TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) – From the time he joined 20Fathoms, Paul Van Dyke was going through a job interview.

He just didn’t know it.

Van Dyke turned an individual membership at the Traverse City tech incubator into a position as a software developer at HealthBridge. The Grand Rapids-based start-up offers an employer-sponsored benefit that helps the employee manage the balance due after insurance with a consolidated statement and easy repayment terms.

“It was fun to watch him interact,” said Tim Heger, chief technology officer at HealthBridge. “He didn’t realize I was watching him and kind of interviewing him from afar: How he interacted with people, how he handled problems, how he tackled them, what was his work ethic, was he here early, was he staying late.

“We’re a start-up; you have to have people willing to put the time in.”

For Van Dyke, 20Fathoms was a gamble that paid off. The 26-year-old former Marine moved back to Traverse City from Colorado in late July without a job.

“I got really homesick,” Van Dyke told the Traverse City Record-Eagle . “I was in a cyber security job at the time. I had gone to school for mainly web development. I decided I loved coding and I wanted to write software and I wanted to do it in Traverse City.

“So I quit my job. I came home a few days after (20Fathoms) opened.”

Joining 20Fathoms, on one hand, was a risk. On the other hand, it’s exactly the operation’s definition: A place for a free exchange of ideas and knowledge.

“He didn’t sit in his house and wait for someone to call,” Heger said. “He put himself in the middle of a very active technology space and hub. He made a little bit of an investment – obviously he probably didn’t have a ton of money sitting around – and $100 a month was meaningful.

“I was impressed that he took that step to say, ‘I’ve got to get in the middle of this. I’ve got to continue to grow. I’ve got be around people who are doing this.’ I thought that initiative alone was worth me at least taking a shot at.”

“This is one of the best-case scenarios I could have imagined,” Van Dyke added.

After joining 20Fathoms, Van Dyke started working with Justin Gauthier, who was developing the incubator’s web site. Van Dyke said it was a way to continue his education.

“I was just looking for any way to code, any way to gain some knowledge and experience,” he said. “If I was helping out for free, then great. Being able to have a more senior developer give me some direction was really valuable.”

HealthBridge was one of the original members at 20Fathoms. Heger said the tech incubator is a perfect location for HealthBridge.

“We’re excited to be in this space,” Heger said. “I think it’s going to be the launch pad for a lot of really cool initiatives.”

Heger said Van Dyke was his first hire for the Traverse City office. But won’t be the last.

“I’m actively looking,” he said. “We’re about to finish closing our second round of financing. Once that financing is in place, I’ll be able to pull the trigger on a number of people I’ve been talking to.

“My goal is to have about 15 to 16 people working here before this time next year. I think the talent is here.”

“It’s not everyone’s tech destination city right now, but I think that this is such a beautiful place,” Van Dyke said. “I’d like to see it become a tech hub.”

The pull that drew Van Dyke home is the same thing that drew Heger to the area. He has lived in Traverse City since 1995, but has been on the road since 2000 with “management consulting and e-commerce consulting for major retailers.”

Heger returned on weekends to visit his family, who remained in Traverse City. That practice continued when he joined HealthBridge a year ago.

“We finally grew to the point where we decided we wanted to make a presence up here,” Heger said. “We heard about 20Fathoms, wanted to become a part of it, we set up shop here and now I can walk to work.”

The growth of HealthBridge in Traverse City eventually will force the business to look for more space. But it will always be the beginning for the company, and the place that brought Van Dyke and Heger back.

“Once we get to the point when we get much fuller, we’ll have to look for other space,” Heger said. “We’ll always be a part of this for the next year or two. We’re really committed to the whole concept of 20Fathoms. We may have three or four people in this space as we begin building out the next phase. This will be the launch pad for us.

“It’s just nice to be home. I haven’t been home this many days in a row in a decade.”