Innovative new product puts Ann Arbor start-up in the national spotlight

When Edward Tang saw the initial ideas and technology that would turn into Glyph, he was floored.

Tang, now the CEO of Avegant — the company behind the retinal display headset known as Glyph — was visiting his friend-turned business partner Allan Evans in Washington. When he saw what Evans had conceptualized and worked on, he knew it was the start of something big.

Already a University of Michigan graduate with strong ties to the Ann Arbor region, Tang convinced Evans, also a U-M grad and now the company’s CTO, to head back to Ann Arbor and get down to work on what looked to be a seriously groundbreaking idea.

“It was something I’d never seen before,” Tang said of an early version of the Glyph, now a wraparound headset with retinal display technology and high-quality audio headphones.

The headset has strong potential to fuse the worlds of entertainment and multimedia, with potential uses ranging from movie-viewing to video game-playing and other virtual interaction.

Given the product and what was at stake, Tang and Evans used Ann Arbor’s strong entrepreneurial community and innovative atmosphere to push the Glyph forward.

“Ann Arbor’s a pretty good place to start a company,” Tang explained.

With some initial funding from friends and family, Tang and Evans got the ball rolling.

Ann Arbor SPARK also played an integral role in the early stages of developing support for the working components of Glyph, including the company’s digital presence and a logo, designed with the help of an outside firm.

SPARK’s work to create private-public sector economic development partnerships was a perfect match for Avegant, helping it grow roots, and become a successful business, in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor’s New Enterprise Center (NEC) also was integral in connecting the two groups, Tang said.

“SPARK connected the company with the Michigan Angel Fund, a for-profit investment fund made up of accredited investors nationwide who support Michigan-based projects,” said Skip Simms, SPARK’s senior vice president.

The funding campaign on behalf of the Michigan Angel Fund closed at the end of last October, and paved the way for future success.

Initial assistance from SPARK and the NEC led to a Kickstarter campaign that positively exploded, defying all expectations, Tang said.

“We did the Kickstarter for a bunch of reasons, but you put this idea out and you’re looking for people to back it,” Tang said.

And people certainly did back it — 3,331 backers had pledged more than $1.5 million as of March 7 — well above the original goal of $250,000.

Tang said the Kickstarter page gets thousands of comments and hundreds of messages a day expressing excitement for the project.

The project’s hype has spread beyond Kickstarter too, with national media features seemingly everywhere, from USA Today to influential tech site Engadget.

Early prototype releases last October and the release of another, more completed Alpha prototype in the months thereafter drew even more excitement. The Glyph Beta version is set for delivery at the end of this year.

SPARK continues to receive regular reports on the company’s progress, as SPARK officials hold a seat on the Michigan Angel Fund’s Board of Directors.

“We’re very excited about what they’ve been able to accomplish in a very short period of time,” Simms said. “They continue to overachieve — it’s an outstanding product.”

For now, the company is focused with laser-like intensity on putting out the best possible version of Glyph, a technology that Tang says could revolutionize multimedia entertainment.

“Future innovations certainly are in store down the road as well,” Tang said.

Keeping an eye on companies working on similar products — things like the Google Glass or Oculus Rift virtual reality headset — is also a company focus, but Tang feels the Glyph sets itself apart from those products.

“Companies like Google Glass are doing something completely different than we are,” he said. “We’re kind of in the middle; we’re trying to give people the ultimate multimedia experience.”

In the midst of a frenzy of production, the company is continuing to ramp up its publicity efforts, including a recent trip to cultural smorgasbord South by Southwest (SXSW), a mecca of all things technology, business, music and entertainment that takes place each March in Austin, Texas.

Prior to the event’s kick-off earlier this March, where Tang and others were to set to give talks and product pitches among a flurry of other activities, anticipation was in the air.

But everything — the trip to SXSW, the aggressive and ambitious Kickstarter campaign, the national media coverage — stemmed in part from the innovative and driven entrepreneurial community in Ann Arbor, Tang said.

“There’s so much we’ve learned in the past year,” he said. “It’s really great to meet other entrepreneurs. It’s people like the team at SPARK, other organizations and other companies that are ahead of us.”

And the business community in Ann Arbor looks more than ready to continue to support future innovation, Simms and Tang agreed.

“It’s been evolving over the years. Every year it seems to get stronger and broader,” Simms said. “We’re starting to build on past success and now we’re having more and more, and it just kind of starts to snowball.”

Those interested in pre-ordering Glyph can get more details at avegant.com.

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