A group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is trying to make it easier for its foreign counterparts to make and maintain business connections through an innovative end-run around U.S. immigration law: Putting them up for months at a time in a floating "Googleplex" that anchors in international waters -- but is close enough for them to make frequent visits to Silicon Valley.
Co-founder of the Blueseed project, Max Marty, and his partners want to build a floating "startup incubator" strategically positioned in the Pacific Ocean about 12 miles off San Francisco's coast. Offering an array of rich work and living spaces designed to foster creativity, the "Googleplex of the sea," would provide innovators with a space where they could operate far enough away from the U.S. mainland to sidestep its immigration laws, but close enough to cultivate business relationships with Silicon Valley insiders.
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The project, whose creators are based in Sunnyvale, Calif., "is for entrepreneurs from around the world who want to start companies here in Silicon Valley ... but are currently unable to do so because of our antiquated visa system," Max Marty, CEO of the project, told AOL Real Estate.
The vessel, which would be anchored in international waters, would, in theory, allow entrepreneurs who are normally denied regular access to Silicon Valley the ability to make periodic trips to the technology hotbed using business or tourist visas. Jaunts to the mainland would enable entrepreneurs to meet face-to-face with investors, providing the ship's residents with an enormous advantage over other foreign entrepreneurs who are hard-pressed to court investors in person.
"If [investors] are going to invest a million dollars in a couple guys," said Blueseed's legal adviser Ron Rose, "they want to meet them."
Marty claims that over 100 startups in fields such as web 2.0, biotech and clean tech, and from almost 40 countries, have expressed interest in Blueseed.
The Floating Dorm
French entrepreneur Tarik Ansari, who developed a smartphone app that allows users to pay for groceries as they shop, says the setup would make it much easier for him to refine his product. He's worked in the U.S. for the last four years, but has been forced to take several months long trips out of the country due to U.S. immigration restrictions. But Blueseed's vessel, he said, would be "a place where people can get started and kind of bridge Silicon Valley to the rest of the world."
"You have nothing really as big or fast-paced as Silicon Valley," said Ansari, who is currently waiting in France to be approved for a business visa. "Everything else is 10 times smaller. When you're trying to change the world, you want to be with like-minded people."
As it is currently conceived, Blueseed's giant vessel would hold about 1,000 tenants, who would inhabit a variety of living quarters ranging from four-person rooms that would cost $1,200 a month per person, the likely choice for ragtag go-getters, to expensive singles for those with cash to spare. Office space can be located in residents' living quarters, or as far off as the other side of the vessel, all depending on their preferences and budget. Rent would cover amenities, but meals would be extra.
Carving a small hotel section out of their residential space, Blueseed's craft would also offer guest quarters to U.S. citizens who might want to visit -- even work with -- its residents.
While the main point of the vessel would be to provide residents with relatively easy access to Silicon Valley, where they could pick the brains of fellow techies and interface with investors, Blueseed would also furnish the vessel's residents with a unique onboard community designed to foster innovation.
"We're trying to design a space that's actually really conducive to them forming the friendships [that] will help them become really successful," Marty said.
The most effective way to achieve this goal, said Blueseed CIO Dan Dascalescu, is to simulate the living conditions of a college dorm, where the lines between work and living space are blurred and close proximity to neighbors fosters collaboration.
"There's a lot of interesting magic that happens in dorm situations," Marty said, pointing to Facebook and Google as examples of companies that grew out of university environments.
The ship's interior and deck design would also incorporate the hallmarks of reputed tech firm campuses, like the headquarters of Facebook and Google, Marty said.
The vessel would make use of clean lines and simple colors similar to those found in Google facilities, as well as offer lavish amenities including nap rooms, tennis courts, massage areas, luxury gyms and an "awesome" cafeteria. There would be art, too, and "a lot of things that make you feel like you're not in a sterile, impersonal work environment," Marty said.
A few other ideas the two are throwing around: Hosting a university satellite campus and building an oceanographic research center.
Still a Pipe Dream
But in many ways, Blueseed remains an abstraction. When describing features of the project, Marty speaks mostly in the subjunctive and peppers his statements with "maybe" and "perhaps." His avoidance of outright declarations is understandable: The project is still in its infancy. Creating such a vessel, which could cost anywhere from $15 million to $35 million, according to Marty, is far from certain. In fact, Blueseed has only raised a bit over $500,000.
But the source of most of that initial investment might inspire confidence in other investors. PayPal founder and Facebook financier Peter Theil is the face of Blueseed's fundraising effort, having reportedly invested $500,000 of his own money into the project. Using that money over the next year, Marty says, he and his colleagues intend on drawing up plans for the vessel, which would involve retrofitting an existing ship.
While U.S. authorities might be loathe to accept such a brazen attempt to circumvent American immigration rules, they might have to get creative in finding a way to stonewall the venture.
Since it would be anchored more than 12 miles off the U.S. coastline, the vessel would fall outside the jurisdiction of U.S. immigration laws, said Blueseed legal adviser Rose, who works for Rose Carson Kaplan Choi & White LLP.
Instead of directly associating itself with the U.S., Blueseed would pay a fee to register its vessel with -- and fly the flag of -- another "reputable country that has good relations with the U.S.," Marty said. It would then abide by that nation's laws. The vessel would also have to comply with international standards of classification and safety, and residents would have to pay taxes to their home countries in accordance with those countries' tax codes.
From Blueseed's vessel, inhabitants would be able to take 30-minute ferry rides to a spot on California's coastline that would put passengers another 30 minutes from San Francisco and 40 minutes from Google's headquarters in Silicon Valley. Residents would theoretically be able to make these trips legally by using business or tourist visas, which are relatively easy to obtain, Rose said. The work-around allows them to cultivate contacts without sponsorship from investors -- in the hope of obtaining that very sponsorship in the future, after they've wooed venture capitalists or angel investors on the mainland.
The vessel's residents would have to toe a thin legal line, however. They would be prohibited from engaging in "productive work," and permitted only to engage in networking activities, like meeting with investors or attending business conferences, Rose says.
The distinction, like the Blueseed vessel's work and living spaces, could be a hazy one.
"The really key legal issue," Rose said, "is whether the U.S. immigration service is going to feel that the activities that are conducted on land can be conducted under a business visitor visa."
Edward Low, chief supervisory customs and border protection officer of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said it's feasible that visits from the Blueseed vessel would be allowed by his agency, but questions whether its residents would be able to make frequent trips on tourist visas.
He also said that Blueseed would need to create a "mechanism" that would enable Customs and Border Protection to monitor when the vessel's residents leave U.S. waters, not just when they enter them. Departures from U.S. territory "would have to be verifiable," he said.
Marty admits that it's possible that authorities could choose to revoke residents' visas, thereby leaving them stranded on the craft. But to hedge against such a scenario, Blueseed would require every resident to put down a deposit equal to the cost of a flight back to his home country.