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Sparking Innovation – in the middle of the Pacific

May 1st, 2013Business, Design, Finance, International, Tech

by Brittany Koteles

Unreasonable at Sea (UaS), a first-time collaboration between Unreasonable Institute, Semester at Sea, and Stanford’s d. school, was born with the objective to accelerate companies that are using technology to solve the world’s biggest social problems.   This past week it came to a close.

Eleven handpicked companies came aboard UaS with twenty mentors.   The journey included a 25,000-mile itinerary, 600 cohabiting university students, two learning partners, fifteen ports, and four months to let their minds and projects loose on the world.

By the end of the trip, each of the eleven startups saw changes in their business plans.  The Series B financing round for the companies totaled over 30 million dollars. Something is working – but what is it?


The Island Effect

Was Unreasonable at Sea just that good at picking potent startups and all-star mentors? What makes this program more than a sensational twist on your average accelerator?

Founder Daniel Epstein would argue that the magic lies in the “Island Effect.”

“If you take unlikely people, trap them in confined quarters, and foster a wildly creative environment, the pace of innovation is unstoppable,” says Epstein. “We have trapped some of the most potent, interesting, entrepreneurial, and wayward thinking individuals in the world on this ship as we set sail over the course of 100 days.”

Judging from stories like that of Guru-G, it just may be the wind in the sails of the Unreasonable at Sea entrepreneurs.

Guru-G uses a “gamified” platform to make work fun and engaging for teachers around the world. One of the company’s great challenges is that their application is tablet-based – meaning that the world’s poorest teachers don’t have access to the tool. That all changed in 48 hours, thanks to an encounter between the Guru-G team and three key mentors.

It all started when Google X Experience Lead Tom Chi planted a wild challenge: How could you make your product without a tablet? The spark was fueled by prior conversations with Tom Clayton, founder of Bubble Motion (“Twitter with voice”), and FrontlineSMS founder Ken Banks. Three isolated ideas combusted into a breakthrough for Gugu-G: It might be possible to translate their product to the cheapest, simplest cell phones out there. “By combining data-wire SMS and a voice-based platform, we wouldn’t need a tablet,” says founder Anand Joshi.

“It was a crazy idea,” he adds with a laugh – but the team took hold of the absurd notion before reality could ground them.

“By 5pm, we had all the mentors around the same table,” says Joshi. “For three hours, they threw us all the feedback and ideas they had. By 8pm, we decided to do it.

In 48 hours, the team had a complete development plan for the new business line, with a feasible design and complete next steps. Founder Chetan Manikantan says that the breakthrough wouldn’t have happened in the comfort of their Bangalore-based office.

“Even if we were with the same people in the real world, we couldn’t lock ourselves in a room and develop it. On the ship, we had the uncommon agility and swiftness to create.”

But the “Island Effect” isn’t just about good ideas and brilliant minds: Less glamorous and equally important was the trust that was quickly created among the innovators. “The sense of community and family on the ship was incredible,” shares Evan Swinehart, editor and cinematographer for the Unreasonable team. “Ship life played a big role in it.”

They lived in the ship’s old crew rooms – simple, close, and tiny.  Swinehart says it was no mistake. “They didn’t want us in our rooms; they wanted us to be participating in the atmosphere and engaging in the program.”

Your average business accelerator doesn’t include a three-day storm in the middle of the Pacific, with 10-foot swells that make it difficult to stand straight. Parallel to the trajectory of the startups themselves, the Unreasonable crew’s literal weathering of storms may be an overlooked but crucial player in the experiment.

Isolation in Moderation: Finding the Balance

Unreasonable at Sea aims to strike a balance between Epstein’s “Island Effect” and a crucial connection to the real world. For these entrepreneurs, port time didn’t imply encounters in fancy office building. Rather, they were unleashed upon the streets of fifteen different cities.

Adventures unfold in the real-world grit. Swinehart recalls one such instance in Ghana with Protei, a company that’s designing ocean drones for oil spills. The team was in search of some nearby oil fields for testing – but a twist of fate resulted in an improvised work session with the local fishermen.

“The drones are made to clean the oceans, but the guys started discussing other uses for fishermen, like detecting rocks or casting nets,” says Swinehart. “I thought the day was a bust, and it ended up being a huge learning experience.”

Borderless Business

Unreasonable at Sea is a combo of the Island Effect that’s kept in check by healthy interruptions from the world’s real problems. It’s what sets this program apart from others, say the entrepreneurs on board.

Catlin Powers says that it’s a learning experience that changed the trajectory of One World Designs. “This trip has reminded us that the world we’d like to see depends on much more than my business. It’s a global dialog, and it’s one that we need to engage in.”

“For what we want to do, borders are invisible,” says Gugu-G’s Chetan. “Before, we saw ‘travel to work’ as the two-mile trip between home and office. Now, we’re realizing that we might have to make a few more 10,000 mile pit stops.”

Unreasonable at Sea has discovered something powerful – an Island Effect that’s kept in check by healthy interruptions from the world’s real problems. It’s what sets this program apart from others, and it’s what will continue to drive the impact in the participating companies. Other actors have caught onto the trend, like 500 Startups with Geeks on a Plane.

Surely, they’re onto something big. But is it too big? Unreasonable at Sea may be the opportunity of a lifetime for eleven, but behind them are over 1,000 applicants that didn’t make it aboard. For the ones that did, the opportunity also implied a four-month hiatus from day-to-day business, complete with questionable internet connection (whose very mention to one of the entrepreneurs ensures a roll of the eyes and a short laugh).

“It would have been impossible to run One Earth Designs from the ship,” says Powers. “We were only able to do it because we have an incredible team on the ground.”

Unreasonable at Sea is knocking impact entrepreneurship’s global storytelling out of the park, but small, local models need the Island Effect, too.  As ships and trains set the bar, impact entrepreneurship will continue to benefit when local innovators adapt their core practices to any reality – whether it be land or sea.

(Photo Courtesy of Subject)

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