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#OTGYpsi: Ypsilanti Is Home To Many Low-Profile Businesses With Global Reach

Many businesses located in the Ypsilanti area have a global impact even though they are located in Washtenaw County. WEMU's Lisa Barry and On the Ground Ypsi project manager Sarah Rigg talk with Bill Mayer of Ann Arbor SPARK about the many successful local businesses in the Ypsilanti area they've helped support and nurture to reach this level of success.


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Sarah Rigg's Feature Article: These Ypsi-area companies are global successes, but little-known in their hometown

Ann Arbor SPARK


White Pine Technologies


Sesame Solar

Parcel Health

Lillian Augusta Hair

Mountain Pass Solutions



Lisa Barry: You're listening to 89-1 WEMU. This is On the Ground Ypsi, our weekly conversation with On the Ground project manager Sarah Rigg giving voice to one of her online stories this week. I'm Lisa Barry. Welcome once again, Sarah. Who are we talking to and what are we talking about this week?

Sarah Rigg: So I wrote a story this week about businesses in Ypsilanti that are headquartered here or have a strong presence here, an office here, that have a global reach that the average person might not realize that they have these heavy hitters in their backyard. And I brought with me Bill Mayer, who is the vice president of entrepreneurial services for Ann Arbor SPARK.

Lisa Barry: Hi, Bill. Thanks for joining us.

Bill Mayer: Of course. Thank you for having me.

Lisa Barry: We hear about Spark all the time, but maybe we should begin with what exactly is Ann Arbor SPARK for those who might not know?

Bill Mayer: Yeah, absolutely. The funny thing about SPARK is our clients know us very, very well. But if you haven't interacted directly with us, you might not know what we do. So Ann Arbor SPARK is an economic development organization, but we're a little unique in the state of Michigan. We do two functions that are often done by two separate organizations. We both support the large entities. Think of a company like Domino's Pizza or, you know, Google has a large office in Ann Arbor. So, that type of work, you know, this traditional economic development. But then we also do support for early stage innovative technology startups. And that's what my team focuses on, companies that are less than five million dollars a year in revenue that are really just kind of cutting their teeth in the market, starting local, going national, and then hopefully going global.

Lisa Barry: We're talking about Ann Arbor SPARK, yet we're focused on Ypsilanti right now.

Sarah Rigg: Yes. Spark has an incubator--business incubator--in downtown Ypsilanti called SPARK East. And at least one of the businesses that I talked to for this story started out in an incubator. Do you know much about White Pine Technologies?

Bill Mayer: Of course. One of our esteemed graduates from the incubator, and that's really a nice example of what an incubator is supposed to do. We're not supposed to have those companies forever. We're just supposed to provide a very nimble, very efficient, very inexpensive workspace for these companies where they don't have to worry about getting their own Wi-Fi, getting their own copy machine, phone, things like that, conference rooms. So, it allows someone to just sort of sit down at a desk, open their laptop, and work. And so, by providing that asset to the community, we don't need to have them wasting time on things other than growing their business.

Lisa Barry: In this week's article, Sarah, are all the businesses that you're focusing on that are global, have global reaches, in the Ypsilanti area? Are they all nurtured by SPARK?

Sarah Rigg: Not all of them. But there's a, you know, a connection for several of them. The one that I just mentioned was White Pine Technologies. I actually interviewed Robert Smith a few years ago, right after they moved out of the incubator into their space in a historic home in Ypsilanti. They got a grant to be able to upgrade the technology in there. And when I talked to co-founder Robert Smith, he said that grant was just great, because he didn't know what they'd been able to survive COVID in the way everybody was working remotely if they hadn't had that technology upgrade. So that was one of them. And a couple of the others, I believe, LiquidGoldConcept might have had a connection to Ann Arbor. I talked to them, but a couple of the other ones didn't have a connection, at least not they didn't come directly out of the incubator.

Lisa Barry: How prevalent, would you say, it is a business is based in Ypsilanti have a global reach?

Sarah Rigg: Well, Bill could speak to that specifically, but I know and I was talking back and forth to SPARK, trying to come up with a list of businesses to interview. They gave me a list of at least I think it was twelve or thirteen businesses. And I skipped a couple of them because we've reported on them before. But there were several that I didn't really know about. Maybe Bill can talk a little bit more about the numbers in general.

Lisa Barry: Well, yeah. Let's talk about a global reach. Businesses in Ypsilanti. Who do you want to tell us about?

Bill Mayer: OK, so I'm going to start with and let me just preface this by saying there is a lot of really cool innovation happening in Ypsilanti, but we're all good Midwesterners. We don't like to brag about ourselves. So, I'm really pleased that a light is being shown on Ypsi, because Ypsi certainly deserves it. So if you look at the sort of eco-friendly, green space, we have a couple of interesting companies. We have a company called Sesame Solar, which has know sort of prefabricated, pre-manufactured, and engineered mobile solar arrays that are really designed to work. If you've ever heard of a micro grid or, even smaller, a nano grid, you know, there are sort of these out-of-the-box solutions that can provide remote power for all sorts of different applications. They're doing really great work. We've got a company called Parcel Health that is in the incubator. For those of you that or for anyone out there that's ever had a prescription, you know how many plastic bottles pile up with your prescription. So there, they have an eco- friendly prescription medication bottle solution that biodegrades. So, it's a nice sort of plastic illumination technology. And we have another really cool one that I like called Lillian Augusta. It's actually some graduates of the University of Michigan. For African-American women, a lot of their hair care products rely on plastics such as PVC. You know, the things that your pipes are made out of in your house. So, they've come up with a plant-based, filament technology that, you know, is sort of hypoallergenic. You know, it lasts longer than the plastics. It's much more comfortable. So, it seems to be a very useful technology that is starting to scale, you know, certainly inside the United States of America, but really has a global implication in terms of what their market might look like. And then, you know, we have other companies that SPARK East-- there's a company called Mountain Solutions that's just growing gangbusters. They really take any kind of regulated situation. So, look at a hospital, for example. You have doctors. You have Nurses. You have all the different specialties that have all of these continuing education and regulatory requirements. And so, this software solution tracks and make sure that all their employees are in compliance with their professional standards all the time. And this is an example of a company that we always love to see. Basically, the doctors and the hospital administrators were banging down the door of this companies saying, "Please, please solve this problem. For us, it is such a painful problem." You know, they weren't even worried about what it cost. They just wanted, you know, when they could start using it. And that's always a really nice situation to be in if you're a startup. And then the last one that I'll talk about is a company called Loan Sense that the woman or the founder's name is Catalina. And it's effectively a platform. It's a financial technology, or "fintech" for short, company that takes your student loan situation. And it can give you guidance on the front end in terms of, you know, understanding what the implications are taking out a loan of given sizes. But then, it really does a good job of finding out what different options are available to the loan holders, refinancing them, finding federal programs, doing all sorts of acrobatic tricks that a lot of people don't know about to pay the loans off faster and lower the payments, so that our new graduates have a better shot at financial health.

Lisa Barry: And all of this is coming from Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Bill Mayer: That is correct.

Lisa Barry: And that is Bill Mayer from SPARK. Thank you so much for sharing all this great information with us. Sarah Rigg, always good to talk to you for On the Ground Ypsi here on WEMU. 

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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