Carmichael Roberts came to Boston in the 1990s from North Carolina expecting to join the city’s illustrious ranks of academics, but it didn’t work out that way. To be sure, it didn’t work out poorly either.
Today, Roberts is one of the world’s leading venture capitalists focused on climate tech, fostering a new wave of startups, like Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Infinite Cooling, that just might produce some of the answers needed to save the planet.
The journey from academic to entrepreneur and investor started after Roberts earned a PhD in chemistry at Duke and came to Harvard as a National Science Foundation fellow to assist famed nanotechnology pioneer George Whitesides. All around, at Harvard, MIT, and other local universities, Roberts was seeing innovations that could improve agriculture, water usage, transportation, manufacturing, and other fields.
“It bugged me that if I was to stick with my academic track, there really wasn’t a strong entrepreneurial community, and definitely not a commitment from venture capital, to invest in some of these topics,” Roberts said in an interview. “I said to myself, I want to be an entrepreneur.”
After working at a few companies and some startups of his own — including a nanotech company with Whitesides — Roberts shifted to the investing side, joining North Bridge Venture Partners in Waltham in 2007. About a decade later, he formed his own firm, Material Impact, to concentrate on early-stage startups in materials, energy, and robotics.
His particular strength was helping academics in the physical sciences attract venture capital backing while simultaneously helping VCs understand the promise of tech developed by the academics. These days, he said, he is helping entrepreneurial people from ages “14 to 99″ develop ideas that could become climate-tech startups.
Asked about the 99-year-old’s idea, Roberts was careful not to reveal too much. “He probably doesn’t want me to get into it too deeply, but at 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’s circle of advisers on climate-tech investing. In 2017, Roberts was invited to join Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a multibillion-dollar effort to accelerate needed tech developments, as the co-director of the group’s investment committee. The committee’s work is quite different from typical VC funding efforts, he said, because Breakthrough employs so many expert scientists on staff.
“I don’t think there’s another firm in history — I can’t think of one and I’m pretty good as a historian in venture — to have this much technical horsepower inside the firm,” he said.
As he meets with entrepreneurs around the world, Roberts said, one of his most frequent pieces of advice is to treat every service provider, investor, or other company as a partner. “If you’re paying your lawyer, do not look at yourself as the client, try to figure out how you have a partnership,” he said. “If something goes wrong, you have a true partner who’s going to give it their all to help you.”
Roberts has assisted dozens of climate-tech founders in building businesses and raising backing. Last year, he helped Cambridge-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems raise $1.8 billion to build a prototype fusion reactor in Devens. It was the biggest funding round ever for a local startup.
“Carmichael knows how to build great companies by supporting early-stage innovative technologies to get to market,” said Commonwealth chief executive Bob Mumgaard, who honed his ideas about fusion while getting a PhD at MIT. He also praised Roberts for knowing how to translate technical theories into “an impactful commercial application.”
Roberts has “a phenomenal gift to bring people together,” added Katie Rae, managing partner at MIT-backed venture fund The Engine, who has worked on multiple deals with him.
Roberts’s life away from investing is also power-packed. He has served on the boards of Duke University, WGBH, and the Berklee College of Music, among others, and coached lacrosse teams for his three kids. While some people seek balance by separating their work from family and hobbies, Roberts said he looks for overlap.
“There’s a method to my madness, where the things I tend to do have elements that are symbiotic with other stuff, including things that could be interesting to my family,” he said.
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 peripatetic travel. (Roberts fit in an interview with the Globe after returning to his home in Brookline from North Carolina and was about to leave on a trip that included Arkansas, California, and Arizona.)
“She finds books that have things that she would like me to think about that have nothing to do with climate change or the kind of topics I’m working on, but things that have a lot to do with the human spirit,” he said.
The most recent book they shared was Ted Chiang’s short-story collection “Exhalation.” Chiang is best known for writing the story of alien first contact used for the movie “Arrival,” but Roberts said it wasn’t the science fiction that drew him in. “He has a little bit of tech in there, a little bit of sci-fi, but a lot of great development of the characters and the drama,” Roberts said.
It’s an apt description of the book and also Roberts’s 20-year journey turning scientific breakthroughs into companies and products that can make a difference.
Although Roberts may know about the potential for 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, that gives me hope,” he said. “Circumstances are getting worse, and the response is greater than I could have imagined. So it’s going to be an interesting collision.”