It has the makings of a sci-fi plot - a cruise ship filled with the world's technological elite, setting sail on the high seas to work outside the reach of the government.
But that scenario could be the future for waters off Half Moon Bay, according to the founders of Sunnyvale startup Blueseed. In fact, they are already raising money to float the boat. Company officials believe the Coastside will be the perfect launchpad for their so-called "Googleplex of the sea," a vessel that would anchor in what is known as the contiguous zone, just outside U.S. territorial waters and off the coast of Pillar Point Harbor.
Specifically, the vision is to provide an offshore haven for immigrant fortune-seekers who want to tap Silicon Valley's talent and investment money, but can't get visas to do business on the mainland. Those immigration laws wouldn't apply 12 miles out in the Pacific, Blueseed founders say, so anyone on their boat would have free rein to launch a startup at sea while they curry favor with investors. They describe their boat as a "startup incubator," a hothouse for international talent to grow ventures.
"Maybe for people who don't understand it, this all sounds novel, maybe a little strange," said Dario Mutabdzija, the 31-year-old president of Blueseed. "Our goal is to create a whole new industry, and this is the coolest place in the world to do it."
Wearing a blazer and jeans, Mutabdzija last week presented the Blueseed idea for the first time on the coast, speaking at the Half Moon Bay Rotary Club's monthly meeting. The Coastside's doctors, merchants and professionals reacted with a few snickers, some gasps and a number of head nods. Local investment manager Howard Hayes, sitting with his wife and daughter, was fascinated.
"It's such a unique concept. This is the kind of thing that pops out of the entrepreneurial spirit," he said. "I can understand the benefits, but I'm not sure how much of a chance they have of pulling it off."
A mixed reaction is common, said Dan Dascalescu, Blueseed CIO, who introduced himself as the company's numbers man.
Plenty see Blueseed as far-fetched, he admitted, and they usually compare it to fictional dystopias like the film "Waterworld" or the videogame "Bioshock." But interest surveys have indicated about 100 startups would already be on board if the boat set sail today, he said.
Founders of Blueseed met through the Seasteading Institute, a libertarian think tank bankrolled by PayPal founder Peter Thiel that sees floating cities as a social laboratory for new forms of government. Thiel is also an early backer of Blueseed, contributing $500,000 to the vision.
Mutabdzija showed a concept image of a multi-tiered cruise ship bustling with trees and helicopter pads. The vessel, he promised, would feature coffee shops, restaurants, a gym, entertainment rooms and workspace for more than 1,000 people. Each person would pay about $1,200 a month to live there, and each could take a daily ferry to land at Pillar Point Harbor.
If the idea took hold, Blueseed leaders promise it would transform the Coastside, making the area the doorway to what Dascalescu described as a Bell Laboratories at sea. He envisioned tech companies racing to open Half Moon Bay offices and money trickling down to local restaurants and shops.
"This is an idea that every city or county in the world would want," he said. "When you combine everything, the net impact on Half Moon Bay will be substantial."
The idea comes amid growing frustration among Bay Area technology leaders over U.S. immigration law, which they say is driving innovation to other countries. Current rules cap the number of H1-B visas available for American employers to hire foreign professionals. But people living on Blueseed would rely on the easily obtainable B-1 visas, which allow free travel for meetings and training sessions, but forbid holding employment or starting a business.
A political solution to this problem isn't likely to crystallize anytime soon, Mutabdzija said. A number of Bay Area venture capitalists over the last two years have advocated for legislators to pass a "Startup Visa Act," but the bill has become bogged down in the entrenched politics surrounding larger immigration reform.
U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo has spoken out about current immigration policies, saying they have left Silicon Valley starved of talent. But Eshoo and other regional politicians and immigration officials aren't sure how to react yet to the Blueseed idea.
Blueseed founders pledge they won't let their offshore haven turn into a lawless den for hedonism or hackers. They intend to have their boat fly above the radar and fully abide by U.S. laws at sea, even though their business concept is practically untested and falls into a jurisdictional gray area. Mutabdzija and his colleagues believe the offshore community should be held to the same maritime rules as a cruise ship.
That means Blueseed would be under the "law of the sea," said immigration lawyer Ron Rose, an adviser for the company. The best analogy, he said, would be pirate radio broadcasters who moored off the shore of England in the 1960s.
"What they'll do is legal, but ultimately it remains to be seen how it will be perceived," Rose said. "Is this going to be viewed as an end run around immigration laws? If there's that perception, people in Congress will make it difficult to get on and off the boat."
U.S. government agencies would decide who gets to come on land and who can leave. As one consolation, Mutabdzija pledged Blueseed's helicopter pads could be used by the U.S. Coast Guard during rescue missions.
A spokesman at U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office in San Francisco said he could not comment on how the office would react to Blueseed.
A law school graduate himself, Mutabdzija anticipates the need for legal muscle if Blueseed ever set sail.
Right now the more pressing question is raising money - Blueseed founders say they need to raise $15 million to $35 million to purchase and retrofit a cruise ship or barge. They believe they will meet that goal in time to launch a Blueseed vessel by fall of 2013.
Getting ready to leave Half Moon Bay, Dascalescu asked for directions to Princeton so they could see the famous Mavericks surf spot. When told the area was a U.S. Air Force radar station, he smelled opportunity.
"Do you think the Air Force would let us put a communications tower there?"