TRAVERSE CITY – Michigan Tech University and Traverse City are separated by over 360 miles of road and the Mackinac Bridge.
A new program between 20Fathoms and the University of the Upper Peninsula aims to bridge the gap between the two. An agreement was finalized earlier this year to advance research on campus, helping turn ideas into start-ups in Northern Michigan.
Eric Roberts, executive director of Traverse City’s 20Fathoms incubator, said the partnership is a boon to Michigan Tech and the region’s strong startup ecosystem.
“It’s a win for them every time they turn some of that research into a start-up opportunity,” said Roberts. “We have so much here that can do that job. We have people, we have capital and we have 20 Fathoms to incubate. “
“The university has a high volume of research producing breakthroughs with significant commercial potential, but one of our biggest challenges in bringing these breakthroughs to market is recruiting people with business experience in tech startups to join companies and take a leadership role in moving companies in partnership with our technical experts, ”Jim Baker, associate vice president of research administration at Michigan Tech, said in a statement.
Michigan Tech professors receive a grant to perform various research projects, but these ideas often don’t go beyond the initial stage. Roberts said this is where 20Fathoms steps in to “bridge the gap” from basic research to commercial activity.
He said it can be “hard to imagine what a commercial enterprise looks like” while working in a higher education environment.
“We need to have the right ideas in front of the right people in Traverse City to advance research to create startups,” said Roberts.
While Michigan Tech does “what it does” in developing ideas for innovations, Roberts said 20Fathoms will bring “the people who work” to the equation.
“As Jim Baker said, think about five to 15 hours a week for three or nine months to do this research and get past the first milestone or two,” Roberts said.
He identified 6 to 10 people who are willing to take the time to take a Michigan Tech idea and work to transform it into a start-up or commercial company, which he calls “resident entrepreneurs.” Roberts said she’s always on the lookout for more of these Traverse City-based entrepreneurs.
The partnership between 20Fathoms and Tech could lead to licensing the technology from the university, which can lead to additional funding for MTU and boost Northern Michigan’s regional economy.
“We are very excited about the ongoing collaboration with 20Fathoms to address this challenge in a way that results in economic growth for both of our regions,” Baker said in the statement.
Roberts assumed the position of executive director of 20Fathoms in September 2021 and a month later was on the Michigan Tech campus talking to Baker and other officials, including a professor involved in the research.
“It’s a pretty cool program,” Roberts said. “I’ve been working with Jim Baker up there pretty much since I got here.”
There were other meetings earlier this winter.
During the Northern Michigan startup week, representatives from the Office of Innovation and Commercialization at Tech visited Traverse City to discuss “a number of ongoing commercialization projects in areas including 3-D printing, renewable energy, plastic recycling and advanced batteries, “according to a statement.
The May 10 meeting was held at Michigan Tech’s Traverse City Research Workspace in the Traverse Connect building at 202, Grandview Parkway.
20Fathoms brought several members of the local start-up business community. The meeting included not only angel investors and risk investors and advisors, but also those involved in human and legal resources.
“We wanted to have a room full of people who can lift entrepreneurship as well as entrepreneurs themselves,” Roberts said.
Michigan Tech brought six projects to the table in Traverse City. Roberts said one of them has already taken off while a couple more are in the pipeline.
“We have quite legitimate traction,” Roberts said.
The face-to-face meeting on May 10 came in part because the university was a big part of Northern Michigan’s kick-off week, which ran from May 9-15.
The Huskies also attended the University Idea Showcase on May 12. Bayle Golden and Roarke Sylvain finished in second place and were voted public favorites after Golden launched SafeRow, a wearable child safety device.
Golden also participated in the Startup Weekend and served as a mentor for the Traverse City Central Tech Girls Club team, which competed in the Northwest Michigan Student Pitch Competition on May 13.
While Golden’s SafeRow wouldn’t be part of 20Fathoms’ research program, it’s another example of a partnership between Traverse City and Houghton.
“I am absolutely going to continue to grow the relationship with Michigan Tech,” said Roberts.
Michigan Tech recently announced that it will offer a hybrid master’s degree in business administration where classes will be held weekly on Zoom at the Workspace Research Center, which opened in October 2021.
Michigan Tech and members of the Grand Traverse Area Michigan Tech Steering Committee, chaired by Promethient Inc. CEO Bill Myers, signed a “Memorandum of Understanding Designed to Explore Collaboration Opportunities” in the region, according to a previous release.
Michigan Tech and Northwestern Michigan College also signed an agreement that allows engineering students to transfer two years of NMC credits to MTU.
The 2 + 2 program allowed students from different engineering courses to transfer 60 credits to Michigan Tech, depending on the program, and to arrive at MTU as a junior.
An extended agreement in early 2021 allowed Associate of Science in Engineering students to transfer 73 credits from NMC to MTU.