Riding the SURF


The word surf has an etymology that connotes many meanings. Both a noun and a verb, surf is the wave that breaks upon the shore as much as it describes an action: the dude who surfs—on the crest of a wave, or by searching for information on the internet and by cruising TV networks. For Seaton Gras, the founder of the SURF Incubator in Seattle, the word Surf expands far beyond its original watery connotations and describes both an entrepreneurial mindset and a physical place for entrepreneurs of all stripes to thrive.

Founded by Seaton Gras around seven years ago, the SURF Incubator has evolved from being a meetup group that focused on iPhone developers and grew to take on a vision and an infrastructure that now has a global footprint. SURF’s beginnings were modest. Seaton Gras was intent on learning iPhone coding and knew that the most effective way to learn is by creating a culture of peers who get together and collaborate by exchanging ideas and information. Over time the group expanded and soon outgrew their free meeting location in the upstairs library of the Center for Wooden Boats.

And yet the concept of creating a culture where entrepreneurs work in a shared office environment that provides critical resources for collaboration and mutual support is at the crux of what the SURF Incubator has become.

Today SURF supports entrepreneurs who are in all stages of starting-up and growing a business, and occupies 22,000 square feet or the entire 7th Floor of the Wells Fargo Building in downtown Seattle. Seaton Gras estimates that at any given time 50 to 70 companies are sharing office space at SURF.  There are many different types of membership, from the ability to pop-in and use the café’s shared communal space as a pit-stop for coffee and impromptu meetings to private offices with access to conference rooms.  There’s even a float desk—grabbing a desk—that’s available on any given day. 

SURF offers benefits much more critical to the growth of a new business than only offering a physical location and access to a full fiber-optic gigabit connection with cable to every desk and a powerful wifi mesh system covering the entire floor. SURF offers opportunities to build mindshare, talent pools and vital connections leading to key influencers, venture sources and investors. Each year, SURF hosts more than 200 networking events, huge hackathons (AT&T and NASA space Apps), a full range of business, technical and education programs and access to interns, and maybe most important of all, mentors who can offer entrepreneurs sage wisdom and guidance from their own years of experience.

One primary SURF mentor who embodies the SURF entrepreneurial mindset is its founder Seaton Gras. Born in Weston, Massachusetts, Gras has always been something of a tinkerer. Past accomplishments include working on an alternative energy heat pump.  After the first heat pump company folded, he built a new company, manufacturing the same heat pump, and that company lasted four years. In fact, Seaton Gras’s father, Ranulf Gras, designed and built a community akin to Walden Pond in Lincoln, Massachusetts that was sustainable and relied on solar-heating. 

Later, Seaton Gras saw the problem with the ozone depletion in the stratosphere and invented a machine that sucked the gas out of refrigerators and air conditioners. Under Seaton Gras’s leadership, Global Ozone Solutions, Inc. developed an on-site recovery/recycling system to help save the ozone layer in the earth’s atmosphere. Gras has started a company doing web exploration of various biomes for kids. He created different environmental experiences for kids to explore in 2D or 3D as a precursor to a Virtual Reality experience. This project required the development of a semantic database (which has received a patent) as a way for kids to explore the internet without being hijacked to inappropriate websites.

Having inventor genes runs in the Gras family.  Seaton Gras’s father, Ranulf Gras, had a career with NASA that culminated in the 1969 Apollo landing in the moon. He designed the navigation base supporting the structural component of the navigation gear for the spacecraft, which made it possible not only for the astronauts to make it to the moon, but also to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and find their way back home.  Ranulf Gras left his career at its peak, and decided he would take his family for the trip of a lifetime—sailing around the world. In the Spring of 1969, he bought an all-wood, 60-foot long sailboat, the Merry Maiden and embarked on a voyage that would last for five years and eight months.

As someone who has lived and thrived through every phase of owning a business, Seaton Gras is committed to helping startups startup. He wants to reduce the 80% failure rate. According to Gras, “A majority of businesses fail from lack of support. The prevailing theory is if the startup raises enough money, then everything gets solved but many companies that are fully-funded still fail because they have the wrong ingredients. Aside from getting funding, businesses need to have a solid way to recruit new IT, marketing, accounting and organizational talent, and most importantly, they need to gain solid customer traction.” 

You can’t build a business in a silo.  Entrepreneurs who go at it alone are often met with a certain and untimely business death. Young entrepreneurs are often pressured to show a profitable return too soon. SURF creates a supportive environment for entrepreneurs to take the time they need to grow and flourish. Gras likens the growth of a new business to a tree. “A lot of things can kill the tree: drought, accident or if it’s cut down too soon. It takes a long time before the tree is solid and strong.”

Seven years ago, Seaton Gras and his colleagues were meeting in the library located upstairs at the Center for Wooden Boats. Coincidentally, the Merry Maiden, the boat which  Gras first sailed the waves around the world was docked there. Now SURF is expanding on an international scale. The incubator has established exchange programs with students and entrepreneurs in France, Vancouver, B.C., Japan and Mexico, to name a few. And SURF doesn’t just support startups. Large entrepreneurial companies that are expanding to Seattle, including Joyent, Sito Mobile, Nutanix, Snapchat, Avalara, and Author-IT, have established satellite offices at SURF. 

When Seaton Gras turned nineteen, he considered going to college but instead returned to the surf. That time his trip around the world lasted almost seven years. For good measure, when he was young, his propensity to tinker helped him to make a living by working on boats. In a curious way, SURF is much more than a business, a physical office space or even an entrepreneurial mindset, SURF is Seaton Gras’s destiny. If you’re an entrepreneur, it might be your destiny too. Etymologically speaking, no one is too sure how the word surf came to be in the first place. One thing is certain: SURF Incubator helps to give life to innovative startups so they can startup really fast and enjoy a safe passage to potential prosperity!



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