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SPARK’s trek draws tech fans

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Ronald Snyder, Ithaca’s director of advanced technology, demonstrates JSTOR’s new products SPARK’s second annual Tech Trek on June 17. | John Strobel

Ronald Snyder, Ithaka’s director of advanced technology, demonstrates JSTOR’s new products at SPARK’s second annual Tech Trek on June 17. JSTOR is a database for academics. | John Strobel

By Christine M. Tracy

More than 1,300 people had the chance to meet Phil Brabbs and other Ann Arbor technology innovators at SPARK’s second annual Tech Trek on June 17.

SPARK is a nonprofit economic development organization with  locations in downtown Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. For the past 11 years it’s supported business acceleration, attraction and retention in Wash­tenaw and Livingston counties.

The success of Tech Trek took SPARK by surprise. About 100 people were expected the first year and more than 800 people showed up, said Donna Doleman, SPARK’s senior vice president of operations and communications. This year, 1,300 came to the event.

The idea for Tech Trek came from Doleman and her business development and entrepreneurship services teams. They wanted the community to see the “hidden gems” downtown, Doleman said. Most Ann Arborites would be surprised to learn the city has 13 international tech firms (440 employees), 660 national tech companies (7,850 employees) and six tech incubators: TechArb, Desai, Startup Garage, Tech Brewery, UM Tech Transfer and SPARK Central. Incubators typically supply space, internet access, management support and sometimes money.

SPARK designed the open house for a wide range of audiences, including 12-year-olds curious about work, college students about to graduate, and prospective job-seekers looking for contacts. The more than 60 participating companies were challenged to design experiences that not only showcased their products and services, but also gave visitors a close look at who they are and how they work.

One of the youngest trekkers was Anneka Stephenson, an 8-year-old who attends Ann Arbor’s Open School. Anneka joined the festivities after visiting a 3-D printing demonstration and using Manga drawing software at the Ann Arbor Library Comic Festival.

She wasn’t sure what to expect from the afternoon. “I thought you had to run a race,” Anneka giggled. “It just sounded fun. I learned how people can go to work online.” Anneka joined the Tech Trek because her mom, Jill Anthony, wanted to “plant seeds” for her daughter’s future. “No one’s looking for a job today, but give us 10 years,” said Jill.

Ann Arbor’s Billie and Henry Johnson had more pressing goals. “I’m here to really see different technologies and learn how I can apply them to my own organization,” said Billie, president and CEO of the Toledo Area Office on Aging of NWO Inc. “We went to one session that showed us how easy it is to hack into systems, and how easy it is to unlock systems, and it frightened me to death,” she said. “I don’t have programmers on my staff so I’ve been able to talk to some programmers who were able to tell me what I need from a high level.” She’s planning to hire some of the coders and programmers she met to hack into her system to reveal its vulnerabilities.

One of the most popular Tech Trek stops was Neurable’s exhibit, where visitors donned virtual reality gear to navigate a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment. Neurable’s founder, Ramses Alcaide, is a U-M neuroscience doctoral candidate. His company is working to develop an artificial intelligence system that enables people to play games, operate toys and drive a full-size car using only brain activity.

“Users can navigate by wanting to,” said Adam Molnar, Neurable’s operations manager. “Every human being has electrical impulses coming out of their brain. That’s how you think.” Alcaide designed a cap that picks up these electrical impulses and a system that understands them.

Another popular stop was the Matterhorn offices on South Ashley Street. For all the Ann Arborites who have tried talking their way out of a speeding ticket, Matterhorn’s Court Innovations software is a dream come true. It enables violators to negotiate speeding tickets and other legal infractions online 24/7. J.J. Prescott, a U-M law professor, created the program, which helps judges in 14 district courts in Michigan quickly move through their caseloads, while also enabling citizens to resolve outstanding issues without going to court.

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