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Thursday, 25 April 2013 09:55

15 West Michigan firms honored as companies to watch

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When two old high school buddies were reunited at a 1995 Christmas party in Hastings, a new company called TerraTrike was born.

Fast forward to 2013 and the recumbent trike maker was named one of the 50 Companies To Watch in Michigan, an awards program sponsored by the Edward Lowe Foundation.

TerraTrike co-founders Jack Wiswell and Wayne Oom will receive their award as one of 15 West Michigan second-stage companies at the Michigan Celebrates Small Business annual dinner at the Lansing Center on May 2. TerraTrike, which makes trikes that allow riders to pedal in a laid-back reclining position and operates out of a warehouse near Gerald R. Ford International Airport, topped $5 million in revenue in 2012, and continues to post a very heady 30 percent growth rate this year, Oom said.

That’s a far cry from where the company was in 1995 when Wiswell and Oom scraped together $1,000 from their personal savings to bootstrap the company.

“All Jack and I do these days is manage growth,” Oom said. “We’re still on the hook personally to Comerica Bank for the line of credit, but at least our houses are no longer a part of the collateral.”

Companies like TerraTrike that have been through the fires of entrepreneurship and emerged as prosperous second-stage companies are the focus of the annual Michigan 50 Companies to Watch. To even be nominated, a Michigan-based company must have from six to 99 full-time-equivalent employees and generate $750,000 to $50 million in annual revenue or in working capital from investors or grants.

The awards program was created a decade ago by the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center, Michigan Economic Development Corp., U.S. Small Business Administration, Small Business Association of Michigan, Greater Lansing Business Monthly and the Edward Lowe Foundation.

“The 50 Companies to Watch is our signature award,” said Jennifer Deamud, state associate director for the MI-SBTDC based at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids.

The companies are honored at the Michigan Celebrates Small Business event, which includes more than 60 awards, a handful of which are given out by the partner organizations like the SBA. This year’s event also includes a new award honoring the Veteran-Owned Business of the Year.

Besides boasting some 15 of the 50 Companies to Watch winners, West Michigan also has several major award recipients. One is Small Business Person of the Year Doug Hekman of Quincy Street Inc. in Holland. Another is the Family-Owned Business of the Year, which was awarded to Teddy’s Transport, a Holland-based trucking company. A third is the Innovation Award winner RealBio Technology Inc., one of the incubator companies at the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center in Kalamazoo.

“It’s always nice to be recognized, but as an early-stage commercial company, we still have a long ways to go,” said RealBio President and CEO Paul Neeb. “Our technology is what won this award for us. It provides hope for cancer patients. “

Neeb’s team has developed the RealBio D4, a system that facilitates the growth of in-vitro cultures that mimic the natural composition, configuration and function of normal and diseased tissue. Results from tests indicate that the company’s system outperforms other available technologies.

Neeb said most testing is done in two dimensions using a Petri dish and with cell lines or with mice. Then the tests determine whether the product is safe and effective to try on humans. But the failure rate to get these products through FDA approval is 97 percent.

RealBio focuses on developing better tools with 3-D technologies. The technology is licensed from Aastrom Biosciences and was invented through a government grant. Aastrom develops proprietary process technologies and devices for cell therapy applications, including stem cell therapies and gene therapy.

“It is truly disruptive technology that gives researchers the ability to culture tumors within a laboratory setting and display them in 3-D,” he said. “We’re investing $5 million to $7 million, and hopefully we’ll get a $50 million company out of it.”

The MI-SBDTC’s Deamud said the annual VIP reception for award winners, which previously was held just before the Michigan Celebrates Small Business dinner, will instead be held on May 1 at the Governor’s residence in Lansing. Lt. Governor Brian Calley will be on hand for the meet-and-greet. The following day, at the banquet, Gov. Rick Snyder will open the awards dinner.

As of this report, some 750 people had signed up for the dinner, and the MI-SBTDC expects a crowd of about 900 to 1,000 people, a similar size to last year, Deamud said.

“The founders of these companies had true passion for entrepreneurial development and they are putting a spotlight on what entrepreneurs do in Michigan,” Deamud said. “The emphasis is on growing companies as evidenced by the level of commitment shown in Michigan Celebrates Small Business.”  

Mike Brennan is senior technology writer at MiBiz. His day job is editor and publisher of

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