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Littlite aims for South America for international expansion

Littlite is know for its small, adjustable lights that are used for everything from sound mixers at concerts to first responders in emergencies. Though its products are small, the Hamburg Township-based company is working to significantly grow its footprint this year.

Littlite offers more than 300 types of task lamps that can be used for permanent mounting or temporary purposes. They have long, adjustable arms and small lights that offer bright illumination for specific spaces.

"It started with a console light," says Rhonda Fackert, general manager of Littlite. "That is what it is at its core."

The company's core business has been in the entertainment industry, such as people handling music equipment at concerts and needing small but strong lights to work. Littilite has since expanded its clientele to include public safety workers and healthcare facilities. Its products have become ubiquitous across North America.

The 19-person firm makes the products in America but is now looking to expand its sales abroad. The company recently went on a trade mission to Chile and Colombia with Automation Alley to help facilitate business connections abroad.

"We're trying to get into South America," Fackert says.

Littilite has grown steadily since the recession, notching a few percentage points of revenue growth here and there. Fackert is aiming for 5 percent growth this year as she and her team work to export more of its products.

Source: Rhonda Fackert, general manager of Littlite
Writer: Jon Zemke

Troy-based iDashboards hires 30 on heels of global expansion

Troy-based tech firm iDashboards is enjoying rapid growth as the firm's global expansion gains traction.

IDashboards creates business intelligence dashboard software with real-time results. The interactive computer dashboards for businesses analyze, track, and organize data into easily useable parts that help streamline a company and enable it to grow faster.
The 12-year-old firm spent its first decade establishing its product in North America. In recent years, it has expanded internationally, adding customers in dozens of countries and a recently opening an office in Germany. iDashboards is planning to open another office in the United Kingdom later this year.

"It's a big world out there," says Shadan Malik, president & CEO of iDashboards. "We have software that is pretty unique. We have customers in 40 countries. That speaks for itself."

IDashboards' revenue grew 18 percent last year, and the company is aiming to spike it by as much as 50 percent this year. That's possible because of its diversified customer base and its efforts to grow globally have gone quite well so far this year.

iDashboards has hired 30 people over the last year, expanding its staff to 90 employees and three interns. It is also looking to hire four more people.

"We just hired five people yesterday," Malik says.

Source: Shadan Malik, president & CEO of iDashboards
Writer: Jon Zemke

618 South Main preps for August move-ins in downtown Ann Arbor

Construction workers are hurrying toward the finish line for the 618 South Main project on the southern edge of downtown Ann Arbor.

The $27 million development plans to open its first half of the building to residents in August and then the second half in September. The six-story building is expected to bring 164 more apartments into the city’s center.

"One of the things downtown needs to be viable is people," says Dan Ketelaar, president of Urban Group Development, co-developer of 618 South Main. "People are not driving into downtown to do their shopping anymore."

618 South Main is one of a number of new mid-and-high-rise buildings that have been built or are under construction in downtown Ann Arbor. Most of the structures have been geared toward students at the University of Michigan. Ketelaar was working on one of those projects six years ago when he realized there is just as much demand for dense, luxury, urban living from young professionals as there is from students.

Construction started on 618 South Main in January of 2014 in the space that once house the old Fox Tent & Awning business. A few hundred construction workers have worked on the project since, preparing it for its opening.

618 South Main is currently a little more than 40 percent leased out. It is made up of studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom units that range in price from $1,395 per month to $2,905 per month.  Residents can also rent out one of the 132 parking spaces underneath the building or access its Zipcar.

"We thought a lot of these young people will not have cars," Ketelaar says. "Right now about 50 percent of the leases are taking parking spaces."

Residents will have access to common deck with a pool, outdoor grills, fire pits and lounge areas both inside and outside of the building. All of the water runoff from the building (about 900,000 galloons per year) is also filtered through a rain garden system and into the Huron River.

"This is essentially a lifestyle community for young professionals," Ketelaar says.

Source: Dan Ketelaar, president of Urban Group Development, co-developer of 618 South Main
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ann Arbor FarmLogs now used by 20% of farms in U.S.

Agricultural technology businesses are thriving and Ann Arbor-based FarmLogs is reaping big rewards with its crop monitoring technology.


"Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, FarmLogs launched about three years ago and participated in the Y Combinator startup accelerator program. FarmLogs raised $10 million in Series B about six months ago, bringing its total institutional funding to $15 million thus far. FarmLogs is used by farmers in all 50 states and internationally in over 130 countries across six continents. FarmLogs currently has 30 employees and the farm management software company plans to double its staff count this year."

Read the rest here.

Ann Arbor startups claim lion's share of Michigan Pre-Seed Fund

Ann Arbor-based startups are taking the lion’s share of the new early stage seed capital from the Michigan Pre-Seed Fund 2.0.

Promising small businesses from Tree Town made up three of the last five recipients from the fund. Ann Arbor-based ventures have also comprised 10 of the 18 investments made so far.

"The recent activity has been concentrated in Ann Arbor," says Charles Moret, president of Invest Michigan, which manages the Michigan Pre-Seed Fund 2.0. He adds that there are plenty of other promising startups at the front of the line for funding, including several from the west side of Michigan and Metro Detroit.

Invest Michigan launched a little more than a year ago and currently employs a staff of four people in downtown Detroit. It oversees the Michigan Pre-Seed Fund 2.0. The $5.8 million fund is capitalized by the Michigan Strategic Fund, which is administered by the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

The Michigan Pre-Seed Fund 2.0 makes small investments ($50,000 to $150,000 in a convertible note or equity investment) in early stage startups looking to rapidly grow their businesses. All companies that receive funding are required to secure a minimum of 1:1 in matching co-investment funds. Some of the industries it is targeting include automotive, agriculture, alternative energy, defense, IT, and life sciences. Startups that do well can receive a follow-on investment worth up to $500,000 from the fund.

"Our strategy in Michigan is to enable investors to pool their money together to support early stage startups," Moret says.

The most recent companies to receive funding include ENT Biotech Solutions, NanoRETE, Arborlight, Cribspot and Picospray. The last three are based in Ann Arbor. Arborlight makes architectural lighting that mimics daylight. Cribspot serves as clearinghouse for rentals on and near college campuses. Picospray is developing technology that makes small engines more fuel efficient and produce fewer emissions.

Moret expects to make another 10-12 investments in Michigan-based startups before the end of the year.

"We have funding for the next two years if we maintain our current pace," Moret says.

Source: Charles Moret, president of Invest Michigan
Writer: Jon Zemke

Read more about Metro Detroit's growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at SEMichiganStartup.com.

Cribspot scores $50K as it adds more U.S. campuses to its off-campus housing service

Cribspot has landed some more seed capital, enabling the Michigan-based startup to start taking its software platform national.

The downtown Ann Arbor-based company (it also has an office in downtown Detroit) recently landed a $50,000 investment from the Michigan Pre-Seed Fund 2.0, a fund capitalized by the Michigan Economic Development Corp to invest in early stage tech startups. That investment brings Cribspots total seed capital raise to $680,000, which includes investments from Ann Arbor-based Huron River Ventures and a number of angel investors.

"It (early stage investments from local funds like the Michigan Pre-Seed Fund 2.0) is extremely important," says Jason Okrasinski, CEO of Cribspot. "The access to state funding, grants, and debt is one big advantage and differentiator from San Francisco."

Cribspot and its team of seven people is creating a centralized online portal for college students looking for off-campus housing. The co-founders, mostly University of Michigan students, were inspired to start the company after struggling with their own searches for off-campus housing that usually entailed Craiglist ads and looking for landlord signs in the sides of buildings.

Cribspot is a product of the Bizdom accelerator program in downtown Detroit. It also won $100,000 when it took second place at last year's Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition. Shortly after that win Cribspot started to spread its presence across the U.S.

"We currently have a presence at 175 campuses," Okrasinski says

Source: Jason Okrasinski, CEO of Cribspot
Writer: Jon Zemke

Three Leaf Ventures opens Midwest office in downtown Ann Arbor

Three Leaf Ventures is opening an Ann Arbor location to serve as the venture capital firm’s Midwestern office.

The Denver-based firm, an affiliate of The Broe Group, aims to invest in healthcare companies that specializes in everything from IT to genomics to consumer medical devices.

"We have already drummed up a lot of venture capital activity," says Sean Kearney, managing director of Three Leaf Ventures. "We believe a lot of deal flow will come from Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Michigan."

Three Leaf Ventures will lease space in Kerrytown. It's office will be staffed by Kearney who plans to move to Ann Arbor this summer. A couple of part-time staffers are expected to join him later this year.

The 3-year-old venture capital firm is stage agnostic when it comes to its investments, meaning it is willing to invest in either early, middle or late-stage startups. Three Leaf Ventures hasn’t made an investment in a Michigan-based startup yet but Kearney expects that to change before the end of the year because there are already a couple of good candidates in the pipeline.

"That (one investment this year) is a conservative goal," Kearney says.

Source: Sean Kearney, managing director of Three Leaf Ventures
Writer: Jon Zemke

U-M Credit Union acquires Flint credit union, adds commercial lending, jobs

University of Michigan Credit Union has spent the last year significantly expanding its membership, product offerings, and geographic reach. The downtown Ann Arbor-based credit union executed a merger with Family Community Credit Union in Flint last March, adding three more branches and 5,700 new members. U-M Credit Union had been expanding its presence at the University of Michigan-Flint last year when the opportunity to merge with Family Community Credit Union presented itself. It turned out to be just the right fit.

"It all just worked out perfectly," says Tiffany Ford, CEO of the University of Michigan Credit Union.

U-M Credit Union has also been growing organically, signing up new members in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Washtenaw Community College, and U-M Dearborn and Flint. This focus on campus development has allowed U-M Credit Union to grow its membership by 11 percent to 70,910 people and its assets from $571 million to $633 million.

"We have been able to build member awareness in the Ann Arbor area and increase the number of new accounts at Washtenaw Community College and U-M Flint," Ford says.

Which has allowed U-M Credit to expand its product offerings. The credit union has long focused on expanding its membership’s usage of the credit union's credit cards that feature low-interest-rate or rewards programs. Twenty seven percent of the credit union's members now use one of those two credit cards, increasing its balances $2.9 million over the last year to $35 million. U-M Credit Union has also increased its auto loan balances by $18.6 million over the last year to $121 million.

"We know we can increase that penetration significantly," Ford says.

That success has opened the door to U-M Credit Union expanding its mortgage loans. It is also preparing for a soft launch of a new commercial lending program next week. That program will offer lending products to members in commercial real-estate development, and business lines of credit.

U-M Credit Union now has 13 branches, including two virtual branches it recently opened at Washtenaw Community College and U-M Flint. The credit union is also in the process of replacing its credit union at Main Street and Eisenhower Road with a new branch at 2725 S State St on the south side of Ann Arbor.

That growth has led to several new hires for the U-M Credit Union. The institution has hired 17 people over the last year, including professionals in customer service, marketing, and human resources. It currently has a staff of 142 employees and three interns. The credit union is currently looking to hire another 7 people right now.

"We have been hiring in all areas of the credit union," Ford says.

Source: Tiffany Ford, CEO of the University of Michigan Credit Union
Writer: Jon Zemke

Deadline to apply for $10k NEIdeas small business challenge grants is June 4

Last year, the New Economy Initiative and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation teamed up to award 32 existing small businesses in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park a combined total of over $500,000 for their ideas for growth.

This year, a whole new group of time-tested Detroit businesses will receive NEIdeas challenge grants. The deadline to apply for the challenge is June 4.
Instead of focusing on startups like other Detroit business competitions, NEIdeas is designed specifically for small businesses that are at least three years old and have had a lasting impact on their neghborhoods -- established businesses like Touch of Class Restoration, a Brightmoor-based construction and remediation company that used its 2014 NEideas award to buy new equipment and hire a marketing manager, and G + C Style, a 50-year-old storefront barber shop that used its award to expand its services to repairing and sharpening clippers for other barber shops.
In 2014, 30 small businesses each received awards of $10,000, while two businesses with high growth potential each received $100,000.
Visit neideasdetroit.org for more information.

Rebel Nell doubles sales of jewelry made from recycled graffiti flakes

Rebel Nell started out as both a business and a social cause to help empower women in Detroit. Two years later, it is accomplishing both of those goals in spades.

The jewelry-making company specializes in turning discard flakes from graffiti murals into things like necklaces and earrings. Rebel Nell sells these wares everywhere from online to local retail outlets like the Rust Belt Market in downtown Ferndale. Sales of the jewelry have doubled each year since its launch.

"We're projecting to double what we did last year," Amy Peterson, who co-founded Rebel Nell with Diana Russell.

Rebel Nell is a low-profit limited liability company, which means it can turn a profit but its main focus is on its social mission. For the Woodbridge-based business -- it calls the Grand River Creative Corridor's 4731 building home -- that means empowering disadvantaged women in Detroit.

Rebel Nell accomplishes that by creating jobs for women, often single mothers, looking to climb their way out of poverty. Those jobs often include making jewelry and helping sell it. So far the company has hired five women out of homeless shelters and employs a total staff of seven people. It is also working to help educate those women and point them on a path toward financial self-sustainability, such as purchasing a house.

"It has been a tremendously exciting year," Peterson says. "I can't wait to see what happens next year."

Source: Amy Peterson, co-founder & CEO of Rebel Nell
Writer: Jon Zemke

Skidmore Studio adds staff thanks to new work from entertainment brands

Skidmore Studio has carved out an interesting niche for itself over the last year, taking on a growing amount of work for entertainment brands like Dave & Busters.

"We're focused on going national and landing these clients," says Tim Smith, president & CEO of Skidmore Studio.

The creative agency has been doing advertising and branding work for Metro Detroit companies since it opened in 1959. It took on Dave & Busters as a client a little more than a year ago, handling some of its advertising and creative work. Since then it has grown that workload by 30 percent, handling everything from print to digital to broadcast work.

Skidmore Studio has also landed other similar clients, including CiCi's Pizza in Dallas. Skidmore Studio is working with companies like this to help them attract more millennials to their venues. Smith sees that sort of work as empowering because so many marketing professionals are still trying to figure out how to effectively reach young people.

"Marketeers are mystified and confused by it," Smith says. "We have demystified it."

Growth in areas like that has allowed Skidmore Studio to add to its staff. It has hired six people over the last year, including a former intern that recently graduated from the College of Creative Studies. The company now employs 32 people at its office in the M@dison Building in downtown Detroit.

"We are bursting at the seams here, but we're still here," Smith says.

Skidmore Studio moved to downtown Detroit from downtown Royal Oak a few years ago, becoming one of the first anchor tenants in the then recently redeveloped M@dison Building. It has since filled out its office space with a handful of hires each year, a pace Smith plans to maintain.

Source: Tim Smith, president & CEO of Skidmore Studio
Writer: Jon Zemke

Slope scores $395K in seed capital for video production platform

Slope, a software startup launched by Venture For America fellows in Detroit, has landed $395,000 in seed capital from a variety of sources.

The downtown Detroit-based tech startup -- it calls the Bizdom accelerator home -- has raised $100,000 from Bizdom and $295,000 from the Venture For America Innovation Fund and angel investors in Detroit, Cincinnati and New York City.

"This gives us about 10 months of runway,"  says Brian Bosche, co-founder & CEO of Slope. "It should be enough to build up Slope and get it out to the market."

Slope, formerly TernPro, is creating a video-creation platform so simple and accessible that everyday people can produce online videos and track the public's interaction with them. The platform also allows the user to store photos, graphics, and videos so they are available to create more online content.

"Slope is a video-collaboration platform for creative and marketing users," Bosche says.

Slope was admitted to the second class for the Microsoft Venture Accelerator earlier this year for a four-month residency in Seattle. The startup and its team of six people is gearing up to release its platform for a private Beta in July and then a public Beta later this fall.

"We have more than 700 companies signed up to test our platform," Bosche says.

Source: Brian Bosche, co-founder & CEO of Slope
Writer: Jon Zemke

Rochester College launches social entrepreneurship center

Rochester College is launching a Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and is drawing from the local talent pool to lead it.

The small liberal arts college will house the center in its School of Business, offering a social entrepreneurship degree that emphasizes both profit and the public good. The degree is expected to dovetail well with the institution for higher learning's ethos.

"I was impressed with the campus's mission, which is to work on solving a lot of the world's problems," says Jaymes Vettraino, director of the Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Rochester College. "It spoke to me in a way that I felt pretty passionate about."

Vettraino worked as the city manager of Rochester until this week, stepping down to take the job at Rochester College. He worked as an adjunct professor at Rochester College over the last year and has an MBA from Lehigh University.

Rochester College students studying in the Center for Social Entrepreneurship will work on both solving societal problems through commerce and contributing to their communities. Internships emphasizing servant leadership and social justice will be a focus of the Center. They will partner with local businesses, other educational institutions, non-profits, and government entities.

"My first six months is really about relationship building," Vettraino says.

Source: Jaymes Vettraino, director of the Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Rochester College
Writer: Jon Zemke

Lovio George adds staff as it grows with local PR work

Lovio George Communications + Design has been around Midtown for a long time -- 33 years to be exact, long before the brand Midtown was ever dreamed up. And in that time, the boutique communications and design agency has made it mark with local work.

That is as true now as it was 33 years ago. Last year, Lovio George Communications + Design grew its staff and its bottom line by helping longtime staples like the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and National Coney Island, along with newer big names like Shinola.

"We're working on Shinola Ann Arbor, which should open by the end of June," says Christina Lovio-George, CEO of Lovio George Communications + Design.

Lovio George Communications + Design also helped Shinola open its Chicago store and is doing work with the newly renovated Cobo Center.

Local work like that has allowed Lovio George Communications + Design to grow its revenue over the last year. It has also hired two people, including an agency coordinator. The company currently has a staff of 13 employees and an intern.

Source: Christina Lovio-George, CEO of Lovio George
Writer: Jon Zemke

Detroit retailers to host pop-up market at Mackinac Policy Conference

A handful of Detroit-based entrepreneurs will make their pitch for the importance of small business in the future of the city's economy at this week's Mackinac Policy Conference.

"The Mackinaw Policy Conference is always about big things -- big politicians, big lobbying firms, big issues," says Rachel Lutz, owner of The Peacock Room in Midtown's Park Shelton building. "If we're going to have a conversation about the state's economy, we should also speak about small business."

Lutz and a few of her peers (all women who are owners of Detroit-based small businesses) will facilitate that conversation through a small business pop-up market on Mackinac Island during the conference. The other three business participating are Cyberoptix Tie Lab (a scarves and tie maker), Sweet Potato Sensations (a second-generation family-owned bakery), and Rebel Nell (a jewelry company with a social mission).

"You go with who you know," Lutz says. "These are women I have great admiration for. They know how to build a business."

Cynthia J Pasky, CEO of Downtown Detroit-based Strategic Staffing Solutions, also played a critical role in making the pop-up market a reality at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference.

The "Building Bridges to Small Business" pop-up market will take place on Thursday, May 28, from 3-7 p.m. at Mackinac Island’s Mission Point Resort.

"We want participants to acknowledge small business as an important driver of Michigan's economic growth, while learning about four of the many businesses that are growing globally from Detroit," Lutz says.

Source: Rachel Lutz, owner of The Peacock Room
Writer: Jon Zemke
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