Detroit Labs, Compuware & More on the Mobile Opportunity in Michigan

4/13/12Follow @XconomyDET

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street lights to enhance mobile devices. For instance, Harwood says you’ll soon be able to “talk” to street lights and ask for directions or emergency assistance through your smart phone. (Harwood describes a scenario where you could ask a street light in Florence, Italy how to get to the Badia Fiorentina and the lights would strobe the way for you to follow like a trail of breadcrumbs.)

Michigan’s strengths: “Our strengths are our universities. Everybody on our team who’s involved in mobile apps or wireless control either attended or graduated from Wayne State University, College of Creative Studies, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, or another Michigan school.”

Michigan’s weaknesses: “The economy. The fact is that cities desperately want our equipment to pump life into their downtowns, but the government money has dried up and the tax revenue is gone. However, we continue to stay here even though we’ve been asked to open offices in New York and Los Angeles.”

Paul Jacobs, founder, JACapps

About the company: JACapps, based in Southfield, was the result of Jacobs’ 30 years running Jacobs Media as a consultant to rock radio. (Jacobs Media claims to have invented the classic rock format.) Jacobs says the company got into apps a little over three years ago through research it was doing in media and technology for some of its clients. JACapps specializes in creating apps for festivals and events like the Ann Arbor Art Fair and public radio shows like “Car Talk.” Its apps have been downloaded 14 million times since 2008.

Industry Impressions: “The secret to my success is that I hire people who are half my age and twice as smart. People always ask, how did you [diversify from traditional media to mobile technology]? I tell them I have a marketing background—I don’t lead with code, I lead with strategy.

“We do business around the world—there’s really no difference between Michigan and anywhere else because mobile tech is healthy everywhere. The interest level here is high because city and state leadership is raising people’s awareness. Twenty years ago, when people found out we were based in metro Detroit, they’d ask, “why?” Now people are asking what it’s like to live here.”

Michigan’s strengths: “There is so much business out there, we have just scratched the surface. To me, mobile apps are like websites were in the 1990s. So many businesses, especially locally, don’t even know about it yet. As huge as mobile tech is, we’re really just starting.”

Michigan’s weaknesses: “Finding talent. The mobile tech space is growing and it’s getting competitive. To find developers with some level of experience is hard. All these companies are beating each other up trying to steal each other’s talent.”

Jeff Kelley, “mobile guru” and senior iOS developer, Detroit Labs

About the company: See the beginning of the article for details about Detroit Labs. Detroit Labs is getting ready to launch Podcastic, a podcast-management app Kelley developed during the company’s lab time. (Like Google, Detroit Labs has instituted a 20 percent lab time policy, where team members propose projects and vote on which ones to develop in the hopes that they can be spun off into viable products or companies.) Kelley has also just finished writing a book called “Learn Cocoa Touch,” which will be out next month.

Industry impressions: “One of the side effects of [app developer] being a hard job to fill is that, if you’re coming out of college and know how to develop an iPhone app, I can get you a job making $40,000 to $50,000 the next day. If you make your own app, you could become an overnight millionaire. I’m not so worried about the bubble bursting as I am iPhone app developers being commodified. If you have more and more people learning how to develop these apps, eventually the salaries are going to go down.”

Michigan’s strengths: “We have the auto industry here, and cars and apps are working together more every day. Detroit people have the advantage there.”

Michigan’s weaknesses: “It could be hard to hire people. Keeping people here after college—that’s the challenge.”

Kevin Lasser, CEO, JEMS Tech

About the company: The Orion-based JEMS offers HIPAA-compliant real-time video streaming to smart phone and tablet devices. “The reason for it is lots of rural areas don’t allow people to have access to specialists,” Lasser says. “With our devices and software, they can send a live-streaming video to any doctor in the world.”

Industry impressions: Lasser says his company is both bootstrapped and profitable, and he has little use for bankers or venture capitalists, who he sees as “Johnny-come-latelys” to mobile tech that “offer you an umbrella on a beautiful, sunny day but if it’s raining, they want it back.”

Michigan’s strengths: “When we started, we said let’s try to do this with all Michigan vendors. We didn’t do it to get tax incentives or to get press, we did it because we’re metro Detroiters and we wanted to help the people around us. But we found amazing companies like Enovate IT and Secure-24 that we’d put up against anyone, anywhere in the world.”

Michigan’s weaknesses: “I’m the wrong guy to ask. I think we have an extreme amount of talent here. It’s hard for me to say we have a shortage.”

MTAM is hosting a statewide mobile technology conference in late July that will provide extensive education from local, national, and international industry experts, as well as showcase firms in Michigan that are utilizing mobile technologies in their companies. Contact MTAM at info@GoMobileMichigan.org for more information.

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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