Geeks on a ship: The wacky Blueseed project

A company wants to build a floating startup incubator for 1,000 immigrant entrepreneurs.

By MSN Money Partner May 31, 2012 1:00PM

By Therese Poletti

 

MarketWatchA floating startup incubator.

 

It is one of the more innovative and slightly crazy ideas to emerge in the last year.

 

The plan is to select 1,000 bright immigrant entrepreneurs who are unable to get U.S. visas and put them on a very large ship, 12 miles off the coast of Half Moon Bay, Calif. On this ship, technically not in the U.S., budding company founders who cannot get U.S. approval to start their companies here can launch the company of their dreams.

 

The idea is called the Blueseed Project, which may be located on either a retrofitted cruise ship or a new ship built from scratch. It would be far enough removed so that the entrepreneurs are not subject to U.S. laws, but close enough that they can make ferry trips into Silicon Valley and San Francisco to meet potential investors, advisers, potential employees and other entrepreneurs.

 

Founders whose ideas take off after a year or so of incubation would have to leave the ship, but Blueseed says it would help them move their companies to solid ground in Silicon Valley.

 

“There are a lot of people around the world who want to come to Silicon Valley,” Max Marty, chief executive of Blueseed, said earlier this month during a panel discussion of the Commonwealth Club that took place in San Jose, Calif. “It’s a shame that a lot of them want to come to this place and aren’t able to do so. Blueseed has found a solution to that.” Marty himself is the son of two Cuban immigrants and was previously the director of business strategy at the Seasteading Institute.

 

Marty and his cohorts on the Blueseed Project are still looking for funding for this ambitious idea, which needs at least $20 million to get off the ground, so to speak, and into the ocean. “We would be looking at doing something a bit higher than that, $50 [million] to $60 million,” he said.

 

The project also highlights the thorny issue of immigration, a hot-button issue in the current presidential election and in Silicon Valley, where the cap on the number of H1-B visas forces many talented immigrant engineers and software developers to go home after they receive an education in the U.S. Those visas are typically sponsored by companies, looking to employ certain individuals, but there is not a specific visa for immigrants who want to start up their own company in the U.S.

 

One outspoken advocate for U.S. immigration reform on the panel was Vivek Wadhwa, vice president of academics and innovation at Singularity University, among his many titles. He supports the Blueseed Project, but said it is a “band-aid” to a much bigger problem. “All the congressmen are talking about it, that they are building this colony off the coast of California,” Wadhwa said. “But again, it is 1,000 people.”

 

According to a 2007 study called “America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs,” co-authored by Wadhwa, over half (52.4%) of Silicon Valley startups founded from 1995 to 2005, had one or more immigrants as a key founder.

 

Many of the press reports since Blueseed was first announced last year describe it as being backed by venture investor Peter Thiel, who most recently reaped over $600 million in the Facebook (FB) IPO, after selling 16.8 million shares. But Marty said during the panel that Thiel has not yet written a check for Blueseed, and is waiting for other investors to join.

 

“He has made a commitment to put in some money,” Marty said. “He would like us to bring in some other investors. He hasn’t put in that money yet.” Wadhwa pointed out Thiel’s huge windfall from the Facebook IPO. “What is a half a million to him?” Wadhwa asked.

 

The Commonwealth Club panel was clearly an effort to raise more awareness and to spur more investor interest in Blueseed. But the project doesn’t have to necessarily be a ship, Wadhwa said. He suggested that the group team up with an owner of a private island off the east coast of the U.S., where more people could live and where entrepreneurs with families wouldn’t have to leave them behind. “An island is much easier,” Wadhwa said. “You can have parks, you can build housing.”

 

Marty insisted that proximity to Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs can go ashore on tourist visas, is key.

 

One attendee of the talk said that the Blueseed project “sounds like something straight out of science fiction,” said Barry Ross of Ross & Ross International, which consults with small businesses. “I think the Blueseed project is a very big vision on so many levels.”

 

Could the project be a pirate ship or a small, nautical version of the Googleplex? It’s too early to tell until the venture gets some real financial backing.

 

Therese Poletti is a senior columnist for MarketWatch in San Francisco.

 

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