ANN ARBOR (WWJ) – I take two Tech Tours every year.
I need to. As I’ve said a thousand times, your Technology Report claims to be a statewide publication, but as a practical matter, my home is in Dearborn and my office is in Southfield, so it’s hard for me to get much past Flint or Ann Arbor or Brighton to cover anything on a day-to-day basis.
So I’ll be hitting the road again in October. It’ll be the usual fall Tech Tour itinierary with university tech transfer departments at schools in northern and western Michigan, looking at their coolest “science projects” that have the potential to turn into profitable businesses. (On the spring Tech Tour, I visit local economic development agencies and ask to see their coolest tech startups.)
But meanwhile, there are super-cool science projects at southeast Michigan’s colleges and universities, too. Projects with a lot of potential to help us invent the Next Michigan. It seems unfair to leave them out. So I try to get out to them on random fall Fridays as well.
Well, last Friday, thanks to the good efforts of the University of Michigan’s tech PR pro, Mark Maynard, I was able to take a quick but fascinating tour of the highlights in Ann Arbor. Everybody knows it’s a world class university, so you’ll not be surprised to learn that what I saw was absolutely spectacular.
Most of my visit took place in UM’s North Campus Research Center, the sprawling, massive former Pfizer Inc. research complex on Ann Arbor’s northeast side that UM took over in 2011 to use for high-tech research space.
My first visit was in the NCRC basement and the brand new lab of Jyoti Mazumder, an expert in materials science and laser technologies. (Oh, all right, the formal title, in one bite so you can skip it if you wish: Robert H. Lurie Professor of Mechanical Engineering; Professor, Materials Science and Engineering; Director, Center for Laser-Aided Intelligent Manufacturing, Mechanical Engineering; Director, NSF I/UCRC for Lasers and Plasmas for Advanced Manufacturing, U of M Site.)
Mazumder’s mission: To reduce some of the estimated $1.6 trillion a year in waste in manufacturing processes — specifically, in welding — in the global economy.
Mazumder aims to bring the science of spectroscopy to welding in order to spot quality problems quickly and pinpoint them — to be able to know exactly which parts are defective and exactly in which place.
“Any process which emits light, if I can look at the light — from a distance, I don’t even need to be close to it — I can tell if the process is going right,” Mazumder said. “And if it’s not going right, I can immediately stop the production process and fix it.”
Mazumder’s nascent company has developed software using emission and reflective spectroscopy to analyze the light coming from welds to make sure welds are taking place properly. Eventually, the technology will come in a box attached to welding robots to monitor welding operations.
Mazumder, a veteran professor-entrepreneur with a couple of startups already in his past, said the process will also allow more precise welds, which among other things will help make cars lighter and safer.
My next stop was a medical device startup called ExoDynamics.
This developer of a highly specialized back brace was the brain child of Daniel Johnson, co-founder and CTO.
“This all started as my doctoral thesis in mechanical engineering,” Johnson said of the doctorate he earned in the spring of 2012. Long a student of the spine and its mechanics, Johnson said he became aware of a group of workers with a severe occupational-related incidence of back problems — surgeons.
“They have a very high incidence of very severe back problems just a few years into their careers,” he said. “They age their backs a lot longer than most of us do. They spend long hours stooped over their patients doing procedures,” and those who work in surgeries where radioactive diagnostics are used, like non-invasive heart procedures, do all that in heavy lead protective gowns.
Specialized chairs aren’t a good alternative, Johnson said, because it gets in the way in the OR and has to be sterilized, “which is a huge hassle, and it means once they get into a piece of furniture they can’t move for the duration of the procedure,” Johnson said. “So we tried a different take, something they can wear under their gowns that they don’t have to sterilize. It dovetailed with my study of spinal dynamics.”
Johnson and a UM lab mate, who’s now living in Chile, began to work on an advanced back brace that would support a surgeon’s back while also having hoops over the shoulders to transfer the weight of that lead gown to the hips.
The elegant design features screws between the components that can be custom-set to allow or prohibit certain movements or ranges of motion. It can be set to be completely immobilizing, then changed with software to allow greater motion. And eventually, Johnson said, it can be remote-controlled by software (with appropriate security, of course — wouldn’t want someone hacking your back brace). The company applied for a patent on its design a month ago through the UM tech transfer office.
Johnson said proudly that he’s keeping as much of the design, engineering and manufacturing in Michigan as possible, “and all of it in the United States.” A Kalamazoo company called Tiger Studio is handling the device design, artwork and manufacturing design. A company called Protomatic in Dexter is manufacturing the guts of the brace, while a Milwaukee company called MEC is building the electronics.
Eventually, Johnson said, he’d like to market the device for protecting workers in “all sorts of bending and lifting applications.” But he’s starting with doctors because initially the brace will be expensive — current production cost is $1,200 to $1,500 each. The company is currently preparing a survey of 13,000 doctors to test their willingness to pay for a brace like this one.
And ultimately, Johnson said, he’d like to integrate the brace with leg braces “to take all the weight off” the user.
The company is currently being supported by a National Science Foundation grant and $10,000 won in a UM student business competition. It’s also competing for funding at Start Garden in Grand Rapids. The company has also named a new CEO, veteran Ann Arbor-area entrepreneur and investor Hank Brown.
With Johnson in the effort is Mushir, a 2002 UM bachelor’s degree graduate who worked in healthcare, IT consulting and finance before returning to UM for an MBA in 2010. He heard about ExoDynamics when it issued a call for business student help through the UM Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies.
More at http://www.exodynamicsmedical.com/.
My next stop was a meeting with Resolvable — a software company started by two attorneys, Ben Gubernick and J.J. Prescott, to simplify people’s interactions with the court system. It’s welcome news for anyone who’s ever had to spend an entire day dealing with a traffic ticket when all you need is someone in the court system to pay attention to you for five minutes.
It’s recently attracted as title Mary Jo Cartwright, a veteran startup executive who was COO of HealthMedia, an online medical intervention and health coaching technology developer sold in 2008 to Johnson & Johnson for a reported $200 million. (HealthMedia was formed by UM professor Victor Strecher and now-Michigan governor, then-venture capitalist Rick Snyder, in the late 1990s.) Cartwright came to UM for an electrical engineering degree and stuck around to work in engineering and health care, and how software.
UM law school professor Prescott founded the company with Gubernick — “I convinced Ben to move to Michigan to work on this,” Prescott said. The two men, the kind of friends who finish each other’s sentences, said they started kicking around the idea several yaers ago, “originally not even as a business,” Gubernick said. “We were trying to figure out why it was that a lot of people had lingering issues with the court system and seemed to avoid dealing with them. We concluded it’s about information asymmetries.” Said Prescott: “People don’t know what’s going to happen to them if they interact with the court. There’s a lot of fear and anxiety and risk, and hiring an attorney to clean stuff up for you is expensive.” Said Gubernick: “And also uncertain.”
Their idea was to come up with a way for people to submit information to the courts to clear up their cases without having to show up at a courthouse.
Originally, the idea was for people accused of crimes to negotiate their surrender, “obviously not commercializable at all,” Prescott said. “Then we got th idea for people who had warrants out for their arrest for small things, like missing a court appearance or not paying a fine. Courts and judges don’t want to throw people in jail for that, but it happens. Our idea is to allow people ot clear up their warrants over the Internet by sending information to the court and making a deal.”
They’re also working on ways to automate what the two men called standard negotiating points that people have with the court system — trying to negotiate down a speeding ticket to an offense that doesn’t put points on a driver’s license, for instance.
“We want to save the courts for the big stuff, and get the minor litigants out of the courthouse,” Gubernick said.
The company is now in negotiations with several District Courts in Michigan to beta-test the software, which will be offered as a service online. The company got a $275,000 grant from UM to fund its formation, and company officials are also now in talks with potential investors.
Next, I stopped by the offices of Jack Miner, director of the Venture Center at UM’s North Campus Research Complex.
The Venture Center includes a 16,000-square-foot incubator, which includes wet lab and office space, now is home to 19 companies — which is going up to 22 in the next few months, Some lab space is still available.
And outside its walls, the Venture Center is working with plenty of other companies, too: “If you look at the number of projects we’re working on, it’s probably four to one — for every one project that’s in the accelerator, we’ve got four that are either translational research out of a lab or an idea that they’re considering doing something with.”
The greatest proportion of projects — by which Miner means, potential future UM spinout companies — are in software, especially health care software, and medical devices.
UM has several big success stories in buyouts, including the aforementioned HealthMedia, HandyLab (acquired for $300 million by BD), Accuri Cytometers (another $300 million buyout). Happily, Miner said, most of the people involved in those companies stuck around with their buyout proceeds, creating a virtuous cycle of seasoned executives and angel investors. Which, after all, is what all this is about — an economy that can regenerate itself through small, entrepreneurial businesses generated by great local ideas and funded by local investors. And when some of those businesses get succesful enough to get bought out, the cycle starts again.
A prime example of that kind of thinking was my last stop of the day, UM alumnus Dug Song, who has a string of entrepreneurial successes, most recently Duo Security, which has grown in the past year from five to 40 people.
Song and Duo have developed a deceptively simple security idea that’s being sold to some of the world’s largest corporations, universities and institutions.
Namely, when you try to log in to a computer remotely, the Duo system pushes a message to your smartphone so you can approve or deny the login request. The system also makes it easy to identify accounts that have been compromised.
Song said Duo will be close to 100 employees by the end of the year, and the company has already attracted funding from Google Ventures, True Ventures and Radar Parters.
But Song would rather talk about other things — an amazing number of other things, in fact, in an interview that lasted not quite an hour.
For one thing, Song is participating in the world’s largest hackathon, MHacks, with 1,000 students from 100 different schools hacking in the press box at Michigan Stadium the weekend of Sept. 20-22. (See http://mhacks.org.)
Or the Tech Brewery near Duo’s space on Ann Arbor’s north side, an old brewery that has seen 60 companies pass thorugh — four of which have rasied a total of $15 million in the past six months. (Among others, keep an eye on Protean, http://getprotean.com, a developer of technology that lets you put all the cards in your wallet on a single smart card, and Pinoccio, http://pinocc.io, a wireless networked microcontroller aimed at actually creating an “Internet of Things,” and Gingko Tree, http://gingkotree.com, developers of a smarter approach to electronic textbooks and coursepacks.) Rents in the brewery start at just $50 a month.
Or the million-dollar skate park he’s been working on for the past few years. (The Duo offices are littered with skater stuff.)
Or the 501(c)(3) nonprofit A2geeks, which celebrates geekdom and sponsors events like Ignite Ann Arbor, short presentations about people’s passions, which drew hundreds of people to the UM business school auditorium; the Ann Arbor Mini Maker Faire, which drew a crowd of 3,000; and the A2 New Tech Meetup, at which five new companies a month make presentations. (There’s a year’s backlog for those presentations, so obviously there’s a lot of business formation going on in Ann Arbor.
And Song said he’s sticking around Ann Arbor to try to give it more of a Silicon Valley culture of veteran entrepreneurs investing in the startups of people they know — and avoiding a culture where “people hide their money in money market funds.”
Song started his first security firm while still a student, providing security services to New York banks and Las Vegas casinos, a company sold to what is now Checkpoint. Then he worked on a bunch of software projects, including some of the original software for the Napster file-sharing system. He was then a founde of Arbor Networks in 2000, which provided security software for global telecommunications carriers. He then left Abrbor for a peer-to-peer streaming TV company called Zattoo, that he said grew to five million subscribers in Europe, but “then we got the pants sued off us. I learned my lesson and went back to security,” this time at Barracuda Networks.
Then, he said, he “started Duo because I got bored at Barracuda.”
Song believes that Michigan is always been a hotbed of grassroots innovation — in manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, chemicals. He calls it “the seed of American economic development for the better part of a century.” But he said he also believes that real innovation comes from small business: “Small tesms of people can change things. It’s the only thing that ever has changed things.”
Song said he works in software because he regards it as “the purest form of thought — all it is is logic. It appeals to me that I can move the world with my mind.”
At Duo, Song said, “I tell people we have a pirate culture here. we come together in search of adventure and treasure, in that order. Who wants to join the navy? We’re about doing the imppossible and seeking the unknown.”
The company’s mascot is an owl, based on a mock art school slide on how to draw an owl: step one is to draw some circles, step two is to “draw the rest of the f—ing owl.” Song said that “one of the things we look for in employees is people who can draw the rest of the”… well, you get the idea. Song said the company is “hiring for everything right now.” See http://jobs.duosecurity.com.
A strong believer in open source software, Song said people can use Duo’s products for free. “We give it away,” he said. “If you want to use it to protect your WordPress blog, that’s free.” But big complicated companies protecting big complicated networks with Duo’s products, he reasons, will pay the company for the software, its consulting expertise, and what Song called its “fanatical support.”
Head spinning like a Notre Dame fan, I left Duo and Ann Arbor. Selfishly, experiences like interviewing these people is why I love the Tech Tour — I am amazed, astounded, and hopeful when I’m done, because there are so many people with so many great ideas for new technologies and new companies and job creation all over this state. Hope you enjoyed this part of the trip.
And by the way, the “real” Tech Report Fall Tech Tour will go on Oct. 18-25. I’ll be visiting Michigan Technological University, Saginaw Valley State University, Central Michigan Univeristy, Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University and Western Michigan University over the week. And I’ll be asking all of them to show me their four or five coolest science projects that have the potential to spin up into Michigan buinesses. Quite literally, I can’t wait.