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Local startups score at Social Entrepreneurship Challenge

Sixty thousand dollars in prizes went to nearly a dozen socially entrepreneurial startups competing in the Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. Most of that money went to companies and entrepreneurs from Metro Detroit addressing chronic unemployment and at-risk youth unemployment.

The prize money went out in four-figure chunks to the start-ups, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. Often that sort of cash injection can mean the difference between mission focus and chaos for a fledgling startup.

"It helps the entrepreneur take their mind off the short-term cash-flow issues and onto longterm planning," says Elizabeth Garlow, executive director of Michigan Corps, which organized the business plan competition.

Among the Metro Detroit-based winners were City Girls Soap, which won the Women Rock prize. City Girls Soap makes hand-crafted body soap, lotion and laundry flakes from goats milk, taking advantage of the urban farming communities in Detroit and Pontiac. City Girls Soap plans to provide jobs for young people in Pontiac, starting off with summer employment.

The two-person operation is currently moving its production from Berkley to Pontiac. The company plans to hire 1-2 people (primarily youth in urban communities) before the end of this year. It plans to invest the $2,500 it won at the Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge in equipment to increase production.

"We're going to use it to build out our production facility, like buy a freezer," says Amy McIntire, co-founder of City Girls Soap.

The Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge aims to help foster social entrepreneurship across Michigan. It culminated with the Social Entrepreneurship Showcase last week, which went out of its way to help cultivate impact investors. Impact investors are high-net-worth individuals who make investments with the idea of creating a social impact and a profit.

Source: Elizabeth Garlow, executive director of Michigan Corps and Amy McIntire, co-founder of City Girls Soap
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

HBR Labs launches VeriShow online collaboration tool

HBR Labs is promoting its new VeriShow technology this summer, positioning its online collaboration software to become a fixture with high-end retailers.

The Farmington Hills-based tech company's platform is designed to connect companies and customers online quickly and painlessly. VeriShow provides spontaneous video conferencing, chat, and assistance by simply clicking on the “Live Help” button between customers and customer service representatives.

"It's designed to allow any company that needs to engage customers to do so instantly," says Yuval Moed, CEO of HBR Labs.

The 7-year-old company is focusing on selling to high-end retailers in the car dealership, real-estate, fashion and banking industries. HBR Labs created the multimedia software platform 18 months ago but is ramping up its marketing of the product now that it has worked the bugs out of it.

"We perfected the technology so it's now a pleasure for everyone to use," Moed says.

HBR Labs employs a staff of eight people after hiring one new person (a quality control professional) over the last year. It currently has open positions for two sales professionals to help market and sell VeriShow.

Source: Yuval Moed, CEO of HBR Labs
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Immigration law firm Fragomen adds to Troy office staff

The Metro Detroit office for Fragomen is growing nicely along with the national economy and local automotive industry rebound.

The immigration law firm (formally known as Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy) is based in New York City but has a growing satellite office in Troy. It now stands at 15 people after making two hires over the last year. It is now looking for a senior paralegal.

"We are probably going to add more (staff)," says Alexandra LaCombe, managing partner of the Troy office for Fragomen. LaCombe was recently named the managing partner of the Troy office. She started as a senior attorney at the office 14 years ago.

Fragomen handles immigration law for a broad range of clients in the Metro Detroit office. Those include a number of automotive firms (two of the Big 3 are represented by the Troy office), local institutions of higher education, and financial firms.

"A lot of our clients are bringing a lot of work in-house while before they would use contractors," LaCombe says. "As they grow, we grow."

LaCombe plans to cement Fragomen’s position as a leader in immigration law during her tenure as managing partner of the Troy office.

"We want to make sure that if anybody needs any immigration expertise, they come to us first," LaCombe says.

Source: Alexandra LaCombe, managing partner of Fragomen's Troy office
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

The Katz Law Firm opens small biz practice in downtown Birmingham

Donald Katz has been practicing business law for a long time. He recently worked as tax counsel for the combat systems group at General Dynamics and held a similar position at Miller Canfield before that. Today he is celebrating the first anniversary of his own practice, The Katz Law Firm.

"I wanted to do it on my own," Katz says. "I got sick of working for other people."

The downtown Birmingham-based practice focuses on providing law services and counsel for small businesses. Think legal and tax issues arising from the ownership and operation of small- and medium-size businesses, specifically in family-owned and closely-held businesses. It was a natural fit for an attorney who spent 14 years helping other people build their businesses.

"This has always been my focus," Katz says.

The Katz Law Firm recently launched a program to provide legal services to socially-conscious business ventures. The program waives the legal fees for investors and entrepreneurs setting up a low-profit limited liability company, commonly known as an L3C.

"It's a new type of entity in the corporate landscape," Katz says. "It's supposed to get socially-conscious entrepreneurs interested in forming their own entity." He adds, "It's the perfect avenue for certain type of entrepreneurial ventures."

Katz hopes to help about half a dozen L3Cs form and get established over the next year.

Source: Donald Katz, managing member of The Katz Law Firm
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

MMS Holdings launches science internship at Wayne State

MMS Holdings is helping beef up the talent pipeline in Metro Detroit with the creation of a science internship program at Wayne State University.

The Canton-based clinical research organization specializes in regulatory submission support in the pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device industries. For the company, filling the local talent pipeline with more STEM graduates does nothing but help its bottom line.

"It's a good way to collaborate with the university so we have a healthy pipeline of college graduates," says Prasad Koppolu, vice president of MMS Holdings.

The Broadening Experience in Scientific Training program will focus on providing workplace opportunities at MMS Holdings for graduate students in the scientific fields from Wayne State University. These paid positions will focus on the areas of regulatory operations, medical writing, data management, clinical programming, and pharmacovigilance. The hope is these internships will open doors to a growing number of opportunities in the scientific research realm.

MMS Holdings has a staff of 500 people globally (including 80 in Metro Detroit) that primarily work on regulatory submissions for drug development. It has completed 45 new drug development applications in its seven years. The company has hired about 15 people over the last year, including positions in medical writing and clinical programing. It currently has two summer interns from the Broadening Experience in Scientific Training program, and is looking at adding co-op students to the program.

"Each year we could have around six people," Koppolu says.

Source: Prasad Koppolu, vice president of MMS Holdings
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Northville's Kona Running Co. plans to expand in Canton

The Kona Running Co. is expanding across Wayne County over the next few years. The Northville-based racing company is in the process of opening a specialty running store in Canton. The opening date is set for this October.

"I have been thinking about this for two years," says Alan Whitehead, president & owner of Kona Running Co. "It's a natural step for us."

Whitehead opened the Kona Running Co. in 2004. Back then he was working as an executive director of sales for an automotive supplier while running remained one of his primary hobbies. He started the Solstice Run in Northville and used it as the springboard to launch Kona Running Co.

"I have always ran to stay in shape," Whitehead says. "I have run 22 marathons."

He retired from his automotive career three years ago and has since focused on growing Kona Running Co. It now organizes five races across Metro Detroit, including the Novi Half Marathon and Wicked Halloween Run in Plymouth. It has become his full-time job and he staffs up with 24 part-time employees during race days.

The Kona Running Co. signed a lease for a 2,900-square-foot location on Ford Road in Canton. It’s currently looking to hire two full-time people with specialty running store experience.

"We're looking at two or three other stores besides that one," Whitehead says. "We're looking at West Bloomfield and Troy. We want to open one per year."

Each store will employ 12-15 people. Whitehead expects Kona Running Co. to have a staff of 15 people by the time it opens its first store this fall. The firm is also looking to add two or three more races over the next year.

Source: Alan Whitehead, president & owner of Kona Running Co.
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Fooke USA sets up shop in Pontiac

Fooke USA is opening an office in Pontiac as the base for its parent company's North American operations.

Fooke is a family-owned business that develops milling machines for a number of industries including aerospace, automotive, railway, and mold and die. Fooke USA is the German-based firm’s North American arm.

"Pontiac has the potential and the space so we can expand our facility," says Matthias Hofmann, CEO of Fooke USA.

Hofmann expects Fooke USA to employ as many as 25 people, primarily specialized technicians, in Pontiac within the next three to four years. The company currently employs Hofmann and he expects to hire a handful of people by the end of the year.

Fooke USA made the leap into Pontiac thanks to the help of Automation Alley. The business accelerator's International Business Center hosts foreign companies looking at establishing an office in Metro Detroit. It provides a temporary home base and professional services that help these companies make a soft landing into the Metro Detroit area.

A dozen foreign companies have made this transition at Automation Alley since it opened the program in 2011. Those companies now have operations in the region that have created 433 new jobs.

Source: Matthias Hofmann, CEO of Fooke USA
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Plex scores $50M in private-equity funding

Plex finds itself $50 million richer this summer after landing big financing investments from T. Rowe Price and Accel Partners.

The Troy-based company makes cloud-based ERP software for manufacturers. Plex describes its software platform as built from the plant floor up, enabling users to increase productivity and profitability at existing facilities by streamlining the manufacturing process.

The 19-year-old tech company was acquired in 2012 by Francisco Partners, a private-equity firm based in Silicon Valley. Plex also received a $30 million investment in 2012 from Accel Partners, a venture capital firm also located in Silicon Valley. The new $50 million capital infusion is considered an equity investment.

Plex plans to use its new round of seed capital to grow the sales and marketing efforts of its software platform. It is also planning to put some of that money into research and development of new technology.

"We have been working on a new user-interface over the last year," says Katy Teer, a corporate communications manager for Plex.

Plex has a staff of close to 400 employees and 20 interns. It has hired 156 people since January of last year. It also has 27 openings for everything from sales to senior technical writers right now. More information on those jobs is here.

"We're in an aggressive hiring plan right now," Teer says, adding she was employee No. 220 when she started at Plex two years ago. The firm expects to cross the 400-employee threshold later this year. "We're a really fast-growing tech company here in Metro Detroit."

Source: Katy Teer, corporate communications manager for Plex
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

123.net hires 10 people as it grows wireless business

123.net is hiring in Southfield, and with good reason.

The Internet/data center company has hired 10 people over the last year, including six people for its wireless Internet division. It’s in the process of adding summer interns right now, and the firm plans to hire more staff later this year. The reason?

"Demand," says Jim Hart, director of wireless operations for 123.net. "We don't add head count because it's speculative. We add people because there is a need."

The 17-year-old company has been hard at work expanding its tech center at its headquarters in Southfield. The 130,000-square-foot structure at 24700 Northwestern Highway just brought an extra 15,000 square feet of data center space online.

123.net wireless Internet product has led the company's recent growth spike. Hart explains the speed of that product's deployment has been second to none.

"There is a demand for it," Hart says. "People just want it."

123.net also has two interns on top of its staff of 40 employees. It is currently looking to add three more summer interns. The company plans to use its internship program as a talent pipeline for future employees.

"We're hoping to convert a couple of them as soon as their internships are complete," Hart says.

Source: Jim Hart, director of wireless operations for 123.net
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Warren-based Madison Electric Co. reaches 100-year milestone

Most businesses don't last more than a year or two. Only a small percentage make it a decade or more. The Madison Electric Co. is one of the rare ones that can claim a century of longevity.

The Warren-based firm is one of Michigan’s largest wholesale distributors of electrical, automation, HVAC, PVF, plumbing, water management and network communication systems and components. The family business is still run by the children of the two brothers who founded it in 1914.

"We understand we have a responsibility to maintain this," says Brett Schneider, president of Madison Electric Co. and the great-grandson of one of the founding partners.

Eight members of the family currently work at Madison Electric Co., including a fifth-generation member who recently graduated from Western Michigan University. The rest break down to three members of the third generation and four members of the fourth generation.

"The biggest thing is if you're not a working part of the company (as a family member) then you don’t have a say," Schneider says. He adds, "All of us who have been here started at the ground floor and learned every aspect of the business. However long it takes us to learn it is how long it takes us to learn it."

Madison Electric Co. currently employs 115 people after hiring seven new staff. The new hires include two inside sales professionals and five warehouse workers. The company is currently expanding into the pipe-valve-fitting market and is in the midst of upgrading its software system.

"It should give us the capacity to grow and give faster service to our existing customers," Schneider says.

Source: Brett Schneider, president of Madison Electric Co.
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Michigan Corps cultivates socially conscious "Impact Investors"

Local leaders are working to establish a new type of angel investor in Michigan, the impact investor.

An impact investor is a high-net-worth individual (read wealthy) who wants to invest in fledgling small businesses that are both socially entrepreneurial and with the potential of sizable returns.

"They want to make a capital investment that will have some sort of social return while also getting their money back," says Elizabeth Garlow, executive director of Michigan Corps.

Impact investors will be a significant part of the upcoming Social Entrepreneurship Showcase, a half-day conference that will highlight the participants of the Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. The June 20th event will help grow the local socially-focused entrepreneurial community. This year, 280 entrepreneurs and companies are participating from across the state. Most of them hail from Metro Detroit.

Michigan Corps is organizing the event and challenge. It's not only looking to cultivate socially conscious entrepreneurs, but investors who want to diversify their portfolio. That's where the idea of impact investors comes in.

"That is the theme of the showcase, to step into the shoes of an impact investor," Garlow says.

Source: Elizabeth Garlow, executive director of Michigan Corps
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Ruma Organics brings natural spin on deodorant

Today Sylvia Ruma finds herself as the founder and president of her own business, Ruma Organics. A year ago she didn't think she would be building her own organic deodorant company.

"I never intended to start the business at the time," Ruma says. "I have always loved making my own organic products. It's just what I love to do."

The Macomb Township resident started blending deodorant in her kitchen for personal and family-member use. At the time she couldn't find an effective deodorant made of natural products so she started making her own. She gave a few samples out to family and friends, which prompted a grass-roots demand for it.

"I couldn't believe it worked," Ruma says. "It worked better than I ever imagined. The more I passed it out the more people liked it."

Ruma attended entrepreneurial courses at the Blackstone LaunchPad program at Walsh College in Troy. That gave her the foundation to begin selling Ruma Organics online and then in retail stores. She and one of her team members (a relative) have acquired production equipment that should help Ruma's team keep up with demand.

"Now we can make 18-24 jars at a time," Ruma says.

Source: Sylvia Ruma, founder & president of Ruma Organics
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Electronics manufacturer EDP Co. makes 3 hires in Livonia

Launching EDP Co. was an easy decision for Richard Bezerko. The electrical engineer has spent his career working in electronics. He also aspired to be his own boss, so when the opportunity to start his own electronics manufacturing company presented itself, "It was a natural thing for me to do," Bezerko says.

That was 32 years ago. Today the Livonia-based business employs 17 people after making three replacement hires over the last year. It has also landed a handful of new customers in that time. Those new customers include companies in the after-market electronics and medical technologies industries.

Most of the new work for EDP Co. has come from traditional sources, like word-of-mouth referrals, and newer ones, like search engine hits on the company’s website. Bezerko expects to add more customers over the next year.

"We're on a steady growth path," Bezerko says. "We're not trying to grow too fast."

Source: Richard Bezerko, president of EDP Co
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Rockbridge Growth Equity acquires Gas Station TV

Rockbridge Growth Equity has acquired GSTV, aka Gas Station TV, in a deal aimed at growing the downtown Birmingham-based startup rapidly.

GSTV got its start in 2006 by putting TVs on top of gas pumps showing news and advertisements. The idea is to catch drivers at a natural pause in the person’s day where their attention can easily be captured. It now has a network across North America with a monthly viewership of 50 million people.

"David (Leider, GSTV’s CEO) and his team developed a new industry that is growing very, very quickly," says Kevin Prokop, managing director of Rockbridge Growth Equity. "It's a very nascent industry. It has really developed over the last eight years."

The downtown Detroit-based private equity firm (part of the Quicken Loans family of companies) plans to keep GSTV at its home in downtown Birmingham while it focuses on growing the business. Prokop says a decision on a permanent home could be made within the next year, (many Quicken Loans-related businesses have moved to downtown Detroit in recent years) but he knows it will stay in Metro Detroit.

"We have a lease here," Leider says. "We're focused on working with Rockbridge on the business now."

GSTV employs a staff of 65 people, the bulk of which are based in downtown Birmingham. It has hired 10 people over the last year and has four open positions right now. More information on those here.

Source: David Leider, CEO of GSTV, and Kevin Prokop, managing director of Rockbridge Growth Equity
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Level One Bank hires 18, grows assets 25 percent

Level One Bank is well on its way to the next level, thanks to a spike in its asset size and staff.

The Farmington Hills-based bank’s assets have grown 25 percent over the last year, topping out at $630 million. Its deposits also stand at $545 million. That has allowed the company to grow its staff to 145 people at its seven branches across the region. It has hired 18 people over the last year, mostly in lending. The bank currently has four open positions.

"Our primary businesses are focused on commercial loans," says Patrick Fehring, president & CEO of Level One Bank. "We're seeing a lot of action in our loans to entrepreneurs. We're also seeing an increase in our residential mortgage loans."

Fehring expects his bank to grow another 15 percent this year. He sees Level One Bank's status as a local bank as a key ingredient to its success at a time when an increasing number of people don’t trust large financial institutions.

"We think that gives us a distinct competitive advantage," Fehring says. "It's easier to connect with a decision maker at Level One Bank."

Source: Patrick Fehring, president & CEO of Level One Bank
Writer: Jon Zemke

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