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Immigrant Engineers Share Knowledge with Homeland - 2002-04-24

A new survey indicates the "brain drain" that brought engineers from countries like India and China to U.S. high tech firms has evolved into a complex two-way process known as "brain circulation." Half the immigrant entrepreneurs in California's high-tech community, Silicon Valley, are using their talent to set up new businesses in their native lands.

AnnaLee Saxenian, who conducted the survey for California's Public Policy Institute, polled scientists from 17 different professional immigrant associations in Silicon Valley. Fifty-one percent say they helped found start-up companies in their native country, 27 percent have advised companies in their home countries and 14 percent have invested their own money in venture funds back home.

"Not only are they becoming successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley," said Ms. Saxenian, "but they are returning to their home countries in various ways - starting companies, advising companies, investing [and] working with governments. On many levels there are ties being built by these immigrants and their home economies."

In general, Ms. Saxenian says, Indian professionals cite the availability of skilled and cheap labor as their major reason for starting businesses in India. Chinese immigrants, on the other hand cite market access, to Greater China as the motivating factor.

Half of Silicon Valley's foreign-born professionals report traveling to their native country for business at least once a year.

"The links are creating global business networks and stimulating economic growth, said Annalee Saxenian. "It is quite amazing. The Indian and Chinese immigrants, about 75 percent say they intend to start companies in the future. They have caught the entrepreneurial disease from Silicon Valley and are exporting it to their own countries," she said.

About 29 percent of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley today are immigrants, said Ms. Saxenian. "The two largest groups are Chinese, both Taiwan and mainland-born, and Indian. There are smaller groups of engineers from everywhere in the world from Vietnam and the Philippines to Iran to France to Armenia."

Ms. Saxenian says these foreign-born Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are becoming agents of change in countries around the world.