The Unreasonable Institute At Sea: A Mobile Incubator
The Unreasonable Institute, an incubator for social enterprise start-ups from around the world, has teamed up with Stanford’s d.school and the study abroad program Semester At Sea to offer a unique business development experience for technology-focused social entrepreneurs: the Unreasonable Institute at Sea.
A select group will be invited to board a ship charted by Semester at Sea, which will sail around the world for 100 days, spending a few days on land in countries like Brazil, India, and China. The Unreasonable Institute will choose ten companies, represented by teams of two or three. The reason for inviting small teams, said Daniel Epstein, the founder of the Unreasonable Institute, is that “CEOs need to have their engineers with them so they can work, and iterate the projects as they go along.” There will be a handful of mentors on the ship to work with the entrepreneur teams.
In order to maximize the short amount of time spent in each country, the Unreasonable Institute is organizing a national event in each country that brings together the national social enterprise community and political leaders, to discuss how entrepreneurship is taking shape in that country.
“We want to create the conditions where meaningful relationships can happen. There will be intimate dinners. It’s not just a conference,” explained Epstein. Entrepreneurs will also have their own time to explore on-shore–and they will be encouraged to use their technologies to see how people respond to them. “They’ll see which aspects work and which don’t, and then come back on the ship, and they can iterate their projects as we go along,” said Epstein.
George Kembel, the co-founder of Stanford’s d.school, will be co-leading a class on design-thinking and international entrepreneurship on the ship, alongside Epstein. This partnership originated with Kembel led a workshop last summer for the Institute about design-thinking.
The inspiration for Unreasonable Institute at Sea dates back to Epstein’s college days, when he went on Semester at Sea. “We were mostly visiting countries in the Global South and it became obvious to me that these issues we face—healthcare, poverty—that they were ubiquitous around the world,” Epstein told Dowser. “So, in trying to think about solutions it seemed that they would have to be international in nature.”
During that trip, Epstein found that “everybody was an entrepreneur—by necessity” in the various countries they visited. “Whether they’re shoemakers or they’re selling water by the roadside, everybody was making their way into markets.”
The question for entrepreneurs who want to achieve impact, explained Epstein, is how to scale up “from 5000 to a million customers, and quickly.” Through the alumni who come out of the Unreasonable Fellows program at the Institute, Esptein said, “we’ve realized that there’s a chasm they need to cross once they’ve hit a large amount of customers—how do they go internationally, scale across borders?”
The Unreasonable Institute at Sea has zeroed in on ventures that focus on technology as a means of achieving impact. Epstein says that this is for two reasons: one is that it is “an experiment in focusing on one method,” and the other is that software or hardware-based projects are more amenable to iteration on board a moving ship. (The vessel will have wi-fi.)
Alongside the Unreasonable tea, 600 undergraduate students will be on the ship as part of the Semester at Sea program. There won’t be much structured interaction between the entrepreneurs and the students, Epstein said, but he hopes that the students will be positively influenced by the presence of the Unreasonable Institute.
Applications for the Unreasonable Institute at Sea are open until May 20th and the voyage will leave January 7, 2013 from San Diego.