Innovation: The perfect bet

La apuesta perfecta

I wrote this column as a brief synopsis of the importance of investment in the innovation sector and of PRSTaRT‘s initiatives in 2014. It was published in Spanish in Puerto Rico’s main newspaper, El Nuevo Día, on November 30, 2014 (Innovación- La apuesta perfecta). Following is an English version:

Puerto Rico is going through a transition that is similar to the one it went through sixty years ago while it underwent Operation Bootstrap. That time it went from being a poor agrarian society to a developed industrialized one. It wasn’t easy, but it gave way to an economic development that made it one of America’s most important economies at that time. But economic models either evolve, or get stuck. Today, the transition is toward an innovation-based model. Now it’s MY generation’s turn to transition Puerto Rico into its new model.

That challenge is a big one, but our talents and resources make us a hotbed of innovation and a source of wealth creation with a transformative potential. To fill that potential, Puerto Rico must invest intelligently, nimbly, and without fear of failure.

It has to invest in the innovation sector, a sector that creates more jobs, higher salaries, and better quality of life than any other. It has a positive effect on education systems and fosters a culture of curiosity and discovery. And that is the Puerto Rico Science, Technology, and Research Trust‘s (PRSTaRT) reason to exist: to develop an ecosystem that allows innovation.

According to renown UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti, each job created by an innovation-based company produces up to five indirect jobs. That means that the impact of an innovation ecosystem isn’t limited to scientists and entrepreneurs. It’s for everyone. And that’s what we’ve seen with the PRSTaRT’s initiatives.

In the last few years we’ve seen how the PRSTaRT’s investment in a Puerto Rican biotech company has created tens of jobs and has returned more than 3,000% in terms of market wealth. We’ve seen how the PRSTaRT’s investment in a neurobiology lab has resulted in tens of millions of dollars in new research funds, producing more than 1,000% of what was invested. And we’ve seen how these investments have facilitated scientific progress in neuroscience and proteomics, creating new technologies that solve human problems. In 2014 a series of small sponsorships to science and technology incubators and accelerators has fostered the creation of at least sixty new startups, some of them venture-backed.

These examples motivate us to continue promoting an innovation culture in Puerto Rico, and in 2014 we’ve done just that.

The PRSTaRT destined almost $5 million research and technology-development projects with a “Science and Technology Grants RFP”. We expected fifty entries and got almost 300 in the fields of life science, biotech, information, aerospace, and others. That’s a small sample of the country’s ideas and innovations.

We launched a program to incentivize world-caliber researchers to establish themselves in Puerto Rico. We launched another on to increase federally-funded research in the island. We developed another on to maximize the value of its biodiversity.

The PRSTaRT’s first decade has been ardous. It has required a lot of effort by its former trustees and management teams, but 2014 showed that the PRSTaRT has the capacity and the credibility to foster innovation in Puerto Rico.

With that enthusiasm, we face 2015. We’ll give these efforts the scale they need to accomplish exponentially greater results. It’ll launch entrepreneurship and tax benefit initiatives, among other things. The reason is simple: the innovation sector has high potential returns with a small downside.

Innovation is the perfect bet. Let’s make it.

Innovación- La apuesta perfecta

La apuesta perfecta

Puerto Rico atraviesa una transición similar a la que atravesó hace sesenta años cuando pasó de ser una sociedad agraria a una sociedad industrializada basada en la manufactura. No fue fácil, pero dio paso a un crecimiento económico que nos convirtió en una de las economías, en aquel entonces, más importantes de las Américas. Pero los modelos económicos o evolucionan, o se estancan. Hoy, la transición es hacia la innovación. Le toca a mi generación meter manos a la obra.

El reto es grande, pero nuestros talentos y recursos nos convierten en sede de innovación y fuente de riquezas con potencial transformador. Para salir airosos y para que ocurra esa transformación, Puerto Rico tiene que invertir inteligentemente, con agilidad y sin miedo a fracasar.

Tiene que invertir en el sector de la innovación,  un sector que crea más empleos que cualquier otro, ofrece mejores salarios y una mejor calidad de vida. Mejora los sistemas de educación y desarrolla una cultura de curiosidad y descubrimiento. Y es la razón de ser del Fideicomiso para Ciencia, Tecnología e Investigacióndesarrollar un ecosistema que permita innovar.

Según el reconocido economista de la Universidad de Berkeley en California, el Dr. Enrico Moretti, cada empleo directo creado por una empresa de innovación produce hasta cinco empleos indirectos. Eso quiere decir que el impacto de un ecosistema de innovación no es sólo para científicos y empresarios. Es para todos.  Y eso ya lo hemos visto con las nuevas iniciativas del Fideicomiso.

En los últimos años hemos visto cómo la inversión del Fideicomiso en una empresa biotecnológica puertorriqueña ha creado decenas de empleos y ha retornado más de 3,000%. Hemos visto cómo nuestra inversión en un laboratorio de neurobiología ha redundado en decenas de millones de dólares en nuevos fondos de investigación, produciendo en el ecosistema científico más del 1,000% de lo que se invirtió. Y hemos visto cómo estas inversiones han resultado en avances científicos en las áreas de proteómica y neurociencia, creando nuevas tecnologías que atienden necesidades humanas. En el 2014 una serie de modestos auspicios a incubadoras de empresas de ciencia y tecnología resultó en por lo menos sesenta nuevos “startups”, algunos apoyados por inversionistas de capital de riesgo.

Estos ejemplos nos impulsan a continuar promoviendo la innovación en Puerto Rico, y en el 2014 eso es precisamente lo que hemos hecho.

Destinamos casi $5 millones a proyectos de investigación y desarrollo de tecnologías mediante el “Science and Technology Grants RFP”.  Esperábamos, 50 y  recibimos casi trescientas propuestas en los campos de ciencias vivas, biotecnología, informática, aeronáutica y otros. Es una pequeña muestra de la cantera de ideas que tiene el país.

Lanzamos un programa para incentivar a investigadores de clase mundial a que desarrollen sus innovaciones en Puerto Rico. Otro, para aumentar la tasa de éxito de propuestas de investigación de alto calibre.

Desarrollamos un proyecto para aumentar la investigación clínica para ampliar el acceso a tratamientos para la población hispana y para aumentar la investigación en la isla. Desarrollamos una iniciativa para potenciar nuestra biodiversidad.

La primera década del Fideicomiso ha sido ardua. Ha requerido mucho esfuerzo de los fiduciarios y gerencias anteriores, pero el 2014 ha comprobado que el Fideicomiso tiene la capacidad y la credibilidad para darle un fuerte impulso a la innovación en Puerto Rico.

Con ese entusiasmo nos enfrentamos al 2015. Le daremos a estos esfuerzos la escala que necesitan para lograr resultados exponencialmente mayores. Se lanzarán iniciativas de empresarismo y se relanzarán programas de incentivos contributivos. La razón es sencilla: se ha demostrado que la inversión en el sector de la innovación representa el más alto potencial de retornos de todos los sectores.

La innovación es nuestra apuesta perfecta. Hagámosla.

Leave Puerto Rico, or stay here

This article is inspired in Leave Puerto Rico, there’s nothing for you there (in Spanish), published in Qiibo. I wrote a reflection on that article here (in Spanish), but wanted to publish it in English, so this is it.

The author expresses his frustration about many situations in Puerto Rico and about Puerto Ricans. Whether I agree or don’t agree with what he says is irrelevant for the sake of this post. It’s important for those criticisms and opinions to be made. For a society to be healthy it must promote as much perspectives as possible. Congratulations to Qiibo and to the author.

A free exchange of opinions and perspectives is even better. I’m convinced that the author’s concerns are born out of a genuine desire for Puerto Rico’s youth to have a better life in Puerto Rico, without having to leave.

Having said that, my first instinct after reading the column was to rethink the concepts of “place” and of “where the opportunities are” for growth and personal and professional satisfaction. And with that, to rethink the concept of what it means to be part of a “diaspora” and how to participate in it.

Leave Puerto Rico…or stay here

Young, talented, intelligent, hardworking youngster: Leave Puerto Rico. If you want. Or stay here…

I want more innovative and hardworking people to move into Puerto Rico, than to leave it. I want Puerto Rico to breathe collaboration, to forge an ecosystem that produces exponential technologies. I want Puerto Rico to have a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem that produces hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of high-impact companies with global reach. Of course, there’s still a ways to go for that. Along the way, we have to demolish some very frustrating things.

But if you want to stay in Puerto Rico, you don’t need to wait for them to be demolished. Leaving isn’t the only option. You can stay. Today more than ever you can achieve your dreams from where you please. The tools are more accessible, cheaper, and easier to use than ever before. Instead of millions of dollars, you can innovate with a $400 laptop and free software. You can access more than half of the world’s population, not the 0.0583% that lives in Puerto Rico.

Easier said than done. If you don’t want to do it, then don’t. But if you want to try, how would you go about it? Following are some suggestions:

Mentors and community

Other options:

  • If you want to connect with someone, call or email. You could even get an answer.
  • Give without expecting nothing in return.
  • Meet someone who knows that person.
  • Do something difficult to ignore. People will want to meet YOU.

Capital

You can be in Phuket, Thailand  (or Rincón, Puerto Rico, for that matter. Could be just as great, ask anyone who’s been to both.), and you’ll still need money to some degree, depending on your project:

Prototyping

If you leave

If you leave and want to “contribute” anyway:

  • Keep connected via specialized social networks that join many members of the diaspora. The best example is Ciencia Puerto Rico, which has facilitated many interesting collisions between the diaspora and local people in science fields.
  • Be a mentor to locals.
  • If you have some kind of influence, give locals access to opportunities. If you know of a contract opportunity, tell local Puerto Ricans. If you have access to investment capital, explore investment opportunities in Puerto Rico. You don’t have to be in Puerto Rico to do so.

Leave Puerto Rico. But you can stay, too

I’m not here to convince anyone to stay in their country or move out of it. In fact, Puerto Rico needs millions of successful people in every part of the world. But if you want to do great things, you can do them from anywhere. In fact, you can do it from Puerto Rico.

Life is better if you know more

I quit. I quit the endless nights, the nasty xacto-knife cuts, and the merciless project critiques. Yes, I was tired. But I learned what being a complete citizen was, one not defined by his profession. True, at times I’ve lost my way. But ever since my first days in architecture school, I knew that being an architect didn’t mean I would just design buildings. I would design objects, landscapes, structures, art, space.

My History of Architecture professor taught me the value of knowing about music to fully enjoy life. My Theory professor instilled in me a profound sense of rigour. He showed me the importance of critique and criticism, of both the “constructive” and the “just because” kind. The Design professor infected me with curiosity about art and drawing. We traveled together to cultural capitals of Europe and visited more museums than architectural gems.

Today I’m a lawyer, not an architect. To be honest, I don’t know what I’ll end up being. But the endless nights and the critiques haven’t stopped. And what I learned in those two years in architecture school transformed me, even when only one of my designs has seen the light of day.

An artist’s creativity and an engineer’s logic

A problem, even a legal one, isn’t resolved by mere legalities. It’s resolved by applying a variety of perspectives. It’s resolved with an artist’s creativity and with an engineer’s logic.

I have seen the value of being a polymath in the experience of several former law school classmates. Some are working as “architects”. But many are getting by, or even thriving, in other ways. Some are in “related” professions, but others in more distant sectors. Some of their labels are: industrial designer, digital UX designer, restaurateur, fashion designer, client-experience designer.

Of course, some professional detours are motivated by necessity. “It’s a tough economy and they have to get by however they can”. But put it this way: the breadth of possibilities is much larger if you know about furniture, music, spatiality, user experience, and fashion than if you’ve just memorized a book with laws written in it.

Among my fellow lawyers, the “lucky ones” are working in biglaw firms (some are happy, many aren’t), in small firms where they enjoy a little more variety, or in solo practices. Many are simply unemployed or grossly underemployed. This leads me to believe that lawyers today are in a tougher situation than artists and architects because our formation is one-dimensional and aren’t trained to see innovation opportunities.

Life is better if you know more

Life is better if you know more. The more you learn, the more tools you have to live. If you are a physicist and know something about biology, you can solve biology problems with physics knowledge. If you are a biologist and know about music, you’ll be able to compare biology concepts with musical ones to explain a complicated issue in a simple way.

But everything I’ve said up to this point can be summed up in the following way: if you need only one reason to acquire new knowledge and skills, just remember that doing will make you enjoy life more. Every time you learn something new. Every time you master a new skill. Every time you understand something that you didn’t before. Every time each of those things happen, you’ll be happier. Cheers.