Barging into Business

Elsewhere I’ve argued that incubators require access to below-market work space. In a tough real estate market, even municipalities have a hard time coughing up surplus space for this purpose. Who can afford to take something out of their portfolio for 3-5 years when some unforeseen need or opportunity might arise at any moment?

I’m being facetious of course. Toronto’s city government has a real estate portfolio estimated at something close to $17 billion. With such a huge array of assets, under the control of various City divisions and agencies, there are obviously a few dormant or underutilized properties that might be offered up temporarily as incubator space. But if there are, they’re not easy to identify and put to this purpose.

But where there’s a will there’s a way. For the past year, Blueseed has been talking about building a start-up facility, or a 'Googleplex' as they like to call it, that would float in international waters, 12 miles off the California coast near San Francisco.

The strange thing about Blueseed is that they aren’t going to sea in avoidance of land costs. Their planning is focused on overcoming American immigration policies that bar entry to talented entrepreneurs at precisely the time when the economy needs them most. Given the high proportion of innovative technology start-ups launched by immigrants to the U.S., it appears that laws intended in part to protect jobs may in fact be thwarting the creation of new ones.

The benefits of this offshore start-up centre are obvious to a foreign entrepreneur who needs access to American resources, expertise, and opportunities. Of course, there are some drawbacks. Assuming the ability to procure a day visa, it will probably take the better part of an hour to reach San Francisco by speedboat. Blueseed executives also concede that the area is frequently fogged in, which can be detrimental to both morale and to internet access.

It seems like an extreme solution to a relatively simple problem, but it’s easier to create an office complex on the open seas than to negotiate a regulatory change or exemption with a powerful government body. So maybe it’s not so farfetched to imagine Toronto business incubator barges, anchored overnight at the useless Port Authority ferry terminal in the east port lands, perhaps with hourly boat taxis to streetcar connections at the foot of York Street.

I floated this idea at the recent Ryerson DMZ celebration, expecting people to laugh, but they seemed ready to get on board. (apologies to Samuel Johnson for the puns).

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