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Meet RF Connect, the company that builds wireless networks for America's busiest places

It's getting harder these days to find a place in the U.S. where RF Connect hasn't done work. The Farmington Hills-based company works on wireless networks for a number of large corporations and major places in the country, such as the Hyatt Center in downtown Chicago.

"We did the Minneapolis Airport," says Jeff Hipchen, executive vice president of RF Connect. "We also did a public safety system for the LBJ Tollway."

RF Connect specializes in designing and building wireless systems and services for large organizations across the country. Think putting up WiFi networks in heavy traffic areas, like hospitals, airports, college campuses, stadiums, and arenas. Some of its larger clients include Meijer, Dow, and Trinity Health Systems.

The uptick in work for RF Connect led to some double-digit revenue gains and additional hires. The 10-year-old company has hired a handful of people, expanding its staff to 50 employees and the occasional summer intern.

"We're growing at a rate of about 70 percent," Hipchen says. He adds that "we see continuing growth in the 40-50 percent range. It's a growing market."

Source: Jeff Hipchen, executive vice president of RF Connect
Writer: Jon Zemke

Arbor Brewing Co expands in India market with new production plant

Arbor Brewing Co made headlines a couple of years ago with its expansion into India, opening a brewpub in Bangalore. Today it's capitalizing on that success by working to open a production plant in Goa then follow with taverns that stretch across the continent.

"The plan is to open a series of taverns that are fed from this central location," says Rene Greff, who co-owns Arbor Brewing Co with her husband Matt Greff.

Arbor Brewing Co launched in 1996, opening a brewpub in downtown Ann Arbor. It followed with the Corner Brewery near Ypsilanti’s Depot Town a few years later. The company employs about 90 people between the two locations. It brews about 6,500 barrels of beer for distribution across Michigan between the two locations.

A former University of Michigan student and patron of Arbor Brewing Co reached out to the Greffs about opening up a franchise of the micro brewery in India a few years ago. Not long after that Arbor Brewing Co India opened in Bangalore and started packing big crowds into its space. The Greffs have talked about expanding further into India or Asia with another franchise.

The plans for a production plant are more ambitious. When fully operational the India brewery will have the capability to producing 100,000 barrels of beer annually.

"This is going to be much bigger (than Arbor Brewing Co's Michigan operation, which maxes out at 10,000 barrels a year)," Rene Greff says.

Arbor Brewing Co India has already purchased the land for the production plant and expects to begin construction within a month. Brewing equipment is set for delivery in early May.

"It would be really nice if we were producing beer by the end of the year," Rene Greff says. "But I wouldn't be surprised if it slips into the spring of 2017."

The master plan for the India expansion also includes the opening of at least half a dozen taverns in regions across India. The Greffs hope to open a couple this year at the same time the production plant opens with as many as six within the next three years. Distribution of Arbor Brewing Co's beers across India and Asia is also up for consideration within a couple of years after the production plant opens,

"When we first get up and going we plan to focus on the Indian market," Rene Greff says.

Source: Rene Greff, co-owner of Arbor Brewing Co
Writer: Jon Zemke

Michigan Angel Fund hits 100 members, invests in local startups

Michigan Angel Fund is hitting some significant milestones over the last year with even bigger ambitions for 2016.

The Ann Arbor-based angel investor group has 100 members between its two investment funds. It finished 2015 by sending out $2.91 million in investments, of which $1.5 million was made in the fourth quarter of last year.

Among its investments include leading a $750,000 Series A in Detroit-based BoostUp, a first-of-its-kind social savings platform that helps people save for a down payment on their next car or home purchase. The Michigan Angel Fund also participated in angel rounds for Romulus-based Eco-Fueling, Detroit-based FoodJunky.com, and Ann Arbor-based Genomenon.

"We can do a couple more deals," says Skip Simms, managing member of Michigan Angel Fund. "We expect to be closing on them in the first quarter of this year."

The Michigan Angel Fund has raised two investment funds worth more than $4 million. Simms plans to begin raising a third fund within a few months.

The Michigan Angel Fund invests between $250,000 and $2,000,000 in early stage startups with an ability to scale their growth that are based in Michigan. As many as 400 startups apply for funding Michigan Angel Fund each year. About 80 percent of them come from Michigan-based business accelerators and the other 20 percent are through referrals and startups reaching out to the fund.

"Every one of the companies that we have invested in have benefited from services provided by local tech accelerators," Simms says.

Source: Skip Simms, managing member of the Michigan Angel Fund
Writer: Jon Zemke

Bareo's mobile inventory app targets small food businesses

Karen Timmermann got her inspiration to launch her current startup when she tried to launch her first small business, a salsa company, out of her kitchen. Not long into the process she discovered that selling salsa made in your home didn't meet the numerous regulations that go with running a small food business, so she shut it down. But the venture caused her to realize that keeping track of ingredients, knowing how much food they would make, and where to source them from are all pressing questions every food business needs to answer every day.

"We had more trouble with inventory management that we did with finding distribution networks or suppliers," Timmermann says.

That's when she and two other friends started working on Bareo. The West Village-based startup released a mobile app last month that helps small food companies manage inventory and supply of raw ingredients. It not only analyzes how far ingredients will go with production but where to source them locally to maintain a steady flow of supplies. The idea is to limit supply trips where the business owner is hoping to get lucky and find the right ingredient in an aisle.

"It's infinitely easier that going to Costco or Gordon Foods and searching for ingredients," Timmermann says.

Timmerman worked as a graphic designer for a startup in Ann Arbor before starting her own company. She attended the 30 Weeks entrepreneur program in New York earlier this year. She moved back to Detroit last summer to focus on building out Bareo. That team of three people is now working on signing up 10-20 new local food businesses per month to get the platform off the ground.

Source: Karen Timmermann, CEO of Bareo
Writer: Jon Zemke

Tweddle Group opens up 30-person tech office above Fillmore

For a long time Tweddle Group's tech workforce worked everywhere. A few staffers were in its Clinton Township-based headquarters, while more worked here and there at other offices. They really didn't have one place to call their own until a few weeks ago.

That's when the automotive communications and publishing firm opened its newest office in downtown Detroit. Tweddle Group took over the 8th floor of the Palms Building, which is known as the home of The Fillmore Detroit theater. The 7,000-square-foot space will house 30 tech workers, with more to follow.

"Within a year we expect it will be up to 50 people," says Paul Wilbur, president & CEO of Tweddle Group. "If we keep growing we will add more."

The 65-year-old business specializes in information and publishing for automotive suppliers -- things like owner and user manuals. Tweddle Group has spent recent years moving these into different digital platforms, such as mobile apps or interactive systems in vehicles.

Tweddle Group currently employs 700 people, half of which work at its headquarters in Macomb County. The company also has offices around the world including in Italy, London and Tokyo. It recently closed its Novi office as part of the effort to consolidate its tech development team in downtown Detroit, choosing the Palms Building because of its location on Woodward Avenue near the concentration of tech startups on between Campus Martius Park and the stadiums.

"It feels like that is the tech hub that is just starting to boom right now," Wilbur says. "We want to be a part of that."

Source: Paul Wilbur, president & CEO of Tweddle Group
Writer: Jon Zemke

ContentOro provides marketeers with access to authoritative content

Bob Chunn sees a big problem in modern marketing, a lack of authoritative content. To him it's one thing to get consumers' attention but its quite another to get their respect for your product. That’s where having expert information comes in, and validated expertise is increasingly fewer and farther between on the Internet.

Solving that problem is at the heart of his new startup, ContentOro.The Ann Arbor-based company specializes in providing marketeers with access to authoritative content.

"There is a shortage of quality, authoritative content," Chunn says. "We are leveraging 130 million books to solve that problem."

Chunn ran into this problem often when he was the chief marketing officer for Pet Supplies Plus. People would often turn to the website for information. Having so-so information led to a pause in buying. Having a wealth of expertise on hand usually sealed the deal when it came to spending money.

"I was solving a problem I had run into myself as a chief marketing officer," Chunn says. "I was looking for authoritative content for the company I worked for."

What distinguishes authoritative content from the rest of the pack is complex, but Chunn sees a trend in books. While unsigned content written by freelancers can be persuasive, taking information from books written by respected authors goes much farther. However, the rub is there is a digital divide between the written word in books and what’s easily available online.

ContentOro's platform bridges that divide. It links marketing departments with the expert resources. ContentOro's team of five people launched the platform in August and have landed a couple of large customers. Chunn declined to name them, but did say two of the top three firms in the pet space are leveraging ContentOro.
 
"We're developing the world's first content marketplace," Chunn says.

Source: Bob Chunn, CEO of ContentOro
Writer: Jon Zemke

Local Orbit's new software connects big institutions with local food producers

Four years ago, Local Orbit made a name for itself as the software startup that better connects the local food economy. For instance, its platform made it easier for restaurants to buy fresh produce from local farmers.

Today, the Ann Arbor-based supply chain startup has its sights set on bigger connections in the local food economy. Local Orbit is currently beta testing a new platform, LocalEyes, that connects major institutions, like college campuses and corporate entities, with local food producers.

"This new service is built to support the growing demand for local food," says Erika Block, founder & CEO of Local Orbit.

Local Orbit has been fine tuning its original version for smaller food producers and food makers. That software platform is used in 80 farmers markets across North America.

"We have customers in 30 states and Canada," Block says. "We have a new customer that is coming online in Argentina."

It is also working on the beta for its new platform for high-volume purchases for big institutions in Metro Detroit, San Francisco and New England. It plans to launch this platform publicly next year.

To make that happen Local Orbit has hired five people over the last year, expanding its staff to eight employees and an intern. Among its recent hires are a recruit from Chicago (working in service management) and keeping one person in Ann Arbor who was on the brink of moving out of town (Local Orbit's new COO).

Local Orbit has raised six figures worth of seed capital this year, bringing its total seed capital raise to more than $1 million. It is also eyeing another multi-million fundraiser soon.

"We will be raising a Series A in 2016," Block says.

Source: Erika Block, founder & CEO of Local Orbit
Writer: Jon Zemke

Creative Circle moves Detroit office downtown to join "creative community"

Creative Circle has moved its metro Detroit office from Southfield to downtown Detroit for one big reason: to take part in the creative rebirth of the Motor City's central business district.

"We believe in the re-emergence of downtown Detroit's creative community," says Adam Bleibtreu, chief marketing office of Creative Circle.

The Los Angeles-based creative staffing agency is taking space on the 11th floor of the Chrysler House building, which is managed by Bedrock Real Estate Services. It is moving seven employees there, primarily account executives and recruiters. Creative Circle's executive team wants its staff to be close to its clients and a concentration of other creative professionals.

Creative Circle specializes in staffing services for business of all sizes in a variety of industries. The company places professionals in more than 125 job titles in a variety of fields, including advertising, design, web development, copy writing, and marketing. It can fill both freelance and full-time roles.

Bleibtreu is optimistic about growing Creative Circle Detroit staff in the near future as the company adds new clients and grows with the core of downtown Detroit.

"We would like to see our headcount there expand by four people," Bleibtreu says. "We want to ride the future wave of growth there."

Source: Adam Bleibtreu, chief marketing office of Creative Circle
Writer: Jon Zemke

Lawrence Hunt brings breathable material to dress clothes

Most people don't want to think about anything on a hot and humid summer day, but on Jeff Schattner came up with an idea for a new business at a wedding on such day in the summer of 2013.

"I was sweating my butt off," Schattner says. "It was one of those 90-degree days and I was in a full suit."

The business became Lawrence Hunt, a clothing startup that makes dress shirts for men that employ breathable material, like what's used in work-out clothes to help keep the user cool and limit the amount of sweat that sweeps through.

"I wanted something that was more professional," Schattner says. "I wanted that crisp, 100 percent cotton look."

Lawrence Hunt pulled off a successful crowdfunding campaign a little more than a year ago to produce a few thousand shirts. That experience prompted Shattner to go back to the drawing board and redesign a better shirt. It relaunched the new design this month, and it is now for sale online.

"That has really brought down our costs between 50-75 percent," Schattner says.

He plans to keep building up the brand of the downtown Detroit-based clothing company in 2016. Splitting his time between Lawrence Hunt and his day job as a CPA, Schattner will focus on Internet sales to help keep costs low and create some brand recognition.

Source: Jeff Schattner, founder of Lawrence Hunt
Writer: Jon Zemke

Lawrence Tech hopes to set new national standard for stormwater management with innovative pilot

In an effort to curb water pollution caused by stormwater runoff, Lawrence Technological University in Southfield will become the first demonstration site in the U.S. of a new green drainage system.

The conventional drainage system in one of Lawrence Tech's parking lots will be replaced this month with a system that uses a green technology called energy passive groundwater recharge products, or EGRPs.

Polluted storm runoff and flooding are serious problems facing most, if not all, developed cities that have paved over much of their natural land, which would normally absorb the water and filter it of pollutants.

Lawrence Tech is partnering with Detroit-based Parjana Distribution LLC to test the new green technology, first on its own grounds before replacing systems at universities in Ohio, California, Florida and Washington, D.C., by the end of September 2016.

The goal is to create a new national standard in storm water design.

The partners have received a $100,000 grant and are working to raise $300,000 more in order to complete the pilot project.

Lawrence Tech is home to the Great Lake Stormwater Management Institute. Civil engineering professor and project director Donald Carpenter says the new system is designed to handle up to an inch of rain during a 24-hour period.

“The first inch of rain represents the stormwater runoff volume with the highest pollutant loads, so capturing and infiltrating that volume will improve the water quality downstream,” says Carpenter.

The campus master plan calls for the installation of stormwater treatment wetlands, additional porous pavement, rain gardens, naturalized riparian buffers, an infiltration basin, and an integrated drainage system that mitigates storm water runoff from all the parking lots.

Source: Lawrence Technological University
Writer: Kim North Shine

McClary Bros. Drinking Vinegars opens Farmington storefront

After laying a foundation for its brand of flavored drinking vinegars on the farmers market and special event circuit, Detroit-born and made McClary Bros. has moved into a brick-and-mortar space of its own in downtown Farmington.

The store, which opened on Dec. 5 at 32621 Grand River Ave., adds some retail spice to owner Jess McClary's entrepreneurial and socially conscious operation. McClary, who named the business after her twin sons, has resurrected a Colonial-era drink mixer in the vinegars she's created, which come in a variety of flavors including Detroit Strawberry, Michigan Cranberry, Beet & Carrot, and Pineapple & Fennel. They can be used in cocktails, craft sodas, water, cooking sauces, marinades, salad dressings, and more.

McClary Bros. vinegars, AKA shrubs, are made in Detroit by members of food pantry Forgotten Harvest's workforce development program. In addition, the by-product apples used for making the vinegar are re-used by a start-up in its chutney. And McClary is committed to using only locally-grown or made ingredients.

Earlier this year, McClary made an appearance on ABC's Shark Tank, a show where entrepreneurs pitch their products to a panel of celebrity investors. While she failed to find an investor, the media attention boosted her sales, which helped make opening the store possible. In keeping with its history, McClary's products will continue to be available on the market and pop-up circuit.

Source: McClary Bros. Old Timey Drinking Vinegar
Writer: Kim North Shine

MiSoft Solutions aims for $1M in revenue in 2016

MiSoft Solutions was just a glimmer in its founders' eyes when they started writing code less than two years ago. By 2016, the Ferndale-based business expects to hit the seven-figure mark in revenue.

"We custom develop software programs and websites for our clients," says Dana Smith, director of business development for MiSoft Solutions.

Specifically, MiSoft develops customized software programs around a client's processes, promising a streamline software system that is easier to use. Among its clients are Gage Products Co, for whom it made a lab testing system, and STEM.org, for whom it built a website.

That work helped MiSoft Solutions grow its team to five people and its revenue well past the $100,000 mark. Smith expects the company to cross the $1 million in annual revenue milestone next year.

"We have started getting our name out there," Smith says. "We have done a lot of marketing over the last year."

Source: Dana Smith, director of business development for MiSoft Solutions
Writer: Jon Zemke

Your People PR goes back to the kitchen table, grows revenue

Lynne Golodner loves what she does, so much so she shrank her boutique public relations firms so she could grow it.

The founder and chief creative officer of Your People had grown the PR agency from her kitchen table in 2007 to a growing staff in an office in Southfield in recent years. Then she shrank it back down so it could easily fit on her kitchen table again.

"I really love the work," Golodner says. "When you get too big you are managing the business instead of generating content and focusing on the relationships."

Going smaller proved to have a number of benefits. Golodner got more time to focus on doing actual PR work and Your People grew stronger. The company still has a team of five people, but they are independent contractors now, and the company's headquarters is on Golodner's kitchen table in her Huntington Woods home. Revenue is up 25 percent and is expected to make a similar jump next year.

"We have been more efficient and more focused," Golodner says.

Golodner started Your People with the idea that every business and organization needs PR work, that everyone needs some help telling their story. Shrinking Your People helped Golodner get back to that with her clientele.

The agency also started offering products for small businesses that don’t need or can't afford a PR agency on a full-time retainer. Those products include everything from editing services to writing marketing plans for the clients to implement. To Golodner it’s fun helping empower more people to tell their stories to bigger audiences.

"It's really exciting to see our clients take these steps on their own," Golodner says. "It's great to hand it off to someone else."

Source: Lynne Golodner, founder & chief creative officer of Your People
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ann Arbor's PriceLocal browser app compares Amazon pricing to local retailers

When PriceLocal launched a little more than a year ago it was a spunky, local startup carving out a niche by helping local retailers compete with e-commerce prices. Today it is a significantly bigger startup looking to make grow even more during the holiday shopping season.

The Ann Arbor-based startup connected with a couple dozen retailers in 2014. This year it has scaled that number into hundreds of retailers and even more users.

"We have thousands of users across the country, in all 50 states," says Matt Chosid, CEO of PriceLocal. "We have hundreds of businesses across the country."

PriceLocal's technology is a plug-in for your web browser. The platform helps consumers search for a product online and then provides local stores the opportunity to match the online price. So, if you are are searching Amazon and other e-commerce sites, you now have the option to see if a local business can offer a comparable price.

"That's the frosting," Chosid says. "The real cake is you can search and find where something is located."

Chosid worked on the litigation team at Borders from the 1990s until it closed, watching e-commerce sites play a critical role in toppling the national bookseller. That experience inspired him to start PriceLocal with the help of Alfa Jango. He also brought on Larry Freed, formerly CEO of ForeSee, as chief strategy officer. PriceLocal currently has a staff of 10 people working toward leveling the playing field for retailers.

“The most important thing to us is local retailers,” Chosid says.

Source: Matt Chosid, CEO of PriceLocal
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ann Arbor Distilling Co opens doors in downtown Ann Arbor

Patrons began walking into the newly opened Ann Arbor Distilling Co's tasting room in downtown Ann Arbor a few days ago and Rob Cleveland hopes they notice one thing, the combination of industrial and rural aesthetics.

"We're industrial meets farm," says Cleveland, managing director of the micro distillery. "It's a turn-of-the-century building. It has a lot of brick and concrete. It's a very robust building. We also built out the building with wood from Urban Ashes and Recycle Ann Arbor that was salvaged."

Cleveland and Ari Susssman have been working on opening the craft distillery for the last two years. It is located at 220 Felch in the same building as Icon Interactive, a digital marketing agency Cleveland serves as the founder & CEO. Cleveland and Sussman saw a demand for locally made craft cocktails in downtown after watching decades of success from local craft brewers.

Ann Arbor Distilling Co is currently selling bottles of its vodka, gin and rum cocktails or serving cocktails made of those liquors in its tasting room. It is also working on making its own whiskey and bourbons, liquors that traditionally take years to distill.

"We are also looking at having apply brandy in the not-too-distant future," Cleveland says.

The craft distillery held a soft opening last Saturday and opened its doors to the public yesterday.  Its tasting room encompasses 1,000 square feet and has a capacity of 35 people. It has another 5,000 square feet of production space that can produce up to 60,000 gallons of liquor annually. Cleveland expects to start distributing Ann Arbor Distilling Co's liquors by the bottle in local retailers by second quarter of next year.

Source: Rob Cleveland, managing director of Ann Arbor Distilling Co
Writer: Jon Zemke
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