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Meet 4 up-and-coming West Michigan tech startups

BY Sunday, April 15, 2018 08:37pm

As West Michigan’s startup culture continues to develop, many new tech companies are growing out of business incubators around the region. 

Leveraging resources like Grand Rapids-based Start Garden, Western Michigan University’s Innovation Center and Grand Valley State University’s Muskegon Innovation Hub, this new wave of startups is pushing for more innovation to answer consumers’ questions, whether that’s by bringing specialized offerings to the medical, education, athletics or consumer goods industries. 

MiBiz spoke with four up-and-coming startups to get a sense of some of the new tech firms developing and growing in West Michigan.

Hibiskus BioPharma

Hibiskus BioPharma is a Kalamazoo-based startup trying to develop a cancer drug that is “better and safer” than other drugs in the market today, according to Dr. André Bachmann, president and co-founder of the company. By using technology from Michigan State University and the University of California, Riverside, Hibiskus is researching diseases such as renal cell carcinoma, a rare form of kidney cancer, to see if it can develop a drug that will work for patients. Bachmann said the company is roughly five years from a clinical trial, after which Hibiskus could then pursue an acquisition from a larger company. He added the company’s lead compound, TIR199, is a proteasome inhibitor “that is a really important target in cancer.” If successful, Bachmann said the drug could not only help patients who have blood-related cancers — like multiple myeloma — but also patients with solid-type tumors. “We hope to benefit more patients than those that have blood-cancer types,” Bachmann said. “Competitors in the field are generally working in blood cancers and not in solid tumors, so we are hoping that our product, once on the market … will benefit more cancer patients.” The drug is currently in the preclinical stages of development. Hibiskus is seeking federal grants to help fund the research, while “talking to investors and trying to find investments,” Bachmann said, declining to name the current financial backers of the company. 

Hibiskus BioPharma LLC

  • Med-tech startup
  • Founded in 2017 
  • Principals: Dr. André Bachmann, a professor at Michigan State University, and Dr. Michael Pirrung, a professor at the University of California, Riverside
  • Based in Kalamazoo

SafeSense Technologies LLC

As head-impact injuries become more prevalent in high school sports, SafeSense Technologies is  developing “innovative sensor technology” for athletics, physical therapy or medical diagnostics. Already, the Kalamazoo-based startup has created “Scout,” a helmet impact sensing technology that monitors both the intensity and location of potentially traumatic head impact “sustained by athletes in the field,” said Dr. Binu Baby Narakathu, who co-founded SafeSense in 2014 with Dr. Massood Atashbar. According to Narakathu, athletic trainers, doctors and physicians will be able to use the company’s technology to better understand the nature of head injuries. “It will serve as a first line of defense for better therapeutic strategies for the precise and timely treatment of head- or concussion-related injuries in football,” Narakathu said. “This is a platform technology that could be implemented for several applications in the industry. A need we saw back in 2014 was football … head injuries. That’s something we started focusing on.” Narakathu said the company has potential beyond football helmets, including applying its technology for sports like lacrosse, hockey and boxing. Development has already started for SafeSense Technologies, Narakathu said, noting that the company’s prototype helmets are being “field tested” at five different Michigan high schools. Additionally, he said the startup — which was funded through a series of seed, state and federal grants — has its sights on being in the consumer market by 2019.

SafeSense Technologies LLC

  • Spinoff from Center for Smart Sensors and Structures at Western Michigan University 
  • Founded in 2014
  • Principals: Dr. Binu Baby Narakathu and Dr. Massood Atashbar
  • Based in Kalamazoo

Loop Coding Center LLC

As technology evolves, Angel Barreto-Cruz said there needs to be more diversity in tech-related careers. That’s why he and Luis Perez and Jose Meza started the Grand Rapids-based Loop Coding Center LLC in 2017. For the three college students, Loop was a way to close the diversity gap in the technology sector by working with gender-diverse or ethnic-diverse high school students. “As I went to college, I noticed that I was the only Latino in the classroom,” Barreto-Cruz said. “So we started to look at what we could do as a team, and we wanted to work with high schoolers. … We want to create a bridge in the technology (sector).” To encourage more diversity in the West Michigan tech industry, Loop is hosting a nine-week coding workshop and boot camp where students learn how to pursue a career in a programming or tech field. While working out of offices at the Grand Rapids incubator Start Garden, Loop targets students in schools without computer science classes, Barreto-Cruz said, adding that the company receives funding from the schools where the workshops are held. 

Loop Coding Center LLC

  • Tech educational startup
  • Founded in 2017 
  • Principals: Luis Perez, Jose Meza and Angel Barreto-Cruz

Fathom Drones Inc. 

One Grand Rapids company is creating technology that it says “enhances the boating experience” for consumers. For Matt Gira, co-founder of Fathom Drones, the enhancement comes in the form of affordable underwater drones. “We got the idea for Fathom after one of our co-founders, Danny Vessells, was at his grandparents’ lakeside cabin in Northern Michigan,” Gira said. “There’s all of these myths and legends of horse-drawn carriages and other artifacts being at the bottom of the lake, so Danny wanted to know if they were down there. He wasn’t scuba certified and there wasn’t anything that would allow him to explore it easily. Danny came to myself and John (Boss) and wanted to create something that would allow anyone to explore what’s around them underwater.” That led to the creation of Fathom One, an underwater drone that livestreams a view of what’s below, Gira said. The Fathom One, which sells directly to consumers, records underwater activity with an onboard 1,080-pixel camera. The drone is controlled wirelessly via a smartphone or tablet. Gira said the company is taking advantage of changes to the boating industry. “Consumers … want tech to be part of their boating lifestyle,” he said. “At Fathom, we’re creating tech that enhances the boating experience.” In 2016, the company’s Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign netted $200,000 in pre-orders, Gira said, adding that Fathom Drone has received backing from the seed accelerator Techstars and the Detroit-based Fontinalis Partners. The Lakeshore Advantage Business Accelerator Fund supported the company with $65,000 in 2016. 

Fathom Drones Inc.

  • Consumer tech startup
  • Founded in 2015 
  • Principals: Danny Vessells, John Boss and Matt Gira
  • Based in Grand Rapids 

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