Knight-Wallace fellow named finalist for TEDxUofM competition

For the roughly one million people in the United States who are deaf or hard of hearing, and use American Sign Language, navigating a hearing world can be frustrating. Few hearing Americans are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), so written English becomes the default mode of communication for everything from routine daily interactions and signs to closed captions for TV and movies.

What many people don’t realize, though, is that any deaf person who can both sign and read closed captions is bilingual; ASL is not the same language as standard English. And with the average deaf person only reading at a fourth grade level, trying to keep up with rapidly moving and often incorrect closed captions on a hearing program is nearly impossible.

Enter Larry Lage and Deaf Access Media.

“Deafness and deaf culture are really close to my heart,” said Larry, the son of deaf parents, uncle to two deaf nephews and brother to an ASL interpreter.

But it wasn’t until he was facing the application committee for the Knight-Wallace fellowship that he was asked if he’d ever thought to combine his news background (Larry is a sportswriter for the Associated Press) with his passions.

“Give me the fellowship, and I’ll come up with something,” he told the program’s director, Charles Eisendrath.

So the nine-person selection committeee did.

On temporary leave from the AP, Larry is back in his native Ann Arbor and is using his time at U-M to form Deaf Access Media, which aims to translate the news and even popular radio programs into ASL with voiceovers and/or closed captions, so that deaf and hearing people can enjoy the same programs side-by-side without being at a disadvantage. ASL Media is based on a nonprofit model in order to create more partnership opportunities and currently is structured around a website and a Youtube channel.

With the help of connections he made during a Screen Arts and Cultures class and with students involved with WOLV-TV, Larry has produced a 12-minute pilot video of a newscast.  Five of his fellow students from Prof. Len Middleton’s entrepreneurial management class at the Ross School of Business have teamed up to help Larry craft a business plan. The pilot newscast is hosted by Ruth Anna Spooner, a PhD candidate focused on deaf literacy, and also features a health spot by Dr. Mike McKee, also deaf, on preventing the spread of measles. After showing the video to a focus group and gaining useful feedback, Larry and his team plan on shooting a second pilot on April 12.

“When you have an idea, you should be thinking about it when you go to bed at night, and still thinking about it when you put your feet on the ground in the morning,” Larry recalls Prof. Middleton saying.

Deaf Access Media is also looking forward to the 2015 TEDxUofM awards; it has been selected as one of this year’s three finalists. A student-run organization, TEDxUofM is affiliated with the global series of TED talks and will award $1,000 to the winning project. The winner will be announced on Friday, March 20.

Larry credits Deaf Access Media’s progress to all the assistance he’s received from everyone from his fellow students and the professors he’s taken classes with to the attorneys at the U-M law school who have given him legal advice and the Ross business researchers who have helped him back up assumptions with data. “Everyone I meet with says, ‘How can I help,’ and, ‘You should talk to this person and this person,’” Larry said.

“I couldn’t have done this if my employers didn’t support me,” Larry added. “This is arguably one of the coolest opportunities at one of the world’s best institutions.”

Click here to view highlights from Deaf Access Media’s pilot video.

Deaf Access Media films its pilot video. Credit: G.E. Anderson

Deaf Access Media films its pilot video. (Credit: G.E. Anderson)

Meet Alex VanDerKolk, ’13: Native son and entrepreneur

While working as a data analyst for the University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, Alex VanDerKolk, BBA ’13, found himself elbow-deep in data that doctors were trying to use to plan the most effective and cost-efficient treatments for breast cancer patients. Alex watched so many projects stretch on past deadline and over budget as doctors struggled to work with cumbersome data systems that he created a solution of his own: Symport, a cloud-based software enabling more efficient collection, storage and sharing of sensitive healthcare data used in medical research.

Alex and a team of fellow Ross students (Nikhil Kumar, BSE ’14; Max Wolff, BSE ’14; Rahul Iyengar, BSE ’14; George Zakhem LSA ’14; David Middleton, LSA ’15) founded Mountain Labs to distribute their software to research hospitals and institutions. Their concept and client pitch determined, Alex and his team entered Mountain Labs—then called Lab Compass—into the Michigan Business Challenge, where they learned how to address perhaps their most important audience: potential investors.

“[Our concept is] difficult to explain outside of the healthcare industry,” Alex said. “So the most valuable thing we got out of the Michigan Business Challenge was learning how to explain how we were going to make money out of this.” When it comes to pitching investors, “you only get one chance, and you can’t mess it up,” he said.

The team went back to the drawing board to simplify their pitch and explain how their concept could turn into a profitable business. After several rounds of judging, Mountain Labs took home The Most Successful Undergraduate Team award and used the money to legally form the company. They also received a Mayleben Venture Shaping grant, which they used to interview customers and attend industry conferences.

Alex credits his Zell Lurie advisors, especially Len Middleton and Sarika Gupta, with helping the team stay focused and offering them access to the professors’ local networks. “It was a huge help to not have to build them on our own,” he said. The team also attended a workshop led by Jim Price, who had experience working with the healthcare industry and could share his knowledge of potential roadblocks the team would face.

Mountain Labs certainly appears to have taken their lessons from the MBC to heart. After raising $350,000 during their first round of funding, they will close on a $750,000 second round of funding this summer. Other goals for the company over the next few months include scaling their sales force and marketing efforts, and expanding throughout Michigan.

With all the resources at hand in Ann Arbor—including access to the University of Michigan, one of the best research universities in the country—Alex, a Michigan native, has no plans to relocate his fledgling business elsewhere. “It’s a great city for entrepreneurs, and it’s a great city to live in,” he said. “The entrepreneur ecosystem has exploded over the last year. Being able to work with new startups and share resources and best practices is one of the most valuable parts of being a young business. It’s been incredible to watch it develop, and it’s been incredible to take advantage of it.”

The Mountain Labs team. From right to left: David Middleton (LSA ’15), Rahul Iyengar (BSE ’14), Aaron Schwartz, Alex VanDerKolk (BBA ’13), Nikhil Kumar (BSE ’14), George Zakhem (LSA ’14), and Max Wolff (BSE ’14). Not pictured: Siegfried Martin (BSE '15)

The Mountain Labs team. From right to left: David Middleton (LSA ’15), Rahul Iyengar (BSE ’14), Aaron Schwartz, Alex VanDerKolk (BBA ’13), Nikhil Kumar (BSE ’14), George Zakhem (LSA ’14), and Max Wolff (BSE ’14). Not pictured: Siegfried Martin (BSE ’15)

Ross ranked No. 8 among best business schools for VC-based entrepreneurs

PitchBook, a provider of private equity and venture capital research, released its annual list of the Top Universities for VC-Based Entrepreneurs. The University of Michigan was ranked No. 8, up from No. 13 in 2013.

The list is based on PitchBook’s database of 13,000 founders who launched VC-backed companies over the past five years.

Pitchbook’s methodology includes entrepreneur count, company count, capital raised (in millions) and successful launches founded by Bachelor’s Degree holders from each university.

Read more about the list on Poets & Quants here.

Mercury Fund Doubles Down on its Commitments and Investments in Michigan

Blair Garrou, the managing director of Mercury Fund, a Houston-based seed-stage venture-capital firm, is spending a lot of time in Michigan and the Midwest these days. The firm is raising capital for its third fund and has closed on more than $100 million in commitments from venture investors and investment pools, including the state of Michigan’s Renaissance Venture Capital Fund and Venture Michigan Fund.

“We expect to deploy 50 percent of our capital in the Midwest and half of that amount, roughly 20 percent to 25 percent, in Michigan,” Garrou says. “In our second fund, we put 27 percent of the capital we raised to work in Michigan, and we anticipate maintaining that same level with our third fund.” Mercury Fund is currently in the process of identifying another investment professional who will be based in Michigan and open the firm’s new Midwest office sometime this summer.

“We’re very excited to become even more active in Michigan, bring other venture investors into our rounds and help capitalize the next great wave of Michigan entrepreneurs,” Garrou says. Mercury Fund takes a different approach to venture investing than VCs on the east and west coasts. “We like to invest in capital-efficient software and science deals,” he explains. “We make small bets on early-stage technology companies, work closely with the entrepreneurs to drive value creation and then put more capital into the company down the road. This requires a lot of work, but we are able to find the winners without putting a great deal of capital at risk.” Michigan entrepreneurs fit well into this model because they tend to be very capital efficient and willing to bootstrap emerging companies up the point where they can raise venture capital on a modest basis, he adds.

Garrou says several Mercury Fund investment themes are playing out well in Michigan. The first is commercialization of the industrial Internet. “Workers who are accustomed to using social, mobile and cloud computing want to integrate those types of products and applications within their businesses,” he says. “Manufacturing, utility and energy companies have been slow to adopt these advanced Internet technologies, but we see a sea change coming.”

The trend toward re-shoring manufacturing operations back to American soil from foreign countries is another factor driving increased manufacturing and industrial sector activity in and around Michigan. “Many VCs are narrowly focused on 3D printing, but we see a lot of areas in manufacturing, including robotics, next-gen design and CAD systems and other software applications, that need to be improved when new U.S. facilities are built,” Garrou notes. “Michigan and the Midwest have great strength in these areas.”

A third thematic investment area favored by Mercury Fund revolves around technological breakthroughs in the life sciences and physical sciences coming out of the University of Michigan and other universities. “The core technologies being created at U-M and Michigan State University are world-class, and we don’t see many investment groups, other than a few Michigan funds, focused on these,” Garrou reports. Mercury Fund’s early venture investment in Ambiq Micro, which was spun out of U-M, is poised to pay off. The company is developing a portfolio of ultra-low power semiconductor products that improve battery usage in smart devices. With the proliferation of wearable computing, he predicts it will “make a huge splash” in that area.

At the upcoming Michigan Growth Capital Symposium in June, Garrou will moderate a panel discussion on VC trends in the Midwest. The three participants on the panel will include venture investors who are first-timers at the symposium and have an interest in doing more deals in Michigan. “The goal for all of us is to drive Michigan’s entrepreneurial companies to get a little bigger and gain a little more traction, so they will be able to attract VCs from the coasts and bring additional capital resources to the state,” he says.

“Out of Failure Springs Innovation”

Stewart Thornhill, executive director of the Zell Lurie Institute of Entrepreneurial Studies, reported for the Financial Times on the most important business school takeaway for entrepreneurs–failure. In the article, Thornhill explains that an entrepreneur should be able to view failed projects as learning experiences that add value to their overall growth as business moguls. Using examples such as his experiences attending entrepreneurial competitions and Thomas Edison’s failed attempts at creating the light bulb, Thornhill emphasizes that failure is a part of the startup process. Thornhill concludes by stating that the Zell Lurie Institute embraces failure and the idea of change as it wants to encourage MBAs to take the risk of starting businesses.

To read the full article by Thornhill, click here.

Annual Private Equity Class Dinner

The Center for Venture Capital and Private Equity Finance is holding its annual Private Equity class dinner today, sponsored by Chicago-based Glencoe Capital. During the dinner hosted by Professor David Brophy of the Ross School of Business, the class will participate in a “Bake-Off” buyout pitch competition where the winning team will receive the $7,500 Alan Gelband Private Equity Award and the runner-up will receive $2,500. Alan Gelband, founder and CEO of New York-based Gelband Company and David Evans, founder, CEO and chairman of Glencoe Capital will present the awards.

Ross Alum Savors the Entrepreneurial Climate at Mobile-App Start-up Atmospheir

Alex Rich, BBA ’11, was well on his way to building a successful investment-banking career in in New York City when he was “bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.” In June 2012, he left his position as an investment-banking analyst at Citigroup in Lower Manhattan and walked down the street to the Tribeca office of mobile application start-up Atmospheir, where he signed on as vice president of operations. “The concept that Atmospheir was advancing was powerful enough to compel me to change course,” Rich explains.

His roommate at the University of Michigan piqued his interest in the company by introducing him to its founder and CEO. Over the past 18 months, Atmospheir has designed and developed a mobile application that allows users to share all of their contact information and social network presences via a single, unique ID that they create. According to Rich, the app is a social re-imagination of the address book that provides a perpetual solution to contact management. Recently, the start-up got the official nod from Apple to market its mobile application online through the App Store.

While this is Rich’s first foray into the realm of new venture creation, he says the Ross School’s highly diverse core curriculum helped prepare him to work effectively in a challenging, multifaceted start-up environment. “Any time you join an early-stage company with a small team, you inevitably have to wear many hats,” Rich observes. “Ross equipped me with a broad-based business skillset in accounting, finance, marketing and other functions that I needed to help build a business from scratch.” That skillset is being put to the test daily, as the fledgling company develops its rollout strategy, promotes its brand, formulates its revenue model and pursues seed funding from venture investors. “In the back of my mind, I had hoped someday to transition to a venture-capital or private-equity firm where I could work with younger, less-established companies,” Rich says. “Last year, I took that vision one step further by going directly to work at Atmospheir.”

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