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High school students turn study lessons into new startup, High School 101

Many high school students spend their time working hard to graduate. A small group in Metro Detroit are doing that and making a business out of it.

High School 101 is an educational resource created by students that teaches other students how to learn. The idea is that students are more likely to relate and follow the advice of their peers.

"When a student in high school tells them what they did to succeed, they will use those tools," says Jonah Erlich, founder & CEO of High School 101.

Erlich is a senior at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield. Last year he noticed his younger sister was having a harder time with school, so he helped teach her how to be a better student.

"After helping her I thought, 'Why don’t I try to help other people out?'" Erlich says.

He worked with school administrators to put on a small seminar teaching other students how to better learn in class. More than 20 students showed up and the idea took off. Now Erlich and team of four other people (high school and college students) are working to put this idea into an online learning tool through High School 101, which is based in downtown Detroit where Erlich shares an office with his father.

The High School 101 team is currently working on building out a user base and developing more educational products over the next year.

Source: Jonah Erlich, founder & CEO of High School 101
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Lazlo employs returning citizens to make sustainable clothing

T-shirt companies are a dime a dozen in Detroit, but Lazlo, a new company in Corktown, is working to set itself apart from that pack.

Brother and sister partners Christian and Kathryn Birky are doing so by employing formerly incarcerated Detroiters to make high-end, socially conscious t-shirts and paying them a living wage.

"A large portion of the prison population ends up back in prison after it gets out," Christian Birky says. "There are many reasons for this, but the difficulty in finding a job is part of it."

Christian Birky spent time working as a tutor in a prison in New Jersey before starting Lazlo. He knows there is a large pool of untapped potential in that section of the population that only needs a pathway to success, which to him includes a well-paying job.

The Birky siblings think they can provide that by making high-end clothing in Detroit. Lazlo's first product is a white t-shirt. The Birkys are using high-end, organic cotton produced in America to make shirt, which is designed to better fit each user and comes with a life-time guarantee. Prices start at $120 and top out at $198.

"I was looking for clothing I wanted to wear made in a way that I wanted to support," Christian Birky says. "There was a disconnect between what I was wearing and the values I held in my life."

The Birkys plan to expand their product line into more menswear items by next year. They also want to expand their production team to 10 people by next year. In the meantime they are working to raise $27,000 in a crowdfunding campaign to get their venture off the ground.

Source: Christian Birky, co-founder of Lazlo
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Secure Beginnings sees significant growth after 'Shark Tank' appearance

For its first five years, Secure Beginnings was a sleepy little company making breathable mattresses for infants with the intention of preventing Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Then it went on TV.

Specifically, it went on "Shark Tank," a reality TV show on ABC that features entrepreneurs pitching the next great business idea to investors. Secure Beginnings appeared on the show in May and its visibility immediately took off.

"In the first day we had it up (a video describing its product), we had 2 million views," says Julie Andreae, founder and president of Secure Beginnings. "The growth just took off."

Detroit Riverfont-based company makes a mattress for babies that is more like a trampoline than a normal mattress. It is made of a porous frame and bedding material that allows greater air circulation for both infants and toddlers. It contains no fiber-fill. The fabric the child sleeps on enables airflow to prevent harmful levels of carbon dioxide from building up near a baby's head, even if the child is on its stomach.

Secure Beginnings is now three months behind on filling its orders thanks to the spike in demand from its turn on reality TV. The company went from making $40,000 a month selling its mattresses to $70,000 a month. It is now aiming for $80,000 a month and profitability.

Secure Beginnings is also now looking to add to its staff, which is has double to six people over the last year. It's also looking to hire three more people now to keep up with demand. The firm is also looking to expand its sales reach to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada this year.

"We have a lot of growing left to do," Andreae says.

Source: Julie Andreae, founder & president of Secure Beginnings
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Downtown projects now the bulk of Kraemer Design Group's workload

Kraemer Design Group has played a pivotal role in transforming downtown Detroit over the last 20 years. Now downtown Detroit is playing an increasingly important role in the architecture firm's bottom line.

The downtown Detroit-based firm did a lot of marquee projects in its early years, including the Lofts of Merchants Row and Harmonie Park commercial buildings. When the Great Recession hit, more and more of Kraemer Design Group's workload came from outside of Michigan, so much so that only 20 percent of the company's workload came from Detroit four years ago.

That has changed in recent years with downtown Detroit’s rapid rebound. Kraemer Design Group has served as the architect for a number of marquee projects in recent years, including the Broderick Tower and the David Whitney Building renovations. That work pushed the share of its revenue from Detroit project past 50 percent two years ago. Today it's nearly 80 percent.

"Now it's coming back and coming back incredibly strong," says Robert Kraemer, principal of Kraemer Design Group.

That has allowed Kraemer Design Group to hire seven people over the last year, expanding its staff to 29 employees and an intern. That team is working on a number of historic renovations in downtown Detroit, including 28 W. Grand River, 1201 Wooward (the new GSTV headquarters), and an expansion of the Lofts of Merchants Row.

That's going work for now but Kraemer expects the historic rehab work to start tailing off and turning into more new construction over the next few years.

"There are not too many of the big empty buildings left in downtown Detroit," Kraemer says.

Source: Robert Kraemer, principal of Kraemer Design Group
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Fresh Corner Cafe begins popping up in Detroit community centers

Fresh Corner Cafe has long been an innovator when it comes to improving the availability of healthy food in inner-city neighborhoods. Now the company is introducing a couple of new programs, including one that is bringing healthy-eating pop-ups to community centers across Detroit.

The Midtown-based startup has launched its Fresh Food Pop-up in a handful of Detroit's community centers, starting with one in Brightmoor (the Detroit Achievement Academy) this summer. The weekly pop-up eatery will feature its freshly made sandwiches, wraps, and other eatables.

"Every community center we partner with will have a weekly pop-up," says Noam Kimelman, founder & president of Fresh Corner Cafe.

The 5-year-old startup, which is based out of the Green Garage, got its start with the idea of bringing fruits and vegetables to inner city corner stores, where food choices are often unhealthy, prepared foods. The idea was bring more healthy-eating options to stores where working class people only had a few shelves of junk food to choose from.

Fresh Corner Cafe switched to selling its own sandwiches and wraps from those bodegas, and eventually went with selling them from their own coolers. The business also started its own catering service.

"Catering has become an important part of our business," Kimelman says.

The Fresh Food Pop-up program will start in half a dozen community centers this summer. Kimelman and his team of five people hope to grow it to 40 community centers by the end of the year.

"This model takes us directly to the consumer," Kimelman says. "We can sell it to the consumers at the wholesale price."

Fresh Corner Cafe also recently launched a new lunchbox catering website called "Small Batch that Box," which allows customers to add locally made foods to their lunch. The options include Detroit Friends' authentic farm-to-table potato chips and a dark chocolate peanut butter granola bite made by the Detroit Food Academy.

Source: Noam Kimelman, founder & president of Fresh Corner Cafe
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Peck Produce aims to sell 20,000 pounds of vegetables from its urban farm

Peck Produce is growing a lot of vegetables this year. So much that the urban farm expects to sell 20,000 pounds of produce after everything is harvested this growing season.

"We're trying to do as much as we can with what we have right now," says Noah Link, co-owner of Peck Produce.

Link and Alex Bryan launched the urban farm in 2011 after purchasing a four-acre lot from the Michigan Land Bank. The one square block sits on the 1600 block of Lawrence Street. It previously served as the home Peck Elementary School before it was torn down.

Today Peck Produce, also known as Food Field, grows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables on the site, including leafy greens, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, ginger, artichokes, and parsnips. Last year the urban farm sold 16,000 pounds of produce.

Peck Produce also has chickens it uses to produce fresh eggs and turkeys for butchering later this year. It also has an aquaponics operation that is growing all sorts of native fish.

"We have 400-500 catfish and blue gill growing in the fish pond," Link says.

Peck Produce has a staff of four people, including two new team members it has brought on over the last year. Link and his team are starting to host community dinners this summer with food grown on the farm to help bring more people into urban agriculture as either practitioners or patrons.

Source: Noah Link, co-owner of Peck Produce
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

In its 95th year, Kowalski Companies invests in Hamtramck home, aims to hire 200

Few things say Hamtramck as much the Kowalski sausage sign on Holbrook. It has been an iconic part of the inner-city enclave for generations. This year it's getting a new lease on life as the Kowalski Companies embarks on an ambitious expansion of its operations.

In addition to restoring its iconic sign, the sausage maker is celebrating its 95th anniversary by upgrading its production facilities and adding staff with the goal of expanding its market share.

"We have had many offers to sell the facility in Hamtramck, mostly from out-of-state companies," says Michael Kowalski, president and CEO of Kowalski Companies. "But we have declined these offers because we want to stay where our roots are and give employment opportunities to those who live in the area."

Michael Kowalski is the fourth generation of the Kowalski family to run the business started by his great-grandparents, Zygmund and Agnes. The Polish immigrants first owned a small grocery store on Chene Street in Detroit. They added a smokehouse to the store and began making Kielbasa and other sausages. Demand for those sausages prompted the family to open its factory on Holbrook in 1920.

Michael Kowalski and his sister, Linda Kowalski Jacob, now run Kowalski Companies. The firm has been acquiring other foods companies since 2002. It now has 55 varieties of prepared foods distributed in grocers throughout the Midwest. The brands in the Kowalski Companies' portfolio include Dudek, Tassos, Amhurst Kitchens, Just Sweet 'Nuff Chicken'n'Rib Sauce, Our Famous Sweet'n'Spicy Chicken'n'Rib Sauce, Yiayia's Famous Greek Salad Dressing, Consumer Guild Supreme, Home Style Foods, and The Original Hunters Sausage.

About 2,000 people have worked at the company over its history. It now employs a staff of 160 people after hiring 25 people in production, sales, and truck driving over the last year. It is looking to hire a handful more in production right now. Kowalski Companies is aiming to hire another 200 over the next five years as it expands its production capabilities and adds new equipment and renovates its facilities.

"We'll take a look at anybody who is good," Michael Kowalski says.

Part of the improvements include investing $1.5 million into the Homestyle Foods production facility in Hamtramck. Kowalski Companies is also looking to finish work on refurbishing the Kowalski sign that has stood vigil over Holbrook since the 1940s.

"Once it's done everyone is going to love it," Michael Kowalski says.

Source: Michael Kowalski, president and CEO of Kowalski Companies
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Detroit Bikes hopes to make leap to national brand with key hire

Zakary Pashak has been the face of Detroit Bikes since he moved to the Motor City and launched the bicycle manufacturer in 2011. He set up the firm's production plant on the west side of Detroit, served as its spokesman, and made sale after sale. That's starting to change this summer.

Detroit Bikes has hired former Electra Bicycle Company founder Justin Manthe as its director of sales with the idea of setting up a national sales network for its classic American bicycles. Manthe spent close to 15 years building Electra into a top leisure and lifestyle bicycle brand in the U.S. before coming becoming a part of the Detroit Bikes team.

He's already on the job.

"There are 160 million American who don't ride a bike but could," Manthe says. "We want to build a bike for them."

Detroit Bikes specializes in building accessible, quality bicycles for everyday cruising. It is leveraging Detroit's manufacturing heritage by producing thousands of bikes at its 50,000-square-foot facility. It also recently opened a flagship store in downtown Detroit at 1216 Griswold. The firm’s team of a couple dozen people can produce up to 100 bicycles a day.

"Our goal is fill this facility (with bicycle production) one day," Manthe says.

Source: Justin Manthe, director of sales for Detroit Bikes
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Loveland Technologies launches custom mapping platform, Site Control

For several years, Loveland Technologies has been a startup without a steady revenue stream, relying on custom projects creating digital tools to document property ownership in cities across the U.S. Now the downtown Detroit-based software firm is opening what it hopes will be a new pipeline of consistent business.

Loveland's newest product is Site Control, a software-as-a-service platform that enables users to open personal accounts within Loveland Technologies software and create their own custom maps. The company is offering two Site Control subscription levels: a scaled-back package costing $30 a month and more robust one at $1,000 per month. Loveland is targeting municipalities, neighborhood groups, real-estate developers, and researchers as its initial customers.

"We're trying to get on this track of many more people paying us less money," says Jerry Paffendorf, co-founder & CEO of Loveland Technologies. "We want to grow that pipeline."

The inspiration for Loveland hit Paffendorf and his friends a few years ago when they bought a vacant lot in Detroit and sold square inches of it online. That evolved into a software startup that mapped out every parcel for sale at the Wayne County Tax Auction. WhyDontWeOwnThis.com came online when Wayne County started selling tens of thousands of tax-foreclosed properties, mostly in Detroit, a few years ago.

Since then, Loveland Technologies has monetized its technology by doing custom projects, mapping out things like property ownership or property condition for municipalities. Its highest profile project was working on Motor City Mapping last year. It has since expanded to mapping out close to 500 counties across the U.S. (out of about 3,200 counties), including most of the country's major metropolitan areas. 

"Why would we stop at Detroit?" Paffendorf says. "This is an interesting way to view the world."

Loveland Technologies is also growing its team. It has doubled its employee base to 20 people over the last year and is bringing on two more people (Venture For America fellows) this fall. The company also landed an angel round of investment early last year worth a little more than $1 million from investors like the University of Michigan Social Venture Fund. The firm is funding its expansion with that cash and its own revenues.

Source: Jerry Paffendorf, co-founder & CEO of LOVELAND Technologies
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

IT firm CBI moves to downtown Detroit

CBI, also known as Creative Breakthroughs, is making the move to downtown Detroit, taking up a large chunk of office space in the city’s central business district.

The IT firm is taking up three floors of 1260 Library St., which is every bit of the 4-story building except for the ground floor retail. CBI is moving 50 people into the 10,000 square feet of office space this summer.

"We looked in downtown and Midtown," says Steve Barone, CEO of CBI and a Detroit native. "We couldn't find anything in Midtown."

CBI specializes in IT risk management. It helps protect its customers from hacking and other dangers in the IT world. It's a space in which the 26-year-old firm has grown rapidly.

"We have been doing it a for a long time," Barone says. "It's finally out there that this is something companies need to spend money on. We are in the right place at the right time."

CBI has been averaging 30 percent revenue growth in recent years. It's on track to grow another 40 percent this year. That means more hires. The firm has hired 40 people over the last year, expanding its staff to 120. Despite those hires, CBI is currently looking to fill 20 new open positions.

"We are in rapid-growth mode," Barone says. "We think we will hire 40 more people this year."

About 50 of those people will make the move to downtown Detroit. Thirty more work remotely across the U.S. The rest are staying in CBI's current temporary offices in Ferndale. It moved there from Troy last year, but downtown Detroit is the company's final destination, according to Barone.

"I am glad we're moving back to the city," Barone says. "It's a lifelong dream to get back to the city I love."

Source: Steve Barone, CEO of CBI
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Woodward Throwbacks scores major order with Nordstrom

Lots of aspiring entrepreneurs start lifestyle businesses with big dreams of selling their wares across the country. Woodward Throwbacks is starting to live that dream.

The small business that turns reclaimed wood into consumer goods can now be found in more than a dozen Nordstrom stores across the U.S. The luxury retailer is helping the Corktown-based business launch its line of products nationally.

"They really like what we're doing," says Kyle Dubay, co-founder & CEO of Woodward Throwbacks. "They like the authenticity of it. They think it's a great fit for their stores."

Dubay and his partner Bo Shepherd launched Woodward Throwbacks after they began making products from wood they found at illegal dumping sites across Detroit. The products ranged from bottle-opener signs to six-pack containers that resemble lunch boxes from the early 20th century. Prices for these products range from $20-48.

The four-person operation makes the items by hand at its Corktown studio. It raised $12,000 in a crowdfunding campaign last year to build out its new permanent home just west of Corktown. That project is still ongoing, but Dubay the business will move there within the year.

Nordstrom will sell Woodward Throwbacks products in 27 of its 118 full-line stores. They can be found in stores as close as the Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi and as far away as Anchorage, Alaska.

Source: Kyle Dubay, co-founder & CEO of Woodward Throwbacks
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Southwest Rides fine tunes Springwells Village storefront, programs

This last winter was a long one for Southwest Rides, and that's a good thing. The southwest Detroit-based low-profit-limited-liability company, also known as L3C, is starting to reap the rewards of a long winter’s nap.

"In the winter time we did a lot of preparation in both our retail and programs," says Isaac Gilman, board member of Southwest Rides. "We want to provide more value for the neighborhood."

Southwest Rides operates a bike/skateboard shop in Springwells Village neighborhood at 1824 Springwells St. The retail spot serves two purposes: It offers bicycles, skateboards, and similar equipment at reasonable prices to local kids, and it provides youth programs focused on teaching inner city kids life skills, such as entrepreneurship. Demand for both sides of the business has spiked so far this year.

"We have been busy every day since March," Gilman says.

The 1-year-old L3C has grown its presence through word of mouth in the community, social media marketing and a little bit of marketing efforts. The four-person operation's biggest success is with its Earn a Bike program, a short class that teaches young kids how to fix bikes.

"It's a six-week program for young people to better understand bikes," Gilman says. "Instead of them paying us to fix their bike they can fix it themselves."

The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan-sponsored program has already completed one class this year and is in the process of teaching another. Southwest Rides hopes to expand it to two class at a time soon.

"We're excited about where things are headed," Gilman says.

Source: Isaac Gilman, board member of Southwest Rides
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Ellis Infinity Beverage Co grows 300%, expands presence across Midwest

Seven years ago, Nailah Ellis-Brown was selling tea made from a family recipe out of the trunk of her car. Today, her Ellis Island Tea can be found in Whole Foods supermarkets across the Midwest.

"There are only 22 (Whole Foods) stores in the Midwest region that we are not in," Ellis-Brown says. "They want to put us in all of those stores."

Ellis-Brown launched Ellis Infinity Beverage Co. shortly after leaving college. She took an old family recipe for herbal tea made with hibiscus passed down from her great grandfather, Cyril Byron. The Jamaican immigrant came to the U.S. through Ellis Island in the early 20th Century and worked as a master chef on the Black Star Line, a shipping line started by Marcus Garvey.

At first, Ellis-Brown started selling bottles out of her parent's home and eventually found a way to get them into local stores. She caught the attention of Whole Foods a little more than a year ago. Supplying Whole Foods store shelves helped her grow her Ellis Infinity Beverage Co by 300 percent last year, selling 150 cases per month.

"Our goal is to quadruple that," Ellis-Brown says.

And it's possible. Ellis Infinity Beverage Co. moved into its own production space near the Russell Industrial Center last year and has add three people to keep up with production. Ellis-Brown is now looking to hire a handful more people to be brand ambassadors and work in production.

Ellis Infinity Beverage Co. is also working on adding some new flavors to its line of teas. Ellis-Brown's team is currently working on branding and packaging for those items. She hopes to launch them either later this year or early next year.

Source: Nailah Ellis-Brown, owner of Ellis Infinity Beverage Co.
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Atwater Brewery adds liquor to its adult beverage lineup

Atwater Brewery has specialized in craft beer ever since it opened in Detroit's Rivertown district in 1997. This summer, it is expanding its product line to include craft spirits.

The Detroit-based firm, the third largest brewery in Michigan, is now selling craft spirits at its biergarten in Grosse Pointe Park, including rum, vodka, gin, and whiskey. The whiskey is an 8-year-old whiskey Atwater Brewery purchased in bulk from a distiller in Tennessee and bottled itself.

Atwater Brewery has also purchased a 250L Reflux Distilling System to produce its own spirits and begin selling them at its biergarten, Atwater in the Park, later this year under its own brand. Its first release will be an Atwater Dirty Blond vodka. Gin, rum and whiskey drinks will follow later on.

"We want to get into whiskey and further on down the road some bourbons," says Mark Rieth, owner of Atwater Brewery.

Atwater Brewery acquired a state permit to allow it to make both beer and liquor. However, state regulations say the brewery can only make one at a time, so one shift at its facility will make beer and then the next will work on liquor before the next shift goes back to making beer.

Atwater Brewery has hired 15 people over the last year, expanding its staff to 52 people. Most of those new hires include production and sales employees. The company is currently looking to fill six more positions. Rieth expects to hire more as the brewery begins making and selling spirits en masse.

"We think it's a normal extension of our brand," Rieth says. "The laws now allows to make some unique products."

Source: Mark Rieth, owner of Atwater Brewery
Writer: Jon Zemke

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

Huron Capital Partners goes on acquisition tear

Huron Capital Partners recently announced one of its portfolio companies, Albireo Energy, had acquired GxP Automation, a small provider of building automation solutions predominately for the life sciences industry. It is the latest in a long string of acquisitions that has made this a newsworthy year for the downtown Detroit-based private equity firm.

Huron Capital Partners and its portfolio companies have made a dozen acquisition so far this year. Last year the number of acquisition hit 20.

"We really are on a tear," says Gretchen Perkins, partner with Huron Capital Partners. "We have a couple of platforms that lend themselves to this."

Those two portfolio firms, also known as platforms, are Jensen Hughes and Albireo Energy. Albireo Energy specializes in making commercial and institutional buildings more energy efficient and streamlined. Jensen Hughes provides fire protection engineering services.

Jensen Hughes and Albireo Energy have been acquiring small companies, a practice often called add-ons, to build a larger, more efficient business operating on a national level. The team at Huron Capital Partners looks for fragmented industries and then rounds up a number of small but significant players in the space to create larger businesses that can be sold at significant profit.

"We're doing it the hard way," Perkins says. "It's hard to do 12 add-on acquisitions. They're small companies with less sophisticated systems."

Huron Capital Partners has become more sophisticated itself, expanding its team to 22 employees. It is about to welcome three new people, including two analysts and one administrative assistant. Those new team members are expected to continue to help Huron Capital Partners keep expanding its company portfolio at a rapid pace.

"We seek to continue this pace," Perkins says. "There should be more add-ons for other platforms."

Source: Gretchen Perkins, partner with Huron Capital Partners
Writer: Jon Zemke

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