Immigrants are more likely than natives to start businesses, according to the Kauffman Foundation. “For immigrants, 530 out of 100,000 people start a business each month, compared to 280 out of 100,000 native-born people,” notes the foundation. Other studies have found a similar propensity of immigrants to start companies. However, what informs us best about remarkable immigrant entrepreneurs is not studies but the individual stories of such people. Here are the stories of two such entrepreneurs.
Nancy Chang, Taiwanese-born Co-Founder of Tanox
“If you really believe in something, the best approach is to invest yourself in that idea,” said Dr. Nancy Chang, co-founder of Tanox, a biotechnology company based in Houston, Texas that was purchased by Genentech.
Not many people take undergraduate classes from one professor who is a future Nobel Prize winner (Yuan T. Lee) and another who would go on to become the nation’s prime minister. Nancy says her good fortune to learn under these teachers gave her the courage to leave Taiwan and study at Brown in 1974, barely able to speak English. On the plane ride to America she read James Watson’s book on the discovery of the double helix, which led to changing her academic focus to biology, even though she had never taken a course on the subject.
The following year, Nancy Chang became one of the first international students to attend Harvard Medical School and, she was told, the medical school’s first major entrepreneur. After Harvard, she was hired at Hoffman-La Roche on a work visa and later became director of the molecular biology group for Centocor. She also has taught at the Baylor College of Medicine and holds seven patents.
In 1986, she co-founded Tanox and served as CEO from 1990 to 2006. Starting Tanox was “part passion and dream and went against the textbook” by developing an asthma drug that focused on the allergy-related basis of asthma. At the time, this ran counter to the central belief in how asthma operated. The perseverance paid off when in June 2003, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Xolair, the first biotech product cleared for treating those with asthma related to allergies. Xolair was developed under an agreement among Tanox, Inc., Genentech, Inc., and Novartis Pharma AG.
When Tanox went public in April 2000 on the NASDAQ, it raised $244 million, which at the time was the largest biotech initial public offering. Dr. Chang said she is passionate about AIDS, since as a young researcher she worked in one of the first laboratories to confront the disease. Tanox developed TNX-355, an antibody for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Genentech licensed TNX-355, known as Ibalizumab, to TaiMed Biologics.
“I came to the United States frightened and scared. But I found if you do well and if you have a dream you will find people in America willing to help and give you an opportunity,” said Dr. Chang. “Life is very rich. I just love this country.”
Asa Kalavade, Indian-born Co-Founder of Tatara Systems and Umber Systems
Twenty or so years ago, it might have been considered improbable for a young woman in India to found her own technology business. “Even when I just started studying engineering people came to my parents to talk them out of it, never mind starting my own company,” said Asa Kalavade.
Asa came to America as an international student and received a master’s and Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California at Berkeley. While most people think of wireless networks and streaming as relatively new technologies, Asa has worked on these technologies for a decade and a half. Early in her career at Bell Labs, Asa invented patent-pending technologies for wireless multimedia streaming, network interfaces, and real-time multiprocessor DSP (digital signal processing) systems. She holds multiple patents.
After serving as vice president of Technology at Savos, she founded Tatara Systems along with an immigrant from China, Hong Jiang. Based in Acton, Massachusetts, the privately held Tatara Systems, which provides technology for mobile services for companies like Vodafone, employs 60 people.
After Tatara Systems, Asa became a founder and chief technology officer of Umber Systems, a mobile data analytics company based in Concord, MA. Asa’s two siblings are both in the United States working as electrical engineers. Her Indian-born husband has started his second company, Tizor Systems. “We’re serial entrepreneurs,” said Asa.
Asa Kalavade and Nancy Chang both took risks as young women coming to study in demanding fields in a new country far from their families. Both women sought opportunity and achieved the American Dream. In achieving that dream, they also made a great difference in the lives of many Americans. That is the story of immigrants to this country.