15 Disruptive Startups In Southeast Michigan

By Benjamin Seidman on April 17th, 2015 / Comments

Detroit has a diverse collection of startups sprouting up almost daily. There are financial news aggregators (Benzinga), alternative chickpea pastas (Banza), and 3D Printing innovators (Manulith). Many Detroit startups are born out of pure necessity and others from the region’s engineering traditions. The range of disruptive startups runs the gamut, back and forth.

Below is a look at a select few that are doing their job to disrupt their industry by offering their product at a lower price, introducing a new technology, or changing the way we thinking about an old one. We asked each founder why is their business disruptive? Why are you launching in Metro Detroit?

1. Pro:Uppropup

Evolve Lifestyle Group is a social venture committed to improving outcomes for high school students, making learning meaningful and relevant, and creating universal tools for personal and professional growth. Our first venture, EnACT Your Future, provides high-quality standardized test prep to urban youth at affordable rates. Our latest venture, Pro:Up, is a web and mobile application that connects high school youth to educational and career opportunities like summer programs, internships, and jobs based on their interests and skills.

What makes your business disruptive within its industry?

We’re reimagining the way education is done. We envision a future in which education is highly personalized, meaningful, and accessible to all. That’s the vision behind Pro:Up, which acts as a universal personal and professional development tool. Fundamentally, it’s about enabling anyone anywhere to access the tools and opportunities they need to forge fulfilling paths.

Unlike the open courseware movements, Pro:Up connects users to applied learning experiences – that is, real-world opportunities like workshops, summer programs, internships, and job shadowing – that help people identify what they love and what they’re good at. Down the road, we plan to structure these pathways so that they are highly sequential and personalized and so that each user can develop the skills and competencies they need in rapid succession.

 Why do you operate out of Detroit and how can you best describe this experience?

Detroit is our hometown. We are Detroit millennials, educators, and enthusiasts. And it’s thrilling to operate here. Detroit has an incredible network of creative, high-energy individuals, and the startup culture here is more cooperative than competitive. (Think coopetition.) Collectively, it feels as if we’re rebuilding the city together and defining a new paradigm. It’s like the phenomenon known as constructive interference in physics. When the two or more waves of equal frequency and phase collide, their amplitudes are magnified and they become a single wave. In our case, we believe that when the energy and direction of even a small group of people are aligned, their effects will be greatly amplified.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

Look out for the release of our beta in the fall. We’re partnering with select high schools and organizations in Detroit to pilot our beta in August of 2015. Also, watch out for the #EvolveDetroit movement. We can’t reveal all the juicy details, but it’s happening soon. In the meantime, connect with us at www.evolveeveryday.com.

— Justene Sheu, CEO & Co-Founder

2. Kidpreneurkidpreneurr

Kidpreneur is a startup that provides programs for kids 13 and under to learn the latest technologies, such as Computer Programming, 3D Printing, Minecraft, Web Design, Video & more. Through camps, workshops, and classes, Kidpreneur encourages kids to build and think like an entrepreneur using these technical skills. Thanh Tran, serial entrepreneur, Founded Kidpreneur in 2013 following two ventures in the software industry.

What makes your business disruptive with its industry?

There are various programs that teach kids computer programming and other technologies but what Kidpreneur does is pair these skills with entrepreneurship so that kids learn how to build, fail, and grow on their own. We provide a place for kids to catch the “entrepreneurial bug” with all the resources they need to act on their dreams. Additionally, our programs are taught by professionals with real-world experience and who make learning coding and technology fun and exciting.

Why do you operate out of Detroit and how can you best describe this experience?

Detroit is a place where businesses are popping up out of necessity. When we found that kids in the area were eager and interested to learn how to build Minecraft servers and design video games, we took this notion of nurturing future job creators from an idea to a reality. Since then, we have received enormous community support and almost 1000 kids have participated in a Kidpreneur workshop, camp, or class.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

Kidpreneur Summer Camps are looking to be even bigger and better than last year. We’re offering new classes in computer building, where our kids will build computers, a brand new class. Alina Morse, Founder of Zollipops will also be a special guest at our Open House on March 22nd. We are also looking to expand Kidpreneur into additional locations to bring Kidpreneur to more communities and families.

— Thanh Tran, CEO & Founder

3. Sadek Bonahoomsadek

 What makes your business disruptive with its industry?

We are decoupling the delivery of legal services from the billable hour and creating affordable service models that encourage collaboration. There’s so much more value to a lawyer than just legal advice, but most businesses won’t tap into it because of their fear of being charged high fees.

Why do you operate out of Detroit and how can you best describe this experience?

My partner and I noticed that there are not a lot of firms in the city that focus on the small businesses and startups within the City. These companies are going to be integral to Detroit’s comeback so we need to support them. Operating out of Detroit is great – nowhere within southeast Michigan is there the same collaborative spirit we see here.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

No matter how much we innovate our pricing model, some pre-revenue companies still won’t be able to pay for legal services, so we are creating free resources that are specific to Southeast Michigan and that will help companies get on their feet. We had a great website that offered much of that but we are upgrading that service.

— Tifani Sadek, Founder & Partner

4. MyFab5fab5

MyFab5 is a crowdsourcing platform that has reinvented the restaurant review in order to fix online food culture and create a mobile friendly way to find and recommend the best local restaurants. On MyFab5 people promote their favorite restaurants by ranking them in any food or drink related categories (e.g. my top 3 places for burgers in Detroit) and also create bucket lists of the restaurants they want to try some day.

What makes your business disruptive with its industry?

MyFab5 reinvented the restaurant review because our team realized the only way to fix online food culture is to disrupt it. Companies like Yelp have given people a platform to spread hate so MyFab5 is countering by providing people a platform to spread happiness.

Why do you operate out of Detroit and how can you best describe this experience?

Our team operates out of Southeast Michigan because we love the community, enjoy our low burn-rate and know we can succeed without moving.The main challenge we’ve run into is that it gets cold here, which makes it slightly less fun to meet up with users and customers.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

We’re launching completely redesigned iPhone and Android apps in May, but would love for you to download the current versions (download MyFab5: iPhone | Android)

—  Omeid Seirafi-pour, CEO & Founder

5. Shinolashinola

What makes your business disruptive with its industry?

Today, by and large most watches are made in Switzerland or China.  There are only a few watchmakers in the United States, but not at the scale we are doing it.  Building a watch factory in Detroit – it’s disruptive to the industry.  We wanted to create a design brand that focused solely on manufacturing in the US and prove that the American worker can still add value.

Why do you operate out of Detroit and how can you best describe this experience?

To us, the question isn’t why Detroit, it’s why not Detroit?  When we listed top American cities with a great manufacturing history, Detroit was at the top of everyone’s list.  And when we got here, we immediately fell in love with the city and the community welcomed our ideas. Everyone we met with asked, “How do I help.”

The most important part of operating in Detroit is having fantastic partners that can help you along the way.  Take for example, Ronda, our watch partner.  They designed our watch factory and built the equipment – it’s state of the art.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

You’ll have to wait and see.  We have a few exciting announcements in the pipeline.

–  Heath Carr, COO of Bedrock

6. LevelEleven

What makes your business disruptive with its industry?levelelevven

LevelEleven is a sales performance platform that truly forms its own category. We help companies increase the capacity of their sales teams, without taking on the high risks of hiring more salespeople. We do this by creating real-time visibility into the day-to-day activities that drive sales, predicting when performance is out of line and telling salespeople and sales leaders what to do about it. We’re the first to empower sales leaders and salespeople with personalized analytics and historical trends around sales performance.

The LevelEleven platform is being called a “Fitbit for sales teams” and has even caught the attention of Google, who selected us to represent Detroit to pitch in front of investors at Google’s headquarters in early April. LevelEleven launched in October 2012 and has already secured hundreds of customers, along with investors such as Detroit Venture Partners and Salesforce.

Why do you operate out of Detroit and how can you best describe this experience?

In part, we operate out of Detroit because its home. Outside of that, however, the city has several characteristics that make it a great place to house a technology startup.

For one, we’re in good company. LevelEleven is lucky enough to be located in the Madison Block, which is supported by Google’s Tech Hub Network and home to a variety of innovative tech startups. Together we all collaborate, offering each other support and inspiring one another.

Then there’s the talent. In other, more traditional tech hubs, companies must face crowded markets for recruiting. In Detroit there’s no shortage of top talent, or passion — everyone wants to build something great, and in Detroit they want to personally get involved in helping drive growth for our great city. You just don’t see that kind of passion elsewhere.

And finally, there’s tremendous support available from local venture capital firms like Detroit Venture Partners (DVP). In fact, research shows that Michigan is among the fastest-growing states for venture capital investments.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

We’re continuously innovating, largely based on feedback from our customers, whose needs we prioritize on our solution roadmaps. We will officially launch the newest component to our sales performance platform in early April.

—  Bob Marsh, CEO

7. Manulithmanulith

MakerOS is the operating system for your maker business as a standalone web application. It increases the profitability, efficiency, and, scalability of 3D printing service providers by managing front and back end business activities in the cloud.

MakerOS saves time and money by streamlining the quoting process, consolidating project management, and managing payments. It is used by maker businesses such as 3D printing service providers, design firms, product developers, inventors, and more. MakerOS is free to install and use on your website. When you take payment from a customer, we collect a 3% fee plus credit card processing. MakerOS is a product of Manulith, a 3D printing service provider located in Detroit, Michigan. Our mission is to make manufacturing more accessible by streamlining the process and empowering makers.

What makes your business disruptive with its industry?

MakerOS is disruptive because it standardizes processes of running 3D printing services and small manufacturers with powerful software tools.

Why do you operate out of Detroit and how can you best describe this experience?

We operate out of Detroit because it is the best place to learn from the masters of industry and it has the best engineering community in the country.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

Keep on the lookout for our beta launch on March 22nd 2015 and our public launch early summer 2015!

– Mike Moceri, CEO & Founder

8. Freshwater Solutions, LLCfreshwater

Freshwater Transit Solutions, LLC brings a unique blend of talent and local focus to transit. Our industry is dominated by a hand-full of multi-billion dollar corporations that operate nationally and internationally. At Freshwater Transit, we’re a small team comprised of Detroiters with experience in transit planning and operations, marketing, business, and governmental relations.

What makes your business disruptive with its industry?

We ‘punch above our weight class’ by leveraging our local knowledge and diverse talents to deliver high-quality solutions to our clients that rival what the bigger players provide.

Why do you operate out of Detroit and how can you best describe this experience?

Detroit is our home. Our team members were all born within Southeast Michigan or have chosen to move here. Freshwater Transit is the vehicle we use to realize change in our region- our home- that helps raise the quality of life for everyone. The entrepreneurial community here is also unparalleled – there’s a true sense that a rising tide helps all ships versus the cutthroat competition in other markets.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

Transit is a very hot topic in the region and we have several projects that are coming to fruition. We’ve recently completed a project for the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy and are currently launching a project called 15 Minutes Or Better to showcase to Metro Detroiters what better public transit, often an alien concept, can really do for the region.

– Tom Choske, President

9. Banzabanza

Our first product is Banza, pasta from chickpeas. We produce alternative pastas that don’t replicate the experience of wheat-based pasta.

What makes your business disruptive with its industry?

We want to introduce a functional alternative like how Chobani introduced greek yogurt to it’s market. We want to makeit easier for consumer to transition to healthier alternatives without sacrificing on taste. We’re hoping to make products that people love with food that love them.

Why do you operate out of Detroit and how can you best describe this experience?

The state as a whole has a rich historical culture of manufacturing and entrepreneurship and, of course, it fell on some hard times, but we are trying to restore that. We have created 15 manufacturing jobs since moving to Detroit. There is a distinct energy in Detroit and being a part of the renaissance is as much a part of the business as is our product. We want to bring life to the city of Detroit.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

In general our higher-level vision, which we’re piecing together is based on the premise that we are eating too much rice and soy. Our vision is providing diversity to peoples diets instead of the same few food options. We are going to create superior options that are healthier, diverse, and more sustainable for the environment. It’s a more sustainable alternative and we think that we can change the way that people eat. The grand vision is not just pasta but any food that is made from wheat, rice, or corn, but particularly chickpeas. We’re in Meijer, 750 stores, including Shoprite, Fairway, Eataly and more. We are also online at www.eatbanza.com.

— Brian Rudolph, Co-Founder – Avery Hairston, Marketing & Business Development

10. Warranty Ninja

What makes your business disruptive within it’s industry?warranty

We are adding automation and technology to product and warranty registration, an industry that still relies on handwritten and manually entered data.

Why do you operate out of Detroit and how can you best describe this experience?

We all live in or spend most of our time in Detroit. We have access to space, mentors, and other startups with which to collaborate, and all available at a price that allows us to bootstrap and spend our capital on our business.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

We will be releasing our beta app soon. Check out www.warranty.ninja for more details.

– Tifani Sadek

11. Fresh Coast Capital

Fresh Coast Capital seeks to revitalize vacant land and brownfields in America’s urban communities through tree farming. Through a strategy of farming fast-growing hybrid poplar tree farms on vacant, blighted and contaminated urban properties, Fresh Coast Capital can provide a green vacant land management solution to municipalities, land banks, developers, private industry and landowners in the Midwest. Hybrid poplar trees have the ability to simultaneously clean soil while also providing a profitable timber product.

What makes your business disruptive within it’s industry?

Vacant, blighted and contaminated properties are a significant burden on our nation’s urban communities. These properties drive sustained local dis-investment by creating health and safety risks, decreasing local property values, suspending redevelopment, and degrading community self-worth.  Meanwhile, these properties have no near-term redevelopment potential due to the economic conditions and potential contamination, both of which deter developers. Fresh Coast, meanwhile, sees this vacant property as an opportunity to revitalize these cities with a market-based, deeply impactful, scalable solution: urban tree farming.

Why do you operate out of Flint and how can you best describe this experience?

Flint is the ideal city for Fresh Coast to operate in. The departure of jobs and population have left Flint with thousands of acres of vacant properties, and the city of Flint has been very progressive in developing a new Master Plan that rezones several hundred of this vacant property to “green innovation zones”, or districts dedicated to green uses such as urban agriculture, renewable energy and greenhouses. Our tree farms are a perfect fit for this new zoning use, and we have worked hard over the last year to develop strong relationships with the city’s planning department as well as various government agencies, non-profits, community groups and local businesses to determine the best way to bring Fresh Coast tree farms to Flint on a large scale to help meet Flint’s long-term goals.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

We expect to plant a 5-acre pilot tree farm this May on a vacant, Land Bank-owned property in southeast Flint. This property and the surrounding neighborhood will benefit from a tree farm that will manage stormwater, beautify the property, offer educational and community engagement opportunities to the neighbors, and provide work to local contractors for farm maintenance and harvest.

– CEO Nicole Chavas

12. St. Luke N.E.W. (North End Women) Center

The mission the St. Luke N.E.W. (North End Women) Center is to help “at risk men and women become self sustainable.”

New Life Enterprise provides life skills, education, and workplace training to empower men and women to become self-sufficient.  After participating in their program of life change men and women have the opportunity to gain full-time employment, in their three distinct business lines: sewing, landscaping/custodial/maintenance, and food service/market jobs.  There is on-site job and life coaching to ensure the men’s and women’s entry into the workforce is both successful and sustained.

What makes your business disruptive within it’s industry?

Social enterprises by their nature are disruptive in their industries.  N.E.W. Life is uniquely disruptive because to apply for a job there you must be classified as “structurally unemployable.” This employment strategy provides a lot of opportunities and requires unique supports that would not be found in traditional businesses.  By providing these supports they are able to better support the men and women in their workforce – many of whom are the first person in their families to hold a full time job.

These supports allow them to improve barriers to employment and provide services to quality services to individuals and businesses and change people’s lives at the same time.

Why do you operate out of Flint and how can you best describe this experience?

N.E.W. Life Enterprises was founded to allow the center to stay true to their mission.  The people of Flint were facing extremely high unemployment and there were no opportunities for many individuals – especially the structurally unemployable that were graduating from their program of life change.  As a response to their desire to stay true to their mission Sister Carol Weber, OP and Judy Blake, CSJ started small businesses that would utilize the skill sets of individuals who wanted to change their lives.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

N.E.W. Life is undergoing a new website a brand design.  Over the course of the next year you will begin to hear a lot more about the great things happening in Flint as a result their and others work!

– CEO’s Sister Carol Weber & Sister Judy Blake

13. Care Cow

CareCow (dba Dr. Now) exists to unite excellent customer service with effective patient care via telehealth. Customers and families pay $10, $20, or $30 a month for up to 6 visits per year. Health care providers of all kinds can license the platform with no upfront cost, paying only a nominal fee when they use our service.

What makes your business disruptive with its industry?

This space, in and of itself, is disruptive. But there are literally dozens of competitors with new ones arriving on the scene every day. Our key difference is that we eliminate the upfront implementation costs for providers, and create a cashless transaction for the user. We even offer beautiful, telehealth-enabled websites to healthcare groups for as little as $500 (it’s called Dr. Now Online) if they don’t already have a web presence.

Why do you operate out of Flint and how can you best describe this experience?

I grew up in Flint, and although I no longer live there, my family and partners do, so the grit and tenacity of the city are part of who we are. Our customer operations center will open in the Flint area on June 1st and we hope to partner with the strong healthcare innovation cluster that Flint already has to test and prototype innovative telehealth and telemedicine delivery models. We will have two offices total. Our technology operations center is opening in Chattanooga, TN on July 1st. Chattanooga has the fastest internet connection in the US and is a booming tech hub, which makes it perfect for the technology innovation part of our business.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

Our website and proprietary telehealth platform are under development and we plan to launch in beta with 50-100 users from our waitlist on May 1st from our new website at www.drnow.co. We are planning for a full launch on September 1st, including our Dr. Now Online product, which allows any health provider, regardless of their size or specialty, to acquire new patients via the web and offer integrated telehealth with a beautiful website.

– CEO James Cowan

14. Benzingabenzinga

Faster than the speed of light, Benzinga is a premier online source of financial news and analysis, helping millions of readers every month become better traders and investors. Analysts tap unique intermediaries, bringing expensive, Wall Street data and content to a lower-cost, easily accessible ecosystem. The operation is based out of Detroit, Michigan, which champions utmost productivity, allowing Benzinga to remain a cut above costly, red-light locales like New York and Chicago.

What makes your business disruptive with its industry?

Benzinga offers an unparalleled value proposition to its business partners. In addition to our original content, faster real-time headlines and one of the fastest and most accurate corporate events and market data feed, we also offer the value of Benzinga’s partner network. Our partner network includes some of the most important companies in the financial space, from brokerages like TDAmeritrade to content powerhouses like Yahoo! Finance and Marketwatch. Through our partnerships with them, coverage on our business partners gets in front of millions of people every month, an added value few in our industry can compete with.

Our Marketfy platform, a financial education marketplace for retail investors, offers access to content and trade recommendations from professional traders and investors in way that’s accessible to all, transparent and actionable, which is a first in the industry.

Why do you operate out of Detroit and how can you best describe this experience?

Detroit is our home, and will always be our home. This is a city of fighters, a city in the midst of a historic turnaround full of smart, driven people that want to make a difference. We could not be prouder of disrupting the financial services industry, and making a statement at the same time, from our beloved city. We are excited to impact not just our industry, but the city as well.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

Some big news about new partners and our upcoming move are on the horizon – stay tuned!

–  Jason Raznick, CEO

15. Castlecastle

Castle is a tech-enabled property management company. If you’ve got investment properties that you rent out, you can hire us and we’ll do all of the management for you. That part of the business, property management, is very established, but we are taking a tech spin on the whole thing. The way the industry works right now is very inefficient and very conventional, you might say generously. My two co-founders and I were both tech guys at heart and we think that this sort of tech perspective could bring incredible change to the industry.

What makes your business disruptive with its industry?

If you think about the textbook definition of disruptive technology, it comes in at a much lower price point and doesn’t quite provide everything that the standard of the day does but rapidly improves to the point where it displaces the standard of the day at that same lower price point. We definitely have the first part down. We have a flat monthly fee of $79 per unit as opposed to the 8-10% that most management companies charge plus other hidden fees, which we definitely don’t believe in. Now we mostly operate as a traditional management company. We look the same on the surface but everyday we are developing and building our own tools that will allow us to become much more efficient and climb up that utility curve to displace the companies of the day.

Why do you operate out of Detroit and how can you best describe this experience?

First, we have experience and networks here. Combined, we have 6 years of experience here. We have built networks through out jobs, through being in Venture For America and other friendly parties in the city. We have gotten to know the entrepreneurial ecosystem so it already makes sense for us to stay here for that reason. Another big reason that Detroit is great for us is Detroit’s association with real estate. The negative side of this perspective is this sort of ruin porn or national obsession. On the positive side, there is all this opportunity for development and re-development that puts us in line with the trends of the area. The traditional property management has radically underserved the Detroit market.

Is there anything we should keep an eye on (anything coming down the pipeline)?

We are definitely still working in Detroit and Southeast Michigan to prove the thesis of our business that property management can be scalable with the application of technology and on-demand labor. We are planning to eventually expand in sort of an uber-like fashion in which we send a launch squad to a city to get to know the area, and go by a playbook to make a footprint and expand rapidly in that area.

– Tim Dingman, Co-Founder & COO

Check out more Michigan based startups in our Michigan startup directory.


About the Author

Benjamin Seidman

Benjamin Seidman

Michipreneur Influencer at @michipreneur. Director of Business Development at @SPLT. Executive Team at @detroityp. Core Team at @Urbanei1. Tweeting my photography @bigseido and Instagram @seido_photography. Almost forgot, Go Blue!