79. The company got its start when three fellows of the first Venture For America class in Detroit were renovating a tax foreclosure in Virginia Park into a future home for VFA fellows.

Castle has since taken over management of hundreds of rental units in Detroit, and it consistently grows its client list by double-digits each month. The company raised a $300,000 seed round in early 2015.

Source: Castle
Writer: Jon Zemke

Inventev halfway to raising $1.5M seed round for commercial truck tech

Inventev recently landed a $500,000 federal grant, which represents a large chunk of the TechTown-based startup's upcoming seed round.

The 4-year-old clean-tech startup has raised $750,000 in seed capital, including the half-a-million-dollar grant, a matching $50,000 grant from the state of Michigan, and $200,000 worth of in-kind contributions. The $500,000 grant is from the ARPA-E agency of the U.S. Department of Energy.

"This satisfies about 50 percent of our seed round," says Dave Stenson, founder and CEO of Inventev. "We hope to close that as soon as possible."

Inventev and its team of four people are developing a hybrid-electric system for commercial trucks. Unlike traditional plug-in electric technology that helps propel a vehicle, Inventev's new transmission architecture allows electric machines to operate other aspects of the trucks. That way the trucks' diesel engines don't need to idle while operating their hydraulic lift to dump a load material.

The $1.5-million seed round, which Stenson hopes to close by at least the second quarter of this year, will go toward building out the first prototype of the platform. Specifically it will be a lab-based delivery vehicle. The second half of the seed round is expected to fund the creation of a road-worthy prototype.

"This is our first hardware set," Stenson says. "It's fair to call it proof of concept prototype."

Source: Dave Stenson, founder & CEO of Inventev
Writer: Jon Zemke

HARMAN cuts ribbon on expanded Novi HQ to accommodate growth

HARMAN International Industries opened its new headquarters in Novi this week, and it is already starting to feel full.

The connected technologies firm started designing the headquarters three years ago when it had about 750 people working there. Today its staff at the headquarters has reached 1,000 people and is still growing.

"It's pretty close to capacity at the moment," says Darrin Shewchuk, senior director of corporate communications for HARMAN. "We're growing really rapidly."

HARMAN specializes in making connected technologies for automotive, consumer and enterprise markets. It engineers and develops the advanced technology solutions for the connected car, automotive audio, and cloud services. HARMAN has revenues of $6.5 billion and employs 25,000 around the world, including 1,000 at its Novi headquarters.

HARMAN's recently opened North American headquarters measures out to 188,000 square feet and anchors the 400-acre Haggerty Corridor Corporate Park. The new building includes engineering labs for advanced connected car technologies, infotainment design studios, a state-of-the-art audio listening room, a full cinema quality 5.1 surround sound theater, and a full-scale pilot factory. It also features several employee amenities, like a fitness center, locker rooms, cafeteria, collaboration spaces, and an outdoor deck and patio space.

"We want to make the work environment as amenable to employees as possible," Shewchuk says. "Everybody is trying to perfect their work-life balance. Our desire is to help them achieve that."

Source: Darrin Shewchuk, senior director of corporate communications for HARMAN
Writer: Jon Zemke

Building Hugger to host open house at new HQ in Eastern Market

It took a few attempts, but historic restoration business Building Hugger believes it has finally found a space into which it can grow. Building Hugger founder Amy Swift affectionately calls the 6,000-square-foot Eastern Market building the Hug Factory. It's the third re-location for the business this past year, which has grown from one to nine employees since February 2015. Swift says Building Hugger has also grown to become the largest historic window restoration company in the region, fielding calls from Port Huron to Detroit to Ohio.

An open house is being held Saturday, Jan. 30, at the building and is free and open to the public. Tours, demonstrations, and a community mingle will be held at the space from 1-4 p.m.

Building Hugger deals in many aspects of historic restoration and redevelopment work, though the bulk of its business is currently in window restoration and weatherization. It's a process that takes up a lot of space, says Swift, and with the increase in business came a need for more square footage. The work space was designed to maximize project volume. Work stations for each phase of the window restoration process have been set up to make the job more efficient.

That's not to say that the space is complete. In fact, Swift is still searching for the right use of 1,400 square feet of the building -- a storefront in need of a store. She has ideas, of course, like opening a specialized hardware store or a DIY training facility. She'd like to offer weekend courses in restoration work. Swift is planning on utilizing the open house to gather input from the public and see what's in demand among the restoration and DIY crowd -- what kinds of classes people would be interested in taking and what sort of hardware and tools she should carry.

"I always saw myself as a steward of these historic buildings," says Swift, who started Building Hugger in 2012. "But I've found I'm at my best when helping others be stewards."

Swift hopes to get the storefront up and running somewhere over the next 6-12 months.

The Building Hugger Community Mingle is a partnership between Building Hugger and Brick & Beam Detroit. To RSVP, do so online here.

The Hug Factory is located at 3036 Chene St.

Famed Pinkerton detective agency opens downtown Detroit office

Pinkerton has opened an office in downtown Detroit that will serve as the headquarters for its Michigan operations.

The private security guard and detective agency has taken 1,800 square feet in the Globe Building (407 E. Fort St.) near Greektown. Four people will work out of that office on a consistent basis, along with a handful of other employees who pass through. The office will serve Pinkerton's Michigan clients, primarily in the manufacturing and technology sectors.

Pinkerton has been a household name in detective agency and security work since the mid-19th century when it was first known as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Its agents were commonly known as Pinkertons and did everything from guard President Lincoln to chasing wild west outlaws like Jesse James.

The company moved its national headquarters to Ann Arbor last year, and has been eyeing opening an office in downtown Detroit ever since. The firm was attracted downtown's rebirth as a tech hub.

"It's something we identified a while ago that we wanted to be a part of," says John Lawrence, vice president of central region for Pinkerton. He adds, "this building (the Globe Building) was a great fit for us."

Source: John Lawrence, vice president of central region for Pinkerton
Writer: Jon Zemke
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