Innovation: The perfect bet

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.