Oakland County: The Incubator

Atmosphere nurtures innovation
Photo courtesy of BackBeat.

Yerko Supulveda was an aeronautical engineer by day, a bass player by night — and an innovator who is emblematic of the countless entrepreneurs who are growing and being nurtured in Oakland County.

Sepulveda invented a product he calls “BackBeat.” It connects to a bass guitar strip and turns every low note into a vibration that the audience can feel.

Sepulveda turned to Oakland County’s One Stop Shop Business Center for help with a business plan and financial projections to roll out BackBeat. After that, he launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise capital to build a prototype that’s been tested onstage by the likes of Lauryn Hill and Beyoncé’s bass player.

“Working with our partners, working with us, helped him put together the funding he needed to pay the digital marketing company (that spearheaded the successful Kickstarter effort),” says Greg Doyle, supervisor of the One Stop Shop Business Center.

Sepulveda quit his day job four years ago to focus on BackBeat full time.

“Greg Doyle was really helpful because it just allowed me to get input from someone else looking at it from a different perspective,” he says. “That was a big transition point (after) a couple years devoted to developing the product; now I needed to look at it as a businessman.”

It’s the kind of story that Oakland County loves to tell — and to have a role in.

“If an entrepreneur comes to us with certain needs, we make sure that we understand who has those resources for that entrepreneur and where’s the best place for them to be,” Doyle says. “That is huge from an innovation standpoint — helping people to navigate that quicker than ever before.

“I don’t think there’s other communities that have that level of coordination with the support systems. It’s all around getting entrepreneurs to the right place at the right time to access the resources.”

Services are available across all sectors — from food to medical devices and manufacturing to IT.

“Oakland County is a great place for a small business that is innovating and creating new ideas, products and services,” Doyle says.

In 2017, the county rolled out a 1 Million Cups program. Based on the notion that entrepreneurs discover solutions and network over a million cups of coffee, it’s sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation as a free program to educate, engage and connect entrepreneurs. Also locally, Tech248 with about 1,400 members holds monthly meetups so tech companies can network.

The One Stop Shop is among about a half dozen organizations that support entrepreneurs in the county. Doyle points to Oakland University and its OU Inc. business incubator; Lawrence Technological University’s Collaboratory for small manufacturers and hardware entrepreneurs; the Automation Alley technology and business association; the Michigan Small Business Development Center, which in Oakland County is housed at the One Stop Shop; and Beaumont Hospital’s technology transfer and commercialization office.

“All of those organizations meet on a monthly basis,” he says, “to talk about how do we improve access to our resources and how do we get entrepreneurs to the right resource quicker and more efficiently than ever before.”

MORE OAKLAND COUNTY ENTREPRENEURS

Photo courtesy of Vitl Waters.

Like many women, Susan Gans says she loved cosmetics. Doing some research and connecting with a chemist, the Birmingham businesswoman discovered that there was still one mineral water well operational in Mount Clemens, once famously known as “America’s Bath City” for its healing, mineral-rich waters.

Today, she’s pumping that water and using it as an ingredient in a line of Vitl Waters products that include bath salts, therapy water to add to a tub or foot bath, moisturizer, serum and a restorative cream. She has mostly sold her products online, and says Oakland County is a great place to be based.

“Oakland County reaches out to me and I’ve had several meetings with them,” she says. “Several years ago … I went on a couple trips overseas with them and they were fabulous.”

PLANTERRA

Planterra was already fully committed to building a new facility for its business maintaining plants inside commercial buildings when the economy tanked around 2008. The glass-enclosed, conservatory-designed building was imported from Belgium, and was intended to serve as retail space and to house plants.

Serendipitously, just as the economy didn’t rebound, a woman driving by spotted the building and asked about getting married there.

Photo courtesy of Planterra.

“We were really hurting because of the economy and thought we should pay attention,” says Planterra President Shane Pliska. “The irony is, if we weren’t as hungry as we were then, we may have ignored that call.”

They didn’t. And the rest is history. From that first wedding came hundreds more. Planterra now has an in-house wedding planning team that handles all of the flowers and décor. They partner with an Oakland County caterer for food.

“I never imagined we would be serving dinner for 150 people almost every single weekend,” he says. “Call me the accidental hospitality guy.”

In fact, the company is expanding with an outdoor wedding ceremony space, building addition and upgrades to the current glass-enclosed conservatory.

Oh, and they still maintain and supply plants and foliage in commercial buildings.

ZOLLIPOPS

Alina Morse was 7 when she started thinking about a sugar-free alternative to regular lollipops. She and her father consulted with her dentist and dental hygienist to come up with a list of acceptable ingredients and initiated research and development.

Alina was 9 when their corporation, LOL, launched its Zollipops-brand products. Today, the 13- year-old Wolverine Lake resident is company CEO. Her pops, drops and taffy are shipped to points around the world and retailers like Kroger, Walmart, Whole Foods and Amazon.

Photo courtesy of Zollipops.

“In the morning my dad drives me to school and we talk about business on the way — things we’re wanting to work on, marketing strategies,” she says. “I definitely want to finish school, go to a great college and hopefully start other businesses and get to help more people. I love businesses that have a great mission and can help people.”

This article originally appeared in the 2019 Oakland County Prosper magazine.