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Hackers on holiday: They’re building the city of the future from a summer camp in Sonoma

At the monthlong Edge Esmeralda in Healdsburg, biotech meets blockchains meets blood draws.

Attendees sunbathe after enjoying a cold plunge during Edge Esmeralda
Attendees sunbathe after enjoying a cold plunge during Edge Esmeralda in Healdsburg. | Source: Courtesy Telamon Ardavanis

Last week, at an ice cream social for tech founders in Healdsburg, a small, sticky child interrupted a group discussion to make a request. While the adults were talking about inducing lucid dreaming via electroencephalography headsets, the child tugged on one of the attendees, Lawrence Wang, asking him to play a jumping game. Wang smiled, shrugged, and hopped from foot to foot, to the child’s delight. 

Wang, the Oakland-based CEO of, an AI-voice coach for self-reflection, enjoyed the moment—kids are a novelty at tech events. Plus, after a long day spent brainstorming visions of machine consciousness and human-AI cooperation, some human-to-human interaction was welcome. 

The collision of serious tech ideas and unserious family camp moments is exactly what the creators of Edge Esmeralda were hoping for. The month-long pop-up city designed “for people building the future” has descended on the bougie wine country town this June, playing host to roughly 700 adults—and a good number of their children—who paid $595 to $2,158 per person, depending on the length of stay. 

The longevity-minded and AI-obsessed have come to Healdsburg from as far away as Melbourne, Taipei and Berlin. As a nod to locals, organizers offered Sonoma County residents a discounted $200 pass to integrate them with the hundreds of longevity researchers, academics, neuroscientists, biohackers and crypto futurists. They later offered $110 day tickets, plus scholarships, to democratize access.

“I’m super excited for it,” tweeted Laura Deming, founder of Cradle Health, a startup developing ways to cryopreserve people. “Basically a summer camp w/ longevity people…full of thought experiments and doodling tech trees.”

Samuel Gbafa, the CEO of TinyCloud, enjoyed building an AI wearable necklace, during a workshop at Edge Esmeralda.
Samuel Gbafa, the CEO of TinyCloud (top), building an AI wearable necklace during a workshop at Edge Esmeralda. | Source: Edge Esmeralda Community

News of the pop-up “city”—actually a loose network of hotels, coworking spaces, coffee shops, and yoga studios sprinkled around Healdsburg—spread via word of mouth and on X, Discord and Telegram. The organizers intentionally didn’t advertise Esmeralda, said Devon Zuegel, one of the event creators, trusting that the nomadic tech community known as Edge City would show up anyway.

The group previously organized the invitation-only city of Zuzalu, a makeshift metropolis that popped up last year in Montenegro. It was originally dreamed up by Vitalik Buterin, the billionaire co-founder of the Ethereum cryptocurrency and blockchain. 

Their overarching goal: devise a roadmap for the city of the future, one unencumbered by politics, pessimists and seed oils (a big no-no for the “Don’t Die” set). The Standard joined the Esmeraldans one day last week for several sessions. Every attendee I met emphasized that my one-day blitz was not the ideal way to experience Esmeralda. The magic is in the spontaneity, the downtime, the random connections, they said. 

There was a lot of random. Allison Duettmann, the CEO of San Francisco’s Foresight Institute, an emerging technologies nonprofit, presented on how to fund neuroscience projects. Mark Hamalainen, co-founder of the Longevity Biotech Fellowship, shared his roadmap to radical life extension, and took in a “How to Defeat Death” debate (he voted for reprogramming over replacement). 

Jan Sramek, the CEO of California Forever, the billionaire-funded city-in-the-making in Solano County, held a salon on future cities. Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life, discussed governance parallels in gaming. Patri Friedman, founder of The Seasteading Institute, showed up with his five-year-old daughter in tow. 

Most sessions were recorded with the audio and associated slides fed into a large language model, which disseminated actionable proposals at the close of each week. “The weird people go to the frontier, you know?” said Samuel Gbafa, the 30-year-old founder of TinyCloud, an encrypted data startup, as he psyched himself up for a cold plunge, one of Esmeralda’s many free amenities.

Earlier, during a workshop run by Nik Shevchenko, a 2023 Thiel fellow, Gbafa soldered a microprocessor to a chip to create a wearable AI necklace. The tea-light-sized triangular piece of plastic streams and transcribes real-time audio on the fly. It’s cool, Gbafa shrugged, but also, “the end of public privacy.” 

Attendees take a break from lectures to build solar powered A-frame cabins.
Attendees take a break from lectures to build solar-powered A-frame cabins. | Source: Courtesy HudZah

Esmeralda is a beta-test, explained Zuegel, one designed to “build the software of the community.” In the long term, Esmeralda will be permanently resettled in a yet-to-be-chosen Northern California location. But the utopian vision must still comply with federal laws and regulations. That means no injections of experimental gene therapies, as seen at previous pop-up cities in Honduras and Montenegro.

Future cities like these need flexibility, argued Tristan Roberts during a lecture on biomedical tourism. “Special economic zones are a great place to prove a concept…before [getting] approval in a larger jurisdiction,” he said.

Roberts, the San Francisco-based founder of the Research Collective, a nonprofit supporting innovation in biomedical research, is all in. In 2017, he injected himself with an experimental gene therapy to cure his HIV (it didn’t work). In 2023, while in Honduras, he tried Minicircle’s follistatin plasmid gene therapy to roll back his epigenetic age. His results were minimal, but that hasn’t changed his outlook. “Sure, there are risks,” he said. But the world is filled with “invisible graveyards that come from treatments not being approved.”

This January, Roberts scrubbed his teeth with genetically modified bacteria, a treatment called Lumina that purportedly alters the mouth microbiome and creates a cavity-free life. “It’s hard to say which cavities I already had, versus which are new,” he said. 

A candlelight session on life and death, explored the ritual and spiritual side of life during Edge Esmeralda.
A candlelight session on life and death explored the ritual and spiritual sides of life during Edge Esmeralda. | Source: Courtesy Telamon Ardavanis

Markus Pesonen, the 39-year-old CEO of Olo, a meditation app that plays somatic sounds designed to calm the nervous system, is wary of injecting stem cells—but he sees the appeal. “The longevity lifestyle is more than just a fringe movement,” he said. In San Francisco, he runs in-person sound sessions tailored to stressed-out venture capitalists and videogamers, and will host a similar session in Esmeralda later this month. People crave calmness, he said.

However, some of the longevity optimizers at Esmeralda do veer into quackery. There was an animal telepathy workshop (“Skeptics are welcome!” it noted). A fashion CEO offered energy-healing sessions. During a home-health panel hosted by a crypto CEO, people were instructed to toss out their AirPods (Bluetooth radiation!), nonstick pans (toxins!), microwaves (more radiation!), and LED bulbs (mess with circadian rhythms). In their place: cast iron pots, wired headphones and (federally banned) incandescent bulbs. 

Of course, not everyone in Healdsburg shared the zeal for self-optimization and societal rebooting. “Edge what?” asked Christopher Palacios, the salesperson at Lucky Heron, a store adjacent to Healdsburg’s main plaza that sells wares from local artisans. Palacios claimed to have seen zero impact from the Esmeralda visitors.

Kirsten Kelly, a 25-year-old tasting manager at the Alpha Omega Collective, two doors down from a key lecture hall, was equally flummoxed. “I don’t know what Edge Esmeralda is,” she said; there’d been no bump in sales. 

This was not surprising, perhaps, as the vast majority of the Don’t Die crowd abstain from grain and grape. But it does make Wine Country a strange destination for a longevity-minded social gathering. Ariel Kelley, a Healdsburg City Council member, disagreed with that characterization: “There’s a huge trend of non-alcoholic wine being served,” she said, adding that the town’s also ideal for R&R. 

Biohacker and builders party inside the Jendala Art Studio in Healdsburg.
Biohacker and builders party inside the Jendala Art Studio in Healdsburg. | Source: Courtesy Telamon Ardavanis

Some Esmeraldans have attempted to frequent local businesses…in their own way. One group rang 39 local restaurants, quizzed them about their ingredients, sourcing and seasoning, and compiled the results into a color-coded chart, which was distributed on Telegram. They asked venues to stock up on Zero Acre’s fermented sugarcane oil.

Two weeks in, many attendees are still feeling the event out. One engineer confided that they regretted signing up for two weeks at the camp, due to bouts of loneliness. A founder said they’d barely attended anything as they had to perfect their codebase. Another, who dropped unusual acronyms into casual conversation, mentioning WBE (whole brain emulation), BCI (brain-computer interfaces), and DeSci (decentralized science), said they’d love to stay for the entire month, but couldn’t afford the hotels. 

A roundtable discussion following the Defeat Death debate, where brain tissue replacement believers battled cell reprogramming scientists.
A roundtable discussion following a candlelight session on life and death at Edge Esmeralda. | Source: Courtesy Mikhail Batin/ Open Longevity

On Friday night, June 14, many Esmeraldans made the 70-mile trip to San Francisco. Days before, news had dropped that Grimes, the techno DJ, longevity evangelist, and Elon Musk’s ex-girlfriend, was headlining the free, secretive Bio Acceleration rave.

“Join us for a night of healing frequencies, hi energy, elixirs & drip,” an itinerary beckoned. Sponsors included Intercom CEO Eoghan McCabe (“This is gonna be epic!” he tweeted), VitaDAO, Extropic, Farbood Nivi, and Bonbuz, a drinks startup that delivers a “natural buzz, without the booze.” The attendees returned to Healdsburg feeling chastened. Grimes never showed, nor offered any explanation for her absence.

Then the sky took on an unhealthy yellow tinge and the air turned truly toxic. Ten miles northwest of Healdsburg, the Point Fire erupted, raging across 1,200 acres. A number of guests, especially those with small children, exited Esmeralda.

Zuegel and the other organizers scrambled to get information from the authorities. They prepared to adapt the scheduled events in real-time, and primed their shuttle buses for potential evacuation.

On Monday they sent out an email blast: all was well. “There is no serious concern that the fire will impact downtown Healdsburg…because there is an extensive barrier of vineyards, the highway, and lots of breaks made by firefighters.”

All the same, Esmeraldans were invited to attend an off-site to the off-site, held at a private campground in Mendocino. “Join us among the redwoods for a weekend of nature activities, talks, music, dancing and quality time spent with the community.”