SAN FRANCISCO -- Each year, hackers on what's dubbed the "Startup Bus" head to the SXSW tech conference in Austin, Texas, with a simple mission: They're required to have cooked up and launched a company with a pitch-ready product by the time they get there.
A new effort announced Wednesday by Silicon Valley heavyweights and British Airways at a news conference here aims to put that concept on steroids. On June 12th, a BA 747 will leave San Francisco International Airport with 100 techies onboard. Their mission: Arrive in London 12 hours later with a plan to help fix the global digital divide, then present it to a panel of world leaders.
"An innovation lab 30,000 feet up in the air is a great way to bring people together," said Leor Stern, head of business development at Google's (GOOG) Niantic Labs subsidiary, who's an adviser to the project.
Others participating in the effort, dubbed UnGrounded, include officials from the United Nations, Stanford University, venture capital powerhouse Andreessen Horowitz, and Innovation Endeavors, an investment firm launched by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.
Organizers said the "ticking clock" aspect of the flight -- and the plane's IDEO-designed interior -- will push participants, who will be named in the weeks ahead, to make headway on what Stern called "the U.N. mission of digital inclusion for all."
Having grown up in Israel and spent several years working on emerging markets for Google, "I saw firsthand the availability of very talented people all over the world," Stern said. But because of the digital divide, many of those talented people don't have access to the technological ecosystem that would let them participate in the new global economy, he said.
UnGrounded is part of a bigger initiative by British Airways to fuel innovation around the world and tighten the relationship between London and the valley, said Simon Talling-Smith, the airline's top official in the Americas.
BA, in fact, has taken a page from Schmidt's venture fund, which seeks entrepreneurs who are tackling unusual social challenges and throws them into impromptu settings such as citywide hackathons.
"We think magic happens when you get smart people together to take on shared challenges," said Celestine Johnson, a partner at Palo Alto-based Innovation Endeavors, who's also on the project's advisory board. "We were really impressed by the way they came to Silicon Valley to get the pulse."
Among the smart people she's inviting to take part in UnGrounded are the founders of car-sharing site Getaround and of Push Pop Press, which converts books into digital apps (and which was acquired by Facebook). Other invitees will include British entrepreneurs flown to the valley in advance of the big trip.
The BA plane itself will have some extra features to spark innovation; Palo Alto design studio IDEO has been tapped to create an onboard environment that might include sections for brainstorming or software development. "There won't be much sitting down," said Talling-Smith.
Once the gang deplanes in Britain, they'll present their findings at the DNA (Decide Now Act) Summit, which aims to foster collaboration between philanthropists, executives, celebrities and government leaders working on global issues. The first DNA Summit was held in London last summer and drew everyone from Oscar winner Geena Davis to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to Microsoft mogul Paul Allen. June's edition takes place just ahead of the G8 Summit of world political leaders in Belfast.
Mark Florman, head of the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association, co-founded the DNA Summit, and on Wednesday he told reporters that the people on the transatlantic flight will be tackling a critical issue.
"If you spend two weeks in Uganda, there right in front of you are millions of incredibly creative, brilliant people who need the opportunity to work and contribute to the global economy," he said.
As to just what the geeks on the plane might come up with, organizers are deliberately trying to keep expectations vague so as not to limit creativity. "The output of the flight should very much be a dynamic, continually evolving framework or product," Stern offered.
Johnson laughingly offered a sterner challenge: "If I had my way," she said, "we're not letting anybody off the plane until we have something substantial to present to the UN."
Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.
Learn more about the UnGrounded initiative at www.UnGroundedThinking.com