Experiencing Northern Michigan: Inside 20Fathoms, Traverse City’s Tech Incubator & Startup Hub for Entrepreneurs

Underwater drones. Cryptocurrency mining. Environmental software. Virtual reality training for biomedical education. These are some of the exciting entrepreneurial ventures developing and thriving in the offices at 20Fathoms, a tech incubator, startup hub, and coworking collaborative in Downtown Traverse City. As a rapidly growing nonprofit with a local approach to global business, 20Fathoms provides hometown startups with space to work and collaborate, helpful resources, opportunities to network, advanced educational programming, the invaluable expertise of mentors, and cold hard capital—all to help local tech entrepreneurs aggressively scale their businesses. The ultimate goal? To recruit tech talent to Traverse City and attract the best minds in the world to help grow Northern Michigan’s economy.

“There’s a well-known fact that 75 percent of all venture capital goes to three states: California, New York, and Massachusetts. Almost none of it goes to Michigan,” said Andy Cole, executive director at 20Fathoms. “But the flow of talent has dispersed more from those consolidated states over the past decade because, with technology, people can work wherever they want. So we have a lot of great people here who maybe ten years ago would be in one of those big places, and they’re doing really cool stuff, just like they’d be doing in those other places, but the money’s not here to raise. So we’re currently solving that problembut it’s going to take some time.”

With 6,000 square feet of prime real estate on Front Street in the heart of bustling Traverse City, 20Fathoms is “cultivating a thriving and connected startup ecosystem” in Northern Michigan, a place for technologists and entrepreneurs Up North to call home. Inside the open coworking space, glorious floor-to-ceiling windows let in heaps of natural light and perfectly frame that downtown buzz of Front Street, giving off a vibrant energy to inspire creativity and new ideas. 20Fathoms has been in existence for less than a year, so the nonprofit’s downtown building still has that “brand new smell,” Andy joked. Regarding how this young nonprofit landed such impressive digs, he said, “We got absurdly lucky.”

20Fathoms is designed to remove typical barriers startup teams might have by providing “an energetic workspace full of high-energy entrepreneurs.” In their modern office, 20Fathoms offers an open kitchen with coffee from Espresso Bay and “Beer:30” brews from the Workshop Brewing Company. Caffeine and craft beer are surefire ways to help “spark new ideas, inspire creative solutions to tough problems, and encourage serendipitous interaction with smart people invested in your success”—a strategy the nonprofit calls “Collision by Design.” Focused on people, the design encourages entrepreneurs “collide” with other creative thinkers, doers, and mentors who all help each other make their end products as knockout as possible. Downtown TC’s getting a taste of Northern Michigan’s tech industry and coworking culture—and this small-town nonprofit by the bay is starting to put the city in Traverse City.

“We’re competing with University of Michigan, MIT, and Stanfordwho have insane innovation centers,” said Andy, who’s 35 years old. “We’re already operating at a sustainable level, and it hasn’t even been a year. A lot of people said if we did it in three years, that would be amazing. And we’re already there! Now we’re at a point where we’re trying to hit a grand slam and get sustainability money to help us hire the staff we really need to administer our own grants.” Specifically, the Business Accelerator Fund Grant gives tech startups $50,000 to develop their technology, and the MEDC has made 20Fathoms their first independently run incubator able to administer this game-changing grant.

Not only is 20Fathoms radically influencing the innovation sphere in Northern Michigan, but this Traverse City nonprofit has also completely renovated half the second floor of a downtown corner building overlooking Front Street. Once drab, divided up, and void of natural light, the new offices at 20Fathoms boast a stark juxtaposition: bright, open, and airy with big city views of a charming, bustling town and no walls to separate one good idea from another. The result is a more collaborative, more productive office environment that lets light in as much as it lets innovation in. A theme of growth is evident given the indoor greenery, and the art on display is created by students at Interlochen Center for the Arts. “Interlochen is definitely world-class, and we’re trying to figure out ways to work with them collaboratively,” Andy said.

A graduate of Babson College (known for its central focus on entrepreneurship education), the University of Michigan, Kalamazoo College, and Traverse City West Senior High (fun fact: Chasten Buttigeig and I are also TC West alums), Andy is an expert in connecting people. “We have a lot of partners,” he saidand that’s a big part of what sets 20Fathoms apart from other tech hubs in bigger cities. “Almost every partner we bring on, we have them contribute their core competency to the spacethe space and/or the entrepreneurs directly.” In contrast, most startup incubators have support from sponsors to help write checks to keep the lights on. “We have to pull in as many resources as possible to create win-win situations for everybody,” said Andy. “These are all partners who see what we’re doing, want to be a part of it, and they’re contributing something that really doesn’t cost that much to them, but it’s of incredible value in this space. That’s why this works really well.”

Becoming a member is a smart investment if entrepreneurs are ready to make it. A private office with enough space for two or three people to work runs about $1500 per month with a one-year contract. As 20Fathoms describes it: “This is your ‘skunkworks’ where you can get away from your headquarters and be inspired by the buzz and energy of big thinkers and relentless doers of the startup world.” For $375/month ($350/month with a six-month contract), you can have a dedicated desk of your own to call home in the open, collaborative spaceplus a comfy, ergonomic chair. For ultimate flexibility at $225/month ($200/month with a three-month contract), you’re free to post-up in any shared space, find a seat with a Front Street view, and charge up your laptop to get to work. And for just $100/month, you can start with a Starter level virtual membership, which gives you free access to all events, five day passes (with all Shared Space benefits) to work at 20Fathoms, and a Downtown Traverse City mailing address.

Members also get special access to certified instructors, machine shops, and state-of-the-art equipment, from laser cutters to 3D printers. There’s white noise playing to help you focus as you work, and you can draw, erase, save, and export notes after meetings or events on 20Fathoms’ digital blackboard. Genius! Thanks to its community partnerships with places like Northwestern Michigan College, 20Fathoms is truly a makerspace. Likewise for art, the heart of entrepreneurship is creation. And the great thing about creating collaboratively is that no one person can say they did it alone. Everyone works together to accomplish the same goal. “As long as we’re creating high-paying jobs and attracting highly educated, smart people to the area, good things stem from that,” Andy said.

The perks of being a member of the 20Fathoms community are pretty priceless considering the opportunity for business growth. This place is next-level—in part because of the talent and ingenuity it attracts and builds up, and in part because of its uniquely nurturing environment thanks to the nonprofit’s mission to help its members thrive. “We have 50 members, and every single one of them are doing incredible things,” said Andy. Members get access to fiber internet, 24/7 keycard access with security, a downtown mail address, schedulable conference rooms, event space and a boardroom, teleconferencing capabilities, tech/AV equipment, an open kitchen with coffee and snacks, common lounge, restrooms with showers, basic printing, mobile whiteboards, and more.

Even if you’re not a member (yet) or an entrepreneur (yet), you can still benefit from the awesomeness that is 20Fathoms through their regularly scheduled events. Nearly all hosted events are free to attend and open to the public—just register in advance to save yourself a seat. 20Fathoms events are “meant to intellectually stimulate, challenge, and connect both members and folks from the external community”—and each event succeeds at that. I attended one a few weeks ago on entrepreneurship, and it was one of the most engaging, perspective-shifting, and encouraging experiences I’ve had in a while. If you’re interested, check out 20Fathoms’ list of fascinating events taking place in the coming months.

What’s with all the contagious creativity, electric energy, and good vibes at 20Fathoms? The place is a brain magnet, and at its core are generous, brilliant, community-driven people who love to make, innovate, and grow. From the nonprofit’s staff, board, and advisors to its partnering organizations, member startups, and mentors, there are so many talented and dedicated humans behind 20Fathoms’ success. The “people behind the movement” are a testament to the ingenuity of the movement itself—and to the equal parts creativity and courage it takes to try something new and uncertain and brave in the face of rejection, discouragement, or doubt. Believing in yourself is the first step. Making continuous strides of action will empower you to stay motivated, so if you have a brilliant idea, pursue it! Then keep going.

For bonus inspiration, Andy shared exciting news fresh from 20Fathoms:

  • Congratulations to ATLAS Space Operations and SampleServe, our first graduates from the incubator! Each has raised well over $1 million in funding and are hiring talented professionals by the dozen. We couldn’t be prouder!
  • We’re now home to more than 50 members and 20 startups representing tech innovations in arenas such as robotics, virtual reality, bio materials, wearable devices, food, health insurance, cryptocurrency, software, IT, manufacturing, education, mobile applications, supply chain logistics, renewable energy, and many others.
  • Since opening doors last summer, members have created more than 85 jobs, and 28 of these hires are local and receive an average salary of more than $89,000. That’s $2.5M/year flowing into our community that simply was not there before!
  • We’ve hosted 75+ events including educational programs by Michigan Tech, mentorship office hours by local experts and service providers, pitches for investors, hands-on computer programming workshops, and social mixers to build relationships and spread ideas. Most events are free and open to the public.
  • Other notable links include: 20Fathoms.org 20Fathoms on Facebook, and a Virtual Tour of our incredible workspace. For any questions or more information, please reach out to andy@20fathoms.org.
Categories: Experiencing Northern Michigan, the four