TRAVERSE CITY — Even before he moved to Traverse City full-time in June, Eric Roberts was part of the technology scene in the region.
Roberts had a conversation a year ago with Lauren Bigelow about 20Fathoms, the tech start-up incubator and co-working space in Traverse City.
Roberts also became involved in Northern Michigan Angels in December, even though the organization's early morning meetings about investing in early-stage companies in the region were often at 4:30 in the morning in California.
He was also active from afar in TCNewTech's Pitch Night when its monthly meetings went virtual during the pandemic.
"I knew when I got here I wanted to play a role in that space," Roberts said of the technology and start-up scene in northern Michigan.
Roberts took his part on stage recently, officially assuming his new role as executive director of 20Fathoms on Tuesday. Roberts succeeds Lauren Bigelow, whose last day was Sept. 7.
Bigelow, who Roberts said he consults with on a weekly basis, returned to Ann Arbor to care for her elderly parents. Bigelow said 20Fathoms is at "an inflection point" and family commitments in southeastern Michigan didn't allow her time to participate in the TC community to the level necessary.
Roberts said Bigelow left 20Fathoms in great shape on a lot of different levels. Roberts said 20Fathoms has more than 90 members, a record high. 20Fathoms also taught more than 250 people skills — often virtually — through its HealthSpark Accelerator, tccodes and tccyber through a pandemic.
“This is an exciting time at 20Fathoms,” 20Fathoms Board of Directors Chair Kristin Rockwood said in a release announcing Roberts' hire. "We’re coming out of the pandemic strong with an upgraded office, growing membership, and successful programs including tccodes and HealthSpark.
"We’re thrilled to welcome Eric to the team and I’m confident that he’s the right person to lead the continued growth of our tech entrepreneurship ecosystem in Traverse City.”
20Fathoms opened in July of 2018 downtown at 101 N. Park St. Bigelow succeeded the first executive director, Andy Cole, and helped the organization grow and move in late 2020 to larger office space at 10850 E. Traverse Highway.
"We are grateful to Lauren’s leadership and tenacity as she successfully steered 20Fathoms through the challenges of the pandemic and positioned the organization for a new phase of success," Rockwood said in a release.
Roberts said he was getting up to speed at 20Fathoms even before his first official day. He said the team in place at 20Fathoms and consultation with Bigelow have been tremendous assets.
Roberts spent the last eight years working in Silicon Valley, most recently as the Vice President of Revenue Operations at Saba Software. He also spent time in California working for Good Technology and later BlackBerry.
"It's been a ramp in progress for the last few weeks," he said. "It's a work in progress of getting up to full speed, but it's coming pretty fast."
Roberts said it wouldn't be appropriate for him to propose a slew of changes at 20Fathoms. But he wants to continue to partner with the community, clarify the brand and identity of 20Fathoms and continue programming like HealthSpark, tccodes and tccyber.
Roberts said 20Fathoms can also serve as a hub itself.
A May 2021 Crunchbase article reported that Michigan is ready to invest in technology and other start-ups.
"No state has seen its venture money increase in the last five years as much as Michigan," the Crunchbase article said. "Venture dollars in the Wolverine State have spiked nearly 886 percent since 2016, growing from around $300 million to about $3.1 billion last year, Crunchbase numbers show."
No. 2 on the list was North Carolina at 409 percent.
"This place can and needs to be the tech hub, even if you don't reside here or pay membership here," Roberts said. "The talent in this area blows me away. The talent and the capital investment availability to the start-up community is unbelievable and 20Fathoms can be that connective tissue."
Even though Roberts comes to Michigan from California, his ties to the Mitten State are strong. Roberts was born in Ironwood, raised in Wisconsin and returned to the Upper Peninsula to attend Michigan Technological University, graduating in 1993 with a degree in mechanical engineering.
Roberts met his wife, who hails from Cassopolis in the southwestern corner of the state, at Michigan Tech. The couple's daughter is a freshman this fall at Tech.
Roberts said his father-in-law still teaches skiing in the winter at Boyne Highlands.
After college, Roberts worked for 17 years in the Chicago area, most of it at Motorola Mobility. He earned his MBA at DePaul University before moving to the West Coast.
While he was still living in California, the Roberts family purchased a house just outside of Traverse City.
"We knew we wanted to move back to the Midwest," he said. "When we went to California, we always knew we would be back. When we visited Traverse City 2½ years ago, we knew the where."