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Motor City Muckraker fights to turn passion for journalism into profits

Steve Neavling is good at his job -- damn good at it. The former investigative reporter for the Detroit Free Press and co-founder of Motor City Muckraker was recently named the "Best Journalist" in Metro Detroit by The Metro Times because his reporting consistently makes waves in the region. When it comes to journalism, few people are as passionate about it as Neavling.

Turning that passion into profit is where Neavling comes up short. Motor City Muckraker has been running for nearly three years and has yet to turn a profit despite its steady rise in popularity. It has consistently clocked an average of 180,000 unique page views per month over the last two years, yet Neavling can only monetize a few grand out of it each year.

"You know how Twitter kept getting more popular but never figured out how to generate revenue?" Neavling says. "Motor City Muckraker is becoming more popular, but we still haven’t figured out how to generate revenue from it."

Click ads from the website aren't the answer. Neavling and his girlfriend/MCM co-founder Abigail Shaw are considering a variety of different options to generate revenue, including paywalls for premium access, sponsorships, merchandise, and fundraisers/crowdfunding. Neavling and Shah don't know the answe but are happy to keep trying.

"You need to have something more than click ads," Neavling says. "You need to be able to offer them something else."

Figuring out a revenue model that makes local print/digital journalism profitable is a 21st century conundrum, and newspaper executives will watch Neavling and Shah closely if they figure out a business model that works. In the meantime, the partners are even seriously considering making Motor City Muckraker a nonprofit to keep it afloat, although that plan has been shelved for now.

"It really limits what you can do to raise money," Neavling says.

So Neavling continues to trudge forward financially. He has gone from making about $60,000 annually at the Freep to an annual average of $12,000 while running Motor City Muckraker and freelancing for the likes of Tickle The Wire. Neavling and Shah get by on what comes in from Neavling's writing, Shah's day job, and affordable rent for an apartment in Midtown.

But don't expect that the financial grindstone will force Neavling from journalism anytime soon.

"We pay to write things others won't write," Neavling says. "The news just keeps coming out. There are so many stories I am sitting on. Right now I am having so much fun I am forgetting about the money."

Source: Steve Neavling, co-founder of Motor City Muckraker
Writer: Jon Zemke

Parjana's pilot project on Belle Isle 'reboots Mother Nature' to naturally drain standing water

There are large swaths of mowed fields on Belle Isle that practically become swamps after a hard rain with ankle-deep muddy water pooling with nowhere to go. And then there is the small section of the island where all of the rain filters into the soil where it should go.

That approximately 24-acre section of Belle Isle near the old police station building is where Parjana Distribution is conducting a pilot program for its technology to channel rain water runoff away from sewer system and into the ground’s natural filtration system.

The downtown Detroit-based startup is commercializing a filtration technology that opens up the  earth’s natural ground filtration system to clean water. Underground aquifers fill because gravity takes rain water through the different layers of ground, filtering out contaminates, similar to how a Brita filter works. Parjana Distribution’s platform, Energy-Passive Groundwater Recharge Parjana, accelerates that filtration by utilizing water's properties of adhesion and cohesion.

"It's all about stabilizing the moisture levels so Mother Nature can accommodate the water when it rains," says Gregory McPartlin, co-founder and managing partner of Parjana Distribution. "All we’re doing is rebooting Mother Nature."

Parjana's platforms are currently being used in 150 sites around the world. The company just finished projects for the Mott Foundation at the Ruth Mott Gardens and is working toward doing the same at Midland Country Club for Dow. The projects would help rid both facilities of pooling rain water runoff.

"We provide open green space for people by ensuring it will be dry," McPartlin says.

Parjana Distribution’s team of 20 people (it has hired four people in the last year and is looking to add three more employees) is also working on the same sort of project at Belle Isle. It’s currently in search of a large strategic partner to expand its pilot project into something much bigger.

"Our next goal is to partner with a bank to do the entire island," McPartlin says.

"We're actually pretty darn close," McPartlin says.

Source: Gregory McPartlin, co-founder & managing partner of Parjana Distribution
Writer: Jon Zemke

Small vineyard takes shape in old school on east side

Local land baron Dennis Kefallinos is getting back to his roots in his adopted home by planting a small vineyard deep in the Motor City’s east side.

The Bellevue Vineyard is rising in one of the playfields of an old Detroit Public Schools elementary school at 3100 Bellevue. The school had been closed and stripped several years ago before Kefallinos purchased it.

"This school has been pretty beaten up over the years," says Eric Novack, senior project manager of Boydell Development, which is owned by Kefallinos. "He said, 'We need to do something over there soon to activate it.'"

Kefallinos is one of the larger property owners in Detroit. He owns several downtown properties, such as the Michigan Theatre, and many others scattered throughout the city's neighborhoods like the Russell Industrial Center. He is known for owning several vacant commercial buildings across the city and redeveloping several others most people had given up on, turning them into lofts and affordable spaces for small businesses.

Kefallinos immigrated to America from Greece in the 1960s. He started off a dishwasher and worked his way into becoming one of the entrepreneurs behind the development in Greektown in the 1980s. The Bellevue Vineyard is a way for him to return to his ancestral roots.

"This is not foreign to him at all," Novack says. "He did this for a few years at farms before he came to the U.S."

Kefallinos and his team at Boydell Development planted 300 vines imported from Washington for Canadice, Reliance and Interlacken grapes. The vines are expected to take root over the next two years and be ready for harvesting by year three.

The Boydell Development team has tested the soil for toxins and found none. They tilled the soil and balanced its PH levels by adding compost.

"This is our test," Novack says. "We plan to do 300 vines. Dennis originally wanted to do more."

Source & Photos: Eric Novack, senior project manager of Boydell Development
Writer: Jon Zemke

Wayne State student re-invents the crossbow, launches a company

A recent Wayne State University graduate is launching a new business based on his invention, a new-and-improved version of the crossbow.

Adam Skornia graduated from Wayne in December with a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering, but he never played video games until he went to college. Those hours spent in front of a screen playing first-person shooter games inspired him to invent a patent-pending design for a new crossbow.

After a couple of years fiddling with the design, the idea started to become real.

"I started thinking this could happen -- this could be built." Skornia says.

The crossbow design allows the bowstrings to run internally, prohibiting fingers from coming across the path of the strings. The design is safer, more efficient, and compact. It is just shy of 3 pounds, about half the weight of the typical crossbows.

Skornia launched Skore LLC to commercialize his invention. He has a prototype after working with Wayne State's Blackstone LaunchPad program. The company recently won $5,000 in seed capital from Wayne State's Blackstone LaunchPad Warrior Fund Competition. That money will be put toward getting the Skore crossbow to the market.

"I want to start off in Michigan," Skornia says. "This is a Michigan-based company and I am big on Michigan-made products."

Source: Adam Skornia, founder of Skore LLC
Writer: Jon Zemke

Woodbridge resident launches sustainability consultancy, 3030

Chris Haag never intended to go into business for himself -- he just wanted to quit his job.

The Woodbridge resident had been working for a company doing retrofit work for energy-efficient lighting. He reached the point where he didn’t want to do it anymore and quit without a plan for what to do next. He thought he would take some time off to figure out what he wanted to do next.

"I intended to take a couple of months off work and find something new," Haag says. "Within 72 hours after I quit, my old job called me and asked if I would do some side projects. That went on for a couple of years."

That was 2012 and the time Haag started his next gig as a freelance consultant. When that work started to peter out, Haag interviewed for a few more jobs. By that time he knew he was not at his best working for someone else. So he started his own company, 3030.

Haag describes 3030 as a craft consultancy that helps clients develop unique solutions to a variety of issues to foster growth and flexibility. It specializes in everything from energy efficiency to tax work for distilleries. Its main thrust is working in sustainability, but Haag wants to keep an open mind about its future.

"In three to five years, it will probably be completely different than what I am trying to do now," Haag says. "I let the business pull me in the direction it’s going."

Source: Chris Haag, owner of 3030
Writer: Jon Zemke

Damian Farrell Design Group grows thanks to diversified workload

It seems like Damian Farrell Design Group's client project cup runneth over. The Ann Arbor-based architecture firm is handling a lot of residential remodeling, designing a multi-family project in Saline, working on an adaptive reuse of a historic building in downtown Saline, designing a couple restaurants, and doing work for a shooting range in Ann Arbor.

"We have always had a pretty good variety of work," says Damian Farrell, owner of Damian Farrell Design Group. "This is just an extension of that."

He estimates his company’s revenue is up 10-15 percent over the last year. It's growth that has allowed him to hire an architect and two interns, expanding his staff to seven employees and two interns.

Farrell points out that the design and building industries are stronger now than they have been in years, and there is a shortage of skilled workers developing in them. He adds the market isn’t as good as it was before the Great Recession but its on its way there.

"We want to continue what we’re doing," Farrell says. "Every market we are working in we are noticing growth."

Source: Damian Farrell, owner of Damian Farrell Design Group
Writer: Jon Zemke

M Den's flagship State St store expands to XL size

M Den's flagship store, adjacent to the University of Michigan's campus, is taking over the retail space once occupied by La Mersa Meditterean Cuisine. The store already occupied most of the building at the 300 block of South State Street. Taking over the former restaurant space, 301 S State, will complete its occupation of the entire structure.

"The only thing we didn’t have is the downstairs of 301," says Scott Hirth, co-owner of M Den.

The boutique retailer that specializes in University of Michigan apparel will turn 40 years old next year. It currently employs 125 people (which doubles in size during football season) after hiring 20-plus people over the last year. It currently has six brick-and-mortar stores after opening its sixth last August. It also has 12 retail locations inside University of Michigan athletic facilities during games, like Michigan Stadium.

M Den is currently working on the build out of the expansion of its flagship store, which it hopes to open in time for the Ann Arbor Art Fair later this summer.

"We are going to use it for an expanded women's and children's sections," Hirth says.

Source: Scott Hirth, co-owner of M Den
Writer: Jon Zemke

Pour-over coffee bar, Black Diesel Coffee, opens in Ann Arbor

Black Diesel Coffee, a pour-over coffee bar, opened its first location on the east side of Ann Arbor this week.The new coffee shop is taking over a former Peet’s Coffee shop at 1423 E Stadium Blvd, at the corner of Stadium and Packard, with ambitions of bringing coffee drinks that are both high-end and small batch to Ann Arbor.

Blaclk Diesel will primarily do that by offering pour-over coffees, a trendy new way of making coffee where the hot water is hand poured over a filter that then drips directly into the customer's cup. It will also offer espresso drinks and traditionally drip brewed coffees.

"There are many ways to express the flavor profiles of a coffee bean," says Nick Ferris, proprietor of Black Diesel Coffee. "We will use different styles that will best fit each coffee."

They will also offer a variety of coffee flavors from a number of different brands.

"We are partnering with several small batch artisanal roasters from across the state," Ferris says.

Black Diesel employs a staff of 16 people, and Ferris has ambitions of growing the company relatively quickly. He is looking at opening a second location in the Ann Arbor area later this year and next year.

"We will spend the first six months working on our overall concept," Ferris says.

Source: Nick Ferris, proprietor of Black Diesel Coffee
Writer: Jon Zemke

TSRL pivots business model to become technology accelerator, grows staff

To say Therapeutic Systems Research Laboratories has been through a lot over the last year might be an understatement. The Ann Arbor-based life sciences firm lost its president and general manager, John Hilfiger, in April of last year. That led to the promotion of Elke Lipka as president of the company just at the time when it started to pivot its business model from drug development to technology accelerator.

"We are partnering intensely with academic institutions," Lipka says. "We are providing the wet lab space and drug development services."

...And more importantly showing its clients the way to non-dilutive seed capital. Therapeutic Systems Research Laboratories, commonly known as TSRL, uses an ongoing collaborative process that lets entrepreneurs leverage its expertise to obtain the data and non-dilutive funding necessary to develop and commercialize their technologies. In exchange, TSRL takes a fee and small equity stake in the company.

"Much smaller than a venture capital firm would take," Lipka says.

TSRL is focusing on companies that optimize treatment for infectious diseases, such as influenza, HSV, VZV, CMV, EBV, poxvirus, HPV, Adenovirus, and RNA viruses. It is currently working with a handful of partners, including one from the University of Michigan.

"Three are pretty active right now," Lipka says.

TSRL has hired two people over the last year, including a business development manager and a chemist. It is currently looking to hire a research scientist to add to its staff of 10 employees and one intern.

Source: Elke Lipka, president of Therapeutic Systems Research Laboratories
Writer: Jon Zemke

Urban Ashes surge in sales of reclaimed wood lead to big expansion

The operations for Urban Ashes used to be scattered. The Ann Arbor-based reclaimed wood firm had a corporate office on one side of town, a prototyping facility on the other side of town, and outsourced its manufacturing to Brighton. That all changed last fall. The 6-year-old business consolidated its operations into one building adjacent to the home of Leon Speakers on Ann Arbor's south side. It now has 3,000 square feet of work space and a symbiotic relationship with Leon Speakers to help it grow its business.

"Now it's all in-house (manufacturing) and in one location," says Paul Hickman, founder of Urban Ashes.

And Urban Ashes growing. It has added two new products on top of its original offering of picture frames made of wood reclaimed from deconstructed Detroit homes. Now it is also producing home goods and furnishings for businesses, such as tabletops made from reclaimed wood for restaurants.

Urban Ashes has hired five people over the last year to keep up with its production, including four ex-felons. It is also looking to hire two people to add to its staff of seven employees. They are all striving to keep product in the company 225 retail locations across North America.

Urban Ashes has also grown its revenue significantly. It has doubled its sales in each of the last three years and is aiming for an even loftier goal this year.

"Our goal is to triple our sales," Hickman says. "We're going to come close. I'd like to add two more people this year sooner rather than later."

Source: Paul Hickman, founder of Urban Ashes
Writer: Jon Zemke

Bmax USA preps to launch new facility in Pontiac

Bmax USA, a subsidiary of a French tech company called I-Pulse, is setting up its North American presence in Pontiac this year.

The global corporation specializes in technology for metal processing that can be utilized by a variety of industries, such as automotive, energy, aerospace, and packaging. It plans to invest $4.3 million into creating a new facility in Pontiac.

"We considered a number of sites, including Columbus, but decided to go with metro Detroit as we have a potential customer base in the region as well as a large catchment area for the engineering, business, and technical staff we will need," says Paul Lester, director of business development for Bmax USA. "We looked at Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties and decided upon Oakland County, which has been incredibly supportive and given us many resources to help our start up and continues to do so."

The investment, which comes with a $250,000 grant from the state of Michigan, is expected to create 26 jobs. The firm expects to create those jobs, and probably more, over the next three years.

"I expect to get to that number very much quicker," Lester says.

Work on the next facility at 777 Enterprise Dr. is about to begin. Lester expects the work to wrap up later this year and the firm to begin moving into its new home by late July.

"We will be finalizing the legal paperwork in the next couple of weeks and some remodeling will take place immediately," Lester says.

Source: Paul Lester, director of business development for Bmax USA
Writer: Jon Zemke

MOD Pizza coming to metro Detroit

MOD Pizza (short for Made on Demand) is opening in Livonia June 22.

A second location for the Seattle-based chain known for "super fast" artisanal-style pizza made with organic ingredients in exactly the way customers wish is expected to open in Northville later this summer.

Livonia-based TEAM Schostak Family Restaurants plans to bring 25 MOD Pizza franchises to southeast Michigan in the next five years.

The Livonia location will be located in a 2,600-square-foot space on Middlebelt Road south of I-96.

The Northville store will open in the sprawling Park Place redevelopment at Seven Mile and Haggerty roads.

Besides build-your-own pizzas made from a choice of 30 ingredients and baked in an 800-degree oven in less than three minutes, MODs serve draft beer and handmade milkshakes.

Source: TEAM Schostak Family Restaurants
Writer: Kim North Shine

S.E.T. Products turns Detroit blight into thriving board-up business

Scott Millman and Justin Comstock both worked in the steel industry until their employer went belly up in 2012. The next logical step for the friends? Start a business that boards up abandoned buildings. They call it S.E.T. Products.

"We saw a need and developed the S.E.T. system," Millman says.

S.E.T. stands for Simple, Effective, Tough. The Farmington Hills-based company makes specialized systems for securing vacant properties that utilize specially made sheets of galvanized steel that fit over windows and doors and are stronger than plywood. The 3-year-old company and its staff of three (it's looking to hire a sales person now) has deployed more than 200 of these systems on vacant properties, primarily in the city of Detroit.

"We can cover any home you can find in the city of Detroit, or anywhere for that matter," Millman says.

The normal S.E.T. system costs between $800 and $1,000 to secure the average bungalow in Detroit. Each project in individually quoted for free. S.E.T. systems are sold to the user, where most comparable systems rent them out.

"It allows the customer to spend less money and put those funds elsewhere," Millman says. "It's also cost competitive with plywood and stronger."

Source: Scott Millman, CEO of S.E.T. Products
Writer: Jon Zemke

Vision Institute of Michigan opens second location in Macomb

The Vision Institute of Michigan recently opened its second location in metro Detroit, adding about a dozen new jobs.

The eye-and-ear medical practice has called Sterling Heights home for its first 30 years. It recently opened a new location in Macomb Township at 21932 23 Mile Rd.

"It (the new office) has every piece of technology and equipment that we offer in Sterling Heights," says Mark Berkowitz, partner with the Vision Institute of Michigan. "It was placed there to be more convenient to the people in the area and farther north."

The Vision Institute of Michigan provides eye care, hearing, and cosmetic services. It offers the latest advancements in technology in cataracts, laser, glaucoma, lasik, retina care, hearing instruments and cosmetic services.

The Vision Institute of Michigan opened the Macomb office four months ago. Since then its revenue has jumped 20 percent. It now has 10 of its 80 employees working there with more hires expected to keep up with the growth.

"I think it's going to grow quite significantly over the next 1-2 years," Berkowitz says.

Source: Mark Berkowitz, partner with the Vision Institute of Michigan
Writer: Jon Zemke

ElimiTix makes fighting traffic tickets easier, cheaper

Ever get a traffic ticket that you know you could beat, but never got around to fighting? A new law firm thinks it can make regrets like that a thing of the past.

ElimiTix is a law firm dedicated to traffic defense representation in metro Detroit. The Southfield-based firm specializes in everything from speeding to suspended licenses to drunken driving.

"We want to simplify the process for people who want to handle their tickets but don’t have the time," says Steven Mamat, who co-founded ElmiTix with Matthew Satovsky.

They also want to help lower the cost of hiring representation in traffic court. It’s not unusual for attorneys to charge a couple hundred bucks to take a speeding ticket case. ElimiTix will handle it for as little as $99. That representation also comes with a mobile app that allows the user to track the progress of their case in court on their smartphone. The firm is also offering a no-points guarantee with its representation.

"Once you hire us you will get your money back if you receive any points," Mamat says.

ElimiTix launched a year ago and now employs four people. The firm currently covers Metro Detroit, but its founders are looking to expand into adjacent areas like Livingston and Washtenaw counties.

Source: Steven Mamat, co-founder of ElmiTix
Writer: Jon Zemke
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