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Slingshot Cloud Services opens data center in Royal Oak

IT company Slingshot Cloud Services is opening in Royal Oak this month with two guiding principals: simplicity and affordability.

"We offer (IT) infrastructure as a service," says Vincent Barrett, CEO of Birmingham Capital. "We believe IT doesn’t have to be hard."

Birmingham Capital is launching Slingshot Cloud Services after buying the cloud-computing assets from Munger Capital. Those assets are now part of its newly re-launched class-3 data center in Royal Oak where about a dozen people work on any given day.

"It's probably one of the top five nicest data centers in Oakland County," Barrett says. "We have a group of the best engineers helping us out here."

Slingshot Cloud Services offers private or hybrid cloud software solutions to growing businesses, specifically targeting companies in the manufacturing, financial, and healthcare sectors. Barrett is optimistic about hitting its goal of generating more than $1 million in revenue in its first year because it acquired the cloud-computing infrastructure so cheaply that it can undercut its competitors prices significantly.

"Every dollar we make is profit," Barrett says. "There is nobody’s price I can't beat."

Source: Vincent Barrett, CEO of Birmingham Capital
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Why we need to keep building Accelerate Michigan into an economic game changer

I went to the sixth annual Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition last week and couldn't help but think of one name, Rick Weddle.

For seven years, Rick Weddle served as the CEO of Research Triangle Park, one of world's most envied tech centers based near North Carolina’s major research universities. He gave a speech in TechTown in 2008, midway through his stint at Research Triangle Park. At the time, Michigan was in the midst of a decade-long economic malaise, and while the Great Recession hadn’t arrived yet, many people knew something big was coming.

At the time, many local leaders were interested replicating Research Triangle Park's new economy success here. The tech hub is the base of North Carolina’s new economy, creating thousands of jobs by leveraging the work of the state’s three research universities. Why couldn't Michigan do the same with the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University? Weddle believed it was possible, but we would have to work at it consistently for many years, decades even. He loved to point out that Research Triangle Park was an overnight success in the works since the 1950s.

"The real question is, 'Are you trying to just make an impact or are you trying to change the game?'" Weddle said in a Q&A after his Detroit speech. "Game changing strategies are probably a decade long."

He added, "What helped us is that private leadership said we're going to do the right thing even if it takes longer. If we had been driven solely by a governor or political leadership it would have zigged and zagged. Our game plan was steady at the helm. It was, 'OK, this is the right thing to do.' It's like eating oatmeal. You're going to do it. It's going to take a while but it’s going to show that it was a good idea. And they stuck to that."

Accelerate Michigan is major part of Michigan's new economy diet. The largest business plan competition in the state awards $1 million in prizes to promising startups each year with a $500,000 top prize. It draws the who’s who of Michigan’s top startups, investors, impact entrepreneurs, and the people who aspire to those positions here.

The New Economy Initiative and Metro Detroit's tech accelerators (TechTown, Ann Arbor SPARK, Macomb OU-INCubator, and Automation Alley) have funded Accelerate Michigan since its launch in 2010. The idea then is the same as it was now: providing the seed capital and resources to grow Michigan's new economy faster and more efficiently.

"We're living in a world where average isn’t an option anymore," William Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company, said during his keynote at this year’s Accelerate Michigan, describing how hyper competition is the rule of thumb in the 21st century economy.

This year's Accelerate Michigan in downtown Detroit was peppered with reminders of its quest to secure new funding for future competitions. From my point of view, after watching each and every one of these competition unfold, Accelerate Michigan is well worth the money.

Four years ago I traveled to Silicon Valley to cover a similar tech business plan competition called Founders Showcase. At the time I could tell it represented many of the things Michigan wanted its new economy to become: flashier, dominated by young people, and possessing a swagger befitting that region's place high atop the new economy totem pole.

I also noticed that what Accelerate Michigan's startups lacked in flash they more than made up for in substance. The 2011 winner of Accelerate Michigan, DeNovo Sciences, closed on a $2 million Series A last year. LLamasoft, which won one of the sub-category prizes, scored a $50 million investment from Goldman Sachs this year and now employs hundreds of people in downtown Ann Arbor. Most of the startups from the Founders Showcase circa-November 2011 competition aren't in business today. Last week Accelerate Michigan paraded its past winners on stage for a panel discussion to talk about how they have successfully raised millions in venture capital and built scalable businesses.

"I want people to understand that this is the big leagues," Lauren Bigelow, executive director of Accelerate Michigan, said in 2011. Not much has changed since then. Accelerate Michigan has established itself as one of the biggest and best business plan competitions for startups in the Midwest.

It took half a decade to build up Accelerate Michigan to this point. Michigan's economic leaders would be wise to heed the advice from Research Triangle Park's Weddle and keep building Accelerate into a game changing force over the next decade or two.

Disclaimer: Issue Media Group, Metromode's parent company, receives financial support from the New Economy Initiative.

Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Detroit Trading Co. turns car buying into one-stop shopping

Detroit Trading Co. has made its way by simplifying the process of buying a car with technology. Now the Southfield-based business is looking to do so in a more traditional way by creating one-stop shopping.

"We're looking for ways to turn the car-shopping process on its head and make it fun at the same time," says Matt Clayson, vice president and general counsel for the Detroit Trading Co.

The 10-year-old company got its start creating technology platforms that gathered, analyzed, and organized Internet sales leads for car dealers. It sold them on an exchange to automotive dealerships. Now it's looking to bring auto buyers a more real-life experience.

Detroit Trading Co. is building out what it calls an experiential center. Essentially that means a showroom that features a variety of vehicle brands. Today auto buyers have to travel to different dealerships to see different brands of cars. Detroit Trading Co leverages its connections in the auto dealership world to bring all of those brands under one roof.

"You can see Chevy, Ford, Honda, and Mazda in the same area," Clayson says. "You can see what works best for you."

So customers can try out a variety of SUVs from different brands without going to multiple dealerships. If they find one they want to buy they are referred to a participating automotive dealership.

"The dealership is still the final destination," Clayson says.

Detroit Trading Co. employs 47 people between its Southfield headquarters and its new office in downtown Detroit. It has hired 20 people over the last year, mainly to staff its call center. It is also looking to hire seven more people in data analytics and digital strategies.

Source: Matt Clayson, vice president & general counsel for the Detroit Trading Co
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Royal Oak tech firm Ambassador triples staff after raising $2.35 million

Jeff Epstein likes to call 2015 the "Year of Scale" when he's talking about the growth of his startup, Ambassador.

The tech entrepreneur can make a good argument for it. Ambassador landed a $2.35-million seed capital round last spring, moved to a bigger office in downtown Royal Oak, and has tripled its staff in less than a year.

"We had four people in the office interviewing today," says Epstein, founder & CEO of Ambassador.

Ambassador builds custom online referral campaigns that offer rewards to users who spread good word of mouth about companies. Ambassador’s software as a service platform automates enrolling, tracking, managing, and rewarding referrals. Some of its brands include PayPal, Spotify and T-Mobile.

The 5-year-old company was part of the Techstars New York accelerator program in 2011, raising a large convertible note from investors like Ludlow Ventures. Ambassador closed on a $2.35-million Series A in March. The round was led by Arthur Ventures with other early investors like Ludlow Ventures participating.

That money went toward expanding Ambassador’s operations. It moved to a larger, 11,000-square-foot office in downtown Royal Oak and grew from 13 employees at the end of last year to 37 today and climbing. Epstein expects this major investment will allow the company to continue to be cash-flow positive while expanding its revenue.

"We're going to more than triple this year," Epstein says. "We will at least double next year."

Source: Jeff Epstein, founder & CEO of Ambassador
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

PawnGuru brings pawnshop business model into 21st Century

Many people see pawnshops as something that should be avoided. The guys behind PawnGuru see them as a big opportunity in the new economy.

"We knew there weren’t a lot of startups tackling the problem pawnshops face," says Jordan Birnholtz, director of marketing for PawnGuru.

The Southfield-based startup specializes in bringing pawn shops into the 21st century by digitizing their business model. Specifically, the company brings customer engagement for pawnshops online.

"We believed we could get shops to engage customers and make offers online," Birnholtz says.

That turned out to be much easier said than done. When the PawnGuru team started approaching pawnbrokers with the idea of online engagement a little more than a year ago, the nearly all said no. They wouldn't make an offer on an item over the phone, or via email with photos. It had to be in the store.

PawnGuru's team kept asking. Eventually they found a pawnshop willing to buck tradition and try PawnGuru's new platform. Today it has serviced 15,000 people, helping them choose between multiple offers from pawnshops.

"Mostly in Detroit, Houston, Chicago and Atlanta," Birnholtz says. "More than 1,000 pawnshops have signed up and more than 100 are very active."

PawnGuru's team of six people plans to continue growing across North American in 2016. It has landed a $600,000 convertible note earlier this year to help make that growth happen, including attracting seed capital from Invest Detroit.

"We're raising a $1.5 to $2 million seed round right now to grow more," Birnholtz says.

Source: Jordan Birnholtz, director of marketing for PawnGuru
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Siren PR expands but doesn’t want to outgrow kitchen table

Many businesses start with an idea and a small group of people working around a kitchen table. Siren PR has passed that stage, but it doesn't plan to ever leave the kitchen table behind.

The boutique public relations firm is technically based in Grosse Pointe, but it's real home is on the laptops of its four-person team across metro Detroit. And even though the 4-year-old company is clocking double-digit revenue gains with a bevy of new clients, Siren PR's leadership wants to keep the firm virtually based.

"The flexibility and autonomy motivates us to do the best work in the time we have," says Adela Piper, co-founder of Siren PR.

Siren PR has grown its revenue by 20 percent over the last year, allowing it to hire an account executive in that time. The company has attracted a number of new clients in the last year, including Rochester College, Pontiac Academy of Excellence, Stardock, and Cranbrook. It has also kept its original clients, such as OLSHA and Community Choice Credit Union.

All of the public relations work for those organizations is done from the homes of the Siren PR team. The team facetimes at least once a week and holds regular meetings in the region, but the heart of the company is still based from its team's kitchen tables.

"It all boils down to having the motivation and discipline to do the best work we can for our clients," Piper says.

Source: Adela Piper, co-founder of Siren PR
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Slow Jams doubles production with move to Hopeful Harvest

Slow Jams isn't getting just a little help from its friends. The slow food startup is doubling its production thanks in large part to the help of a number of friendly entrepreneurial resources across metro Detroit.

The craft food maker has doubled the production of its jams over the last year by working with local institutions like Eastern Market Corp. and FoodLab Detroit. The biggest boost has come from moving to Forgotten Harvest’s food company incubator, Hopeful Harvest, in Oak Park.

"They are making it possible for small businesses like Slow Jams to grow our customer base and keep expanding," says Shannon Bryne, owner of Slow Jams.

Hopeful Harvest provides small food-based businesses with a wide variety of resources and services, such as full-service processing, manufacturing, and packaging. The commercial kitchen is a big plus for Slow Jams production efforts as it moves further and further into bulk production for larger customers, such as restaurants. Today it produces 500 cases of jams a month, double its production from a year ago.

"It provides the production capacity we need," Bryne says. "It's 10 times the size of our old space."

Slow Jams and its staff of six employees and the occasional summer intern from Detroit Food Academy also started working with a distributor from Chicago earlier this year. That relationship opened up new markets in the Windy City, northern Indiana, and west Michigan. Slow Jams is now focusing on fleshing out its sales in those areas along with the rest of Michigan to consolidate its recent gains.

"That takes some time," Bryne says. "It's what we're focused on right now."

Source: Shannon Bryne, owner of Slow Jams
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Stardock, a leader in the PC games industry, is on a hiring spree

Some video game companies are starting to pull out of the personal computer market. Stardock is running toward it as fast as it can.

The Plymouth-based video game firm develops PC games and desktop software. It has established itself as a leader in the industry since its founding in 1991.
"Stardock is investing more in these PC games," says Chris Kowal, vice president of business development for Stardock. "There are lots and lots of gamers in the PC world."

The company has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. It has hired 40 people in the last three years, expanding its staff to 100 people. Half of those work in Plymouth with the rest in offices in Baltimore and Austin. The growth prompted Stardock to move to a new headquarters in Plymouth last year.

Stardock has produced some applauded games over the years. Some of those include Sins of a Solar Empire, the Galactic Civilizations series, and Sorcerer King. Stardock is also gearing up to release Ashes of the Singularity early next year. The company is marketing Ashes of the Singularity as the most advanced real-time strategy game ever. The game consists of a future-based dystopia with warring factions. Players are generals of armies working to win battles.

"It's like nothing else that has been done in PCs before," Kowal says.

Source: Chris Kowal, vice president of business development for Stardock
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Troy-based tech startup brings hunter education into 21st century

Jim Moore was working for Remington Arms when he noticed a gap in the hunter education market. That'w when he decided to start his own business, a tech startup called Hunter Ed Course.

The Troy-based company provides state-required hunter education through online courses. The courses enable people to purchase hunting and fishing licenses with a few key strokes from the comfort of their own home.

"It is a good chance to bring change and disruption to the hunter education market," Moore says. "That hasn’t happened since hunter education’s inception in the 1940s."

For decades if you wanted to buy a hunting license, you needed to sit through a couple hours or hunting classes that teach everything from safety to how to field dress game. Users can purchase hunter education online courses through Hunter Ed Course for as little as $13.

Moore has been working on the company for the last three years. It now employs six people after recently hiring a marketing person. The company is in 20 states right now, up from 14 last year, and looking to continue expanding its geographic footprint in hunter-friendly states for the rest of 2015 and 2016.

"We have a strong Midwestern presence with Wisconsin and Michigan," Moore says. "We are probably strongest in the southeastern states."

Source: Jim Moore, president of Hunter Ed Course
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Delphinus Medical Technologies scores $39.5M in Series C funding

Delphinus Medical Technologies has landed a $39.5 million Series C funding round, the largest ever for a medical device startup in Michigan.

The Plymouth-based, breast-cancer detection startup has been growing quickly since it spun out of Wayne State University in 2010. It has hired 10 people over the last year, expanding its staff to 40 people.

"We're adding people pretty rapidly," says Mark Forchette, president & CEO of Delphinus Medical Technologies. "Soon we will be at 50-55 people."

Delphinus Medical Technologies principal technology is SoftVue, a whole breast ultrasound system that allows physicians to image the entire breast, including the chest wall. SoftVue incorporates a circular ultrasound transducer, presenting cross-sectional ultrasound slices through the entire volume of breast tissue. The multi-dimensional imaging captures not only reflected echoes in a 360-degree array, but also signals passing through the breast, depicting tissue characterization.

The expectation is the technology will do a number of things to help improve the detecting breast cancer process. Patients no longer have to go through a compression or other uncomfortable moments when using SoftVue. The platform is also expected to help doctors find breast cancer with more accuracy and eliminate more false positives.

"We will have the ability to help so many more women when they go in for a screening," Forchette says.

The $39.5 million Series C round was led by Farmington Hills-based Beringea. Other local investors include Ann Arbor-based Arboretum Ventures and North Coast Technology Investors. Venture Investors, Hopen Life Science Ventures, and Waycross Ventures also participated in the Series C.

Delphinus Medical Technologies will use the money to further the commercialization of SoftVue with a plan for launching it next year and doing a harder push in 2017.

It is planning to launch a large multi-site clinical study to support a PMA application for a supplemental screening indication for women with dense breasts later this year. Delphinus Medical Technologies will begin by prospectively imaging 10,000 women with SoftVue in eight centers across the country. The study will compare SoftVue to digital mammography, and demonstrate its effectiveness in finding cancers that are not seen with mammography, while reducing false positives, thereby reducing the need for follow-up testing

Source: Mark Forchette, president & CEO of Delphinus Medical Technologies
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

School for tween and teen entrepreneurs opens locations in Wixom, Troy

Kidpreneur, the entrepreneurial education company for tweens and teens, is in the process of opening two new locations in Wixom and Troy.

The Wixom-based startup is opening its second location in Troy this month, a move that should help double its enrollment. The 1-year-old company helps teens learn the basics of starting a business and other new economy skills, such as software development.

"We want them to be able to compete for an internship with college students," says Thanh Tran, founder of Kidpreneur. "We also want them to be able to build with these skills. We want to them to take this education and do something with it."

Kidpreneur got its start in Northville a little more than year ago. It also opened a temporary location in downtown Detroit before settling down in Wixom. It now teaches classes on digital arts, coding, robotics, and video game design. It averages six kids per class and teaches about 75 kids per month.

"We shrunk the class size because we wanted to get more kids more personal time," Tran says.

He expects the number of teens and tweens leveraging his course to double over the next year as the second location in Troy gains traction.

"We have a model that works very well," Tran says.

Source: Thanh Tran, founder of Kidpreneur
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Billhighway focuses on employee career development to fuel growth

Billhighway is a tech company that knows it can't just hire its way to a steeper growth curve. It has to look inside, too.

The Troy-based firm, which provides software for member-based associations and nonprofits, is hiring, but not with just an eye for putting bodies behind desks. It's looking to find people who can grow their careers along with the company.

"We focus on career development for our entire organization," says Brenda Gallick, director of team member services for Billhighway. "It's a tough market out there, and we want to be engaged."

Billhighway got its start in 1999, providing software that helped people divvy up expenses, such as dues or dinner costs. Today it specializes in cloud-based automation software for nonprofits and other similar organizations. That software platform integrates payment processing, banking, and accounting with existing systems and provides a transparent, holistic view of an organization’s finances so it can work more efficiently.

Over the years, Billhighway has added more and more staff, and it is consistently hiring people today. Gallick says that the company's team now numbers in the "high double digits" and is growing. Billhighway now utilizes an employee career development program with a goal of promoting from within. Often people who are hired as a member of the client care team end up working in other areas of the business. Over the last year, five people working in client care transitioned to other parts of the business after receiving technical training and other opportunities to grow their skill set.

"When we recruit people we look for people with skill sets who would fit in other areas," Gallick says.

Software developers have become a hot commodity in today’s economy, a reality Billhighway is acknowledging by hiring more young developers fresh out of college or a few years removed. The hope is as these employees grow professionally they will help grow the company in a number of ways.

"As we bring in new talent we provide them with training and opportunities to grow into other parts of the business," Gallick says. "We want them to bring fresh perspective and ideas."

Source: Brenda Gallick, director of team member services for Billhighway
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Community Choice Credit Union executes second merger of year

Community Choice Credit Union has executed its second merger in four months, expanding its reach even farther across metro Detroit.

The Farmington Hills-based credit union absorbed the Eastside Family Federal Credit Union earlier this month. Community Choice Credit Union merged with NuPath Community Credit Union last April. All three of the newly merged entities will go forward as Community Choice Credit Union, but the credit union is working to retain all of the existing employees from the merger and maintain the familiarity of the old credit union.

"We want people to walk into the Eastside Family Federal Credit Union and see the same people that worked there before," says Dan Munro, executive vice president & COO of Community Choice Credit Union.

Eastside Family Federal Credit Union is a small credit union based in Eastpointe. It has $30 million in assets and 3,100 members across a couple of branches. The addition means Community Choice Credit Union now has 13 branches and 67,000 members. NuPath Community Credit Union brought in 11,500 members and $100 million in assets. Community Choice Credit Union now has 250 employees after hiring 55 people in the last year.

These mergers follow a recent trend of smaller credit unions merging with larger ones in the wake of the Great Recession. Many of those credit unions tapped their cash reserves to ride out the economic downturn and were left depleted of resources in a newly competitive banking environment.

"They will draw that capitol down as they try to compete in a very competitive financial services industry," Munro says.

Those that can’t compete have to choose between folding or merging with a larger credit union. Fast-growing credit unions like Community Choice Credit Union end up as desirable targets for a merger.

Source: Dan Munro, executive vice president & COO of Community Choice Credit Union
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Passion for tech, manufacturing drives DELRAY Systems' success

Joe Rocca's career in automotive manufacturing started in the early 1980s, and it didn't take him long to combine his passion for technology with his work.

Most recently, Rocca was doing so at Fisher/Unitech. Today, however, he's launched his own firm, DELRAY Systems. The Rochester-based firm focuses on incorporating the latest in technology with manufacturing processes to create efficiencies.

"I want to make an impact on the industry and then turn it over to some folks who have the same passion," Rocca says.

The 1-year-old firm works to integrate process improvement solutions for automating manufacturing, utilizing techniques like reverse engineering and product development processes. This includes 3D printing, 3D scanning, and 3D modeling solutions.
"We want to provide the technology that will help automate manufacturing," Rocca says.

DELRAY Systems recently opened a training and technology center at Oakland University. The firm recently struck a partnership with ANSYS, a company traded on the NASDAQ. DELRAY Systems will sell its software, ANSYS SpaceClaim, to 3D printer users in the Midwest.

Source: Joe Rocca, president of DELRAY Systems
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Gerry Weinberg & Associates consolidates growing staff into larger office

Gerry Weinberg & Associates is consolidating its home office in Southfield, going from two suites in the office building at 29201 Telegraph Rd. to one larger one.

"Now we are all in one suite," says Alana Nicol, president of Gerry Weinberg & Associates. "It's a much better layout for our offices."

Gerry Weinberg & Associates, a Sandler Training Business company, provides executive sales, management, and leadership training. The 22-year-old firm employs a staff of five an intern. It is looking to hire a sales associate right now.

The company moved to the larger office because it offered a better layout without making a major move to a new home. It was also a time to refresh its surroundings by investing in its home environment.

"We are positioned for growth over the next few years," Nicol says. "Sometimes you need to make investments like this to make it work."

The company hopes to add to its growth curve over the next few years, expanding its bottom line and adding staff.

"I would like to see us grow 15 percent over the next two years," Nicol says.

Source: Alana Nicol, president of Gerry Weinberg & Associates
Writer: Jon Zemke

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