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Tech Tour Day Seven: Tech Rules The Zoo, And Battle Creek Too

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The Southwest Michigan Innovation Center, run by Southwest Michigan First.

The Southwest Michigan Innovation Center, run by Southwest Michigan First.

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(Note: For full coverage of the 2013 Spring Tech Tour, visit this link.)

(Another Note: Somehow or other, the up to this point excellent Samsung Galaxy camera from Verizon I’ve been using all week ate all the pictures I took Thursday. They’re not on the camera’s hard drive, they’re not on its SD card. They have simply disappeared. My apologies.)

KALAMAZOO (WWJ) — Everybody in Michigan talks about startups and entrepreneurship. But few Michigan cities live it better than this community of 100,000 or so in the southwest corner of the state.

After a Tech Tour stop Thursday, I can assure you that Kalamazoo is much more than the home of Pfizer Inc.’s biggest manufacturing plant or Western Michigan University, even though both those and much more than the stretch-your-legs midpoint on that drive from Detroit to Chicago.

My day began with a wildly successful life science entrepreneur I hadn’t seen since, oh, last week — Bridget Lorenz Lemberg, founder and lab director of Forensic Fluids Laboratories LLC. Last Thursday night, Lemberg as named the Grant Thornton-Lawrence Technological University Leader and Innovator of the Year for her work in building the company.

Lemberg has perfected a reliable method of conducting drug tests using saliva, not urine, and her company has evolved into a national leader in the field. Forensic Fluids just hit 50 employees, and its revenue is projected to grow from around $10.6 million in 2012 to $17 million this year.

Lemberg noted that the secret to her success was quick turnaround compared to her competitors — as fast as eight hours and no more than 24 hours, vs. three to seven days for her competitors.

Most recently, Lemberg has hired a chief financial officer and a chief operating officer. COO Tim Derrington is a British transplant with a long history in both entrepreneurship and the life sciences. Derrington said he’s hoping to steer the company in growth beyond drug testing: “They’re now measuring tumor markers with oral fluids,” he said, as well as medication levels in prescription drugs.

Harrington said he’s in the process of hiring four salespeople to focus the company on this kind of growth.

Lemberg said she’s ready to concentrate on the lab rather than running her company: “Now that we have Tim as COO and a CFO, I don’t have to work weekends any more.”

By the way, my meeting with Lemberg was over breakfast at a downtown Kalamazoo restaurant with the unlikely name Food Dance. Weird name or not, it’s fantastic. Go.

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From downtown Kalamazoo it was out to suburban Portage and one of Kalamazoo’s veteran IT companies, Blue Granite, that it turns out has reinvented itself for the umpteenth time.

Founder Matthew Mace and Blue Granite got their start in the 1990s building Web sites. After the Y2K crash it moved into custom application development. In 2002, the company built its first business intelligence dashboard for a Detroit auto supplier, which offered company managers detailed information on key performance indicators so problems could be corrected quickly.

“It saved them $2 million the first year,” Mace recalled. “We said, ‘Why are we still building Web sites?’ That got us started in dashboards and BI, and by 2008 that’s all we did.”

Today’s Blue Granite has become more virtual, as befits an era of cloud computing. It’s moved out of its original home in the WMU Business, Technology and Research Park into multi-tenant IT space. It has seven people in Kalamazoo out of 32 total employees, which are spread from coast to coast.

“Our big push today is Big Data — how you do more with more data, varieties of data, velocities of data, the speed,” Mace said. “Companies that have a two terabyte data warehouse today plan to grow to 40 terabytes within two or three years. We help them set up a warehouse to deal with that kind of growth in data.”

At the opposite end is helping companies analyze all that data, including, mace said, helping companies spot trends they had no idea existed.

“It’s great to know sales vs. quota, but what if I could mine all my proposals and client notes to find out which phrases were associated with successful proposals,” Mace said. “We call that use of unstructured data.”

Blue Granite’s clients run the gamut from manufacturing to financial services to insurance to health care to consumer goods to retail. Two employees in Texas have a practice in the oil and gas industry.

Mace said the company is working on a mobile BI product that it plans to spin off. And it’s developed a series of four-minute how-to videos on BI topics that you can view at msbiacademy.com.

“We have clients saving millions of dollars a month so they keep coming back,” Mace said.

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OK, so efficient logistics is not my strong suit. From Portage it was back downtown to one of the coolest offices I’ve ever seen, Maestro, and its genial president and co-founder, Jen Randall.

A Goshen, Ind. native, Randall was originally a teacher — in Arizona. She moved back to Michigan after the birth of her now-13-year-old son, but at that point they were pink-slipping teachers in Michigan, so she jumped into sales with Johnson & Johnson. There she met her future business partner Josh Little, a teacher who had gone into sales with the Kalamazoo medical device maker Stryker Corp.

Little started Maestro in 2007, and Randall joined him. Originally the company did corporate training, but today’s Maestro has transitioned into online training materials that are basically very sophisticated mobile apps. Randall showed me a client site for a staffer selling replacement knees that offered a mind-boggling variety of information on replacement knees and why its brand was superior.

“Now what we tell the world is that we build tools that help companies improve their performance,” Randall said. “‘Perform Beautifully’ is our tagline.”

Also beautiful is the company’s work space, with its wood floors, exposed bricks and open beams, data lines running through open chases up by the ceiling. It’s so San Francisco you practically expect to hear the clang of the streetcar bell outside. They let me stay there and work between appointments; I still regret leaving. Can we please establish Technology Report West over there?

Okay, back to the news. (Sorry, I’m getting punchy from the sleep deprivation of doing this tour for a week.) Maestro currently has 38 employees, having almost doubled in size over the past year. Two jobs are currently open, a strategist and a tech project manager.

Randall said it’s “definitely a challenge to find the right talent,” not just because it’s hard to find tech talent in Kalamazoo — sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t — but because of Maestro’s “open, collaborative culture.” What does that mean? The company’s Web site contains its values at http://meetmaestro.com/culture/beliefs. Randall described them as “being courageously transparent, open, not taking yourself too seriously, having humility, having a servant’s heart … We might find individuals with all the talent in the world, but they might not have the values we find important.”

Randall said Maestro is beefing up its relationship with WMU for recruiting, including John Mueller, who’s leading a new entrepreneurial education program there.

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Just happening to stop by Maestro was Ryan Goins, someone I was told by about a million people I should talk to. Goins is a founder of Startup Zoo, a new Kalamazoo effort to nurture startup companies.

“When I was a senior at Western two years ago, my whole career in college I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and specifically I wanted to start a technology company, and surprisingly I couldn’t find a community for that in Kalamazoo,” Goins said. “In an attempt to seek out a community I attended a Startup Weekend in Detroit in 2010, and for the first time I learned there were other people out there like me.”

Goins brought Startup Weekend — a weekend-long brainstorming session of tech and entrepreneurial types that typically results in the actual launch of a new company — home. Kalamazoo held a Startup Weekend in March 2011 and again in October 2011. After that, Startup Zoo was formed, holding twice-monthly meetups to encourage new business formation, connecting people with business ideas with mentors and financing.

Startup Zoo is participating in the National Day of Civic Hacking June 1 and 2 and runs a summer Code Camp for kids.

More at http://startupzoo.org, /startupzoo on Facebook, or @startupzoo in Twitter.

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Also visiting Maestro Thursday was Daniel Jefferies, founder of Newmind Group, a consultant to IT departments.

“We help other companies’ IT departments run better and meet the challenges they’re facing in terms of the paradigm shift that’s happening currently in IT — mobility, BYOD,” Jefferies said — in short, the takeover of client-server computing by the cloud.

“We deal with small and growing organizations that don’t have IT people, to get all this stuff out of their way so they can focus on the business,” Jefferies said. “We deal with midsize and scaling companies, who stood up a bunch of IT infrastructure, but they did it to serve a 20- to 50-employee company, and now they are growing to a 200- to 500-employee company, and none of the infrastructure they stood up for a 20-employee company works any more. The third kind of company we work for is a huge organization that has built up technical debt — a lot of entrenched systems that don’t serve the organization any more, but they’re so deep in the organization it’s hard to change.”

Jefferies said his company provides help desk, backup, security and transition to new messaging and collaboration platforms. And he says he wants business that’s an ongoing relationship: “We’re not going to do a project and walk away, we’re going to mind-meld our teams.”

The home-schooled Jefferies completed most of a college degree and got the usual alphabet soup of certifications. His IT career includes writing code for industrial machinery. Newmind Group has 15 employees, including staffers in South Carolina, Minnesota and California.

More at www.newmindgroup.com.

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From downtown I headed to the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center, a biotech incubator in Western Michigan University’s Parkview research campus. There, I met with a SMIC tenant, Vestaron Corp., and its chief scientific officer, Robert M. Kennedy.

Vestaron is developing a new generation of insecticides using natural peptides from spiders. Products under development have a unique mode of action, meaning they’re effective against insects who have developed resistance to artificial chemical insecticides. Helpfully, they’re also highly effective against insects and related pests and are harmless to non-target species, including humans.

Kennedy said Vestaron is on track for regulatory approval of its products in the third quarter of 2013. That should lead to a soft product launch in 2014 and a full commercial launch in 2015, he said.

Vestaron is also developing a novel formulation that allows it to use less active ingredient in its products, and is moving beyond spiders as the source of its natural insecticide to the venom of other species that prey on insects.

Vestaron is currently at 12 employees, and Kennedy said it’ll stay based at the SMIC for the foreseeable future. The company plans to outsource its commercial production. Right now, Kennedy said, the company is looking for interns who are students in molecular biology.

As for Kennedy, his story is a familiar one in Kalamazoo — he’s a former Pfizer employee left jobless when the company closed down laboratories in the city. He didn’t want to leave West Michigan, so he put his Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry to work for a startup in the SMIC.

Vestaron CEO Steven Hartmeier said the recent decision of the European Union to ban neonicotinoid insecticides, derived from tobacco and suspected in the recent mass deaths of bee colonies, “will create a huge void that hopefully our product can help fill.”

More at www.vestaron.com.

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As for the SMIC itself, president and CEO Robert H. DeWit said it’s about 75 percent occupied in terms of its 59,000 square feet of lab space and “well over 90 percent occupied” in terms of office space.

The SMIC is observing its 10th anniversary this year, “and in addition to celebrating everything we’ve accomplished, we’re absolutely looking toward the future.” What will the SMIC look like in the future? DeWit predicted more global collaborations, and a close relationship with the new Western Michigan University medical school.

The SMIC is also hosting a meeting May 30 to bring together startup companies, university technology transfer officials and venture capital groups.

More at www.kzoosmic.com.

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My final meeting of the day took place in nearby Battle Creek, where I met with Karl Dehn, president and CEO of Battle Creek Unlimited, Cheryl Beard, BCU’s director of commercial development, and Julia Bradsher, president and CEO of the Global Food Protection Institute, based in downtown Battle Creek.

Battle Creek has plenty of tech-based economic development to cheer about, much of it in the food sciences, a natural given Battle Creek’s heritage as the Cereal City.

Dehn said that over the past four years, downtown Battle Creek has attracted $88 million in private investment, leveraged with $28 million in public and philanthropic investment. Downtown also has 1,100 new jobs and 11 new businesses in that time, and saw the occupancy of more than 480,000 square feet of building space. Another five projects that will fill 150,000 square feet are in the pipeline.

At Battle Creek’s Fort Custer Industrial Park, the past year has seen close to $300 million in new investments and 1,300 new jobs announced. Another five projects are in the pipeline.

I can also personally vouch that downtown Battle Creek’s streetscaping project is finally finished, something that makes Beard very happy, and the downtown is livelier with bars, restaurants and businesses than it’s been in decades.

Bradsher, meanwhile, came to Battle Creek two years ago from the Washington, D.C.-based Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. Bradsher said a recruiter told her about the Battle Creek opening, and she was attracted by the fact that the institute “was part of an economic development initiative, not just an organizaiton trying to launch out of thin air.”

The institute aims to boost food safety efforts around the world. Its influence belies its modest size — 18 staff and a $3 million annual budget. It’s trained 3,000 food safety workers from around the world, including training efforts in Saudi Arabia and Armenia. Talks are also under way for training in Canada and Africa. And the institute is involved in a food industry work force development project with the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Michigan Works.

Also, Bradsher said, the institute is being sought out by technology companies and venture capital firms to identify food industry technologies that may be viable as investments.

The institute is co-hosting a conference in June in Kalamazoo with MichBio to study the intersection of life sciences and the food safety and protection industry.

More at http://www.gfpi.org/home and www.bcunlimited.org.

Downtown Battle Creek is also home to both Kellogg’s product development lab and a pharma and food industry testing lab of New Jersey-based Covance.

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So that was it for southwest Michigan, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, which continue to add fascinating technology entrepreneurship to the Michigan mix. Friday, the tech tour wraps up in Lansing, where a surprisingly robust IT sector, a huge research university and state government combine. Read about it Monday!

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