Hacker House living popular with Seattle’s eclectic startup crowd

Feb 16, 2015, 12:43 PM | Updated: 3:11 pm
Residents at Seattle’s Hacker House participate in an Oculus Rift demonstration. (Photo court...
Residents at Seattle's Hacker House participate in an Oculus Rift demonstration. (Photo courtesy GrokHome/Matthew Oswald)
(Photo courtesy GrokHome/Matthew Oswald)

At first glance, the 5-bedroom, 2-bathroom IO House on Capitol Hill seems a bit like a fraternity. Bunk beds and a shared kitchen with carefully labeled boxes of cereal add to the college-like ambiance.

But behind every door of this Hacker House, residents are cooking up innovative projects, including cancer research at Fred Hutch, interning at Amazon or Microsoft, or getting their own virtual reality companies off the ground.

They might even be mining a few Bitcoins.

My tour guide, Dr. Arno Klein, described a recent member of the house who was trying his luck with the online currency.

“A very industrious, entrepreneurial sort. He set up a computer with 16 fans whirring. It heated up this whole attic because he wanted to generate Bitcoins. It was nuts.”

Klein works on brain imaging software development for the biomedical research nonprofit Sage Bionetworks.

“And I also coordinate international challenges to get scientists from around the world to focus on questions of biomedical importance,” Klein explained.

Klein is a former professor at Columbia University who splits his time between New York and Seattle. When he made the cross-country move, he was looking for an alternative to a drab studio apartment or a shared house with zero personality.

“I liked the idea of having a close-knit group of tech-savvy people,” he said. “But with an eclectic set of interests, so there would be a lot of exchange of ideas.”

Founder Andy Rebele opened IO House in 2013 to serve the growing numbers of tech-minded entrepreneurs, designers and inventors moving to the Seattle area.

He said young people no longer want to spend all their money on where they’re living. “They want to spend it experiencing things and doing things.”

Socially, individuals are also much more reliant on impersonal online communication.

“So what completes that picture for them is to live somewhere where they actually have much more interaction with other human beings,” Rebele explained.

He was inspired by Hacker Houses in the startup culture of the Bay Area.

“I thought there was a way we could do it better. This is a richer environment.”

When they began advertising on AirBnB and Craigslist, Rebele decided to invite folks from all fields – scientists, entrepreneurs, makers – and a variety of ages and experiences to be a part of the space.

“The idea is to build a community of the right people,” Rebele said. “That’s what matters. It’s not making a profit on the rent.”

The Capitol Hill location has been so successful, a second Hacker House, called Cor36, is in the works in Wallingford.

Rebele also wanted to point out what’s NOT in the house. There is no big-screen TV dominating the shared living room.

“One of the things that attracts people who are thinkers and doers is not having distractions like that.”

Instead of TV nights, the Hacker House hosts “Demo Nights” where residents and guests share their expertise and discuss with people from other fields, the goal being cross-pollination of ideas.

“You already know immediately, if you’ve read the ad, that we are different,” said Matthew Oswald, one of the original house captains. “You’re coming here not for a place to lay your head down. You’re coming here to learn, to work, and to connect with other people.”

Oswald connects with potential residents to curate the right culture in the house. He also has his own projects, like his Mugbot, a robot he created to make him fresh coffee in the morning without having to walk downstairs. He communicates with Mugbot via Twitter.

“It plays ‘Walking on Sunshine,’ if I’m in a good mood,” Oswald laughed.

He presented on Mugbot’s creation and open-source hardware at one of the House’s demo nights.

“He presented it as, this is something I had trouble with,” Arno Klein said. “He gave everyone the sense that ‘You can too.’ And that I think is the mark of someone who is trying to create a community.”

When he first moved to Seattle and the Hacker House, Dr. Klein says he thought he would quickly find his own apartment. But he’s stayed for over a year.

“Everybody who comes here wants to be plugged into the different types of maker, coding, or tech areas of Seattle. So each is finding their way, and we learn from each other,” Klein said.

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Hacker House living popular with Seattle’s eclectic startup crowd