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Detroit startups dominate Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge

Detroit-based startups took the lion’s share of prizes at this year's Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge.

The business plan competition, organized by Michigan Corps, recognizes up-and-coming social entrepreneurs. It awards a total of $60,000 in prizes to 11 companies. Detroit-based companies took four of the top siz prizes in the competition. The fifth went to a Flint-based firm, and the sixth to a Pontiac-focused social enterprise. Several companies in the competition focused on helping youth find work and tackling longterm unemployment.

"The chronic unemployment issue is something we definitely (targeted for this competition)," says Elizabeth Garlow, executive director of Michigan Corps. "The youth piece was a pleasant surprise."

Among the Detroit winners are:

- Wheels for Workers, which teaches volunteer mechanics in their teens and twenties how to be mechanics and auto body repair professionals. It won the Michigan Social Entrepreneur of the Year Prize.

- Welding Artisan Center, which provides career-ready training to returning veterans, job-
shifting adults, former inmates, and at-risk teens. It won the Community Transformation Prize.

- On The Rise, a business sponsored by the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, which is a bakery that employs men who have recently been released from prison or have completed a substance abuse treatment program and desire to truly change their lives. It won the PNC Social Innovation Prize.

- City Girls Soap, which manufactures hand-crafted body soap, lotion, and laundry flakes from goats milk. It won the Women Rock Prize.

Source: Elizabeth Garlow, executive director of Michigan Corps
Writer: Jon Zemke

Challenge Detroit welcomes third cohort of 33 new fellows

Challenge Detroit is welcoming its third cohort of fellows this month, which includes a few more fellows than previous classes.

Challenge Detroit fellows, predominately recent college graduates, participate in a year-long program where they are paired with local companies to live, work, and play in Detroit. The fellows are given a living stipend and opportunities to volunteer and sink roots in the Motor City. The hope is that the talented young people turn their fellowships into longterm commitments to the city. This year 33 fellows will take part in program, which is up two from previous years.

"We have seen a lot of interest in companies that want to participate in our program," says Shelley Danner, program director for Challenge Detroit. "They have seen a lot of our participating companies have a lot of success with our fellows."

Among the new companies participating in the Challenge Detroit program are Campus Commandos, Penske, and Clark Hill. Fellows will also join firms that have been participating in the program throughout its first three years, such as DTE Energy, Hello World, and Team Detroit.

Challenge Detroit fellows take part in six community engagement projects over the course of the program.

"We're really focused on connecting our fellows with the community," Danner says.

Source: Shelley Danner, program director for Challenge Detroi
Writer: Jon Zemke

ExperienceIT aims to bring more people into new economy

ExperienceIT, formerly IT in the D, has been redesigned as a way to give aspiring computer engineers an inside track to careers in IT and software development. It accomplishes that by training them in a classroom setting with real-world IT projects. The program also provides mentorship and on-the-job training.

"It's really a new program," says Ryan Hoyle, vice president of talent acquisition and business development for GalaxE.Solutions. "We have become a formal jobs-training program. Successful graduates of the program will receive employment of some type with our corporate sponsors."

The program sponsors include Quicken Loans, GalaxE.Solutions, Title Source, Fathead, and Marketing Associates. The first class of 45 students is starting off at the Grand Circus space in the Broderick Tower in downtown Detroit. About 200 people applied to be a part of the program. Organizers hope to hold a few more of these classes over the next year.

"We're treating this as a pilot case," Hoyle says.

Source: Ryan Hoyle, vice president of talent acquisition and business development for GalaxE.Solutions
Writer: Jon Zemke

Clark Hill adds a dozen attorneys in downtown Detroit

Go to the Clark Hill website, click on the "About" tab, and the first thing that appears is an option called “Our DNA” that details the law firm’s core values.

They are summarized in a few bullet points, such as "Count on More," which describes the firm’s attitude toward embracing change, and "Don't Call Me Mr./Ms.," which details the practice’s open door mentality. Those bullet points are the key to the firm's growth, which includes the recent addition of a dozen new attorneys in downtown Detroit.

"Our secret sauce is we -- as a team -- built a strategic plan around our DNA," says Don Lee, chief marketing officer for Clark Hill.

Clark Hill's addition of 12 employees to its Detroit office marks an 11 percent increase in the firm's downtown workforce in just one year. It now employs 120 people in downtown Detroit. The firm's total number of employees has grown from 100 a decade ago to 300 today.

"We're striving to be a great place to work," Lee says. "We want to be a great place to work for everyone, not just lawyers."

Clark Hill got its start in 1890 and made its name serving the manufacturing sector in Michigan. Its oldest customer, the Michigan Manufacturers Association, has been with the law firm for more than a century. Today the law firm has 12 offices in seven states and the District of Columbia.

Source: Don Lee, chief marketing officer for Clark Hill
Writer: Jon Zemke

Prime Office Innovations grows helping firms go digital

Moving the paper trail to the digital age seems like a job that should be been completed over the last decade. That turns out not to be the case as is evidenced by Prime Office Innovations' growth.

The Macomb Township-based company has been helping business digitize their paper trail for 12 years. Prime Office Innovations likes to say that it "helps companies move from print to possibility" when it comes to digitization. It’s a harder sell at times than one would think.

"You still have diehards who want to have paper in their hands," says Kevin Macklem, co-owner of Prime Office Innovations.

Converting those die-hards has turned into an increasingly profitable business model for Macklem and his team. The company has hired three people over the last year, including two new technicians and one new sales professional. The company now has a staff of 14 employees and two interns and is looking to hire a new business development manager.

Prompting that hiring spike is double-digit gains for the company. Both its revenue and its profits are up by more than 10 percent in the last year.

"The challenges (of the recent recession) are behind us now," Macklem says. "I'm seeing more spending in the manufacturing sector, automotive supplier spending specifically."

Source: Kevin Macklem, co-owner of Prime Office Innovations
Writer: Jon Zemke

Accent Reduction Institute spins out Accents International

Judy Ravin and Barb Niemann are in the middle of a big shake up at the Accent Reduction Institute.

First off, it's not just the Accent Reduction Institute anymore. The Ann Arbor-based company is now working closely with Accents International, which spun out of Accent Reduction Institute three months ago.

The 8-year-old company made a name for itself providing accent reduction training programs. Those programs gave non-native English speakers the tools to communicate seamlessly. Think of software that helps people with English pronunciation.

"I felt that Accent Reduction Institute was up and running and doing great," Ravin says. "This year we converted all of our learning material to online and hosted in the cloud. It was a big milestone for us."

Today Accent Reduction Institute focuses on licensing those programs out to corporations and large institutions looking to help their employees overcome language barriers. It's primarily a product company.

Ravin, who is still a board member at Accent Reduction Institute, and Niemann launched Accents International to handle the service end of the business. The LLC focuses on providing educational training to people who speak English as a second language and want to do so with ease and clarity.

"We really missed the teaching side of this," Ravin says. "There is nothing more gratifying than working with people and helping them clarify their professional expertise."

Source: Judy Ravin, co-founder of Accents International
Writer: Jon Zemke

Huron Valley Financial hires 12 as it eyes expansion

Huron Valley Financial has spent much of its first 17 years establishing its mortgage services in Michigan.

Today the Ann Arbor-based company has eight branches in Michigan, employing 75 people. That's after it opened two new branches in Clarkston and Kalamazoo over the last year, prompting it to hire a additional dozen people. Those new hires are mostly of loan officers and customer support professionals.

Now Huron Valley Financial is eyeing a bigger expansion across the U.S. this year. Indiana, Texas and Florida have licensed Huron Valley Financial to originate mortgages, and a few more states are in the works.

"We have Ohio and California in the works right now," says Casey Daniels, vice president of business development for Huron Valley Financial. "Our California application could be approved any day now."

Huron Valley Financial is working to expand to southern statements to help smooth out its business model. Its revenue usually spikes in the warmer months in the Midwest to correspond with housing sales. Warmer climates in southern states means a steadier sales volume, which creates a smoother revenue stream for Huron Valley Financial.

"We would like to be able to tap into the warmer states for when it gets cold up here," Daniels says.

Huron Valley Financial has continued to grow as the mortgage industry has shrunken over the last year, primarily thanks to rising interest rates and falling refinancing sales. Despite this, Huron Valley Financial kept on growing while other lenders were laying people off.

"We never grew too big too fast, even during the good times," Daniels says. He adds, "We haven't gone through any layoffs because we have a great business model."

Source: Casey Daniels, vice president of business development for Huron Valley Financial
Writer: Jon Zemke

Tebis America hires in Troy, moves to smaller office

Tebis America did something most growing companies don't do. It moved to a smaller office.

The North American arm of German-based Tebis specializes in providing 3D CAD/CAM software systems for manufacturers the automotive and aerospace industries. Its software organizes CAD/CAM process chains for manufacturers.

The 30-year-old parent company set up shop in Troy in 1995. Today it employs 15 people after hiring three new staffers over the last year. The new hires include a sales manager and technical staff. It's also looking to hire a new sales professional and someone in software support.

Despite this growth, Tebis America's thoughts its old home in Troy (which was attached to a light industrial building) was too large. A change in ownership there prompted it to scoot on over to 400 E Big Beaver, which is a bit smaller in square footage.

"The new location is just an office (with no adjacent industrial buildings)," says Gerardo Mueller, president of Tebis America. "It's a more attractive location on Big Beaver."

Source: Gerardo Mueller, president of Tebis America
Writer: Jon Zemke

Aqaba Technologies moves growing client base toward mobile

Aqaba Technologies isn't just a company. It's its clientele.

The 10-year-old firm has grown its client base to 200 organizations, including the addition of 40 new customers over the last year. That enabled the Sterling Height-based business to add a new digital marketing professional, expanding its staff to six employees and an intern.

"We're still going strong," says Ramsey Sweis, CEO of Aqaba Technologies. "We had our bumps along the way because of the economy but we’re still strong because of our client base. We’re in growth mode now."

Aqaba Technologies is moving those customers toward mobile. Today about the two thirds of the digital marketing firm’s work revolves around mobile app, mobile web apps, and mobile marketing.

"The mobile part has just taken off," Sweis says.

Aqaba Technologies became a Google Certified Partner about two years ago. That training opened the door for it to perfect its mobile strategies for its clients across the spectrum, ranging from experience mobile users to mobile novices.

Source: Ramsey Sweis, CEO of Aqaba Technologies
Writer: Jon Zemke

Internet2 adds staff as it expands higher-ed tech offerings

New technology agreements and a few new hires are on the radar for Internet2. The Ann Arbor-based, member-owned technology community is signing new agreements to increase technology sharing between universities and hiring a handful of people in Tree Town.

Internet2 is working on a special offering that could bring Amazon Web Services to its membership, a collaborative of U.S. research and education organizations. The deal is in process and could come to fruition as soon as this summer.

"Amazon Web Services are highly desired by higher education," says Todd Sedmak, PR & media relations manager with Internet2. "It's one of the most robust platforms to help our researchers."

Internet2 also launched the Unizin consortium, earlier this month with the University of Michigan serving as one of the co-founding partners. The four co-founding universities will provide a common technological platform, overseen by Internet2, that allows members to work locally and strengthen their traditional mission of education and research while using the most innovative digital technology available.

"They can leverage that for digital learning on their campus and the campuses that are participating," Sedmak says. He adds, "It all stays within the academic community."

Internet2 recently hired an associate vice president of community engagement in Ann Arbor. It also has three open positions for associate program managers and a community engagement manager. You can find those openings here, here and here.

Source: Todd Sedmak, PR & media relations manager with Internet2
Writer: Jon Zemke

Kentaro aims to help smokers quit with new project

Kentaro has made a name for itself over the last four years building websites and creating its own sites.

Last year it created a lead-generation service for real-estate professionals called Real Estate Esspresso. Today the Ann Arbor-based firm is working on a new site to help people quit smoking.

"We're looking to diversify into a few different industries," says Kentaro Roy, founder & president of Kentaro.

Kentaro is currently building out an online smoking cessation program called QuitSmokingCommunity.org.

"We felt there was a void in the market," Roy says. "All of the smoking cessation websites were outdated."

Kentaro still continues to build on its custom website work for its clientele. The firm is adding more customers in the real-estate and manufacturing sectors. It is also adding more work from law firms. That bump in work has allowed Kentaro to add a new web developer over the last year, expanding its staff to five people.

Source: Kentaro Roy, founder & president of Kentaro
Writer: Jon Zemke

Fooke USA sets up shop in Pontiac

Fooke USA is opening an office in Pontiac as the base for its parent company's North American operations.

Fooke is a family-owned business that develops milling machines for a number of industries including aerospace, automotive, railway, and mold and die. Fooke USA is the German-based firm’s North American arm.

"Pontiac has the potential and the space so we can expand our facility," says Matthias Hofmann, CEO of Fooke USA.

Hofmann expects Fooke USA to employ as many as 25 people, primarily specialized technicians, in Pontiac within the next three to four years. The company currently employs Hofmann and he expects to hire a handful of people by the end of the year.

Fooke USA made the leap into Pontiac thanks to the help of Automation Alley. The business accelerator's International Business Center hosts foreign companies looking at establishing an office in Metro Detroit. It provides a temporary home base and professional services that help these companies make a soft landing into the Metro Detroit area.

A dozen foreign companies have made this transition at Automation Alley since it opened the program in 2011. Those companies now have operations in the region that have created 433 new jobs.

Source: Matthias Hofmann, CEO of Fooke USA
Writer: Jon Zemke

HBR Labs launches VeriShow online collaboration tool

HBR Labs is promoting its new VeriShow technology this summer, positioning its online collaboration software to become a fixture with high-end retailers.

The Farmington Hills-based tech company's platform is designed to connect companies and customers online quickly and painlessly. VeriShow provides spontaneous video conferencing, chat, and assistance by simply clicking on the “Live Help” button between customers and customer service representatives.

"It's designed to allow any company that needs to engage customers to do so instantly," says Yuval Moed, CEO of HBR Labs.

The 7-year-old company is focusing on selling to high-end retailers in the car dealership, real-estate, fashion and banking industries. HBR Labs created the multimedia software platform 18 months ago but is ramping up its marketing of the product now that it has worked the bugs out of it.

"We perfected the technology so it's now a pleasure for everyone to use," Moed says.

HBR Labs employs a staff of eight people after hiring one new person (a quality control professional) over the last year. It currently has open positions for two sales professionals to help market and sell VeriShow.

Source: Yuval Moed, CEO of HBR Labs
Writer: Jon Zemke

DIYAutoFTW aims to centralize auto data for gear heads

Steve Balistreri knows a lot about cars, but the auto engineer and car wonk had a problem: there was no centralized place to find particular information about a variety of vehicles.

For instance, if he wanted to find out how to change the spark plugs in a 1969 Mustang, he knew he could find it if he putzed around on a search engine long enough. Same thing if he wanted to know the bumps specs on a 1976 Ford F-150.

"It would take 20 minutes clicking on sites, shifting through conflicting data," Balistreri says.

That's what motivated him to create DIYautoFTW, a website that catalogues the details about vehicles  and centralizes that data.

Think of it as a sort of Wikipedia of car information. Today car enthusiasts have donated information to 400 different vehicles, and the list is growing as Balistreri cultivates his online car community.

"Our goal is to cover all vehicles," Balistreri says.

To make that possible, Balistreri participated in BUILD, D:hive’s entrepreneurial class, last fall. Now he is launching a crowd funding campaign so he can further build out his site to host all of the data. Balistreri wants to raise $40,000 by early July. Check out the campaign here.

"[The improved website] will be easier to manager and a more collaborative environment," Balistreri says.

Source: Steve Balistreri, president of DIYuutoFTW
Writer: Jon Zemke

Hello Records store owner opens second location in Jefferson-Chalmers

Wade Kergan, owner of Corktown's Hello Records, has opened a second Detroit record store. Located at 14401 E. Jefferson in the historic Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood, the as-yet untitled record store is taking part in the June on Jefferson pop-up series along the East Jefferson corridor. Kergan, however, already has plans to turn the temporary location into a permanent one.

It was Coffee and (____) partner Ray Cronk who first envisioned a record store for the corner storefront at E. Jefferson and Chalmers. An open doorway connects Coffee and (____) to the former liquor store location, making for an easy back-and-forth between the coffee and record shops. Cronk approached his friend Wade Kergan about the possibility of a second Hello location -- something Kergan was already considering -- and the rest fell into line rather quickly. The pair credit Joshua Elling and the rest of the people at Jefferson East, Inc. for the easy move. Cronk will manage the record store.

Kergan plans on keeping the store open well past the month-long June on Jefferson pop-up run. He says he'll be open at least through the summer but the real hope is to keep the record store open year-round. At roughly 2,000 square feet, the new location dwarfs his 600 square feet store in Corktown and will allow Kergan the chance to show off even more of his massive collection. He has 15,000 to 20,000 records in backstock, he says.

"The last shop was really informed by the neighborhood and gained its identity both through what we hoped to accomplish in the community and also in meeting people and making them a part of it, figuring out what they want and bringing them into the shop," says Kergan. "We hope to do the same thing here."

In addition to records, the bigger shop will feature more floor space for Kergan's vintage stereo equipment, posters, books, and musical artifacts.

The second record store is open every Friday and Saturday this June with plans to expand its hours later this summer. Hello Records will continue to operate as always.

Source: Wade Kergan, owner of Hello Records
Writer: MJ Galbraith
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