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Ann Arbor companies win big at 2016 Accelerate Michigan innovation competition

Three Ann Arbor companies were announced as winners of the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition. One of the companies, JOOL Health, was awarded third place overall in the competition, and won $50,000. Movellus Circuits was awarded a $25,000 sector-specific prize, and Workit Health won the $25,000 People’s Choice award.
The Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition’s $500,000 first place winner, SPLT, participated in Ann Arbor SPARK’s intern matching program and received support this summer as an incubator client at the SPARK Central Innovation Center. 
“Ann Arbor SPARK’s services - mentorship, connections, and the ecosystem to accelerate an entrepreneur’s success - provide startup companies with a competitive advantage,” said Bill Mayer, vice president, entrepreneurial services, Ann Arbor SPARK. “The resources available in this region, through SPARK and our collaborative partners, make this an ideal location to grow an innovation-based business. It’s exciting to see these companies win at Accelerate Michigan, and represent the Ann Arbor region in such a tremendous way.”
Ben Harrington of SPARK's entrepreneurial services team recently blogged about other Ann Arbor companies participating in the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition. He noted that 13 companies served by Ann Arbor SPARK were semifinalists in the competition, representing 36% of this year’s pool of semifinalists. Check out the blog post here: http://blog.annarborusa.org/does-spark-support-contribute-to-startup-success-at-amic/

Ann Arbor SPARK announces 2016 and 2017 FastTrack Award applications

Applications are now available for Ann Arbor SPARK’s annual FastTrack Awards, presented to “gazelle” companies with impressive records of growth. Gazelles are companies that consistently achieved 20 percent annual growth.

This year’s FastTrack Awards for both 2016 and 2017 will be presented at the Ann Arbor SPARK Annual Meeting, which will be held on April 24, 2017, at the Eastern Michigan University Student Center in Ypsilanti, Mich. The FastTrack Awards are sponsored by Yeo & Yeo CPAs & Business Consultants.

FastTrack awardees for 2016 are required to have revenue of at least $100,000 in 2012, with an annual growth of 20 percent for the following three years. Recipients of the 2017 FastTrack Award will have revenue of at least $100,000 in 2013, with an annual growth of 20 percent for the following three years.  

Companies will complete separate applications for the 2016 and 2017 FastTrack Awards.  Yeo & Yeo CPAs & Business Consultants will verify all of the award applications. Both of the FastTrack Award applications are available on Ann Arbor SPARK’s website and are due on January 31, 2017.

“The FastTrack Awards are a highly visible way that we recognize this region’s most successful businesses,” said Paul Krutko, president and CEO, Ann Arbor SPARK. “More than just honoring their impressive achievement, FastTrack awards celebrate the impact that these businesses have on our region’s economy. Year over year, FastTrack Award winners are expanding, hiring, and continuing to consistently impact our economic growth and prosperity; our Annual Meeting is the right forum for this recognition.”

This is the first year FastTrack Awards will be presented at Ann Arbor SPARK’s Annual Meeting.   For several years, the FastTrack awards were presented at MLive “Deals of the Year” event, which the media organization announced it would no longer host.

EDCLC and Ann Arbor SPARK recognize Livingston County economic successes

Economic progress and successes were celebrated at the Economic Development Council of Livingston County’s (EDCLC) annual meeting, co-hosted by Ann Arbor SPARK. The organizations also honored organizations and businesses that demonstrated outstanding business leadership in the last year, and made significant investments in Livingston County.

Pinckney Community Schools was honored as Talent Innovator of the Year for its Cyber Range, and Tribar Manufacturing and the Flint Mass Transportation Authority (MTA) were awarded Economic Development Partners of the Year.

"Along with our colleagues at EDCLC, Ann Arbor SPARK is committed to working with state and local partners to grow the region's economy, and our collaborative efforts are yielding impressive results," said Paul Krutko, president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK. "From talent to incentives to transportation initiatives, this thoughtful and robust approach to attracting and retaining growing businesses is creating jobs and investment - from all over the world - in Livingston County. In a fiercely competitive global market, the assets in our region are a definite advantage."

Several companies that achieved significant growth in the last year were also honored. The companies were:
  • Armor Protective Packaging, which consolidated its out-of-state operations to its headquarters in Howell.
  • C&B Machinery, which invested $2.95 million in relocating to Green Oak Township as a way to accommodate its planned future growth.
  • Chem-Trend, which recently announced a $7.7 million investment in expanding its research and development facility in the City of Howell.
  • Grupo Antolin Interiors, for expanding its facility in Howell Township, and investing $44.9 million in the region.
  • Medical Comfort Specialists, for investing $3.25 million in expanding its Fowlerville facility by 10,000 sq ft.
  • Tribar Manufacturing, for hiring 100 new full-time employees to accommodate its growth.
Pinckney Community Schools was honored for being awarded grant money from the State of Michigan to establish a Cyber Range Hub at Pinckney High School. A Cyber Range Hub is a facility that contains a computing and networking infrastructure to provide certification courses, cybersecurity training exercises, and product hardening/testing through a direct connection to the Michigan Cyber Range. The Michigan Cyber Range is hosted and facilitated by Merit Network in partnership with the State of Michigan and with the sponsorship of DTE Energy.

Tribar Manufacturing and the MTA were honored for their partnership, which led to a growing relationship between the MTA and other Livingston County businesses. MTA is bringing talent from the Flint area to Livingston County, helping to fulfill the demand for talent in the region.   

At the former home to Borders Books, a tech hub now sprouts

A patch of sidewalk on the south side of East Liberty Street, four blocks from the main University of Michigan campus, has returned from the dead with remarkable speed. At almost any hour of day, and especially at mealtimes, a mix of bargain seeking undergraduates, white collar tech workers and middle class townies weave in and out of the restaurants, coffee shop and bank that now line the corridor.

The foot traffic is almost enough to make many in this city feel lucky that the single previous occupant of this red brick low rise
building on the 600 block went bankrupt five years ago. Almost, that is, because that previous tenant was the
flagship Borders store.

“In some ways, the neighborhood is stronger and more interesting and more vibrant than it was when Borders was here,” said Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. “As much as I loved Borders — and I mean, I loved it — in the evolution of this building, it’s better than it was.”

Such talk is probably still sacrilege for some local nostalgics, who remember that the store was started by a pair of brothers and Michigan graduates before it turned into an international book chain, but it is difficult to argue on a dollars and cents
basis with the transformation.

For more than 70 years, the site in this pivotal city block was occupied by a single business anchor, first a regional department store, Jacobson’s, and then, for decades, Borders. The chain’s bankruptcy — which, by 2011, was almost overdue as customers had long since turned en masse to the internet to buy books — created a once in a generation release of a large piece of real estate. Suddenly available: a 50,000 square foot former bookstore that fronts a full block of busy Liberty Street and a 45,000 square foot adjacent building that previously housed Borders’ corporate headquarters.

There were many ideas about how to use all that space, but one option was immediately taken off the table: installing another anchor tenant.

“We wanted, on purpose, to have a multipurpose building,” said Ron Hughes of Hughes Properties. “I think it’s better for the city as well.”

In early 2012, Hughes Properties acquired the long term lease rights to the bookstore building that fronts Liberty Street and engaged the commercial broker Jim Chaconas of Colliers International to populate it. Today, commercial office space inventory in Ann Arbor is at a low. Google’s decision to leave a high rise three blocks from the former Borders and move its 400 person,
four floor customer service operations to a suburban office park by next year is seen as an opportunity, rather than worrisome.

Ms. Pollay, in fact, does not mind that shift because Google employees do not fan out in the neighborhood for meals, as they have onsite food service. “They hermetically seal themselves off,” she said. “Hopefully the next tenants there won’t.”

Even before Mr. Hughes and Mr. Chaconas began deciding the fate of the main Borders building, the three story
former corporate office building was fully leased by Barracuda Networks. Barracuda, a computer storage and security company based in Campbell, Calif., had been expanding its presence in Ann Arbor since 2007 to tap fresh engineering
recruits. The company moved in with 230 employees, making it the largest private employer in downtown behind Google.

“There’s not a lot of places in the downtown area where you could put a sizable tech company,” said Rod Mathews, a Barracuda general manager. “We did care a lot about what happened in the rest of the space. We didn’t want to be an anchor tenant in a building that wasn’t occupied.”

Mr. Hughes and Mr. Chaconas figured they would populate the second floor of the old bookstore with multiple office tenants after leasing the ground floor to a retail mix. Yet before Mr. Chaconas got far, the business and media analytics firm Prime Research made an aggressive play to secure 16,000 square feet at $24 a square foot with a call from a vice president, Julie MyersBeach.

“I wasn’t planning on touching the second floor until I was done with the first floor, but the day the sign went up for leasing the building, Julie from Prime called me up and said, ‘I want it,’” Mr. Chaconas said. “I told her, ‘I’m not ready.’ She said, ‘I don’t care.’”

With Prime and Barracuda side by side, the Borders spaces suddenly became the workplace for more than 300 young computer programmers with disposable incomes, Ms. Pollay said. Combined with the Google employees two blocks away, the
area suddenly took on a tech hub vibe, whereas for decades it had primarily focused on serving the university community.

Since then, other startups and branches of tech companies have alighted in Ann Arbor’s downtown core. More than 60 companies took part in a recent job fair put on by the city’s small business incubator, Spark.

“A larger tech company can be a real asset in the sense that it creates a talent pool that is now spawning a continuous labor pool for the entire market,” said Spark’s chief executive, Paul Krutko. He noted that Barracuda had not set up an
internal food service, which encouraged employees to venture into downtown.

That is the clientele Mr. Chaconas aimed to cater to while keeping the offerings local. Just as Borders was deeply rooted in the community, so are two current tenants, Knight’s Steakhouse and Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea, both locally owned
chains. A third, the HopCat brew pub, is part of a small chain that started in Grand Rapids.

There is also Slurping Turtle, a noodle restaurant, and Pieology, a fast casual pizza place that chose a corner of the building for its first Michigan location. Mr. Hughes and Mr. Chaconas expected they would be able to get $35 to $40 a
square foot. In the end, they got $45 a square foot on average and helped push the area’s retail rental prices up, Ms. Pollay said. Within two years of Borders’ closing, the entire place was leased, and everything had opened by mid 2015.

“All downtown now is restaurants because people will go to restaurants, but people will not shop,” Mr. Chaconas said. An early success, Mr. Chaconas said, was persuading the proprietors of Knight’s, Don and Angela Knight, to move in. They already had two popular steakhouses, including one nearby.

As a longtime Ann Arbor family — their children are seventh generation, they say — they had an affinity for the location and its previous tenants. They spent more than $2 million to build out some 3,500 square feet at the southwestern corner of the building into a more modern concept than their other locations. Since opening in 2014, the 200 seat restaurant has exceeded their targets.

“They wanted a family owned, well established restaurant,” said Mrs. Knight, who noted that comfort food dishes like meatloaf that are popular at the other locations are no match in the downtown site for filet mignon sliders, pear and
arugula salads, and burgers on pretzel buns. “I think it really mattered for a building with a history like this one.”

Mr. Chaconas and Mr. Hughes assert that their approach is far healthier for both their bottom line and the city’s welfare than reliance on one tenant, as one early notion to lease the whole former bookstore space to something like a Dave &
Buster’s would have.

The subdivision of the Borders space is likely to become an example for future turnover, Mr. Chaconas said. The Urban Outfitters store across the street is, at about 10,000 square feet, one of the largest nonfood retailers in the area, which is

“I lose that tenant, I lose 100 percent of that income,” he said. “If they leave I may put two tenants in there, so I only lose half the income. That is a perfect example, because nobody is that big anymore.”

Eberspacher celebrates $100 million expansion in Brighton

Gov. Rick Snyder joined government and community leaders in Brighton on Tuesday to celebrate commercial exhaust system maker Eberspacher's $100 million expansion in the city.

Eberspacher tripled the size of its Brighton facility from 110,000 square feet to more than 340,000 square feet, installed new equipment, and consolidated operations from Wixom and Novi to Brighton in about two years.

"Brighton has been a good partner in making all this happen," Snyder said after a ribbon-cutting ceremony. "Look at this environment. When I was talking with them about hiring people, Brighton is a great location.

"I met some of the employees; one is coming from Canton, one is coming from Lansing," he added. "This is kind of a good hub for people from broader geographies to come find a great place to have a successful career."

Eberspacher, 2035 Charles H. Orndorf Drive, makes exhaust systems for tractor-trailers and other commercial vehicles as well as other products and services for automakers around the world.

The Germany-based company received a $4.5 million grant from the Michigan Department of Economic Development as part of Project Green, an investment and job-creation agreement with the state of Michigan. The manufacturer used the funds to help expand the facility and purchase equipment, and it wants to hire 50 more workers. The company now employs close to 400 workers.

The expansion allowed Eberspacher to bring three of its processes — laser shell manufacturing, converter catalyst canning and complex automated welding and assembly, as well as experts in each area — under one roof.

The company also installed new air-control and venting systems, high-tech glass that allows natural light to enter but not heat the building, a material storage system that minimizes the use of floor space, and zone-control electrical systems that control use based on real-time demands.

"We're very excited about the expansion and what it means for our customers, employees and stakeholders," said Greg Sibley, president of Eberspacher North America, which includes the Brighton facility. "Having all the functions under one roof will give us the synergies to continue to improve our products and processes."

The local government and business dignitaries in attendance included Brighton Mayor Jim Muzzin; Mayor Pro Tem Shawn Pipoly; Brighton Councilwoman Susan Gardner; City Manager Nate Geinzer; Phil Santer, of Ann Arbor SPARK; Howell Area Chamber of Commerce President Pat Convery; Greater Brighton Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Pam McConeghy; Livingston County Administrator Ken Hinton; and Bob Herbst, chairman of the Brighton Downtown Development Authority board.

"It's beyond words what this expansion means to the city of Brighton," Muzzin said. "The city is more than beyond thankful for their expanding the facility in the city of Brighton."

McConeghy participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony with Snyder and Heinrich Baumann, manager partner of the Eberspacher Group, and other leaders.

"The economic impact of this expansion is phenomenal," McConeghy said. "We're in the business community are thrilled that they chose Brighton to have their largest world-class facility."

Contact Livingston Daily business reporter Noe Hernandez at 517-552-2854 or nhernandez@livingstondaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @sayyesnoe.

This article was originally published in the Detroit Free Press


Domino's dough rises as more Americans work, says CEO

The chieftain at the nation's largest pizza delivery company has a simple recipe for predicting how the economy will affect his bottom line — people with jobs buy more pizza.

"We have run all of the regression analyses on our business and it all comes down to one thing for us and that’s employment," Domino's Pizza Chief Executive Officer Patrick Doyle said in a one-on-one interview in his office last week. "Employed people buy more pizza than unemployed people. And to me, that’s the ultimate measure of the strength of the economy."

As nation's economy continues to recover, albeit slowly, Doyle expects to hire more people this year at Domino's sprawling Ann Arbor headquarters (A herd of buffalo literally roam in a nearby fenced area visible to employees inside Domino's offices).

And he says he's more likely to add numbers in manning new technology than in testing tomatoes for its pizza pies.

"We're absolutely growing in Michigan," Doyle said. The state only has franchise, not corporate stores here. But those stores, he said, are still expected to grow in number. The company's headquarters is also adding on average more than one employee a week, more often than not in its information technology department, according to Doyle.

"We currently have about 50 open positions," company spokeswoman Danielle Bulger said in an email Friday. "We anticipate hiring about 100 team members at headquarters through the end of the year."

The company has 720 employees, with an IT department manned by 264 workers who monitor the company's sales from a multiscreen command center in real time, among their other duties.

"We're going to continue to invest," Doyle said of hiring plans. "We're pretty optimistic."

The drive to boost the ranks at Domino's is fueled in part by changing consumer habits. At Domino's, you can now order by Twitter, Amazon Echo, Ford Motor's SYNC and iWatch among other alt-tech platforms.

Some options don't even require words. Customers put in their pepperoni pizza order by using a online-symbol emoji or just tapping open a smartphone app armed with preselected personal preferences for "zero-click" ordering.

Pizza cyber-security 

But as Domino's encourages its customers to create detailed individual profiles to ease the ordering process, the company recognized the growing need to protect that data.

Six or seven years ago, the company had a cybersecurity team "of roughly zero," Doyle said. Today, it numbers 25.
"They'll never be a day where I don't think about it," the CEO says of the potential threat from hackers.

The other concern that occupies Doyle every day is food safety. Domino's is now rolling out salads to all of its stores in the U.S. It would have been cheaper to assemble them in the stores, but Doyle said the company chose to prepackage them as an extra precaution to lessen the odds of food-borne illness.

Founded in 1960 as a private company, Domino's Pizza went public in 2004 and now has more than 12,900 stores in more than 80 markets. Doyle has been at the helm since 2010 and the company's stock value has zoomed more than 16 fold based on the price last week. One of Doyle's first bold acts: altering Domino's pizza recipe, admitted to the change publicly and then promoting the new pizza by reciting what customers used to think of the old product (Hint: Many didn't like it)

International pizza

Doyle used to head up Domino's international divisions and says he sees some of the greatest opportunities for growth in African countries south of the Sahara Desert. Domino's now has stores in Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya.

"We have a really good start there," Doyle said, noting the region's consistent economic growth and rising middle class.
India has been another stronghold for the company with about 1,000 stores. But growth in China has been more slow-going, according to Doyle.

Among the hurdles: the Chinese consumer took time to adapt to at-home delivery - customers once preferred sitting down in restaurants - and dairy products, which were once completely foreign to the country's diet. Still, Doyle says that the company now sees more growth in the near term.

Global retail sales at Domino's last year exceeded $9.9 billion, with more than $4.8 billion in the U.S. and nearly $5.1 billion internationally. In the second quarter this year, Domino's beat Wall Street expectations with global retail sales of more than  $2.4 billion. More than half of U.S. sales streamed in from digital channels.

Many Wall Street analysts applaud Domino's recent financial performance and its share gains on rival Pizza Hut, the market leader for the overall pizza restaurant business.

In the second quarter of this year, Domino's put up earnings of 98 cents per share, up over 81 cents per share reported during the same quarter last year. Sales also grew to $547.3 million.

Same store sales for Domino's U.S. operations were up 9.7% versus the year-ago period. The international division also posted strong results with quarterly same store sales growth of 7.1%, marking the 90th consecutive quarter of same store sales growth.
After its bold recipe change and the rollout of some new products including salads, Domino's latest initiative is not in product improvement, but in presentation, Doyle says.

Stores across the chain are getting refreshed, with many adapting a "theater" style interior with glass walls and an open kitchen to let customers see how fresh dough stretched by hand turns into pizzas. That's in part to compete with new pizza competitors who already showcase their work, Doyle said. As much as 40% of the companies transactions are done in person through carryout service, according to Doyle, making it necessary to improve the store experience.

"Our stores were just not terrific when you walk in," he says of Domino's outposts.

This story was originally published in the Detroit Free Press



Metro Detroit entrepreneurial effort nets $2.9B impact

Investing in metro Detroit's entrepreneurs appears to be a pretty strong bet for the local economy, according to two new studies of a leading philanthropic collaboration.

The New Economy Initiative, billed as the country’s largest philanthropy-led regional economic development initiative based in southeast Michigan, doled out $96.2 million to organizations and programs supporting entrepreneurs since launching in 2007.

That investment is starting to pay off, the studies found. NEI’s financial support for entrepreneurs and small businesses, in turn, generated $2.9 billion in real economic output and created 17,490 jobs in southeast Michigan (70% of those positions could be found in Wayne County, anchored by Detroit), according to analyses conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research to be released today.

About 10,000 of the jobs cited in the Upjohn report however are "indirect jobs," or jobs assumed to be created based on a multiplier effect from the approximately 7,400 jobs created directly by new businesses funded by NEI.

"We felt that we were at a time when we needed to understand the work and the impact it was having on the economy at large," Pamela Lewis, NEI's director, said in an interview Tuesday. "We felt good about the contribution that we're making to the larger economy."

NEI launched in 2007 with $100 million in philanthropic dollars both local and national. Bruce Katz, centennial scholar at the Brookings Institution and founding director of the Metropolitan Policy Program, has called NEI a model for the nation.

It received support from 12 national and local foundations: the C.S. Mott Foundation, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, the Ford Foundation, the Hudson-Webber Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, the McGregor Fund, the Skillman Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the William Davidson Foundation.

In many ways, it served as the forefather to the so-called Grand Bargain, a similarly collaborative effort among foundations to speed Detroit's exit from municipal bankruptcy by saving the art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts while preserving public pensions in the city.

NEI's goal was to focus on talent, innovation and culture change. To hit that goal, NEI has made 259 grants through 2015. An early emphasis on high-technology start-ups gradually came to include more lifestyle businesses, including mom-and-pop retailers, coffee shops, restaurants and more.

The PricewaterHouse report found that those business received financial support well beyond the NEI grants, including $234 million in outside matching grants, $579 million from other investments and $93 million in client revenues.

In the broadest sense, NEI sought to nurture an entire ecosystem for entrepreneurs. But evaluating this kind of investment can be a squishy science. It can be tough to get reliable statistics on the success rate of capital investments. And the majority of start-ups don’t make it. NEI didn't include the failure rates for its businesses in today's reports.

NEI said it does not track survival rates of all start-ups supported by its grantees. Two key NEI grantees, Ann Arbor SPARK and Invest Detroit’s First Step Fund, report that companies in their respective portfolios have survival rates of 79% and 84% since 2010.

Yet the economic and employment impact reports reviewed years worth of information reported to NEI by grantees, as well as interviews with regional entrepreneurs, to come up up with some specific findings, including:
  • 4,400 companies directly serviced by NEI grantees through 2015;
  • 179,571 attended events in metro Detroit’s entrepreneurial network funded in part by NEI;
  • And more than 1 million square feet of "entrepreneurial space" opened in connection with NEI funding;
NEI funders said they wanted to increase equity in the marketplace for young companies and include those often left out in southeast Michigan’s start-up economy. As evidence of their success, they now point to the percentage of businesses they supported that are minority-owned: nearly 40%  since 2009, or double the equivalent national average, officials said.

But the mission isn't over. The publication of the impact reports come as NEI enters the final stages of recapitalization to raise $28.5 million to continue its mission through 2020.

Craig Grissom Sr. says he knows well the power of the NEI programs. The 58-year-old Detroit native said he returned to the city after a stint in prison to find himself struggling to secure work. So he started his own lawn company.

Thanks to an outside financial backer as well as two NEI-backed training programs to learn how to obtain working capital and run your own business, Grissom's Higher Ground Lawn Care became his own, today with 103 residential and commercial clients and a full-time crew of five workers.

"I had to step out on my own," he said. "I wasn't even thinking about having a lawn company."

Now, Grissom said he's focused on the next stage of his business' growth: finding and retaining quality workers.

"All I needed was the opportunity that I could prove myself to people," he said in an interview Tuesday. "Those programs gave me the tools I needed."

Contact Matthew Dolan: 313-223-4743 or msdolan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsdolan. Staff writer John Gallagher contributed to this report. 

This story was originally published in the Detroit Free Press


DDA says regional transit would help support new jobs in downtown Ann Arbor

The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority has joined the list of organizations supporting a regional transit proposal, saying creation of a connected regional system will support growth and prosperity.

The DDA's governing board voted 8-0 Wednesday, Oct. 5, to approve a resolution in support of the 20-year tax on the Nov. 8 ballot in southeast Michigan.

The DDA is supporting the proposal with the goal of linking Ann Arbor with the rest of the region for the purpose of greater economic vitality and quality of life.

DDA officials cited a recent market study commissioned by the DDA that estimated the number of new jobs in downtown Ann Arbor could increase by as many as 3,500 over the next five years.

"This increase may lead to greater traffic congestion and sustained parking challenges in downtown if more transit alternatives are not provided," the DDA resolution states, going on to cite another study commissioned by the DDA last year that set forward support for rail-based public transit.

The DDA believes that can help reduce downtown commuter parking demand and traffic congestion, improve access and mobility, and strengthen downtown's market viability to attract more residents, employers and visitors.

The Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority is asking voters in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties to approve a 1.2-mill tax to fund a $4.6 billion plan that includes commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit and a host of regional bus services linking the region.

The DDA's resolution states there is currently no public transit connecting Ann Arbor and Detroit, and no service coordination between the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority and other transit agencies in the Detroit area.

"The transit disconnection between Ann Arbor and the rest of the region has made it difficult for downtown employers to attract skilled workers, creating a challenging jobs/talent gap," the DDA's resolution states.

The RTA plan also includes feeder service between Ann Arbor's train station and downtown Ann Arbor, bus rapid transit connecting downtown Ann Arbor with Ypsilanti, and commuter express service connecting Ann Arbor with Plymouth/Livonia/Canton, among other services.

An opposition group called NoMassiveTransitTax.org announced its formation this week, arguing against what it calls a massive tax hike.

The new tax would cost the owner of a home with a $200,000 market value and a $100,000 taxable value an extra $120 per year in property taxes.

"This tax hike proposal is vastly more expensive than any other regional tax in metro Detroit history and will cost the average homeowner thousands of dollars," Leon Drolet, treasurer of NoMassiveTransitTax.org, said in a news release, referring to the cumulative cost of the tax over 20 years.

This story was originally published in MLive. 

Ann Arbor SkySpecs develops new automated drone inspection technology

Ann Arbor-based SkySpecs has developed a new automated drone inspection technology that allows wind farm owners and operators, along with original equipment manufactures, to inspect a large wind turbine in less than 20 minutes.

The push of a button launches the drone, which surveys all sides of a turbine’s three blades while they are moving. The collected data from an onboard camera includes high-resolution images that identify cracks, erosion, lightening strikes, and other anomalies in a turbine portfolio.

The data is then sent to a web portal for viewing, annotating, and reporting.

“SkySpecs uses advanced sensors like Velodyne's Puck (a 3-D laser scanner) to construct models of wind turbines in real time,” says Tom Brady, CTO of SkySpecs. “Once the general shape and structure of the turbine is understood by the drone, onboard software creates a precise, repeatable, and optimized path to collect all of the pictures and other data needed for the inspection.”

The automated drone inspection will be on display for the first time at a private demonstration on Sept. 28 at the Wind Energy Expo/Wind Europe Summit in Hamburg, Germany.

For more information, visit skyspecs.com.

?This article was originally published in DBusiness

U-M listed as top public university in America in new rankings

The University of Michigan once again is the highest ranked public university in America, according to the QS World University Rankings for the 2016-17 year.

Coming in at number 23, U-M made a jump in the rankings after finishing at No. 30 in 2015-16, earning the distinction as the only public university to be rated in the top 25.

Based on six performance indicators, the ranking assesses university performance in areas like research, teaching, employability and internationalization. Rankings are determined by academic indicators (40 percent), employer reputation (10 percent), student-to-faculty ratio (20 percent), research citations per faculty (20 percent), international faculty ratio (5 percent) and international student ratio (5 percent).

"There is something for everyone here," the ranking's description noted. "Michigan's programs are responsive to the changing needs of society; relevant to the goals of our students and community partners; rich in opportunities for independent and collaborative study, research and practical applications; and reflective of the traditions of excellence, innovation and leadership."
U-M's ranking marks the fourth time in five years it has been included in the top 25. Michigan State University finished at No. 160 in the rankings.

First published in 2004, the QS World University Rankings highlight more than 900 of the top universities in the world to help students make informed comparisons between their international study options.

This story was originally published in MLive

Vibrant downtowns are perfect fits for technology firms

Technology firms needs many things to thrive, primarily a never-ending supply of talented recruits. But increasingly there's evidence that tech firms also need something more to attract all that talent -- a thriving downtown environment.

That  was the message on Friday at the annual Ann Arbor Tech Trek, an event that saw some 60 technology firms clustered in downtown Ann Arbor open their doors to the public for a day of food, fun and education. At least 2,000 visitors made the trek, many of them parents with school-age children hoping to expose their kids to potential careers in tech fields.

Rich Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, a custom software designer, came to Ann Arbor in 1978 to attend the University of Michigan and never left. Today, his firm is one of the largest tech firms in downtown Ann Arbor, sprawling across an entire city block in the basement level of a downtown building.

"By and large the software industry in Ann Arbor has always been vibrant but it’s always been on the outskirts" in anonymous office parks, Sheridan said. There's "a relatively recent phenomenon where high-tech companies to attract and retain and be exciting to their potential workforce are starting to locate in downtown areas."

"There’s a cool factor to downtown," he continued. "There’s some great advantages because quite frankly our customers want to come here and visit us because we’re downtown. It just makes us more interesting.."

Plenty of tech firms still operate from those faceless office parks out along our highways. But Ann Arbor isn't the only Michigan city hoping to combine a vibrant downtown with a growing technology cluster.

Businessman Dan Gilbert has said numerous times that he moved his Quicken Loans to downtown Detroit in 2010 because his youthful workforce no longer was content working in an office park overlooking a freeway. His young recruits wanted what planners call walkable urbanism -- that mix of restaurants, shops, parks, bike lanes and other amenities all within an easy walk from where they live and work.

That's a change from Detroit's 20th-Century model where our automotive pioneers located both their factories and their headquarters away from downtowns, as in Detroit's New Center area (General Motors) or Dearborn (Ford). But today's downtown environments offer a perfect fit for those young tech firms that need smaller amounts of space at reasonable costs in a locale that will be attractive to the kind of talent they need to compete.

This article was originally published in the Detroit Free Press.

For driverless cars, citylike test sites offer the unpredictable

Here in this college town 40 miles west of Detroit, behind black sheeting attached to an eight-foot-tall chain-link fence, the future of the auto industry is being worked out in a secret setting.

The fence surrounds a testing center called Mcity -- a 32-acre patch of land that aims to recreate Anywhere, U.S.A., complete with simulated city streets and intersections. Within its borders are 13 types of traffic lights, storefronts, road signs, parking meters and a tunnel. A railroad crossing will be added soon.

Mcity is one of a half-dozen or so testing grounds for autonomous vehicles in the world as automakers and technology companies engage in a heated competition to create the perfect self-driving car -- and to keep their competitors from knowing how they are doing it.

But while they have honed the technologies that enable cars to find their way on their own, these companies now face an even more daunting challenge: how to take that technology, with all its promise, and make those cars perform flawlessly in an unpredictable world.

Both the car companies and regulators have decades of experience making vehicles safer in crashes, but the means and methods for validating the reliability and safety of self-driving cars have not even been invented.
“When you no longer have a human doing the sensing and decision-making, the car has to be flawless,” said John Maddox, an assistant director at the University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Center.

Mcity officials can name the companies that use the site -- Ford, General Motors, Honda, Toyota, Nissan and the auto parts suppliers Bosch and Delphi, among others -- but little beyond that. Demonstrations for the public or media are rare.

After all, Mcity is a place for trial and error, outside of the public eye, in an industry where errors can cripple a reputation.

On a recent sunny afternoon, a gap in the sheeting afforded a view of a black Lincoln MKZ sedan with sensors mounted on its roof and two engineers in the front seats. It crept cautiously toward an intersection, slowed to a stop and executed a right turn, using its turn signal, of course. The black car made its way through the artificial downtown.
Moments later, a white Lincoln MKS rolled along a straightaway at about 25 miles per hour, swept around a wide left turn and negotiated its way through the downtown. Later, the cars stopped side by side under a green highway sign indicating a nonexistent ramp for I-96 to Lansing. There, the occupants stepped out to examine the rooftop sensors. After a long pause, the two cars repeated the same trek at a deliberate pace -- much more slowly than the cars traveling on the public roads surrounding the site.

The testing is being conducted with the utmost care because the number of unanticipated challenges that arise on the road is almost limitless -- a fallen limb, black ice, a reckless driver, a toddler in the street.

“There are real and significant questions about the safety of new technologies,” Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said at an April 27 meeting in California. “The old model of counting vehicle miles and counting crashes and injuries is not sufficient.”

This month, the safety agency, which has limited authority to regulate the practice of test-driving autonomous vehicles on public roads, cautiously gave approval to several companies to begin testing on public roadways.
But the industry is not waiting around.

In addition to its Mcity effort, the University of Michigan is a partner in a project to set up a much more complex site about 10 miles away in neighboring Ypsilanti. It will be called the American Center for Mobility and will comprise 335 acres that were once part of G.M.’s Willow Run plant. During World War II, it was the site of a famed bomber factory. Mr. Maddox has been named the center’s chief.

Unlike Mcity, this larger site will have long stretches where autonomous cars can be tested at highway speeds and space for creating a variety of complex intersections. Its existing roadways include overpasses and bridges.

Ford is interested in potentially using the Willow Run facility, said Randy Visintainer, Ford’s director of autonomous vehicle development. “It is something we would probably have to create if it didn’t exist,” he said.

In California, a former military base has been turned into a 2,100-acre test site called GoMentum Station, where Honda has been testing its autonomous driving technology. It has about 20 miles of paved roads and a cluster of barracks and buildings that provide an urban environment. It is also a secure location where companies can test cars in private.
Outside Blacksburg, Virginia, Virginia Tech set up a test site that incorporates stretches of public roads and a closed track.

The challenge, by all accounts, is enormous.

This year, an Audi executive mused upon how difficult it would be for a driverless car to distinguish between a shopping cart and a baby carriage. Delphi has reported that the systems it is working on struggle at times to read traffic lights. The problem? The glare of a setting sun.
“The bottom line is if you have a 4,000-pound car in the same space as a 200-pound human, you have to know the vehicle is going to react exactly the way you want every single time,” Mr. Maddox said. “It’s going to take a lot of testing to validate that.”

The Willow Run test track is supposed to have an engineering center where Mr. Maddox hopes automakers and regulators can work together to develop new test methods.

So far, most of the testing of autonomous vehicles has taken place on public streets.

Google says its cars have driven more than 1.5 million miles in the testing it conducts on roads near its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. In recent months, it has expanded its testing program to Kirkland, Washington, Austin, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona. All other companies have accumulated far fewer test miles.

Mr. Maddox suspects that is a small fraction of the testing that needs to be done. On average, he noted, a fatal accident happens once for every 100 million miles that Americans drive. “We are a long way from having enough experience,” he said.

A recent study by the RAND Corporation concluded that autonomous vehicles might have to be driven hundreds of millions, or even billions, of miles to reach a statistical certainty of their safety.

Moreover, on-road trials fall short of what is needed. If an autonomous car doesn’t react properly in a real-world situation -- if, for example, a building’s shadow causes the car to slow suddenly -- the situation cannot be recreated and repeated to identify the issue and fine-tune the car’s sensors, said Huei Peng, an engineering professor and director of the University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Center.

“We have to see how these vehicles interact with their surroundings and need repeatable, reliable tests to do that,” he said.

And crashes do occur. Google’s cars, as of last September, had 16 crashes, and all were because of human error, the company said at the time. In a report to California regulators, Google disclosed that human drivers had to take control of its test cars 341 times in a 15-month period covering 2014 and 2015, including 13 incidents when the car would have crashed had the driver not intervened.

Google and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles are working together to have a test fleet of 100 minivans driving themselves around roads in Michigan and elsewhere by the end of the year. Google is setting up an engineering center in Novi, Michigan, to equip the minivans with self-driving technology.

In the same time frame, Ford plans to expand its fleet to 30 self-driving prototypes from 10. G.M. and its partner, the ride-hailing start-up Lyft, hope to have a test fleet of driverless taxis running within a year.

This article was originally published by The New York Times.

Ypsi Alloy Studios renews lease after finishing strong first year

This month marks one year since the trio of women opened Ypsi Alloy Studios, a small makers space for local artists, and they’re looking for more.

Ypsil Alloy Studios has renewed its lease for 2,440 square feet of light industrial space at 564 Mansfield Road. It currently has 11 artists working out of the space and is about to sign a contract with the 12th artist, putting it back to capacity.

"We have metal smiths, fiber artists, sculpturers, wood workers, a fabricator, and a 2-D mixed-media person," says Jessica Tenbusch, co-founder of Ypsi Alloy Studios.

A couple of the original artists transitioned out of the space this year, one moved to California and another to Finland. Ypsi Alloy Studios was designed to act as a place local artisans could call home. Whether they choose to make it long-term or temporary is up to them, so there is always fluidity to its community.

Tenbusch along with Elize Jekabson and Ilana Houten make up the core team that launched Ypsi Alloy Studios. Now that that have gained some solid footing on it they are looking to do more outreach this year, such as hosting market days at the studios so that patrons can see their tenants' art on a regular basis.

The three women have also cemented the core of their community to help ensure its longevity. Their advice to anyone looking to do something similar: form a team and build on it.

"It's important to have a couple people doing this with you," Houten says. "Don't try to do everything on your own. It definitely requires more than one brain."

Source: Elize Jekabson, Ilana Houten and Jessica Tenbusch, co-founders of Ypsi Alloy Studios
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

This article was originally published at Concentrate Ann Arbor.

Hundreds of new Comcast outdoor WiFi hotspots installed throughout Michigan

Comcast has installed close to 700 Xfinity WiFi hotspots around southeast Michigan.The outdoor hotspots have been installed in public spaces in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Grosse Pointe, Royal Oak and St. Clair Shores, according to a news release.

This bumps the total statewide WiFi hotspot count to 654,000, making Comcast the service provider with the largest coverage area.

The hotspots aren't hard to find. Opening up the WiFi settings on your phone or laptop around town usually displays "xfinitywifi" as an available network. For Comcast Xfinity internet customers, the hotspots are accessible by entering a Comcast email and password.

Non-customers can also use the outdoor hotspots for free twice per month for one hour each session. After that, non-customers can buy access at hourly, daily, weekly or monthly rates.

Comcast plans to launch additional outdoor hotspots around Michigan throughout this year.

"We're a mobile-centric society with an insatiable appetite for staying connected all the time, everywhere," said Tim Collins, Comcast senior vice president in Michigan, in the release. "These outdoor hotspots offer our customers even more value from their (Xfinity) service by letting them connect to family, friends, information and entertainment like never before."

Amping up the WiFi service in public locations piggybacks on Comcast's early 2016 gigabit internet service launch. By the second half of 2016, Detroit will be one of five cities in which the new DOCSIS 3.1-powered gigabit internet will be available.

Comcast has had its Gigabit Pro service running for a year, at a cost of $299 per month to willing customers. Collins said in December that Comcast put the service in place for the handful of customers who absolutely needed gigabit services immediately.

It's a placeholder.

The new service provides more gigabit speed options.

"We're constantly working to ensure that our customers get the fastest speeds available, and that they get them first," said Comcast Central Division President, Bill Connors. "DOCSIS 3.1 represents a tremendous step forward in our commitment to keeping customers at the technology forefront..."

The new service allows customers to receive gigabit service over existing hardware, which is a different approach than fiber-to-home services that require construction.

Comcast's WiFi hotspots can be located through its Xfinity WiFi app.

Ian Thibodeau is the business and development reporter for MLive Media Group in Detroit. He can be reached at ithibode@mlive.com, or follow him on Twitter.

This article was originally published on MLive.com.


The University of Michigan is one of the World's Most Reputable Universities 2016

The University of Michigan is ranked number 14 in the list of World's Most Reputable Universities in 2016, according to Forbes. 

The full article was originally published on Forbes
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