Even Silicon Valley can sometimes feel like a lonely island in the global ocean of tech talent — especially with limited work visas for foreign entrepreneurs and a shortage of U.S. tech grads. Now a new venture is floating the solution of putting immigrant entrepreneurs and their startup ideas on a boat off the California coast.
The so-called Blueseed venture would do much more than offer a legal offshore home for innovators who can't get a U.S. work visa. Its founders envision a floating tech incubator that selectively guides and invests in new high-tech startups seeded with foreign talent. That could lead to new U.S.-based companies and jobs for Americans, even if the startups don't quite match the dizzying success of a Google or Facebook.
"Blueseed is aiming to be the gateway through which immigrant entrepreneurs can come here to create startups," said Max Marty, CEO of Blueseed. "Once they outgrow the facilities we have on Blueseed, they will have acquired the resources and clout to deal with immigration system directly. And once they do that, the next logical step is to move to Silicon Valley proper where the investors are."
Attracting the best
The idea resonates with America's history of cultivating successful immigrant entrepreneurs, even if most didn't try creating a startup at sea. Foreign-born talent ranks highly among today's top U.S. innovators: Sergey Brin, co-founder of Internet search giant Google; Elon Musk, founder of electric car maker Tesla Motors and private spaceflight firm SpaceX; and Joichi Ito, an entrepreneur, venture capitalist and director of MIT's Media Lab.
Foreign entrepreneurs who apply to Blueseed can eventually expect to live and work aboard either a cruise ship or an accomodation barge equipped with cafes, gyms, saunas and other luxuries to rival the campus of Google's Mountain View headquarters. Starting prices of $1,200 per person each month would easily rival the average monthly rent of $1,750 for a San Francisco studio.
"We're trying to create an ecosystem with a support network that helps startups succeed, so their success becomes our success as well," Marty told InnovationNewsDaily.
Blueseed plans to screen applicants for the startup ideas and talent with the best chance of spreading its success to Silicon Valley and the rest of the U.S.. That's good for the Blueseed brand and good for its own initial investment in each startup, said Dario Mutabdzija, president of Blueseed.
In the same spirit, Blueseed's team doesn't intend to become an offshore haven for startups engaged in illegal or otherwise dubious activities. It has a network of venture capital firms, angel investors and startup incubators overseas to help screen possible startup applicants.
Once aboard Blueseed, a basic tourist or business visa would allow the foreign entrepreneurs to meet up with American entrepreneurs and investors in person after a 90-minute ferry ride or helicopter trip to the U.S. mainland. That face-to-face meeting matters because of trust — venture capitalists require such meetings before investing potentially millions of dollars in a new startup. Many only invest in companies within 50 miles from where they're based.
Face-to-face interaction also matters for entrepreneurs. Communication among two or more people is richer in person, and such meetings can spark the glimmer of an idea that becomes the seed for a new startup.
"Yes, we have Skype and awesome teleconferencing technologies," said Dan Dascalescu, CIO of Blueseed. "But if you want to achieve something great — if more than 50 percent of communication is nonverbal — that means a lot is lost when someone is utilizing email or Skype."
Keeping the U.S. competitive
There is a dark lining to the silver cloud idea of Blueseed — it reflects the reality of an immigration system that does not allow enough legal immigrants and work visas to meet the needs of U.S. companies. Silicon Valley is not alone in having problems finding talent: a shortage of U.S. tech graduates relative to the number of job openings exists in 18 states and Washington, D.C., according to a May 2011 report titled "America's Tech Talent Crunch."
Congress is considering a number of bills to reform immigration law. One option, the Startup Visa Act, would give immigrant entrepreneurs a two-year visa if they have a qualified U.S. investor on board, or if they control companies that have created new jobs and revenue in America.
The bill marks a step in the right direction, but still fails to give immigrant entrepreneurs a legal path for working in the U.S. during the early startup stages, according to the Blueseed founders. But they hope their venture — scheduled to launch sometime in 2013 — can spark a broader conversation that could lead to comprehensive immigration reform.
"Instead of parking Blueseed 12 miles off the coast, we'll be parking 12 feet off the coast," Marty said.