Community is the new equity at SURF

Seaton Gras  is a certifiable start-up junkie who has been forming incubators and launching meet-up groups since before those terms became technospeak. Whether it was his upbringing in a 1950s-era cooperative in the woods of Massachusetts or just pure passion for entrepreneurship, collaboration is clearly in Gras’s blood. Even Wizzymouse, the “wiki for kids” business he entered into the 2007 UW Business Plan Competition, was a form of community-building.

So is SURF, Seaton Gras’ newest effort to provide a safe landing spot and creative environment for early-stage entrepreneurs. SURF (Start Up Really Fast) sprang into existence to “help an idea grow into a series of milestones,” Gras says, “because each stage needs different resources. Talent clusters and re-clusters, depending on the need.”

Early SURF member Donald Rule, the founder of Translational Software adds,  “Even before its official opening, the SURF Incubator linked me with people that have offered insights, encouragement and most importantly connections that have accelerated my progress. Combine that with the energy created by associating with dynamic and optimistic start-ups, and you have a really compelling environment for incubating a business.”

Functioning for three years as an incubator without walls in random pizza joints and donated spaces, Gras recently landed the perfect physical space for SURF in Seattle’s historic Exchange building. With over 15,000-square feet already designed for the previous tenant’s tech workers, the incubator is fully outfitted to serve as many as 100 entrepreneurs with a variety of desk space and conference room configurations. Night owl entrepreneurs can even rent a desk just for the early morning hours.

By mid-March 2012, the lease was signed and both Geekwire and TechFlash, among others, had run stories. With 19 companies already signed on, Gras has also fielded calls from the mayor of London (yes, in the UK) and interested parties in Denver looking to replicate the SURF model.

What Gras gains from launching the SURF Incubator may not earn him equity in the traditional sense, and he’s just fine with that. Instead, he values a whole different kind of ROI. “I’m driven by the experience and talent and re-clustering of teams,” he says. “I’m in a community of people like me.”

Learn more about the world of start-ups via the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

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