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GLITR Tech Tour Day Nine: Lansing’s A Wonderful End To The Trip

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Work under way at Niowave's clean room

Work under way at Niowave’s clean room

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LANSING — For a minute there, I was arguing with my Ford Focus.

Lansing’s Center for New Enterprise Opportunity couldn’t possibly be down this residential street! Stupid machine!

But as usual, MyFord Touch was right. Between a couple of houses, there it was, an imposing three-story brick building. And Lansing’s newest business incubator is where I met with a bunch of really cool startups on the ninth and final day of the Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report’s 2012 Spring Tech Tour.

The NEO Center, as it’s called, was built in 1913 as a bakery, which explains why it’s in the middle of a neighborhood. During World War II, it became an engineering center for the war machines coming out of Lansing’s Oldsmobile. After the war, it became Lansing Lithography, and did screen printing and etching for Oldsmobile. But when Oldsmobile went away so did Lansing Lithography.

A few years later, the Ingham County Land Bank picked it up out of tax foreclosure. And in 2010, Kincaid Henry Building Group, www.kincaidhenry.com/, bought it with a plan to create both its own cool new headquarters, and a community entrepreneurship resource. NEO Center is an L3C, a low-profit limited liability company, a partnership between the land bank and Kincaid Henry.

Last November, Kincaid Henry and eight other tenants moved in. Today, 18 of the building’s 21 incubator spaces are full. The idea is to force incubator companies to graduate, with rents increasing every year. There are 9,600 square feet in the building, including spectacular shared conference rooms, a workout center, a kitchen and a lobby. Office spaces include everything from closed rooms to open bullpens.

And then there’s the slide — a 15-foot-high aluminum spiral that’s the fastest way to get from the second floor to the lobby. (Well, other than jumping, but that’s bound to get you talked about, if not a broken ankle.)

The slide was mighty impressive to the first company I met with, the four co-founders of Adventure Club Games LLC. All four met at Michigan State University’s nationally recognized game development program and decided to start a company.

The company’s games so far have been of the serious, sponsored variety, for MSU professors, and most recently, a Microsoft Kinect game for the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The game will give museum visitors a taste of what it was really like to be “working on the railroad, all the live long day.” (More about the game at www.uprrmuseum.org.)

“The museum really wanted to use Microsoft Kinect, and the company they contacted initially didn’t have that capability, so they contacted us,” said Shawn Henry Adams, whose business card says he’s the company’s “Programmasaurus Rex.” Added Andrew Dennis, whose business card reads “NASArtist:” “In general the game development community is a pretty small world, especially in Michigan.”

Said Adams: “We started a year ago and we’ve been busy since. Honestly, it’s been all word of mouth. We started working with some professors, with grants, and it’s just gone from there.”

The four partners are all from Michigan — Adams from Brighton, Dennis from Farmington Hills, “Designarrgh” Michael Rossi from St. Clair, and “Design Bot 4000″ Jordan Aljouni from Northville.

The company’s next step will be an Apple iOS-based game in entertainment for a client. The guys said they couldn’t tell me any more than that, but stay tuned.

More about the company at www.adventureclubgames.com.

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My next visitor was Mimi Hall, CEO of Phenometrics Inc., a serial entrepreneur from San Diego who now gets to brave Michigan winters because a college professor moved from Washington State to Michigan State.

Phenometrics designs a photoboreactor that is used to grow algae in laboratories and study which types of algae are the best for producing biofuel oil, and which are the ideal conditions for that production.

Algae is an ideal biofuel — nontoxic, nonpolluting, and by definition carbon neutral — the single-cell plants absorb carbon dioxide to grow, and release it again when you burn the vegetable oil they produce. That oil can replace diesel fuel, industrial lubricants and more.

Hall said that what makes Phenometrics’ product unique “is that through our software, called Algal Command, you can program our photobioreactor to have the same conditions as a pond outside the lab — cycles of the sun, cycles of the seasons, variations in temperature.”

MSU and Los Alamos National Laboratory are early adopters of the photobioreactors, with 20 and 24 of the devices in their labs respectively.

The idea is to determine which algae are the best at producing different types of desired oils, and under which specific conditions.

Hall said biofuel will soon become a crucial component of the nation’s fuel mix, given a looming crunch in oil refinery capacity and surging global demand.

“The airline industry is very interested in this,” Hall said. “Boeing now has a full time algal scientist.”

The company has outgrown the Lansing Economic Area Partnership’s business incubator in downtown East Lansing and is moving into 2,300 square feet of the MSU Alliance Building off Forest Road, where it will be able to ramp up production of the devices. The photobioreactors are a bit bigger than a household blender and sell for about $10,000.

Hall said the company has done more than $250,000 in business since starting sales in Janaury.

Why the company is in East Lansing is a story in itself. Hall is a serial entrepreneur — this is her fifth startup. And back in 2009 she dropped off her son Chrisopher, a microbiologist, at graduate school at Washington State Univeristy, and met one of his professors, David Kramer. Over a meal, Kramer told Hall about his work in photosynthesis, particularly his design of small devices in which photosynthesis could occur for study.

“He told me he always had to design his own instruments, and that other scientists always wanted to buy them from him,” Hall said. “I said well, you know, if you ever want to commercialize any of your instruments, let me know, beause I’m an entrepreneur and I would love to do it.”

Kramer got strong response to the photobioreactor at a Department of Energy conference, “and he and I and the other innovators on the team decided to form a company called Phenometrics…. But after we formed the company, Chris was drafted by Michigan state University and the entire team moved to East Lansing. Ergo, Phenometrics is in East Lansing.” Hall still has a home in San Diego, not to mention a husband, but for now, she’s developing a company in Michigan. Hall said she’s impressed with “the economic gardening system in Mcihigan and the great reception and support of LEAP and MSU Technologies and the city of East Lansing.”

The company also plans to expand its photobioreactor line into other markets, including food and other agriculture.

There’s a video about the company’s process at www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlUBTw9_rcU.

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Next up was a very cool little startup called Signing Savvy. CEO Jillian Winn is a graduate of MSU’s telecommunications department, where she first studied, then later taught Web and video game design.

Signing Savvy was founded by three people to improve American Sign Language comprehension, both among the deaf and hard of hearing, and those with hearing.

There are lots of sign language books out there. But Winn said it can get confusing translating the directions in a book into the exact, proper hand motions.

No problem with Signing Savvy. The free Web site version of Signing Savvy gets you video examples of how to “pronounce” 5,000 signs and 7,500 words with your hands.

A premium membership of $49.95 a year adds advanced search capabilities, the ability to generate flash cards for study, quizzes to measure your progress, and a sophisticated mobile app for your smartphone. “And we’re adding new stuff all the time,” Winn said.

More at www.signingsavvy.com. The site has drawn 3.8 million unique visitors since its launch, and is nearing 100,000 registered users. It’s also averaging 150,000 new visitors a month, Winn said.

Winn said the company hopes this year to hire a person or two.

Winn said that while it’s great to be in business and make a profit, “I get feedback all the time about the site improving people’s lives where they can communicate with a loved one now, that they can do something they couldn’t do before. To me, that’s what it’s all about.”

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Another Web-based startup was my next visitor — Jeff Siarto, partner at Loud Pixel, established in November 2009.

Siarto grew up in Oxford and got bachelor’s and master’s degrees at MSU in telecmmunications, then wrote a couple of business books on Web design and effective WordPress blogging before moving to Chicago and doing soe freelance design and softwaer consulting.

He and his wife, Allie Osmer, whom he married in Chicago, decided to found the company and move back to MSU.

“We do social research and analytics for Fortune 500 consumer product brands,” Siarto said. “We look at online conversations about brands and clients, all based on online consumer sentiment, and create reports for clients. They use it for everything from startin gnew businesses to starting new products to crisis monitoring.”

The company’s third partner, Ryan Abbott, now resides in Silicon Valley, having taken a job there, but remains on Loud Pixel’s board.

The company has another full-time employee in Chicago and part-timers in Lansing, California and Senegal, Africa.

One recent project, Siarto said, was to “determine what the chatter was on Facebook leading up to the IPO — what were the spikes, waht people sale that caused the spikes. We now have two and a half years of really relevant social data on these sites.”

The company monitors everything from social media to blogs to Twitter to mainstream news to generate its reports.

The company has been growing at a 30 to 40 percent per year clip, but Siarto doesn’t see an explosive growth in staffing soon.

“We’ve boostrapped ourselves, with no outside money, no venture capital,” he said. “So if I want a bigger engineering team, I have to have cash flow for a bigger engineering team. So we only hire people when things get painful.”

That point is approaching, however, so look for some hiring soon.

More at www.loudpixel.com.

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And that was it for the NEO Center, which was just fantastic, but not quite it for the Tech Tour.

I visited Niowave on the city’s west side, where they’re doing literally groundbreaking physics research in the former Walnut Street School, which closed in 2004.

The company is now installing two expansions that will allow it to produce both free electron lasers for the United States Navy — yeah, that’s right, son, ray guns — and demonstration-level radioisotope production for medical advances.

Niowave started out building chambers for high-energy particle accelerators out of niobium, a relatively rare metal that becomes a superconductor at extremely low temperatures. It’s grown into being able to custom-build the chambers relatively quickly by this industry’s standards — and test them on site.

A November article in ILC Newsline — a trade journal covering the international linear collider industry and the fields of high-energy, particle and accelerator physics and engineering — said Niowave is bringing high-energy particle physics toward something resembling mass production, and that many tabletop-scale medical and defense projects, not just huge underground particle accelerators, can use the devices. (See news about Niowave at www.niowaveinc.com/niowavenews.html.

So it can build and test complete accelerator systems, not just chambers, Niowave has added a cryogenic plant, which can keep superconductiong systems at the 4 degrees Kelvin (that’s 450 below Fahrenheit) they need to be to work properly. And it’s building on a 14,000-square-foot addition on the school’s former ball field for a particle accelerator test center.

“This opens us up to high-poer applications and gets us right at the edge of producing ready-to-use technology,” said Jerry Hollister, Niowave COO. “We’ll use this to test and demonistrate.”

Niowave is now up to 60 employees, and yes, it’s hiring — everything from Ph.D. physicists to bachelor’s degree-level chemical, electrical, mechanical and nuclear engineers to non-degreed machinists, welders and technicians. The company plans to add another 15 to 20 jobs this year, Hollister said. There’s ample room for expansion of office and lab space in rooms of the 1891-vintage school that Niowave hasn’t yet remodeled.

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And so that wrapped up another fantastic Tech Tour. By the end of Day Nine of the tour I was exhausted, but I didn’t want it to end. These things are always exhilirating — talking high-energy entrepreneurs with real passion about what they’re doing, and real brilliance in their fields. But hey. A schedule of talking to people from 7 a.m. to noon, driving a few hours to the next town, then working my allegedly regular job from 4 p.m. to midnight, rinse and repeat, can’t be survived long term!

So here’s where I thank my sponsors, from the bottom of my heart: ITC Holdings of Novi, Lawrence Technological University of Southfield and elsewhere, and Plex Systems Inc. of Auburn Hills. They made this trip possible.

And of course, thanks to Ford Motor Co. for the use of an absolutely fabulous Ford Fusion SEL for the trip. More about that elsewhere.

And we’ll talk Tech Tour again sometime in September or October.

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