Tech Trek grows with Ann Arbor job opportunities and creative spaces
ANN ARBOR, MI – Ann Arbor SPARK’s Tech Trek is growing in pace with the technology companies that continue to open their doors for curious townies and visitors to get a peek at what is happening in the industry.
More than 70 companies laid out the red carpet with virtual reality displays, fitness demonstrations and plenty of inventive products and technologies to discover in the Friday, June 16.
Donna Doleman, senior vice president of marketing and communications at Ann Arbor SPARK, said this year’s Tech Trek and an earlier event called Tech Talk brought in a record 2,400 people.
“To see the numbers of people, both in and outside the community… get excited about learning more about these companies, I would say it exceeded our expectations,” Doleman said.
Dr. Craig Labovitz, founder and chief executive officer of Deepfield, said his company had two reasons to continue its involvement with Tech Trek.
“We’re trying to double the size of our team over the next month and support the tech industry community,” Labovitz said.
Deepfield was acquired by Nokia in an announcement made at the end of 2016 that has prompted a hiring surge and an expansion of the company’s headquarters in Ann Arbor.
Tech is an important part of Ann Arbor, Labovitz said, and the industry continues to grow. It’s a far cry from what Ann Arbor was like when he founded Deepfield five years ago.
“None of the ecosystem was here. There was no Tech Trek and it was hard to hire,” Labovitz said.
There was also not a lot of venture capitalism, said Lorne Groe, who serves as chief financial and operations officer of Deepfield. Ann Arbor has since captured the attention of larger companies, including Nokia, which now utilizes Deepfield for its engineering capabilities.
Inside the Deepfield office, employees greeted participants and handed out fidget spinners. A sign on the front table stated the company was hiring in software engineering, technical operations, systems automation and post-sales engineering.
Molly Theis, of Farmington Hills, works with the Michigan Venture Capital Association and brought her 1-year-old son Connor along for Tech Trek.
“It’s awesome to see the start-ups,” Theis said after posing for a picture with farm-themed photo props in the FarmLogs office.
Others helped themselves to a catered barbeque meal from Blue Tractor or tried a variety of beers from Short’s Brewery that FarmLogs employees were pouring throughout the event.
“We took Tech Trek as an opportunity to show off to our community and talk about what we’re doing,” said Kelsey Cohen, director of marketing for FarmLogs.
FarmLogs executives gave presentations on the company’s mission to help farmers run affordable operations. The company has grown fast in the last year, with at least 20 new employees.
“We’re always looking for new talent to help drive the future of FarmLogs,” said Cohen, who talked to potential job applicants and curious passersby about the company’s open-concept Kerrytown market space.
“It’s exciting to open our doors. Everyone here is passionate about what they are doing. The more we can share with the public, the happier I am.”
Nearby, participants tested out virtual reality adventures created by Blue Newt.
Some visitors took a virtual tour of a car or tried their hand at virtual baseball, with help from Blue Newt software engineer Evan Cann. In addition to virtual reality, Blue Newt offers training and tracking systems.
One of the training systems involves night-vision simulation for soldiers, so they can test the goggles in a controlled environment before taking them into the real world, Cann said.
The company shares an office with, Pure Visibility another company looking to hire, with open positions in content writing and paid search analytics.
Pure Visiblility invited Move Wellness to set up shop and lead Pilates exercises in Kerrytown during Tech Trek.
Move Wellness CEO Elaine Economou said her business works with small and large companies to teach and encourage employee wellness in the form of fitness classes.
They recently partnered with St. Joseph Mercy Health System to provide yoga and Pilates classes for employees.
At Barracuda Networks, Jeff Jager of Grand Rapids tried a scratch-style pseudo coding exercise with his daughter, Sarah.
“I just want to learn more about what’s going on in the Ann Arbor tech community,” said Jager, who moved away from Ann Arbor during the recession and is looking to return. “It’s amazing how much has happened.”
His wife Sarah said she wanted to take their two children, Sarah and Adam, to visit Backyard Brains, a company that develops tools for school-aged children to learn about the brain.
Job seekers walked into Tech Trek locations with leather folders full of resumes. Children walked out with balloons tied around their wrists. Shoppers were offered discounts and special deals if they were wearing Tech Trek T-shirts.
That’s what Doleman said she appreciated the most about the event, the fact that anyone could find something of interest to see or do.
“It generated excitement that transcended generations,” Doleman said.
Ann Arbor SPARK worked with Ann Arbor Public Schools and held the event when school was out so students could see what careers they might be able to pursue.
“Kids were able to see what work looks like, what it means to go to work. I think that’s important,” Doleman said.
A new addition to the event this year was Tech Talk, a TED Talk-styled event at the Michigan Theater featuring executives from local businesses, who covered topics like artificial intelligence, company culture and cyber security.
“What we designed the Tech Talk to do is to mimic the TED talk format, but think of it as an introduction to some of the companies you would consider visiting on the Trek,” said Bill Mayer, vice president of entrepreneurial services for the economic development group. “It creates a full circle for the Tech Trek experience.”
Carol Ward, a franchise consultant with FranNet who attended Tech Talk said the event “made me proud to be a Michigander.”
“Overall, I think this event is something everyone in the Ann Arbor community can come out and get excited about,” said Doleman. “It’s something special, the tech scene, and it’s our job to communicate that broadly. We feel like we accomplished that.”
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