With its terrain, tough climate and remoteness, Alaska has its challenges.
In certain fields, like energy, the state has become a kind of incubator for new technologies as these challenges become opportunities.
For project developers, particularly Alaskans among them, the holy grail is how to take things invented here and market them elsewhere. There are examples of this, but for most success has been elusive.
But if we crack that nut, does this drive more Alaska-born technology? How do we make Alaska firms into industry leaders?
Now there might be a roadmap: the University of Alaska Anchorage has signed on to become the 13th U.S. university — and just the fourth state — to establish a Global Entrepreneur in Residence program.
This will bring an experienced entrepreneur, a foreign-born one, to the UAA campus to mentor students and Alaskans interesting in marketing their solutions to problems.
The university will be in distinguished company as the program is up and running at 13 universities in four states as Alaska joins Colorado, Massachusetts and New York.
University of Colorado in Boulder has three entrepreneurs in residence in its program says Gianna Foltz, coordinator of UAA’s project.
Besides UAA, Alaska Pacific University is engage in the program and is the first private university to join the network.
The entrepreneur in residence will lecture in classrooms, teach workshops and lecture at community forums, and help judge business competitions, Foltz said.
Private contributions are funding UAA’s effort with money for the first year from Colorado entrepreneur Brad Field and the Johnston family of Anchorage. Allen Johnston, a well-known Alaska financial consultant, has long been active in fostering local entrepreneurs and business education.
Applications for UAA’s first entrepreneur-in-residence are now being solicited and so far there are 50 applicants, Foltz said. Interviews with candidates will begin in January.
“We are recruiting candidates with a strong record in entrepreneurship, technology commercialization and leadership. Experience in ‘clean tech’ fields and renewable energy is preferred,” in this first go-around, Foltz said.
What’s unusual about the program, with all the universities, is that it is targeted at attracting and keeping immigrant business talent in the U.S.
Often, talented foreign-born business students come to the U.S. to study and want to remain to start businesses, creating more American jobs when they do.
Ironically, restrictive U.S. visa rules and immigration policies often prevent that.
Other western countries, like Canada, are more aggressive and creative in retaining foreign-born talent. Canada and the U.K. have created “founder visa” programs to encourage immigrant entrepreneurs to create businesses within their borders.
A textbook case of the U.S. losing out is the case of Kunal Bahl, from India, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in 2006 and applied for a visa to remain in the U.S. and start a business.
The visa was rejected. Bahl returned to India to start his business there rather than in the U.S. His company, Snapdeal, has become a $6.5 billion enterprise that now competes with Seattle-based Amazon.
To try and prevent future losses of talent, Brad Feld, of Foundry Group, worked with universities and the federal government to form the entrepreneurs-in-residence programs where a special visa could be granted to allow foreign-born graduates to remain in the U.S. for a period if they agree to teach and also start a business.
A condition of the recruitment is that the entrepreneur agrees to start a business in the state, Foltz said. A side benefit is the knowledge of overseas markets and business practices the successful candidate will bring.
“Alaska is rich in scalable opportunities but we are currently ranked 49th among states in risk capital and have the least diversified economy in the U.S.,” said Johnston, a local champion of the entrepreneur-in-residence program and also active in a local entrepreneur’s mentoring network.
“This global program can help us transition from a resource-extraction-based economy to a more diversified globally integrated economy,” he said.
Foltz, at UAA, said the industries targeted for the university’s first entrepreneur solicitation is energy technologies, particularly clean-tech areas like renewable energy, as well as oil and gas extraction, where Alaskans have already demonstrated leadership in innovation.
The state has funded substantial development work in renewable energy for small communities, particularly in areas like integration of wind energy with diesel generation and small-community grids, and Alaskan firms have been active in these projects.
There are huge opportunities in selling these technologies in developing countries that, like Alaska, do not have traditional infrastructure.
“Our country’s greatest competitive advantage is a culture that welcomes immigrants and attracts the best and brightest from around the world. Unfortunately, our outdated immigration system is the reason we’re losing the global race for tech talent,” said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, an organization of tech companies formed to promote immigration reform.
The universities initiatives provide a new way for foreign-born talent stay in the U.S. and create jobs, Schulte said.