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Tech Tour Day Eight: Lansing A Tech Capital, Too

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The lobby of the New Enterprise Opportunity Center in Lansing, complete with its unusual method of making it down to the first floor in a hurry. Matt Roush photo.

The lobby of the New Enterprise Opportunity Center in Lansing, complete with its unusual method of making it down to the first floor in a hurry. Matt Roush photo.

LANSING (WWJ) — Yeah, I know, the FALL tech tour is the time I talk to Michigan’s outstanding research universities. But in the case of Lansing, East Lansing and Michigan State University, the local government’s tech-based economic development efforts are inextricably linked to the university’s.

Hence, Friday’s final stop on the 2013 Spring Tech Tour, which centered on the East Lansing Technology Innovation Center (the TIC)… and its neighbor on the third floor of the former Jacobson’s department store on Grand River Avenue, the MSU Innovation Center.

As befits a Tech Tour, we’ll talk first about a few of the startups I met with, then about the MSU offices.

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My first visitor was Brian Collins, senior vice president of products at Venturit Inc.

Venturit is an app development company whose products have included an iPhone and Android mobile app for Bounce Energy, which allows the Texas electricity firm to offer mobile bill payment; a HIPAA-compliant mobile app that allows users and medical staff to monitor treatments on medical devices; a mobile and database application for Carcode.me that allows car dealers to reach out to millions of potential customers who visit dealer lots but never enter a showroom; and a web platform and database for the U.S. government’s Feed The Future initiative that allows users to find formal and informal training in agriculture in Africa and shape new resources and communities using social network approaches to co-create local resources.

Venturit also developed Ask A Spartan, a Q&A app that enables MSU students to ask frank questions about relationships, sexual health and sexual identity, and get answers from MSU experts, and MySpartanCareer.com, which offers a wide variety of career advice and a job board.

Venturit currently has 11 employees.

More at www.venturit.com.

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Next up was Revel Custom Wine Cellars and Erin O’Donnell, its communications manager, who’s taken a bit of a turn after getting her MSU degree in environmental science.

The company, founded in 2009, builds custom wine cellars for high-end homes, and offers unique shelving technology to let users pull out a few wines without searching the whole rack.

The company was founded by Jim Cash, CEO of Christman, a construction company.

The cellars are built by a construction company in Holland, and the company contracts with local builders for installation.

Projects have involved wine storage for as many as 5,000 bottles and cost up to $200,000. Clients have included billionaire investor and adventurer Richard Branson and actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

More at http://revelcellars.com.

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Michigan Creative, meanwhile, is a full service marketing and business development company established by Brian Town, who had a nearly 20-year teaching career in film and TV at the high school and college level.

Why switch gears in this way? “I didn’t think I wanted to be just that retired teacher,” Town said. “I miss the kids, but three of the 12 kids on my staff are former students.”

Town said he built his own expertise in Web design and Internet marketing by “trial and error. I made a lot of mistakes. I think I broke the Internet at one point. We built a lot of our sites with WordPress.”

Today’s sites are much more sophisticated and make use of mobile technologies and social media. One recent mobile site for a handyman firm offered a click-to-call feature “that’s been huge for them, ” Town said. “The day of the desktop is slowly going away.”

Town said his real love is photography and videogrpahy, but Lansing is a relatively small city that already has a lot of that talent around, “so I said OK, well, we’ll do full service marketing.”

The company’s recent growth means the idea is working, and Town said he’d like to wind up with a 300-employee company that also provides business formation and entrepreneurship assistance.

More at www.michigancreative.org.

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I also met with 2012 MSU grad Adam McKay, and R. Michael Bower of PrezentMe.com, a new take on online job placement.

Bower and co-founder Jim Hatter are both veterans of Cisco Systems, where they saw a lot of time and money wasted on airfare and hotel stays for job candidates who clearly weren’t going to get the job — and that that would have been foreseen had the candidate appeared on video to search officials first.

“If you’ve ever hired anybody you frequently know within 30 seconds of meeting them  whether or not you’d never hired them, but that’s something you might not pick up from a resume,” McKay said. “There’s still a lot of paper resumes in use in the era of iPads.”

With PrezentMe, job seekers answer six basic HR questions on videotape that they make themselves (since almost everybody has a Webcam these days). “So you’ve got a better way of meeting somebody before they ever come in to your office,” McKay said.

Bower said PrezentMe is “out of alpha stage” with five paying customers and nine employees.

“We’re testing the waters to make sure we can scale,” Bower said. “Instead of building our site with WordPress, building a real e-commerce site.”

The company will offer its services on a “freemium” model, with companies able to post up to 10 jobs free. The money will come from setting up individual private portals for businesses, Bower said.

PrezentMe is also looking for funding and is hoping to add sales staffers this summer, Bowers said.

More at www.prezentme.com.

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Finally, I met with Nevin Brittain, founder of Health Numeric.

Brittain is a graduate of Wayne State University in electrical and computer engineering who later worked for both Wayne State and Nortel Networks in networking, data flow and seciurity.

His new company provides remote health monitoring devices and services “so that home care companies, hospitals and nonprofits can integrate a remote health monitoring service.”

The device in question is a built-in cell network connection with Bluetoth technology that connects to many medical devices.

“The device and our software sends the information to the cloud-based platform, and our cloud-based platform collects the data,” Brittain said. “Based on the numbers that come in, we can set alarms or thresholds for blood glucose, weight, blood oxygen, blood pressure. The hub just plugs into the wall, it has its own wireless connection, you don’t need even a phone line or Internet access in your home to make the system work.”

Brittain is also working with nonprofits that provide health care for the uninsured, because close monitoring of, say, blood sugar for diabetics or weight for congetive heart failure patients can prevent costly emergency room visits or repeat hospitalizations.

More at www.healthnumeric.com.

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In addition to MSU Technologies and MSU Business Connect, the university’s technology transfer and business contact offices respectively — Spartan Innovations and its 18-member staff is the newest member of the MSU Innovation Center, having moved in in October.

“We work with faculty and try to select those faculty members and technologies we think would be best served by doing a startup company around them,” said portfolio manager Reuben Drerdeian, a 1965 MSU graduate with a 40-year background in medical devices.

Spartan Innovations executive director Brian Abraham is responsible for the whole operation, while Paul Jaques is responsible for student engagement, including The Hatch, a 1,400-square-foot student business incubator open to virtually any MSU student with a legitimate business idea.

“It’s a place for them to get together and talk about entrepreneurial ideas and socialize and develop strategies,” Derderian said.

Derderian said his job is to select from about 24 active research projects “that we hope will all turn into startup companies” which to promote first and most.

Spartan Innovations is also home to several CEOs-in-residence who work with several possible faculty businesses at a time — and who, it’s assumed will eventually leave to become CEO of one of them.

“If we can achieve four or five deals a year I think we’re going ot be on track,” Derderian said. “It probably takes 12 to 18 months from the time we start working with a professor to the time we are ready to form a company. We’ve got to finish work on the technology, do some market reserach to make sure we’re comfortable that the effort we’re putting into it is going to pay off in terms of market acceptance of the product, develop a business strategy. “

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MSU Business Connect, another member of the MSU Innovation Center, was formed in 2010 to — in the words of its executive director, Charles A. Hasemann — “be more nimble and more company-like as a university. We were losing business, it was hard to get deals done.”

Basically, MSU Business Connect acts as a concierge from businesses who want to know whether MSU might be able to help them in their research or business planning.

“It’s all about research and getting the company and the university to partner in developing a project,” Hasemann said. “Sometimes it’s companies who need help with business model development, not necessarily building a widget.”

Lorelei Davis, associate director for corporate relations at MSU Business Connect, said it’s frequently a matter of a business saying, “we have product X, can you test it on your cattle, test it in your fields.”

One client is also working on a deal to test wind turbine components, and MSU wouldn’t just help the components from a materials science standpoint, it would also serve as a large energy user where the redesigned components could be tested in actual operation.

Another client, Sustainable Environmental Technologies, is working on developing bacteria to eat the grease that clogs drain pipes at fast-food restaurants, and is testing the bacteria thorough MSU.

Business Connect also pushes several programs MSU can use to help grow businesses, including those through the Michigan Corporate Relations Network, a state-funded effort of six major Michigan universities to make university help easier for businesses to find.

One example of that help is the Small Company Innovation Program, that offers up to $40,000 in matching money from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to fund sponsored research on campus. There’s also a half-price research intern program where the state pays half an intern’s salary, and a program called Instant Innovation that offers free brainstorming with expert college professors.

“Our biggest barrier is people knowing about these programs,” Hasemann said.

And I’m not sure what this means, but Hasemann, Davis, and the third person from MSU Business Connect I met Friday, Brice Nelson, associate director for corporate relations, all originally had chemistry backgrounds.

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Finally, I met with Richard Chylla, executive director of MSU Technologies, the university’s tech transfer operation. It has 19 employees and is responsible for licensing all MSU technology discoveries.

Last year, Chylla said, 127 invention discoveries were reported to the office, which are assigned to a program under technology manager Thomas C. Herlache to perform a commercialization assessment.

The discoveries are concentrated in “basic life sciences, chemical sciences, and agriculture, but as we like to say this is not your grandfather’s agriculture,” Herlache said, much of it involving genetic engineering and new crop varieties. Mobile applications and development techniques are also hot right now, Chylla said.

The tech transfer office is sponsoring an event June 6 which will highlight some of the year’s best research commercialization efforts. The idea is “to raise the profile of the office and reward people who have done well in innovation.”

The third annual MSU Innovation Celebration will run from 4 to 6 p.m. in the MSU Union Ballroom.

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While in Lansing, I also checked in with Tom Stewart of the Center for New Enterprise Opportunity, a unique business incubator housed in a three-story former bakery building north of downtown Lansing.

“The year has been a good learning experience for us,” Stewart said. “We are trying to validate our program, making sure we have a good method for accelerating entrepreneurial success in our region. It’s a little like parenting — you want to create an environment where they can make mistakes and learn from them, but not make mortal mistakes.”

After a brief dip in occupancy over the winter, the 8,500-square-foot building is back up to about 80 percent occupancy, Stewart said.

The companies moving in arean’t always all that high-tech — lawn care, home health care — but the building is helping entrepreneurs and creating jobs, Stewart said.

More at www.neocenter.org.

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And what would a Tech Tour be without a visit to Niowave, a company doing world-class nuclear physics for national laboratories and the military inside a vintage former schoolhouse on Lansing’s west side?

I caught Niowave’s top management at lunch at a picnic table outside the school on a ridiculously glorious spring day and got the latest.

Niowave got its start building supeconducting linear accelerators for particle physics resarech out of copper and niobium, a metallic element that becomes superconducting at temperatures close to absolute zero.

Along the way it’s branched out into building complete particle accelerator systems. And that put Niowave at the forerfront of modern weapons research, for one thing. Niowave has built a free electron gun in a smaller and more sturdy form than anyone thought possible. That gun can connected to equipment that will produce a laser beam — of precisely the type that the Navy would like to use instead of traditional guns to shoot down incoming missiles and airplanes. The current practice of tossing $3 million guided missiles at incoming fire is not exactly practical.

(The Navy also hopes to use electricity for offensive weapons, so-called “rail guns” that would use electricity to accelerate metal shells to speeds with deadly effects on their targets. The whole idea is to get all the gunpowder off ships, so there’s less damage when they’re hit.)

All these advanced weapons could also be used to defend military bases on land.

Niowave has hired nearly 20 people since it opened an expansion to the east of the former Walnut Street School last year; total employment is now about 60. Niowave is also still hiring, everything from accelerator physicists to chemical, electrical, mechanical and nuclear engineers to CAD designers to machinists to welders to technicians.

Niowave also continues to work on equipment to produce unusual isotopes of various elements that are of strong interest in treating cancers, and in producing high-power X-ray sources through non-radioactive materials, something that’s not now possible. Application of these X-rays could include DNA research, materials research and sterilization of materials.

Niowave is also talking with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. about another expansion.

And finally, Niowave has apparently settled a dispute with its neighbors about last year’s expansion. Neighbors said it looked too much like a bare pole barn and was out of character with the neighborhood. http://www.mlive.com/lansing-news/index.ssf/2013/04/lansing_links_a_new_face_for_t.html

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And so that was that for Lansing, a fascinating place with fascinating technologies afoot. And that was it for another tech tour, which I modestly believe was merely spectacularly successful, at least when it comes to showing me just how ferociously ambitious and energetic Michigan’s entrepreneurs are. I hope I successfully conveyed at least a little of that to you, the reader.

During these Tech Tours I frequently work 18-hour days and I’ll admit, I’m pretty beat by the end. But I go back to the coverage years later and smile and say ‘Oh yeah, I remember that company back when it was little.’ (And less frequently, ‘Too bad that one didn’t work out.’ And less frequently still, ‘What the #$(* were they thinking?’) I think it’s all worthwhile, both for my own continuing education, your reading enjoyment, and the continuing mission of CBSDetroit.com and its Technology Report to give you news you just can’t find anywhere else.

Join me again for the Tech Tour this fall, when I’ll hit university tech transfer staff Up North and in West Michigan!

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