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First Class Committee provides high fashion without high price

When Terrance Jones went to start a clothing company, he had more than one theme to base it on in mind. To Jones, craftsmanship, music, and affordability all play integral role in the hand-sewn clothes he makes at First Class Committee.

"I want to give people access to high fashion without paying high prices," Jones says.

The Midtown-based clothing label got its start when Jones was studying at Louisiana State University and was in its infancy when he moved to Austin, Texas, after college. First Class Committee started to come into its own when Jones made the move to Detroit a little less than a year ago. He is now a part of the Fashion Incubator at the Detroit Garment Group.

There he is working on developing his label's production and branding. For now, his line is primarily made up of shirts, sweaters, and hoodies. He designs them with an urban aesthetic that draws inspiration from contemporary music, often hip hop, but also from other genres like alternative rock and techno.

Jones hand-makes all of First Class Committee's clothing, cutting and sewing it entirely himself. To him that's a competitive advantage because it lowers the production costs and enhances the craftsmanship.

"It cuts out the middlemen," Jones says. "I can make it more affordably."

Jones currently sells First Class Committee's clothing online and in local retailers like Bob’s Classic Kicks. He wants to spend 2016 establishing the brand in Detroit and pumping up sales, though he doesn't see himself giving up the sewing until his brand success mandates it.

"I like making them myself," Jones says. "It's one on one with me and my clients. It's a unique and personal feeling."

Source: Terrance Jones, founder & CEO of First Class Committee
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

VizBe aims to help employees achieve their goals through visualization

Natalia Petraszczuk believes that people can will themselves to better things by consistently visualizing their goals -- so much so that last spring she launched a startup, VizBe, around the idea.

"I saw a very big niche in the self-development industry," Petraszczuk says. "It's an $11-billion market."

A client of the Macomb-OU INCubator and a tenant at Grand Circus in downtown Detroit, VizBe is creating a goal-setting platform that helps people achieve personal and professional success through visualization, specifically assigning visual imagery to goal-setting in a practice called vision boards. The platform helps instill motivation and accountability into people.

"It allows them to easily create vision boards, set due dates, and prompts them to help them realize their goals," Petraszczuk says.

The three-person team is currently working on an enterprise model for companies to use with their employees. It is also looking at adding some clients in education next year, but first is focusing on its commercial end.

"We're piloting with a few companies in the area," Petraszczuk says.

Source: Natalia Petraszczuk, founder & CEO of VizBe
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Bogobrush remakes toothbrush with bioplastic from Michigan farms

Bogobrush made a splash a few years ago, selling its first run of biodegradble toothbrushes thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign. Today Bogobrush is debuting a better, more sustainable toothbrush.

The original Bogobrush toothbrush featured a shaft made of sculpted bamboo and bristles composed of bio-plastic nylon. The idea was to use materials that grew quickly (bamboo) and decomposed nearly as fast. The idea turned out to be better on paper than in reality.

"We ended up losing half of our first product run (due to problems with using bamboo)," says John McDougall, who co-founded the Midtown-based business with his sister Heather McDougall. "We knew it wouldn’t be a suitable material for us."

So the McDougall siblings went back to the drawing board, and it’s a decision they are happy they made. They switched the shaft material from bamboo to bioplastic, specifically a flaxseed oil-based plastic from local farms. It allowed Bogobrush to move production of the toothbrushes from overseas to Michigan.

"We were able to get the same compostability as we did with the bamboo, but we could do it locally," John McDougall says.

The new Bogobrush toothbrush comes with a stand (also made of the bioplastic) and compostable nylon bristles. The whole package is just as biodegrable as the previous version, meaning it can return to the earth within a few months if tossed out into a compost pile.

"You should expect it to break down as fast as a piece of wood," John McDougall says.

Bogobrush started off with an order of 5,000 brushes and has done two more new orders. John McDougall hopes to send out 10,000 in orders by the end of this holiday shopping season. Currently it is running a social mission special where for every toothbrush purchased, one is donated to a person in need. It has already sent more than 2,000 toothbrushes through partner health clinics like Covenant Community Care, which provides dental care to patients throughout Metro Detroit, regardless of their ability to pay.

"The more we can sell, the more we can give to our partners," John McDougall says.

He hopes grab a toehold in the metro Detroit market this year, selling a few ten thousand toothbrushes over the course of 2016. That would leave a lot of room for growth in a market where 450 million toothbrushes end up in landfills. Bogobrush's new toothbrushes retail for $14.25 and can be purchased here.

Source: John McDougall, co-founder of Bogobrush
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Ash & Erie makes big bet on making clothing for shorter men

Note: This article has been modified to reflect a change in the name of the business. 

Steven Mazur and Eric Huang’s big idea was to make everyday clothing for shorter men. The Venture For America fellows capitalized on it by launching Ash & Erie last spring. This week they are set to ship the first articles of clothing to their first customers.

The downtown Detroit-based startup specializes in making clothing for men 5 feet 8 inches or shorter. Its target customers are young people in their 20s and 30s. The idea is to capitalize on a market segment that is largely overlooked by mainstream clothiers, leaving millions of men with clothing that doesn't fit comfortably. Ash & Erie is starting out by selling casual button-down shirts.

"For the spring and summer we are looking at some knits, t-shirts, and polos," says Mazur, co-founder & CEO of Ash & Erie. "For the fall we’re looking at doing jeans and chinos."

Mazur and Haung are members of the second-annual class of fellows from Venture For America, a program that pairs promising college graduates with startups in economically challenged cities like Detroit. It drew its inspiration from Teach For America, which pairs college graduates with teaching positions in big city school districts. Venture For America tries to provide a fast-track to entrepreneurship for recent college grads who want to work with startups.

Mazur and Haung completed their two-year fellowship with Venture For America earlier this year. They launched Ash & Erie shortly thereafter and participated in the Venture For America accelerator program in Philadelphia last summer. They returned to Detroit this fall planning to roll out their clothing line in 2016.

"A lot of the focus and time was spent on the back end of the business," Mazur says.

They started with a crowdfunding campaign that raised $26,461. That let them place Ash & Erie's first order for 1,000 casual button-down shirts, which arrived earlier this month. The first 250 recipients of the shirts will go to the crowdfunding backers. Another 100 people have placed pre-orders, and those total 350 orders will be shipped on Thursday.

Mazur and Haung plan to sell the rest of those shirts by the end of this year through online orders. Ash & Erie offers free shipping, returns, and exchanges as part of its effort to focus on customer service in its first months of operations. It's a modest-yet-important goal in what they consider a big opportunity.

Source: Steven Mazur, co-founder & CEO of Ash & Erie
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Build, DC3 focus on raising revenue for fledgling businesses

Build Institute and the Detroit Creative Corridor Center have made names for themselves by helping aspiring entrepreneurs realize their dreams. This fall they are helping dozens of small business they played a role in launching keep the dream alive.

Build Institute and Detroit Creative Corridor Center are launching new programs or emphasizing existing programs that help these new businesses generate revenue and establish themselves as long-term staples in their communities.

"We think of it as incubation/proof of concept," April Boyle, executive director of Build Institute, wrote in an email. "It allows new businesses to interface with customers, build their brand, make mistakes and pivots with low overhead, and make some money."

Build Institute provides support and training for aspiring and experienced entrepreneurs so they can build small businesses in Detroit. It has produced more than 600 alumni in its first few years. This year it started hosting its Build Bazaars, events that feature Build Institute graduates selling their products.

This fall Build Institute is announcing a holiday shop local initiative that highlights local small businesses and entrepreneurs with a handful events centered around its Build Bazaars. There are 173 vendors at all of the five Build Bazaars. About 90 are grads of Build Institute programs. The next two bazaars are on Nov. 28 at One Campus Martius for Small Business Saturday and on Dec. 5 during Noel Night at the Majestic Theater.

The Detroit Creative Corridor Center, a nonprofit focused on building up Detroit’s creative economy, is launching a new program for creative firms and freelancers in Michigan called Creative Co.

"It connects freelancers with one another and the larger creative community," says Ellie Schneider, interim executive director of Detroit Creative Corridor Center.

The new program provides design firms and freelancers the with business development opportunities, community, and networks they need to thrive. Among the benefits are:

- Access to exclusive request for proposals from the Creative Co. Services Fund.
- Quarterly workshops, speaker series, and social events.
- Promotional opportunities and exposure through Detroit Creative Corridor Center channels.
- A private, online forum for Creative Co. members to share experiences and speak with mentors/advisory board.
- Discounts at local businesses and service providers

Applications for the new Creative Co program are open through Friday. For information, click here.

Source: April Boyle, executive director of Build Institute, and Ellie Schneider, interim executive director of Detroit Creative Corridor Center
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Detroit Trading Co. opens large downtown Detroit office

A high-profile Oakland County tech company is expanding south of 8 Mile Road, opening up a new office in downtown Detroit.

Detroit Trading Co. has leased an over 10,000-square-foot space at 601 W. Fort St. that it is using as a call center. So far that space has been filled with 20 new employees, and the company still has plans to grow next year.

"We're renovating another 30,000 square feet," says Matt Clayson, vice president and general counsel for Detroit Trading Co. "It's available for future growth and leasing to compatible companies."

The Southfield-based company got its start creating technology platforms that gathered, analyzed, and organized Internet sales leads for car dealers a decade ago. It sold them on an exchange to automotive dealerships. It has since grown to a staff of 47 employees, including the 20 new hires in Detroit.

"A majority of the firm’s growth is happening in the city limits," Clayson says.

One of its most recent projects is creating what Clayson describes as experiential centers, which is being branded as a car show. That basically means Detroit Trading Co is building out an automotive showroom that features a combination of brands of vehicles.

Today auto buyers can only see different cars within the specific brands offered by an auto dealership. Detroit Trading Co. leverages its connections in the auto dealership world to bring all of those brands under one roof. Detroit Trading Co. recently debuted its first iteration of the concept as a pop-up in Eastern Market last weekend.

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

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

Pasta startup Banza wins big prize at this year’s Accelerate Michigan

When they started handing out the big checks at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition last week, the biggest went to small food startup working out of an old tax foreclosure in Virginia Park.

Banza, which makes gluten-free pasta, won the grand prize worth $500,000 in seed capital at Accelerate Michigan, the most prestigious business plan competition in Michigan. The firm has come a long way, and it's done so a lot faster than most people thought it would, including its founders.

"We totally did not expect to win," says Brian Rudolph, co-founder of Banza. "From our perspective (Accelerate Michigan) was geared toward tech companies. We have some intellectual property, but we are not the gold standard for tech companies."

Brian Rudolph formed Banza with his brother, Scott Rudolph, in January of 2014. At the time Brian was a fellow with Venture For America, a Teach For America-style program that pairs promising college graduates with startups in economically challenged cities like Detroit.

The Rudolph brother’s big idea was making gluten-free pasta from chickpeas. They aspired to make Banza to pasta what Chobani (a popular brand of Greek yogurt) was to yogurt. By August of last year they were launching Banza and had boxes on store shelves by January 2015.

Banza is headquartered out of an century-old mansion renovated by members of the first class of Venture For America fellows based in Detroit. The group, working under the name Rebirth Realty, bought it at Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction in 2013. They spent the next year renovating it and moved in late last year. A couple of the startups co-founded by members of that first class are also based out of the house. Many of them spent months saving money eating free boxes of Banza that were edible but deemed not worthy for store shelves.

Banza is the startup taking off the fastest in that house. Its pasta can now be bought across the U.S. and its team has grown to eight people. Banza raised a $1.3-million seed round in March and is working with a Michigan-based manufacturer to pump up its production.

"We have been break-even or cash-flow positive since (landing the seed round)," Brian Rudolph says. "We plan to use it to increase our capacity."

Banza recently increased its production capacity by 60 percent. It is now working on plans that could double or even triple its capacity next year. Banza can currently be found in 1,700 stores across the U.S., mainly in regional retailers like Meijer, Jewel Osco (Chicago area), and Sprouts Farmers Market (California).

"It has been a good, quick start," Brian Rudolph says. "We're starting to build some density in the Northeast and we have some good density in the Detroit area. We also are building a lot of density in California."

Source: Brian Rudolph, co-founder of Banza
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Detroit Bikes offering limited-edition fixed-wheel bike exclusively through crowd funding campaign

Detroit Bikes is preparing to release a new model of bicycle, the C-Type, next year with the help of a crowdfunding campaign.

The Detroit-based bicycle manufacturer's newest product is a fixed-wheel bike with a diamond frame and drop handlebars. The frame is made of 100 percent U.S.-made lightweight chromoly that comes with a lifetime warranty. The C-Type also comes with knobby tires for use in all weather conditions. It will retail for $599.

"We want to keep it really simple and affordable," says Zak Pashak, president of Detroit Bikes. "It's a really good city bike."

It’s also Detroit Bikes' first fixie. Its earlier models, the A-Type and B-Type, came with a similar simplistic design but three gears. Those retail for $699. All three models are made in Detroit Bikes' factory on the city's west side.

The C-Type is available exclusively through Detroit Bikes' crowdfunding campaign. There funders will have a choice of choosing the color (hunter green, fluorescent yellow, flat black, royal blue and mint green) by donating the retail price of the bike. Detroit Bikes will manufacture 200 bikes of each color, which will be delivered in May of next year. Funders can also purchase just a frame for $300. People who give $1,000 will have an opportunity to buy a chrome edition, only 30 of which will be produced.

This project is part of Detroit Bikes' new strategy to boost sales, which are on track to exceed 1,000 bikes this year. To help reach its sales goals, the company opened a storefront in downtown Detroit and hired a national sales director. The company now employs 30 people after hiring 20 this year. Pashak expects Detroit Bikes' combined efforts to lift sales significantly next year.

"We expect to get up to 5,000 or 10,000 sales next year," Pashak says.

Source: Zak Pashak, president of Detroit Bikes
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Detroit dried milk manufacturer sees serious growth after expansion

VernDale Products made a big bet on itself last year, sinking several million into a new food production facility on the city’s west side. The family business is now reaping the benefits with more production, modernized processes, and lots of new hires.

"We had figured on hiring nine total people for our new place," says Dale Johnson, president of VernDale Products. "We have already hired 14 people. We had to staff up for a whole new operation."

The 57-year-old company and its team of 58 employees makes roller dried milk powder, which is primarily used by premium chocolate manufacturers. The firm got its start in the footprint of what is now the Renaissance Center before moving to the west side at 8445 Lyndon. Last year VernDale Products built out a new facility at 18940 Weaver St., north of Joy Road between the Southfield Freeway and Evergreen Road.

The new facility added 60 percent to VernDale Products' production capabilities; however, that extra ability to make more roller dried milk powder went more to reassuring the firm's customers that it could keep up with their needs.

"It was more a case of us needing redundant production." Johnson says.

The ancillary benefit to the expansion is what it did for VernDale Products that management wasn't expecting. The expansion enabled it to modernize the firm's backend processes, such as updating plant procedures, guidelines and logistics.

"The company has become more mature," Johnson says. "We have addressed a lot of issues we needed to address."

That came at a price. VernDale Products dropped $20 million into the new production facility, an investment that also came with the help of a $436,000 business development incentive from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and tax abatement from the city of Detroit. The original budget was $12 million, but Johnson and his team decided to make the best long-term decisions with an idea of positioning the company for future growth, including a projected 5-10 percent jump in revenue next year.

"We had to decide to take shortcuts or do it right," Johnson says. "We did it right but at a greater expense."

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

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

Detroit urban ag startup raises edible insects

When people think of insects the initial reaction is often not a positive one. When the co-founders of Detroit Ento think of insects, they see opportunity.

The Eastern Market-based startup is working to build a business around turning locally sourced insects into food and other similar products.

"We are an urban sustainable protein R&D firm for food, feed and pharma," says Theodore Kozerski, co-founder of Detroit Ento.

Kozerski and Anthony Hatinger launched Detroit Ento six months ago. They both worked in urban agriculture before that, including Kozerski working in the farm-to-cafeteria program at Detroit Public Schools. They both were intrigued by the ideas of pushing the urban agriculture envelope beyond raised beds and fish farms.

They found an opportunity to do so in Detroit Ento, a startup is raising insects that are eventually turned into edibles. Insects can serve as alternative sources of protein in both human food (cricket tacos, anyone?) and animal feed. They can also be sold to pharmaceutical companies for research purposes.

Detroit Ento currently is figuring out how to create a product line of insects bred, grown, and sold in Detroit. It's currently researching how to create processes that will make that happen in an economical way.

"The main thing is to get production going," Kozerski says.

Source: Theodore Kozerski, co-founder of Detroit Ento
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Birmingham/NYC dental practice opens downtown Detroit location

Dr. Robert Di Pilla isn't your average dentist with a suburban practice. The dental surgeon caters to a list of high-profile clientele at his offices here in metro Detroit and in New York City. And he’s opening a third office in downtown Detroit this fall.

"I have a great affinity for Detroit," Dr. Di Pilla says. "One of my first jobs was at J.L. Hudson's downtown store in the packing department."

Now Dr. Di Pilla is expanding his dental practice to a new location in Suite 1625 at One Woodward Avenue. The new office measures out to 2,000 square feet on the 16th floor and features sweeping views of downtown and the Detroit River.

Dr. Di Pilla is opening the downtown Detroit office with Kevin Groth as a partner. They aim to create an office that offers comprehensive dental services, ranging from general dentistry to advanced restoration dentistry. They also plan to offer a small residency program for local dental students.

Source: Dr. Robert Di Pilla, president of Robert Di Pilla, DDS, SAGD
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Pristine Impressions wins seed capital from Warrior Fund

Demetrius Dixon used to work as a carpet cleaner. He was the on-the-ground man in Detroit for a New York-based company. It was a good gig -- so good that it inspired him to launch his own business, Pristine Impressions.

That was a year ago. It started with Dixon just working on carpet cleaning. He then brought his brothers who has worked in things like property management and landscaping into the business. Now Pristine Impressions has expanded into a full-fledged property management firm with a list of a couple dozen clients.

"We're just growing," Dixon says.

Dixon is also a junior at Wayne State University, pursuing a bachelors degree in business management. He got some help from Blackstone LaunchPad, a university program that helps students turn their aspirations for launching a business into reality.

"It gave me all sorts of experience that will help me be a better business owner," Dixon says.

It also gave the Woodbridge-based company some seed capital. Pristine Impressions won $5,000 from Blackstone LaunchPad's Warrior Fund earlier this month as part of the program's pitch competition. Dixon and his brothers plan to put the money to use by purchasing $3,000 in new equipment and spending $2,000 to develop a software database to better run the back end of the business.

"I want to be a leading property management firm in Detroit," Dixon says.

Source: Demetrius Dixon, founder of Pristine Impressions
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Detroit startup's app tracks behavior to help people manage disorders

For the last three years, Birdhouse has made a name for itself as a startup that helps the loved ones of people with autism with a behavior tracking app. Now the downtown Detroit-based company has its sights set on a bigger audience.

"We have expanded beyond autism," says Ben Chutz, co-founder of Birdhouse. "That's the easiest way to put it."

Chutz launched Birdhouse after spending time with his girlfriend and her autistic daughter. The startup’s platform helps track the behavior of autistic children so the people taking care of them can better manage the disorder. Birdhouse graduated from Bizdom last year and landed a $250,000 angel round to help it scale its online/mobile technology. That work inspired Chutz to expand its reach.

"We saw all sorts of different diagnoses coming in," Chutz says. "We saw ADHD and epilepsy and everything else under the sun."

Birdhouse is working to expand its mobile app to include a wide variety of disorders and chronic conditions -- everything from developmental disabilities to chronic illnesses. The idea is to enable the caregivers to better help the people who need it. Chutz can even see it being used by special education teachers.

"That way teachers can work with parents on providing the best care for their child," Chutz says.

Birdhouse currently has a staff of three employees and a handful of independent contractors. Chutz and his team are in the midst of raising a $250,000 seed round for Birdhouse.

Source: Ben Chutz, co-founder of Birdhouse
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Healthy food company Savorfull grows product line, client base exponentially

Savorfull has found a number of ways to grow this year. The New Center-based startup has grown its product lineup, client base, and head count.

The 3-year-old company has found its place helping professional sports teams and other large organizations provide healthy food to their fans, workers, and clients. It pairs them up with packaged, healthy, allergen-friendly foods such as energy bars, snacks, trail mixes, cereals, and beverages. Savorfull has since expanded to include more professional sports teams, some universities, and airlines.

"A lot of sports teams have private planes," says Stacy Goldberg, founder & CEO of Savorfull. "A lot of airlines also have higher-end clients that want nutritious foods."

Savorfull has helped make its services more attractive by greatly expanding its product lineup. It now offers thousands of products across 30 brands.

"We have really grown in terms of our product lineup," Goldberg says. "It has grown exponentially."

Which has allowed Savorfull's revenue to quadruple over the last year. It has also hired two people, expanding its staff to six people. Its new hires include a business development and content editor professionals. It's looking to hire a sales person.

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

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

Varnum moves into new office in downtown Detroit

The Varnum law firm quietly opened its newest office in downtown Detroit over the weekend, bringing another 20 jobs to the Motor City.

The Grand Rapids-based law firm is taking over 10,000 square feet in the old Federal Reserve Building. It chose the space because of the unique aspects of the historic structure and the proximity to current and potential clients.

"We thought it was a very unique space, a very progressive space," says Rich Hewlett, partner at Varnum. "It's a Dan Gilbert building. We hope to do some work with Gilbert in light of everything that is going on downtown."

Varnum is 128-years-old and bills itself as a full-service law firm for businesses and organizations of all sizes. Its largest client in Detroit is Henry Ford Health System.

Varnum plans to maintain its current metro Detroit office in Novi, however, that office will shrink a little to grow the downtown Detroit office, which will have eight permanent attorneys, six visiting attorneys, two paralegals, and another 10 people in support staff.

"A number of the attorneys from the Novi office are seeding our Detroit office," Hewlett says.

Source: Rich Hewlett, partner at Varnum
Writer: Jon Zemke

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