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CES Day Two: Michigan Entrepreneurs In Tech

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Livio Radio's Jake Sigal speaks at CES

Livio Radio’s Jake Sigal speaks at CES

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Monday’s a setup day at the International Consumer Electronics Show. The show floors are still completely chaotic and half built, people in hard hats and hi-los running around like crazy.

But it’s also now an official press preview day, with one press conference after another from hundreds of tech companies, with a particular emphasis on startups.

So it’s fitting that my Monday at CES started with a press conference at the Venetian with Ferndale-based Livio Radio, founded by electronics inventor Jake Sigal, who in an earlier post invented the Ion turntable that turns vinyl LPs into digital files effortlessly.

Livio started out with branded Internet radios with partners like Pandora and NPR. Livio’s radios look just like regular table radios, but in the presence of Wi-Fi network automatically pick up and organize more than 40,000 online audio streams, allowing users to search the by genre or geography easily on a simple display.

Today Livio’s emphasis is on getting Internet radio apps into cars. Sigal pointed out at the event that there is no existing protocol or platform to put all Internet radio apps into cars with one standard system

Until now, that is, with Livio Connect, which acts as a single system to get all Internet apps into the car.

Sigal announced that AirKast, an app writer, is partnering with Livio to get more radio to listen to and control safely in the car. ESPN and Radio Disney are two example AirKast apps.

Livio is also partnering with Targetspot, under which Livio’s app partners will have access to TargetSpot advertising through Livio Connect, and be able to choose which cars get specific advertising through Internet radio. Targetspot custom inserts ads into audio streams.

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My second visit Monday was outside the massive Las Vegas Convention Center (which for you auto show goers’ reference is somewhere between three and four times the size of Cobo Center), and Taylor-based Focus Business Solutions Inc. So what brings half a dozen people from that well known high-tech hotbed Taylor to CES?

“We’re not one of the sexy booths, we’re paper-pushers,” responds company founder and president Steve Haywood.

Since 1998, Focus has provided customs and international trade consulting.

“We keep companies that import and export legal, help them take advantage of U.S. trade treaties and agreements, save them money on duties,” Haywood said.

Prior to founding Focus, Haywood worked in customs for General Motors and ITT Automotive.

It’s the company’s first time at CES, and Haywood said it’s part of a diversification move.

“We’ve got a lot of great customers in automotive and we plan to continue to, but you see all these booths here (at CES) from China and Taiwan, and they have to import and export, and we want to make them aware of our company and its services,” Haywood said. “We want to expand into the electronics industry.”

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Next it was upstairs to the ultra-plus hotel rooms of the Venetian, where CES displays its super high-end audio, where a $10,000 amplifier is a bargain unit.

Here, Grand Rapids-based WS Distributing is showing off a variety of wonderful sound, from Thorens turntables from Germany (since 1883!) to Pangea high-end cables to Vincent amplifiers, preamplifiers and CD players.

General Manager Ken Mull is a veteran of the ear biz, starting out years ago at Grand Rapids’ legendary Tech Hi-Fi until it went out of business in the late 1980s, then working for Classic Stereo and Audio Advisor.

WS distributes high-end audio gear to a variety of retailers — unfortunately none in the Detroit area. Its prices start at a few hundred dollars for an entry level Thorens turntable to upwards of $6,000 for a top-of-the-line turntable or amp.

Most of the amps make use of vacuum tube technology that dates back more than a century. Mull said vacuum tubes are now a major U.S. export, since many audiophiles swear by the supposedly warmer sound of tube gear vs. solid state electronics.

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I next went to the private meeting room in South Hall of PC Treasures Inc., an Auburn Hills company founded in 1998 by Brian Austin, its president, and Les Thomas, its CFO and marketing vice president.

The company is “sneaky big,” Austin said, with products in the homes of upwards of 10 million Americans. He said the company was founded with the idea to “take on Microsoft and provide an alternative to the Microsoft work suite, targeting the white box system builders with a system bundle that was significantly less expensive” than Microsoft. The company sells its software through everything from TV shopping channels to camera shops, licensing versions of popular software like Adobe Photoshop Elements at low prices.

An outgrowth of that softawre sales is accessory kits for tablets and cases and other accessories for various devices, sold through smaller, regional retailers and Web sites.

The accessory kits include everything from a foilio case to screen wipes to stereo earbuds to a screen protector — to $200 value of software, all available for a retail price of $59.

There are also products that allow users to recharge regular alkaline batteries, and a very cool flashlight on a sophisticated tripod that sells for all of $13.

Austin is looking to boost his company’s sales through brick and mortar stores and TV channels. “We are already doing pretty well selling on the Internet,” he said. Several representatives from target markets are scheduled to stop by the company’s meeting room, in the back of the LVCC’s South Hall.

And Austin said the PC Treasures is also looking to get into the hands free cell phone kit business.

The company has 35 full time employees, but brings in more workers in its growing business in fulfillment for other retailers. Austin said the company uses its temporary work force to recruit its full-time workers, hiring the best of the temps.

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My final formal visit of Monday was with Jim Barry, the genial “gadget guy” of the Consumer Electronics Association. For Barry — and what the heck, for me — this is one of the best weeks of the year, right up there with Christmas and Thanksgiving, as thousands of new tech products are introduced to a crowd of tens of thousands of tech geeks.

Barry said CES 2012 is on track to be one of the biggest ever, with upwards of 140,000 attendees.

As for what a Jim Barry is looking for, first of all, thin is in — much thinner organic LED televisions. As a bonus, OLEDs use much less power than their current LED or plasma counterparts. That’s Barry’s next point — green is in, electronics that use less power, are made from sustainable or recycled materials, and which are easily recycled themselves.

Barry also pointed out that software is just as important as hardware at today’s CES, with apps allowing for the virtually complete customization of electronic devices.

And giving props to Detroit, he called CES perhaps the second biggest auto show in the planet, with major automakers having big exhibits, and what we geezers call “car stereo” now morphing into seamless connectivity and control of both in-vehicle systems and out-of-vehicle products and services like cell phones and Web applications.

And just think the show doesn’t even officially BEGIN until Tuesday. Can’t wait! This is great!

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