By state and national standards, Oakland County is a hotbed of innovation.
Inventors in the county filed for 1,821 patents in 2015, the last year for which there is published data. Not only did those account for a third of all patents filed in Michigan that year, but the county also ranked ninth out of 3,100 counties nationwide for the number of patents filed.
Oakland County is populated with creative minds who are moving their industries and communities forward in a variety of ways.
Here’s a look at a few of the innovators who are shaking up their fields, the inventors who are creating new products and the entrepreneurs who are building businesses.
Davo Scheich: Davo Scheich worked in commercial auto photography for 20 years. When the Great Recession hit, he saw a new opportunity in the growing field of internet used-car sales. Online retailers needed high-quality photography of the cars they were selling, but the volume they were handling was far too high to arrange traditional individual photo shoots. Scheich’s Troy-based company, Ovad Custom Stages, has now created five different stages that photograph cars with multiple angles and lighting schemes as they drive through. “It’s finding a way to take the art of car photography and get it to a more scientific and a more predictable approach,” Scheich says.
Eric Zeile: As Rochester Hills-based Prefix Corporation celebrates 40-plus years in business, it’s come a long way from its origins in automotive engineering services. Today, the company still does engineering work, but it’s also moved into low-volume auto production, prototyping and painting. That’s led to gigs ranging from painting vehicles like the Ford Mustang GT and Dodge Viper to Prefix’s latest challenge: creating an ultralightweight electric vehicle that President Eric Zeile describes as “the most advanced delivery vehicle that’s ever been made.” Zeile says adaptability has been Prefix’s strength. “You have to be as diverse as you can,” he says.
Danielle Hughes: Southfield resident Danielle Hughes flunked out of high school and obtained what she calls an “expensive degree that I don’t even use anymore” before realizing her true passion: mentoring youth in her community. She’s now a dream director for the national nonprofit The Future Project, working daily with students in Detroit’s Renaissance High School. She says she may serve as either a therapist or a career coach to her students, depending on the day. “My entire purpose is to be the person that I wish I had when I was younger,” she says.
Brad Baxter: Brad Baxter didn’t have time to keep his cats’ litter box clean — so he invented a robot to handle the task for him, and then built a successful company around it. Baxter is the founder and CEO of Auburn Hills-based Litter-Robot, which markets an automatic, self-cleaning litter box. He’s expanding his company’s offerings to include an automatic pet feeder and a dedicated online retail outlet for cat owners. Baxter says owning his own business is “not always fun and not always easy … but at the end of the day, I’d rather be in control and be independent than working for someone else.”
Sheila Wright: Sheila Wright’s children inspired the first product she designed: the Talkatoo, a charm that allows parents to send a short recorded message to school with their kids. But that was just the beginning for Wright, who went on to build the Bloomfield Hills-based children’s crafts business Ann Williams Group. Wright estimates she’s been issued about 15 patents. She says her children continue to inspire new products, which helps her business avoid its competitors’ tendency to “regurgitate” existing ideas. “We’re really innovative, and that’s something that doesn’t really happen a lot in the craft industry,” she says.
Zachary Klima: After missing a game-winning goal while standing in line for the bathroom at a Red Wings game, Zachary Klima says “the lightbulb just went off.” Klima is the creator of WaitTime, an artificial intelligence platform that predicts wait times in entertainment venues. The system can be used by event attendees or venue staff. Klima’s Royal Oak-based business has attracted clients including the NBA and Madison Square Garden, and he was recently issued a patent. “We’re changing the industry and how people interact with physical environments,” Klima says. “We’re actually making an impact.”
Meaghan Barry: Pontiac resident Meaghan Barry says she “wanted to serve people” with her design skills after obtaining a master’s degree from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. So she and her friend and classmate Lillian Crum launched Unsold Studio, a Detroit-based branding studio. The two have worked with clients ranging from New Order Coffee to the Dlectricity festival, and Barry says she loves the variety inherent in the work. “Every time you meet with a new client, it’s a learning curve,” she says. “I’m learning about things that I never thought I would, and for me that is so fun.”
Nick Skislak: Nick Skislak says he got burned out working for a large advertising agency, so he set out to do it better on his own. The result is SS Digital Media, a Troy-based agency that specializes in digital marketing strategies that range from Facebook to email to Google Ads. Creating a positive workplace is key to Skislak. His company promotes a culture of “radical transparency” through a non-hierarchical structure that empowers all employees to contribute. “It’s beyond just what you pay them,” he says. “While you want to pay good wages, it’s the community. It’s the culture. It’s the buy-in.”
Matthew Wollack: Matthew Wollack was frustrated by the state of Michigan’s IT system for managing child welfare, so he created a replacement for it. The Berkley resident is founder and CEO of IT company Noble Child, whose system he says has vastly improved efficiency at Wolverine Human Services, his family’s social services nonprofit. Wollack says Noble Child has brought eight times as many potential foster parents into the nonprofit and tripled the number who continue to the foster care licensing process. Wollack hopes to expand Noble Child to additional service providers. “We want to be ushering in and supporting both a new generation of social workers and a new generation of kids in need,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the 2020 edition of Oakland County Prosper magazine. Photos: Courtesy of @ItsThaMessenger, Car Design News, by Bre’Ann White and courtesy of AutoPets. Courtesy of Sheila Wright, by Erin Kirkland Photography and courtesy of Distinct Life.