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Family biz VernDale Products doubles down on Detroit, opens second factory

LaVerne and Marlene Johnson started VernDale Products in 1958, using the Detroit-based manufacturing business to feed and employ their family. Today, a third generation of Johnsons is helping the company execute its biggest expansion in decades.

"It takes a big team to put it all together," says Dale Johnson, president of VernDale Products. He adds that many members of the family had to dig deep to open a second plan on Detroit's west side.

VernDale Products makes roller dried milk powder, which is primarily used by premium chocolate manufacturers. The company was originally based near the Detroit River in the footprint of what is now the Renaissance Center. It’s currently based at 8445 Lyndon on the city's west side. It is currently working on building out a new facility at 18940 Weaver St., also on the city's west side, north of Joy Road between the Southfield Freeway and Evergreen Road.

VernDale is investing $20 million to build out the production facility with the help of a $436,000 business development incentive from the Michigan Economic Development Corp and tax abatement from the city of Detroit. The new space will allow the company to keep up with its organic growth of 5-7 percent annually.

"The new plant will add about 60 percent of capacity," Johnson says. "There are times of the year when we definitely need it and sometimes we don’t need it."

VernDale Products, which was founded by Johnson’s parents, currently employs a handful of his siblings, in-laws, and other members of his extended family. The company has hired eight people over the last year, ranging from maintenance workers to management. It now employs 49 people who will work between both facilities when the second one opens later this month.

"The plant is highly integrated and automated," Johnson says. "The jobs we provide are good jobs. We need people who think, not just sweat."

Source: Dale Johnson, president of VernDale Products
Writer: Jon Zemke

Detroit's Savorfull is showing pro sports teams how to eat healthier

Savorfull, a New Center-based startup that connects businesses with healthy eating options, is growing after landing a number of prominent clients, the foremost among them being professional sports teams.

"Some of the best successes we have had is with professional sports," says Stacy Goldberg, founder & CEO of Savorfull, whose clients include the Cleveland Cavaliers (an NBA team) and the Cleveland Gladiators (an Arena Football team).

Savorfull helps professional sports teams and other large organizations provide healthy food to their fans, workers, and clients by lining them up with packaged healthy allergen friendly foods such as energy bars, snacks, trail mixes, cereals and beverages. 

Savorfull has also been working with arenas, casinos, and wide variety of businesses both big and small. Many (but not all) of them are part of the Quicken Loans family of companies. All of them are interested in making smart decisions about what their employees eat.

"They are feeding team members all day," Goldberg says.

Savorfull is currently working to win one of the Chase Small Business Mission Main Street grants. The startup’s team of three people plans to use the money to create a comprehensive marketing plan that includes a digital marketing campaign, a trade show presence, and adding more staff. You can vote for Savorfull here.

"We want to work with these companies that understand that choosing food is proactive and is a form of healthcare," Goldberg says.

Source: Stacy Goldberg, founder & CEO of Savorfull
Writer: Jon Zemke

Father & son launch car-mechanic software startup, Optus Software

Martin Waldo played around with an idea for a startup that would help create trust between automotive mechanics and motorists a few years ago.

The idea went sideways at the time, and he put it to the side. Then his son, Austin Waldo, graduated from the University of Michigan early this year, and the father-son duo became inspired.

"We decided to relaunch and try again," Austin Waldo says.

That's how Optus Software began early this year. The Northville-based startup is creating a software platform that enables mechanics to utilize visual media to help gain the trust of their clients. So when a motorist comes in to get a car fixed, the mechanic can show them pictures or video of the problem and any other problems that arise during the inspection.

"It's a whole 360 transparency experiment so the customer can feel like they can trust the dealership," Austin Waldo says.

Optus Software's team of three people is currently testing the system with a large car dealership group at two of its dealerships in Canton and Plymouth. They plan to sell it to the dealerships as software as a service.

"We're close to having a finalized product," Austin Waldo says.

Source: Austin Waldo, co-founder of Optus Software
Writer: Jon Zemke

Sisters launch organic deodorant company, Rustic Maka

A pair of sisters in White Lake have turned making organic deodorant into their own company, Rustic Maka.

Kasia Rothe and Monica Stakvel started down this road a few years ago when Rothe was pregnant and developed a body odor she didn't like. She couldn’t do much about it with options available on store shelves.

"Nothing seemed to be working for me," Rothe says.

So she started making her own deodorant. Rothe is also a stickler for living a healthy lifestyle so she made sure she only used natural ingredients, leaving out the likes of parabens and aluminum that are often found in deodorants.

"We realized deodorant, among other things, has a ton of bad ingredients," Rothe says.

That home-made deodorant turned into the answer Rothe needed, working for her for 12-24 hours. She and Stakvel turned it into Pachy, the new odor-fighting deodorant for Rustic Maka. They launched the company in February and have been selling Pachy online and in 12 stores (primarily natural foods shops) across the state.

"We're hoping we can get some national exposure and take this to the next level," Rothe says.

Source: Kasia Rothe, co-founder of Rustic Maka
Writer: Jon Zemke

Stratos ramps up staff for new Ann Arbor office

The startup formerly known as Protean Payment (freshly rebranded at Stratos) has a new name, a new pool of money to draw from, and is looking for a new home in Ann Arbor to accommodate its growth.

Stratos announced last week that it raised $5.8 million in a Series A round. Silicon Valley-based Toba Capital Partners led the round with Ann Arbor-based Reasonant Venture Partners participating, along with two other venture capital firms.

Stratos is working on disrupting the way people pay for everyday purchases, but not too much. It is making a new card that combines all of the cards in your wallet (credit, debit, loyalty) into a bluetooth enabled device. The idea is to simplify how a person pay for things without having to build a whole new payment infrastructure (and learning curve) around it. It is also the reason behind the larger-than-usual-by-local-startup-standards initial capital raise.

"We're a software company and a hardware company, so we have an increased capital requirement," says Thiago Olson, co-founder & CEO of Stratos.

Stratos is still working on developing its technology and Olson declined to give some details about it, such as when it's anticipated to launch and how many people work for the startup today. He did say the company is looking to hire 10 people right now and expects to keep hiring for the foreseeable future.

"We're scaling on all fronts," Olson says. "It's going to be constant hiring on all fronts."

Stratos currently works from an office building in Kerrytown that it shares with Duo Security and Reasonant Venture Partners. Duo Security, also in the midst of a hiring spree, is moving to a bigger office in downtown Ann Arbor this fall. Stratos is evaluating whether his firm will expand into the newly vacated space or elsewhere as it looks for a space that could house between 40-50 people.

"We're expanding and we're going to be moving into a new office and that's one of the places we're looking at," Olson says.

Source: Thiago Olson, co-founder & CEO of Stratos
Writer: Jon Zemke

Ka-Ching! develops new easy-to-use instruction technology

Inspiration hit Bill Crose when he was trying to come up with a better way to train hotel workers. At the time he was working as the eLearning development manager for Intercontinental Hotels Group, figuring out the best way to train housekeepers, cooks, and bartenders to do their jobs.

"Really anybody who is doing a step-by-step procedure," Crose says.

That's when the idea for Ka-Ching! popped into his head. He left his job and started working on the Rochester Hills-based startup, a client of the Macomb-OU INCubator. Ka-Ching! is developing Pythia, a training system that audibly streams step-by-step directions through a mobile-headset audio device. It comes with completion-time reports for each step and a patent-pending interface between voice response, text-to-speech, and Wi-Fi technologies to link custom databases to the device.

"Anything that is a task that you don't know how to do can be delivered to you in a step-by-step process," Crose says.

Which means it could be used by businesses and large organizations looking to train employees. It could also be used by consumers who are trying to learn how to cook with certain recipes or people at the gym following a trainer’s routine.

Ka-Ching is currently in the early stages of developing its prototype. Crose expects to work on perfecting the prototype over the next year and have it ready for commercialization in time for the 2015 holiday shopping season.

Source: Bill Crose, CEO of Ka-Ching!
Writer: Jon Zemke

Professional Pours capitalizes on beer/wine sampling in grocery stores

Every job created isn't equal. Some pay more, others require certain skills, some are full-time and others are not quite that. Professional Pours has been creating a lot of the latter sort of jobs lately.

The Oak Park-based business provides staff for the wine/beer tasting tables now found in grocery stores. The company provides the staffers with background information on the product and others like it. They work as independent contractors a few hours a week, making $15-$18 per hour.

"This is a great part-time gig for parents, retirees, and students," says Sharlan Douglas, marketing director & co-owner of Professional Pours.

The company was founded four years ago about the same time the state legislature changed the law allowing for free beer, wine and liquor sampling in off-premise (package) establishments. It started out doing these offerings in Kroger stores on weekends between 1-4 p.m. Professional Pours did 900 events in 2012. That went up to 1,100 events last year, and it’s now on track to do 1,400 events.

"Now we're seeing more events on Thursday evening or Friday afternoon," Douglas says.

A vast majority of those are in Kroger, which Douglas points out has been leading the way in pushing the law change and leveraging it to help drive up its sales of craft and high-end alcohol. That has meant more part-time hires. Professional Pours now has a staff of four co-owners and 60 independent contractors, which is six more 1099s than a year ago.

Douglas says the company finds most of its staff through Craigslist ads and referrals. She and her husband (also a co-owner) are active in local theater circles and have brought on a number of local actors to work these tables. She says they pay a higher wage for the part-time work because they need people who will serve as educators about the product and present it in the best light possible. So far the business model is catching on.

"Other retailers are doing this," Douglas says. "Kroger is expanding this into stores that hadn't done sampling before and providing more time for events."

Source: Sharlan Douglas, marketing director & co-owner of Professional Pours
Writer: Jon Zemke

OU medical student invents new surgical device utilizing Google Glass technology

A medical student's promising new technology device means surgeons will be able to keep their eyes trained on their patients.


"Florence Doo, a second-year medical student at Oakland University, has her hands full.

Not with school, although that certainly keeps her busy, but with starting and growing a medical device company that plans to use Google Glass to deliver heads-up displays to surgeons. 

The benefit? Surgeons don't have to take their eyes off their patients during procedures to look around at video screens scattered around the operating room displaying the information they need. 

Surgeons can pull up important images such as CAT scans — and even transmit images of the operation in progress for teaching purposes — all while keeping their eyes on the task at hand."

More here.

Try2See app works to better connect people, places, things

Lots of startups are trying to master the 21st Century version of customer loyalty programs. A new Ann Arbor-based startup, Try2See, thinks it has found the way to do it.

The 1-year-old startup has come out with a mobile app that utilizes QR codes and smart phones that enable customers, businesses and locations to better connect and keep track of who does what where.

"We're looking for a way to automate that process," says Barry McDonald, founder of Try2See.

The general idea from the three-person team is to enable customers to swipe in their purchases at local stores with the scan of a QR code at the establishment. That way customers don’t need to carry an extra card to scan or wait for a cashier to punch a paper card. All of it can be done with a simple QR code scan.

Try2See is working with local businesses districts in Royal Oak, Ferndale, and the Avenue of Fashion along Livernois Avenue in Detroit. So far 62 businesses are signed up and the Try2See team is working to get more businesses owners and their customers on board.

"We're trying to get the entire business district to use the system," McDonald says.

Source: Barry McDonald, founder of Try2See
Writer: Jon Zemke

U-M spinout produces revolutionary battery technology

U-M tech innovation + entrepreneurial ambition = successful startup. See, math isn't so hard.


"Produced by Sakti3, Inc., a self-proclaimed “spinout” company from the University of Michigan, the battery cell has double the energy density of a current lithium ion battery. In more specific terms, the battery produces over 1,100 Watt hours per liter (Wh/l) in volumetric energy density. Typical lithium-ion batteries produce between 250-730 Wh/l."

Read the rest here.

Hannigan Insurance consolidates offices in new Ann Arbor HQ

Hannigan Insurance is consolidating its operations into a new office in Ann Arbor, a move that is bringing a handful of new jobs to Tree Town  - with the promise to create dozens more in the next few years.

Hannigan Insurance is both a technology company and national insurance brokerage. Its web-based distribution platform provides insurance options for people who are looking for everything from automotive insurance to renters insurance. The platform also offers similar services in the financial industry. Because the company is primarily doing online work, it meant positioning itself for growth by setting up show where knowledge workers want to live and work.

"For us it’s all about attracting top talent," says Brian Hannigan, CEO of Hannigan Insurance.

Hannigan Insurance has offices in Clinton Township and Ann Arbor. It employs five at each office. It has hired four people over the last year, primarily insurance agents.

"We wanted to pick a spot," Hannigan says. "We looked at spots like Royal Oak, Birmingham, and downtown Detroit. We already had a facility in Ann Arbor and choose to consolidate there."

Hannigan Insurance is looking to go through a period of fast growth over the next few years. It’s opening an customer retention and acquisition center in Ann Arbor in November that will provide space for it grow to from 10 people to 25 before the end of the year. It currently has 15 open positions for insurance agents and software developers.

"We have a three-year plan to scale up to 75 jobs," Hannigan says. "We're going to grow rather quickly."

The Michigan Economic Development Corp is providing Hannigan Insurance with a $400,000 Michigan Business Development Program performance-based grant to execute the move. Ann Arbor SPARK also helped broker the deal.

Source: Brian Hannigan, CEO of Hannigan Insurance
Writer: Jon Zemke

Grand Circus celebrates first year in downtown Detroit

Last year, Grand Circus opened its doors in downtown Detroit to any and all interested in learning about software development. One year later, the company found hundreds of people willing to take them up on their services and has its sights set on deepening the local tech talent pool.

"Our business is developing talent for high-growth, high-demand jobs," says Damien Rocchi, CEO of Grand Circus.

Grand Circus occupies about 5,000 square feet in the Broderick Tower overlooking Grand Circus Park. Two of its three floors in the skyscraper are occupied by classroom space. The third floor is a co-working space for tech entrepreneurs.

About 500 people have leveraged Grand Circus’ variety of classes and workshops, ranging from eight-week classes in software development to boot camps on mobile app development. For instance, Grand Circus recently held an eight-week class in .NET development that wrapped up in August. Since then, more than 70 percent of the 42 people who took the class have been hired, and the job prospects of the remainder of the students are looking up.

"We're optimistic we can get the number up to 85 percent," Rocchi says.

Grand Circus has expanded its staff to 10 full-time employees, 30 instructors, and three summer interns. Rocchi believes those numbers will grow as the demand for software developers continues to go up. Rocchi declined to comment on the status of Grand Circus' revenues beyond acknowledging that the numbers are trending in the right direction.

"We're ahead of where we want to be," Rocchi says.

Source: Damien Rocchi, CEO of Grand Circus
Writer: Jon Zemke

AcuMax creates new survey to match employees & employers

Many employee assessment programs judge a subject by his/her past behavior. A new company in Dearborn, AcuMax, thinks there is a lot more to people than that.

"We don't try to predict based on past behavior or personalities," says Ed Fisher, consultant with AcuMax. "Behavior and personalities change over time."

The one-year-old company provides management tools and useful information to its customers so they can improve hiring, employee placement, and engagement. Its team of five people has developed the AcuMax Index that bases its results on a statistically valid, EEOC-compliant employee assessment that measures how an individual is naturally wired in the course of a five-minute survey. The survey measures four areas, including autonomy and idea flow; communication skills; work-style preference; and how information is processed to make decisions.

"We have an over 90-percent retention rate with our clients," Fisher says.

He says that nearly 70 companies are using the AcuMax Index now, including Wayne State University and Liberty Title Co.

"We're excited about our growth rate," Fisher says. "We're at about 50 percent a year, and I don't see why it would decline."

Source: Ed Fisher, consultant with AcuMax
Writer: Jon Zemke

UHY plans to open 25-person office in Chrysler House

Accounting company UHY is opening another Metro Detroit office in downtown Detroit, a move that will bring 25 new jobs to the city’s central business district.

The CPA firm provides a variety of accounting services for businesses, ranging from tax consulting to forensic auditing. Some of its clients include the likes of downtown Detroit-based Strategic Staffing Solutions. UHY has offices in Macomb and Oakland counties that employ more than 300 people.

UHY will move 25 of those employees to the new office in the Chrysler House near Campus Martius. The company will occupy the sixth floor of the 23-story building, occupying 4,000 square feet. It plans to execute the move in November.

"We've always wanted to make the move downtown and figured now is as good of a time than ever," Krystina Borrocci, director of marketing for UHY, wrote in an email. "There's lots of momentum, and a lot of movement both in the city and into the city. We have a significant client base there, as well as ties to the local community."

Rock Ventures, part of the Quicken Loans family of companies owned by Dan Gilbert, bought the Dime Building in 2011 and renamed it the Chrysler House. It has since renovated the structure and created space for a number of new businesses. That work was a primary reason why UHY decided to open downtown.

"One of the reasons we wanted to be in a Gilbert building was so that we could grow out of it before the lease is up, and continue to take more space in Chrysler House or in one of his other buildings," Borrocci wrote in an email.

Source: Krystina Borrocci, director of marketing for UHY
Writer: Jon Zemke

Computing Source hires 120, moves to bigger office

Computing Source is growing so fast the firm’s founder is having a hard time describing it. He knows it has grown by a multiple of six over the last 18 months, but can't figure out how to express it succinctly.

He can tell you the company has hired 120 people since early last year, and it now employs a staff of 140. That prompted it to move from a 9,000-square-foot office in Southfield to a just under 40,000-square-foot space in Madison Heights this week.

"We were squished," says Mark St. Peter, managing director & CEO of Computing Source.

Computing Source specializes in offering all-in-one digital evidence solutions for legal professionals. It can provide electronic discovery, computer forensics, copy/scan/print services, hosted document review, contract attorney staffing, expert testimony, trial technology services, demonstrative evidence and trial boards, and paralegal on-call support.

"It's less hassle and more cost-effective to have it under one roof," St. Peter says. "We can't think of anyone else who is doing what we do as effectively under one roof."

The recent hires include electronic evidence techs, forensic examiners, trial presentation professionals, attorneys, and court reporters. The company has a number of open positions right now, so many that St. Peter can’t put his finger on the exact number.

"If you're a nerd, please call us," St. Peter says.

Computing Source just finished opening an office in Indianapolis to go with its offices in Chicago and Metro Detroit. St. Peter is considering keeping the former Southfield headquarters as a satellite office. He expects to open more offices across the Midwest over the next three years.

"Cleveland is next," St. Peter says. "Then Milwaukee and Pittsburgh."

Source: Mark St. Peter, managing director & CEO of Computing Source
Writer: Jon Zemke
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