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GreenPath credit-counseling organization hires 55 in Michigan

GreenPath is expanding by opening up new credit-counseling offices across the U.S.

The Farmington Hills-based non-profit has opened five offices over the last year, including new offices in Escanaba and Canton. It now has 60 offices across 12 states.

"Our primary growth has been opening up the new offices," says Kurt Murphy, CFO of GreenPath.

The 53-year-old non-profit has been helping people regain control of their finances through counseling and strategic planning. That means helping clients avoid foreclosure or repairing their credit scores.

GreenPath has grown to the point where it employs 470 people. A majority of them are based in Michigan (385) with 310 employees at the organization’s Farmington Hills headquarters. It has hired 65 people over the last year, including 55 in Michigan. Those jobs ranged from IT professionals to customer service reps.

GreenPath's revenue growth has been flat over the last year. Murphy attributes that to the growing economy and how hard American consumers were hit at the last recession.

"People got hit pretty hard," Murphy says. "It makes you a bit more careful before you pull that credit card out."

Source: Kurt Murphy, CFO of GreenPath
Writer: Jon Zemke

Guidesmob grows as its app introducing students to college towns takes off

Guidesmob, a startup product from Bizdom, is gearing up to release the second generation of its higher-education guide app, and it's looking to take over the Big Ten with it.

The downtown Detroit-based firm’s mobile app helps students discover and learn more about their new college towns. Daniel Kerbel, CEO of Guidesmob, started working on the app after going to Michigan State University as an international student from Costa Rica.

Guidesmob launched the Spartan App for Michigan State University in 2012. It has been downloaded 27,000 times since. The company is now looking to release a new version of that app for Michigan State University, along with Central Michigan University and the University of Michigan later this year.

"We're getting ready to launch a new platform," Kerbel says "Basically a Spartan App 2.0."

Kerbel and his two co-founders went to Michigan State and Central Michigan universities. They choose to focus on those schools (and U-M) because of the number of connections they have built there over the years and because many of those students co-mingle. It’s a big reason why Guidesmob is going to target Big Ten and MAC schools for expansion first.

"The approach is to take over conferences of universities," Kerbel says.

Guidesmob is in the process of hiring two people right now. It's also working to raise a seed capital round to finance its expansion and to build out its team. The company hopes to raise a Series A of $750,000 to $1 million by next spring.

Source: Daniel Kerbel, CEO of Guidesmob
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

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

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

U-M Tech Transfer accelerates invention production

The University of Michigan has set another round of records this year when it comes to inventions and innovations.

The university's Office of Technology Transfer reported 439 new inventions for the last fiscal year, which us up from 421 the previous year. U-M also recorded 148 option and license agreements (up from 108 a year ago) and launched 14 startups.

"It has been a steady (upward) trend for the last five years," says Ken Nisbet, associate vice president for research and tech transfer at the University of Michigan.

Now each invention doesn't equate a new startup. Oftentimes a startup developing a new technology platform will be based on a handful of patents. Nisbet estimates that about 25 percent of new inventions are robust enough to become their own startups.

"These inventions are a whole range of ideas," Nisbet says. "It could be a platform technology that is big and broad or a smaller piece of technology that a company can enhance."

He adds that each newly created startup spun out of the university requires much more complex technology than say a software developer coming up with a new mobile app. Because of the complexity of it means that more than a dozen new startups launched each year puts U-M toward the more prolific end of research university technology transfer programs. For instance, MIT normally leads the way and it routinely notches about 20 new startup launches each year.

"Fourteen is a pretty robust number when you consider the type of startup it is," Nisbet says.

The University of Michigan has 22 startups currently housed in its Venture Accelerator on the North Campus Research Complex. Each of those startups employs a couple of people. For instance, Exo Dynamics is a U-M spinout that is developing a back brace for the 21st Century. It currently has a team of five people working on the venture.

Check out a video promoting U-M’s Tech Transfer program here.

Source: Ken Nisbet, associate vice president for research and tech transfer at the University of Michigan
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Warmilu finds economic soft spot with warming blankets for seniors

The team at Warmilu has discovered that nothing is as easy as it seems, especially when you're trying to create a new product from scratch.

The downtown Ann Arbor-based startup has been working to bring its warming blanket technology to market for the last year but has run into snags along the way, such as getting labeling and packaging right. However, the 3-year-old company is still looking to launch sales of its blanket later this fall, perhaps as soon as November.

"That's our goal, but we know it’s an ambitious goal," says Grace Hsia, CEO of Warmilu.

Warmilu represents its blanket as a non-electric heating wrap that acts instantly, is reusable, and microwave safe. Hsia and her two co-founders (all University of Michigan graduate students) developed the blanket with the idea of keeping newborns warm. It has since grown the idea to include using it for the elderly and people dealing with pain or soreness from ailments like arthritis.

"There is a robust home-heat-care market," Hsia says. "It's mainly men and women over the age of 50."

Warmilu and its team of five people (it recently hired a marketing and creative director) are hoping to use the revenues from its initial sales to help fund the further development of the blanket for neonatal care. The startup is also working to raise a seed capital round of $250,000 to fund the development of the technology, but Hsia and her partners would prefer to continue bootstrapping the venture by growing its sales beyond Michigan.

"We want to reach out and build that Warmilu presence not only in Ann Arbor but globally," Hsia says. "We would like to self-finance our growth."

Source: Grace Hsia, CEO of Warmilu
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Expetec grows for 5th straight year, adds data-sharing product

Expetec is growing the old fashioned way, through improved services to its customers and client recommendations.

The Rochester Hills-based IT company has been hiring more staff, including a position in network administration support work, and is in the process of hiring a sales person. It now has 10 employees, with an eye for adding more at its current pace of expansion.

"We're on pace to grow for the fifth straight year at 20 percent," says Michael St. John, vice president of marketing and sales for Expetec. "We have been adding new clients and looking into new products in the market place."

Expetec offers network-managed services, telecommunication systems, servers, firewalls, computers, and a 24/7 help desk. It recently added a new product called E-Lockr. Think of it as a more secure version of Dropbox that enables businesses to share and sync important data anywhere on any device with continuous, real-time backup and comprehensive usage reports. More importantly, St. John believes it’s a more secure option than rival products.

"It allows us to control what's going on with our clients in regards to the user," St. John says, adding their clients can determine who can see what documents, when, and for how long with E-Lockr.

St. John is optimistic that Expetec's current growth streak will continue, and not just because the economy is picking up speed.

"We have been consistently getting a lot of referrals from our clients," St. John says. "They trust us and the work we do."

Source: Michael St. John, vice president of marketing & sales for Expetec
Writer: Jon Zemke

Steeped-in-Detroit Eli Tea expands with tea bar in Birmingham

After a year of planting the seeds for a Detroit-based tea company that could lead Detroit -- and America -- to carve out its own distinctive tea culture, the founder of Eli Tea is opening the start-up's first tea bar in downtown Birmingham.

The 25-year-old company founder, Elias Majid, started Eli Tea with the help of a grant and advice from Wayne State University's Blackstone Launchpad. Eli Tea incubated and grew from Eastern Market Corp.'s Detroit Kitchen Connect, which pairs food start-ups with commercial kitchen space.

"I wanted to open up my own store to further the tea culture," he says. "Detroit is behind on the tea trend. There are tea shops on eery corner in Chicago, D.C., Boston.

"It's a good market to be in for me…It attracts a health-conscious crowd, cultural creatives and everyone who wants something that's good for you and tastes good too."

The company philosophy is based on selling only natural teas, blended on site and never using syrups or artificial flavors.

During his start-up phase, Eli Teas moved into 20 metro Detroit shops and restaurants while Majid scouted a location of what he hopes will be the first of many Eli Tea's tea bars.

Majid picked a former Cold Stone Creamery on Woodward Avenue in downtown Birmingham for the first location and he expects to be fully open by Nov. 1.

"My competitors try to make English tea rooms or Chinese tea rooms," he says. "I really want to make an American tea room. I don't think that's been done yet."

He is transforming the 1000-square-foot space at 108 S. Old Woodward into a "sophisticated tea bar with an homage to Michigan, but without trying too hard," he says.

There will be a countertop made of pennies, a birch-tree stenciled wall, carved copper ceiling tiles and a tea wall featuring containers of loose leaf teas. The new store goes hand in hand with an overall expansion of Eli Tea products from 30 to 80.

"I'm trying to move past the doily culture," he says. "I want to see education, interaction with customers, and see people appreciating and loving tea the way I do."

Owning a tea company, "is no one's dream as a kid," he says, but he realized while studying and working with plants in a lab that a career in something like tea "was a way for me to interface with the public about plants and health…I'm going from laboratory to retail, and I'm able to give that unique point of view to the customers."

Source: Elias Majid, founder, Eli Tea
Writer: Kim North Shine

Coherix growth continues on strength of global work

Talk to Dwight Carlson about manufacturing for any length of time and he will tell you about how it has become a global venture. The founder & CEO of Coherix, which makes software for advanced manufacturing, knows because so much of the revenue for his Ann Arbor-based business comes from well-outside of its hometown's borders.

"We are truly global," Carlson says. "More than 75 percent of our advanced manufacturing technology is shipped outside of the U.S., and that is only going to increase."

Coherix's principal technology provides high-speed, high-definition 3D measurement and inspection services to manufacturers. The software is designed to streamline a manufacturer’s production capability by finding efficiencies through high-tech, optical-based measurement and inspection of the manufacturers assembly processes.

The 10-year-old company has operations in China and Japan. It also has subsidiaries in Singapore and Europe, all of which have consistently grown in recent years.

"Europe is starting to take off with sales to Opel and Ford," Carlson says.

Coherix has hired five people in the U.S. over the last year. It currently has a staff of 40 employees and the occasional intern in Ann Arbor. To Carlson, there is no better place to do the white collar side of the business.

"It's an excellent place to do high-tech R&D," Carlson says. "There is a reason why Toyota has $100 million invested in R&D here."

Source: Dwight Carlson, founder, chairman & CEO of Coherix
Writer: Jon Zemke

Social media startup Social2Step gears up for national stage

Social2Step is starting to land clients locally and across the U.S.

The downtown Detroit-based social media startup recently completed a pilot with Quicken Loans and has a longstanding relationship with a Lake Tahoe-based concert promotion company.

"They're using my platform to get the word out on social media when an act comes into Lake Tahoe," says Susan Burke, founder & CEO of Social2Step. "They have been a fun client."

Burke launched Social2Step early last year when she joined Bizdom. Her startup empowers employees to become ambassadors for their company's products online. The hope is that more sales makes a healthier business and in turn makes the jobs of the employees advocating for the products and services more secure.

Social2Step and its team of three people is currently closing in on $50,000 in annual revenue for this year. Next year Burke hopes to hit $150,000 as she works to grow the company's customer base.

"We're in client acquisition mode," Burke says.

Source: Susan Burke, founder & CEO of Social2Step
Writer: Jon Zemke

Beezy's Cafe to expand downtown Ypsilanti operations into dinnertime

People just can't get enough of Beezy's Cafe in downtown Ypsilanti. The nearly six-year-old restaurant has both customers who want access to their meals a later hours, and employees looking for a new challenge. To accommodate both, owner Bee Roll has decided to expand her hours on Fridays and Saturdays and add a dinner menu. 

"The Beezy's focus of simple, honest food remains the cornerstone of the menu philosophy," says Roll. "Big bonus for a lot of folks will be the ability to get breakfast for dinner too. We currently only serve breakfast entrees until 2 pm daily. On Friday and Saturday, breakfast will be nonstop. Late risers, rejoice!"

For those without a hankering for breakfast at dinnertime, the new hours will include such hearty dinner dishes as pot pies, tuna noodle casserole and lasagna. Despite new hours and new foods, however, the cafe will remain the same physically, retaining its cozy, eclectic seating arrangement and self-service areas. 

"It's intentionally designed for people to literally bump into each and promote interaction and conversation, community," Roll says. 

There are more growth opportunities for Beezy's on the horizon as well. Roll hopes to soon launch a "plate club," in which customers would have their own vintage plate that lives at the restaurant, and she also plans to expand both her catering services and retail offerings. 

Source: Bee Roll, Beezy's Cafe
Writer: Natalie Burg

U-M student-led VCs look for a few good startup investments

Opportunities for finding seed capital for local startups are anything but in short supply this fall. A broad range of financial sources are looking to invest tens of thousands of dollars in promising ventures, such as the University of Michigan’s Social Venture Fund and the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition.

Three student-led venture capital funds at the University of Michigan are putting out calls for applications. The VCs are looking to sink $50,000 to $100,000 per investment, and they are looking for a broad range of startups to evaluate.

"We invest in 1-2 companies per year," says Joanna Herrmann, director of investments for the University of Michigan’s Social Venture Fund. "Last year we invested in two companies."

The other two student-led funds (the Wolverine Venture Fund and the Zell Lurie Commercialization Fund) are looking to make investments of similar sizes in a wide variety of ventures.

This is the fifth year for the university's Social Venture Fund. It has made five investments in that time, including an investment in downtown Detroit-based software mapping startup Loveland Technologies, which has hired three people in recent months. The Social Venture Fund looks for companies that are for-profit and aim to make a social or environmental impact.

"We try to cast a really wide net," Herrmann says.

Bigger money is at stake at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition this fall. The annual business plan competition offers prizes that are often worth $10,000 or more. Top prize is $500,000. Startups from Washtenaw County, and the U-M specifically, have historically fared quite well, often taking the top spot and walking away with six figures in seed capital. For information this year’s Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition click here.

Source: Joanna Herrmann, director of investments for the University of Michigan’s Social Venture Fund
Writer: Jon Zemke

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