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Online event planning site launched and designed in Grand Rapids

It used to be said that the way to be successful was to build a better a mousetrap. If that cliche were updated today, it might be said that the path to success is in designing a better mousetrap.

Blackbird is the new event planning site created and designed by Laura Vaughn, one of the co-founders of the online wedding planning site, Sitting in a Tree. "Blackbird was officially founded this summer," Vaughn says. "The idea was spawned out of Sitting in a Tree when we saw people started using our templates for corporate events."

Vaughn is a big proponent of how better design can make products and services... better.  "When online invitations became a 'thing',  it was suddenly so easy for organizations to host events and quickly invite people. As a result, most people are inundated with invitations to every event under the sun, often on the same day. A thoughtfully designed invitation goes a long way in someone choosing yours," she says.

Vaughn says her site is not just a pretty site that is more concerned with style over substance, but she believes there is a return on investment for event planners who use her service: "Be honest, when was the last time you were excited about going to an event you were invited to on Facebook? When people receive something that looks and feels great, some will RSVP or not solely based on that. A few years ago Conduit Studio had a party and sent out these super cool metal invitations with cutouts. It made such an impression that a few friends and I brought it up and decided to go. The invitations were awesome so we expected the event to be awesome too!"

Currently, the majority of online RSVP tools are free to set up and feature transaction fees to generate revenue, but there is very little customization available. Vaughn says her business model takes a slightly different approach. "With Blackbird RSVP, you're paying an up-front fee for the design itself, much like you'd pay for a website template. Our transaction fees are slightly lower than the competition, but you'll pay a small fee for the great design and customer support."

So if you are looking for an online tool to help you with your event, Vaughn says to take a little more time to appreciate what better design can do for you. "The thing is, everything is designed,even if you didn't mean to. It can either be designed well or designed poorly, on-brand or off-brand," she says. "Whether you meant to or not, you‚re sending a message about who you are and what people can expect from you."

For more information on Blackbird, you can visit the site here.

Writer, John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

BioLife Plasma creates 35 jobs with new Grandville donation center, expects more hires with growth

Although it has only been in operation for about two weeks, the new Grandville BioLife Center location is already getting nearly 1,000 plasma donations per week. 

It's a good sign for Regional Marketing Representative Danielle Wells, who says those numbers only confirm BioLife's need to build the new one-story, $6 million facility at 6331 Kenowa Avenue SW. 

With anywhere between 2,500 and 3,000 weekly donations at each of the existing locations in Kentwood and Walker, construction on the new 16,500 square-foot Grandville donation center began in October 2013 after existing centers began reaching capacity. 

Boasting 72 beds, free wifi and a supervised playroom where parents can drop off their children free of charge while they donate, the Grandville BioLife center is the largest of the three, also serving to bridge the Southwest gap in the region's service. 

While the Grandville BioLife center has initially created 35 jobs - some positions filled by transfers from Kentwood and Walker locations and some new - they expect to have anywhere from 50-70 employees as the donation center grows.  

"As donations to the center grow, they're going to be increasing the hours and also adding more staff," Wells said. 

Owned by the publicly traded Baxter Health Co., which turns donated plasma into products that can help treat patients for hemophilia, immune disorders and more, BioLife Plasma Services operates five total locations in Michigan and 68 locations throughout the U.S.

All three locations are currently hiring, and many of the openings are for entry-level center technicians, which Wells says don't require any special education as BioLife provides training for all new staff members. 

To learn more about careers at BioLife or to submit an application online, visit www.biolifeplasma.com and click on the "Careers" tab under the  “About BioLife” dropdown menu. 

Written by Anya Zentmeyer
Images Courtesy of BioLife Plasma Services 

Over 2000 downtown workers to get access to personal concierge services thanks to CWD

Beginning in September, clients and employees in 14 of CWD Real Estate Investment's downtown properties will have exclusive access to a personal concierge service.  

Lisa Young, CWD marketing manager, describes the CWD Concierge as a "virtual" service. "Clients will contact concierges that are dedicated specifically to our service via email, text, or phone to place requests," she says. The service will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year and will coordinate a wide variety of client inquiries and requests, ranging from setting up golf tee times and dog walking to procuring event tickets and arranging preferred dinner reservations to local restaurants. The service also includes a "key-date" reminder service, wake-up calls, a comprehensive travel desk and much more, according to Young.

Young says that there are similar concierge programs in larger cities, and CWD Real Estate wanted to bring that to Grand Rapids. "Adding concierge services as an amenity at our properties might make them more attractive to prospects, but really, we wanted to add value to our existing client relations," she says. Young estimates that there are almost 2000 employees at the 14 CWD locations who will be able to access the concierge service after they register. "That is a pretty significant addition to the downtown scene," she adds.

To learn more about the new service, you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor


Davenport's "Employment Guarantee" putting the money where the mouth is

Davenport University's recent announcement of its innovative 'Employment Guarantee' for accounting students is generating a buzz in the region. And it is just the beginning.  

Executive Director of Career Services Shelley Lowe says the accounting program, which she describes initially as a "pilot program," will be the first of several student guarantees that will position Davenport as a leader in professional and career education. "We are putting the money where our mouth is," she says. "We are  confident we are preparing students and programs that are in high demand."

The innovative "Guarantee" will provide additional semesters of education for accounting graduates unable to find employment in their field of study within six months of graduation. Davenport is one of only a handful of schools in the country that have similar programs.  

To be eligible, students have to meet several criteria laid out by the program, such as maintaining a 3.0 GPA in their major and overall, and internship and other experiential learning experiences. Qualified graduates unable to find employment may receive up to three additional semesters up to 48 credits total of instruction tuition-free, with students responsible for fees and books. The additional courses, worth up to $30,000, should help most students obtain a second major.

Lowe says she expects the program to spread to other colleges and programs beyond accounting such as nursing and technology. She says future roll-outs will be based on ongoing market analysis, and says Davenport is focused on educating current and future students about the program and the eligibility criteria. The core message: "Start preparing now. Start planning."  

Lowe highly recommends that students who want to get a head start in participating in this program should find as many experiential opportunities as possible. Her advice includes encouragement to "volunteer or get an internship" and "start building a professional network."

To learn more about the "Employment Guarantee," including the qualifications, visit the site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

It's official: It's back to school at coLearning

The Factory's coLearning program is now officially, official. The State of Michigan has certified the technology and design training and learning initiative as a proprietary school, a very important milestone for both the program and its students.

The certification will reinforce the learning outcomes for the students and assist in expanding career opportunities for coLearners who may be job-seeking upon completion of their course. For employers who invest in their employees' professional development, the certification demonstrates to clients their expertise in given areas. Certification will also help give employers and individuals access to funding through state programs like Michigan Works.

To date, the program has completed six courses and graduated over 100 coLearners. Amongst the courses that were scholarship-based, the leadership team at The Factory estimates a nearly 70 percent placement rate for individuals seeking jobs through coLearning courses.

The next round of coLearning courses begins September 4 and includes courses like Design Thinking, User Experience Design, Content Strategy, Intro to PHP, and Intro to Ruby. Aaron Schaap, Factory founder, says the new courses reflect the ongoing evolution of the program. "We continue to thrive in the technology space, but wanted to expand beyond the scholarship model for technical courses and reach the strong design community in West Michigan through our course offering," says Schaap.

To keep the engine humming, Schaap says that Annie Klooster will be taking over for Lauren Starrett, the past program director who is leaving for a new career opportunity, and that he anticipates adding more staff in the near future. Schaap says "coLearning is moving pretty fast and we are looking to hire more people to help grow the school. We don't have these roles finalized yet but most likely we'll continue to need people to help with admissions, recruitment, student services, and more."

To learn more about the program you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Kendall College student reaches semi-finals of global design competition

Mackenzie Smith is an industrial design student at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) and she wants to help everyone have a good night sleep.

Though it started as a class project, Smith's concept design, The Sanitary Sleep Station, has reached the semi-finals of the global Electrolux Design Lab competition, and she is now one of 35 designers (out of over 1,700 submissions from undergraduate, graduate and working professionals) being considered for the grand prize. Smith is also the only student from the United States who is still standing.

The concept, Sanitary Sleep Station, is a highly personalized air purification system that reacts in real time to users changing body conditions while they sleep.

Smith credits her class with Tom Edwards and the overall Kendall experience as key to her success. "Kendall does a great job with hands-on design," she says. "I really enjoy the small size of the industrial design classes."

Eventually, six designers will advance to the final stage of the competition, where a panel of Electrolux experts will determine the winners of 1st prize (5,000 Euro and a six-month paid internship at Electrolux), 2nd prize (3,000 Euro), and 3rd prize (2,000 Euro). A public online vote will determine the winner of the People's Choice Award and 1,000 Euro. Smith says the the finalists will be announced in October.

In the meantime, regardless of the outcome of the competition, Smith will be honing her design chops with an internship at the highly regarded Tiger Studio in Grand Rapids.

To learn more about Smith's design, you can visit her submission here.  

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

New cold brewed coffee beverage delivers a swift kick

Prospectors Cold Brew, a coffee beverage, is one of Grand Rapids' latest entrepreneurial ventures to be hatched from the Downtown Market's incubator kitchen, and its tagline promises it will deliver its customers "a swift kick."

Dave Wentworth and Eric Pearson are the co-founders of the business that began in a home kitchen in January 2014 and was licensed in the incubator kitchen in July. The duo and their production team grind, cold brew and bottle their coffee drink into four varieties - concentrate, original, extra-strength and almond milk.

The inspiration for the new business partially came from Wentworth's search for a better alternative to coffee and energy drinks. "I am a Type 1 diabetic and I know there were no healthy coffee drinks," he says. "Most have high sugar, and I found iced coffees to be bitter with no flavor." Wentworth says he was sent a cold brewed coffee from a company in southern in California and he "fell in love" with the drink.

Pearson says his interest in the cold brewed beverage industry was more of a business opportunity than a lifestyle choice. "I thought it was cool product. There were no preservatives or garbage that many energy drinks have," he says. Pearson also says he felt the time was right for an interesting product and a consumer shift towards healthier eating trends: "There wasn't much of a market presence in West Michigan and I thought it could be a business opportunity."

The branding choice for their company is focused on the purity and simplicity of their product's ingredients, which they was embodied by the prospectors, who chose a simple lifestyle in their quest to mine for pure gold. "Our concentrate is pure and clean and there is no bitterness like heat extracted products," says Pearson. He says their process includes using mint, which he says gives their beverage a "Turkish vibe."

You can find Prospectors Cold Brew in ten locations, including Martha's Vineyard, a very early adopter of the beverage, and you can also order online.

For the full story about Prospectors Cold Brew, including ordering and product information, visit their website here or their Facebook page here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Hope College student is jamming - and he hopes you like jamming, too

Finally, someone has invented a product that would make both Bob Marley and Martha Stewart happy - and no, it is not a new brownie mix.  

Jam Jars are a Mason canning jar speaker that have been created by Hope College student, entrepreneur Matt Gira, who decided that existing speakers have become "blah and bland" and wanted to design something unique and functional. "I wanted to bring creativity back to technology," Gira says.

The concept is actually pretty simple: repurpose the iconic (and ubiquitous) Mason canning jars into speakers that can easily be connected to a mobile device. "You use a 3-foot auxiliary cord, the same way you would connect your music device to headphones," he says. "Jam Jars also come with a power cord that connects to a standard electrical outlet to boost their sound."

Gira says at first it was a "hobbyist thing" and some people felt it was joke, but when they played music through his jars, "the sound was great." Gira says the jars are currently hand-painted and come in nine colors which he sells through his web and Etsy sites.

Moving forward, Gira is readying a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds that will allow him to streamline his operations, including having the jars powder coated plus adding more features, such as Bluetooth compatibility and a rechargeable battery.  

Gira credits his experience with the Hope College entrepreneurship program, which includes his winning an investor pitch competition in March.

To learn more about Jam Jars, you can visit Gira's company (Lio Products) website here and his Etsy site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Saladworks opens first West Michigan location, 2nd and 3rd locations planned, jobs still available

The husband and wife owners of Grand Rapids' Kilwin's Chocolates store have ventured into the healthy foods arena with the opening of West Michigan's first Saladworks restaurant at 44 Ionia SW, across from HopCat. A second location, planned for an out parcel near Centerpointe Mall, will open soon. A third location is planned.

Each location will employ some 25 people.

Grand Rapids natives Tim and Julie Calderone say that after seeing how well the Kilwin's store has done since opening three years ago, they were looking for a new restaurant opportunity that would fill the gap of healthy foods offerings in Grand Rapids. They researched Pennsylvania-based Saladworks and decided it ticked a lot of boxes.

"We know people here are health conscious, and we had looked at the location years ago for Kilwin's," Julie says. "Saladworks is really on the 'restaurant street' and it really completes the restaurant offerings."

The chain, which Tim Calderone says is venturing into Canada and the Middle East with 100 new stores in development, offers 12 signature salads; make-your-own salads with choices of greens or pasta bases and 60 toppings; signature soups, like Cheddar Broccoli, Chicken Orzo, and Maryland Crab; house-made dressings; Paninis; and desserts. Catering, free delivery for orders over $15, and online ordering are available.

"The Centerpointe location will be next to Five Guys and PotBelly's, and will be a food destination because of all the choices for people," Tim says.

The Calderones are still hiring for the Ionia Avenue store, which opened this week, plus the Centerpointe location. Positions include prep cooks, servers, clean-up, supervisors, delivery and catering, and cashiers. Workers will have an option of which store to work at, or can even transfer to the Kilwin's store if that seems a better fit.

To apply, click here or stop by 44 Ionia SW for an application.

Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Saladworks
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Downtown Grand Rapids' new Kilwin's location is a great place for first time job seekers

Unique opportunity beckons for the bold and creative at Adonit

Do you consider yourself passionate, bold, purposeful, confident, innovative, and creative? If so, you might want to check the job openings at Adonit, the tech firm that designs and makes "tools for the new digital media," such as the Jot stylus.

Mac Fowler, vice president of software, says there are several openings at Adonit, with the most immediate in Grand Rapids being for a project manager. "We're looking for a software-focused project manager to help continue building and refining our development processes," he says. "A great project manager helps remove barriers and allows our designers and developers to be more productive and focused."

Fowler says the ideal candidate is someone who's "been a developer in the past or been around the development process. They understand the estimation process, sprints, and how to work collaboratively with their team to ensure everything is moving forward‚ even in moments of startup chaos."

"Working at Adonit is truly a unique opportunity, especially within West Michigan. We are a profitable and growth-stage technology start up. We're still small enough where everyone's opinion matters but we still get to work and hang out with great partners like Adobe and Evernote. Our 3-D Printers are humming, and post-its cover the walls," says Fowler.

If you are interested in applying, check out www.adonit.net/careers page for details on the software project manager position as well as iOS developers and several other open positions.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Orion Construction adds new staff to support multiple projects

It should be no surprise to the casual observer that the construction industry is on the rebound in Grand Rapids. Cranes, scaffolding, and orange pylons are scattered throughout the city.

"There has been a pent-up demand," says Roger Rehkopf, president of Orion Construction,  the Grand Rapids-based firm that has announced the recent addition of four new employees to help keep up with the growth.

New to the Orion team are Bret Mackey (Project Superintendent), Ed Simeone (Project Superintendent), Chelsea Petersen (Administrative Assistant), and Ed Wygnal (Project Manager).  

Active projects for Orion include Eastown Flats, Port Huron Convention Center, Arena Place, Seventh St. Lofts, The Grand Villages, and a Hyatt Place in Eastwood Town Center.

Rehkopf says with the improvement in the economy and banks being more open to new construction, he is very optimistic about future growth - with the only challenge being finding individuals with the right type of construction experience. "Many firms downsized," he says, after a poor economy put the skids on new projects and workers left the area and have not returned yet. "So far, we've been fortunate, though."

To learn more about Orion Construction, you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor

Grand Rapids exporting "geek expertise" thanks to The Geek Group

Grand Rapids has a long history of exporting technology, furniture, and automotive products throughout the world. Now it can add "geeks" to its latest list of exports.

The Geek Group has announced that a new chapter has opened in the SoDo District of downtown Seattle, WA. The SoDo MakerSpace will be just the second official chapter of the Geek Group. The Geek Group of Western Massachusetts opened six months ago in Springfield, MA.   

Josh Spencer, director of development at The Geek Group, describes the expansion as a "test franchise" which is the direct result of ongoing demand in communities from throughout the world that want an organization with the same values and creativity as the Grand Rapids-based The Geek Group.

Spencer says the success of The Geek Group is very appealing to other communities and that by working through a franchise model, new groups would be able to access "the largest group of makers in the world," a claim which he says based on their global membership of over 25,000 scientists, inventors, engineers, artists, tinkerers, and general geeks in over 140 countries. 

Spencer also says that by working through The Geek Group, new maker organizations can avoid growing pains by using their proprietary operating system, which can help groups with development, inventory control, point-of-sale, programming, membership, content management, and operations.   

In the short- to mid-term, Spencer says The Geek Group will be using the experiences from their first two chapters to help them learn and craft a scalable franchise program that will allow more cities to establish their own chapters. He says they anticipate adding a couple of more cities in the next year followed by a careful, growth-oriented expansion, saying that it is important to "to maintain our authenticity" and it is critical that "all Geek Groups keeps an eye on our core mission."

To learn more about The Geek Group, you can visit their site here.

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs News Editor.

As one steel erection shop closes, another opens in Grand Rapids with skilled trades jobs available

In the aftermath of the closing of Lamar Construction, three former employees have decided to
combine their 50-plus years of steel construction expertise into a new Grand Rapids-based company, Legacy Steel.

And where many such companies rise from the ashes only to fail, Legacy Steel is guarding against that by partnering with Rockford Construction for its financial and business savvy. With that in mind, Legacy Steel has established an office at 560 5th St. NW, a stone's throw from Rockford Construction's HQ.

Legacy Steel, headed by Jeff Leeuw, Douglas "DJ" Coke, and Wade Walcott, has hired nine ironworkers and a safety manager in preparation for its first job, which started this week, erecting the steel for the new Meijer store in Manistee. That job, anticipated to last six weeks, will be followed by steel erection for another Meijer store in Acme.

Leeuw says that all crew will be busy with these projects, so, as more projects come on board, he's looking to add at least 10 skilled ironworkers in the next six months. Along with those workers, Legacy Steel will add office and administrative support, as needed.

"In the next six months, we're looking at plenty of work," Leeuw says. "The economy in West Michigan is thriving and with Lamar going defunct it left a huge hole in the steel construction industry. We're looking to fill that hole slowly and build back up to where we were."

Leeuw says the company is looking for anyone with a steel erection background, as well as new tradesmen who would like to learn the skills. The company will provide on-the-job and classroom training, as needed.

Regarding Rockford Construction's decision to become an active partner in the venture, CEO Mike VanGessel says the company was looking into adding a "steel, pre-eng, and precast erection division this year, so the opportunity with Leeuw is a perfect fit. We know their work, have the utmost respect for the level of quality and service that Leeuw and team deliver."

To find out more or to inquire about a position, stop by Legacy Steel's office with a résumé.
Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Legacy Steel

Generation Care adds office manager, pediatric speech therapist positions to keep up with growth

Demand for more high-quality services in physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and wellness services has spurred new growth in West Michigan-based Generation Care Performance Center. Generation Care provides comprehensive services that help people restore their lives following accidents, injuries, surgeries, and illnesses, as well as providing ongoing strategies for dealing with autism, early onset dementia, and Parkinson's disease.

That growth translates to two new speech therapist positions -- one is part-time -- in Generation Care's Grand Haven location and an office manager position in the Grand Rapids office.

"We're looking for licensed speech pathologists who have a strong background and interest in pediatric care," says company owner Holly Lookabaugh-Deur. "They'll work with physical therapists and occupational therapists on a speech team, working with parents to focus on language development for their children, feeding and swallowing, and issues with kids with feeding disorders, sensory issues (autism spectrum), reading, communication, and learning strategies."

The company also seeks an experienced office manager with skills in overseeing a busy office, some marketing skills, and the ability to provide administrative support to therapists.

Lookabaugh-Deur says that school therapists are overwhelmed with the number of children needing speech therapies, so parents seek assistance outside the school. This accounts for a good portion of Generation Care's growth in demand for pediatric services.

Another factor is that, as of Jan. 1, 2015, a new law goes into effect that will enable Michigan residents to seek therapeutic care and physical rehabilitation care without needing a physician's referral.

"We want them to know there's help for chronic pain and other problems," Lookabaugh-Deur says. "I think we're going to do more and more to keep their healthcare costs down and offer an effective medical fitness program."

To find out more about Generation Care or to apply for a position, click here.

Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Generation Care

Rockford's Sable Homes helps create residential construction jobs pipeline, has numerous openings

The housing construction downturn did more than bottom-out the economy -- it also stripped the residential construction industry of the next generation of skilled, experienced carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and other trades.

As a result, John Bitely, owner of Rockford-based Sable Homes, says he can't find the workers he needs to begin work on any new home building orders, even though he has buyers waiting. In particular, the 20-home Central Town Square project in Sparta, which Bitely says sold half the homes in less than a year, is well underway -- but Bitely can't start any new homes "because of my labor situation, I can't start another house for another month or two because I don't have anybody to put on it to do the work."

"Right now, many of us (builders) are overwhelmed, the pent up demand for houses is upon us, consumers are buying homes that they want versus a lot of vanilla homes, which were just stripped models during the downturn, and now people want the amenities and nicer things and that takes longer and requires more tradesmen," Bitely says.

The reasons for the shortage of skilled construction workers vary. Bitely says it used to be that a 16-year-old could work as a construction helper and by the time they graduated high school they'd be well on their way to learning a trade that pays as well as a college-degreed job.

Another reason is that construction workers age-out -- by the time they're 40, years of heavy lifting have taken their toll. Without these experienced workers, there are no lead workers to teach younger workers the skills of the trades.

Bitely co-chairs the Next Generation Committee at the Home Builders Association of Greater Grand Rapids, which, with other associations, has formed the Construction Workforce Development Alliance. The focus of the alliance is to encourage young people to take up the building trades as a career choice, help them decide which trade to pursue, and to connect them with companies that can help them get started with on-the-job training.

"The next generation, we're almost saddling them with the equivalent of a home mortgage (college costs) before they're out of college, and you don't have to go that route," Bitely says. "You can become a plumber's helper and if you like it, can write the test and get your journeyman's card. The same's true for becoming a carpenter. There are options that don't require four years of college that still provide a good living."

To find out more about the Construction Workforce Development Alliance, click here.
To contact Sable Homes about a possible construction job, click here.  

Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Sable Homes
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