TRAVERSE CITY — Two guys walk into a boardroom and sit in the back. They talk about how they can convince their adult children to move to town. This isn't a joke, and the only punch line is that their conversation blossomed into in an investment firm that has enabled the relocation or expansion of several tech companies — and a number of high-paying jobs in Traverse City.
"We can be physically here and compete in the world economy," said Lowell "Jep" Gruman.
Gruman spoke to the March meeting of the Economic Club of Traverse City. He was there to tell the crowd that tech jobs are key to Traverse City's future — and that a company called Boomerang Catapult, LLC is helping unlock the potential of skilled tech workers to contribute to the community's economic future.
The two guys in the boardroom were Gruman and Casey Cowell, co-founder of U.S. Robotics. The pair collaborated to create Boomerang Catapult. The organization since has invested in half a dozen tech-centric companies that pay good wages. And that was the goal at which Cowell and Gruman aimed.
"We need skilled, educated young people," Gruman told the crowd.
The two friends in the back of the boardroom started talking about how they could get their kids to move to Traverse City. The kids were professionals who already were earning good money in big cities.
Gruman said Boomerang Catapult's mission is: "Smart people, smart work, right here in Traverse City, and send it out into the world."
The conversation took place at a meeting of the board of Interlochen Center for the Arts.
"Many artists are married to professionals, and professionals need a place to work," said Gruman.
He and Cowell and Gruman mused about what it would take to attract arts/professional couples — or their own adult children — to the area. They got serious about the concept and settled on the goal of creating 500 new jobs in the area that each pay at least $80,000. What industries offer such opportunities?
"That was an easy one," Gruman said of the question. "Tech. We know where the money is."
Atlas Space Operations, Inc. is one of Boomerang Catapult's success stories. The company moved from California to Traverse City after Boomerang Catapult invested in the operation. Atlas makes equipment that streamlines satellite communications.
"They have hired three young boomerangs," said Gruman, all in their 20s, all graduates of Michigan schools, all with master's degrees.
Boomerang Catapult has invested in Naveego and GeoTix, tech companies that both are realizing the potential to serve national markets. It also invested in Promethient, which is marketing a material that gets warm if electrical current is applied in one direction, but gets cool if current is applied in the opposite direction. Gruman said the concept is attracting widespread interest.
Boomerang Catapult soon plans to open Startology, a concept that enlarges on the idea of a shared office by adding educational programming. It also plans to provide a 12-week coding boot camp for qualified applicants that should make them ready to fill a waiting job in Traverse City.
"In the past, innovation was slow to happen," Gruman said. But no more. "Now we need to find a way to stay ahead" of rapid innovation he told the crowd, he said.
Investment like that provided by Boomerang Catapult is one component that can help Traverse City move forward, said Gruman. Another is education.
"Any encouragement we can give these kids is really a positive step," he said.