The journey from scholar to entrepreneur and investor began after Roberts earned a doctorate in chemistry from Duke and came to Harvard as a National Science Foundation fellow to help famed nanotechnology pioneer George Whitesides. Everywhere, at Harvard, MIT, and other local universities, Roberts saw innovations that could improve agriculture, water use, transportation, manufacturing, and other areas.
“It bothered me that if I were to stick with my academic background, there really wasn’t a strong entrepreneurial community, and certainly no venture capital commitment, to invest in some of these subjects” , Roberts said in an interview. “I said to myself, I want to be an entrepreneur.”
After working at a few companies and some of his own startups — including a nanotech venture with Whitesides — Roberts moved into the investment side, joining North Bridge Venture Partners in Waltham in 2007. About a decade later, he set up his own company, Material Impact, to focus on early stage startups in materials, energy and robotics.
Its particular strength was in helping physical science academics attract venture capital backing while simultaneously helping VCs understand the promise of the technology developed by the academics. These days, he said, he helps entrepreneurs aged “14 to 99” develop ideas that could become climate-tech startups.
Asked about the 99-year-old’s idea, Roberts was Be careful not to reveal too much. “He probably doesn’t want me to get into it too much, but on a high level it’s a new concept for solar materials,” he said.
While advising the Department of Energy under Secretary Ernest Moniz, Roberts came in contact with Bill Gates’ circle of advisers on investing in climate technologies. In 2017, Roberts was invited to join Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a multi-billion dollar effort to accelerate needed technology developments, as co-chair of the group’s investment committee. The work of the committee is quite different from typical venture capital funding efforts, he said, because Breakthrough employs so many expert scientists on its staff.
“I don’t think there’s another company in history – I can’t think of one and I’m good enough as a business historian – to have so much technical power inside of company,” he said.
When meeting with entrepreneurs around the world, Roberts said, one of his most frequent pieces of advice is to treat every service provider, investor or other business as a partner. “If you’re paying your attorney, don’t think of yourself as the client, try to figure out how you have a partnership,” he said. “If something goes wrong, you have a real partner who will give everything to help you.”
Roberts has helped dozens of climate tech founders build businesses and gain support. Last year it helped Cambridge-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems raise $1.8 billion to build a prototype fusion reactor at Devens. It was the largest funding round ever for a local startup.
“Carmichael knows how to build great companies by supporting innovative early-stage technologies to get to market,” said Commonwealth chief executive Bob Mumgaard, who honed his ideas on fusion while earning a doctorate at MIT. . He also praised Roberts for translating technical theories into “impactful business application.”
Roberts has “a phenomenal gift for bringing people together,” added Katie Rae, managing partner of the MIT-backed venture capital fund The Engine, which has worked on several deals with him.
Roberts’ life away from investing is also full of power. He has served on the boards of Duke University, WGBH, and Berklee College of Music, among others, and coached lacrosse teams for his three children. While some people seek balance by separating work from family and hobbies, Roberts said he’s looking for overlap.
“There’s a method to my madness, where the things I tend to do have elements that mesh with other things, including things that might be interesting for my family,” he said. he declares.
For example, Roberts has a private book club with his oldest daughter. She picks the titles and he sets the schedule, fitting in time to read between traveling trips. (Roberts took part in an interview with the Globe after returning home to Brookline from North Carolina and was about to depart on a trip that included Arkansas, California and Arizona.)
“She finds books that have things in them that she would like me to think about that have nothing to do with climate change or the kind of stuff I work on, but things that have a lot to do with the human mind. “, did he declare. .
The most recent book they shared was Ted Chiang’s collection of short stories “Exhalation.” Chiang is best known for writing the story of first alien contact used for the movie “Arrival,” but Roberts said it wasn’t science fiction that drew him in. “It’s got a bit of tech in there, a bit of sci-fi, but a lot of character development and drama,” Roberts said.
It’s an apt description of the book and also of Roberts’ 20-year journey of turning scientific breakthroughs into companies and products that can make a difference.
While Roberts may know the potential of technology to help mitigate climate change, he’s not sure humanity will be able to overcome the problems in time.
“The situation is only getting worse, but what I see in people’s behavior, as a call to action, gives me hope,” he said. “The circumstances are getting worse and the response is bigger than I could have imagined. So it will be an interesting collision.