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Diasporans Are Key Drivers in the S&T Start-Up Scene

SAN JOSE, California — Turning a great idea into a successful start-up company requires access to investors, legal expertise, a sound business strategy, and more. Seeking out these resources can be a challenge for novice entrepreneurs, particularly scientists and engineers born outside the United States.

They've done it anyway in Silicon Valley, where 44 percent of engineering and technology ventures launched between 2006 and 2012 were founded by at least one immigrant.

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Frances Colón (top), Román Macaya | AAAS

For many such innovators, a major element of their success is a network of fellow immigrants or others with roots in their home country. These diaspora networks work in two directions: they help startups from other countries gain traction in the United States, and they help U.S. companies break into international markets.

"Diasporans provide magnificent connections," said Vaughan Turekian, chief international officer at AAAS, "which we think is the way science will expand and the way societies will become closer together."

"We think diasporans are natural diplomats," said Frances Colón, acting science and technology adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State.

Turekian and Colón opened the third annual NODES forum, at the 2015 AAAS Annual Meeting. NODES, which stands for Networks of Diasporas in Engineering and Science, is partnership by AAAS, the U.S. Department of State, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Engineering. The 12 February event's first session featured an ambassador, a venture capitalist, an entrepreneur, and an academic, each connected to a diaspora community and committed to bringing it to bear on innovation.

This commitment can reach all the way to the federal level. Román Macaya, Costa Rica's ambassador to the United States — who was born in the U.S. and earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles — said the country was making a concerted effort to recruit Costa Ricans living abroad to help build its high-tech sector. For example, the Costa Rican Talent Abroad program (Red TicoTal) launched by the Costa Rican National Academy of Sciences, aims to mobilize the Costa Rican diaspora and foster connections among researchers interested in contributing to the Costa Rican innovation ecosystem.

The groundwork for a Costa-Rican knowledge-based economy has been laid with a higher education system composed of 59 universities, and a strong base of companies doing high-tech manufacturing. "If we can get them doing R&D, they will find the human talent" in Costa Rica," Macaya said.

Diasporans living in the United States are also contributing to flourishing programs that bring entrepreneurs from their countries of origin to Silicon Valley and other high-tech-based areas, for training and mentoring. The U.S.-Polish Trade Council runs several such programs that bring young Polish innovators to California, to take classes and be exposed to the local business culture.

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Mark Iwanowski (above) and Sylvia Flores | AAAS

Mark Iwanowski, a veteran high-tech executive and managing partner at Poland Growth Fund III who participates in these programs, acknowledged concerns that entrepreneurs from Poland and other countries find the United States so appealing that they will build their business here. In fact, he said, 90% of the companies he invests in stay based in their home countries.

While immigrants in general are well represented in the U.S. high-tech world, this is not the case for Latinos, who have founded less than 1% of venture-backed startups in Silicon Valley.

To change this, Sylvia Flores an entrepreneur whose grandparents were migrant workers from Mexico, started a program that provides education, business resources, infrastructure, capital, and guidance for promising startup companies led by Latinos. To date, the Manos accelerator has guided 13 startups from Latin American and the United States through its program, and it is creating its own network of angel investors.

 "We have a large Latino community in California," said Flores, which could provide an additional talent pool for companies based in Latin America and "grow both economies."

Silicon Valley hasn't incorporated the Japanese diaspora as well as it could either, said Kenji Kushida, Japan Program research associate at Stanford University. He is also the project leader of the Stanford Silicon Valley - New Japan project, which aims to foster and raise awareness of relationships between the two regions. The goal is not to recreate Silicon Vally in Japan, he said, but to find ways that both country's technology sectors complement each other. Innovators in the United States could take advantage of Japan's strengths, he said, such as its large manufacturing companies and its hospitals that excel at treating the country's aging population.

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Kenji Kushida | AAAS

The discussion that followed these remarks highlighted the importance of networking. Participants attested that there are many people interested helping new entrepreneurs bring their ideas to market, but the entrepreneurs must seek them out. This can be a new experience for some, but after visiting Silicon Valley they are bringing change to their own business cultures. "Three years ago there was no such thing as a networking event in Poland," but Poles are now organizing these events themselves, said Iwanowski. 

[Credit for associated teaser image: Olivier H. Beauchesne, OLIHB.COM; Data from Science Matrix & Scopus]