After Humanitarian Honor, Flagship’s Afeyan States Case for Immigration

Xconomy Boston — 

They embrace the unfamiliar, overcome adversity, and through it all, make the most of limited resources. These characteristics describe many entrepreneurs. But they also describe immigrants, says Noubar Afeyan, CEO of Cambridge, MA, venture capital firm Flagship Pioneering.

It’s no coincidence that many successful company founders in the U.S. originally came from other countries, Afeyan says. The mindset that immigrants need to adapt and survive is also useful in forming and growing new companies that are pushing science into new frontiers. But in some parts of the country, political discourse has turned against immigration, a move that Afeyan says stifles new ideas and will ultimately hinder the launch of new companies.

“If we don’t have immigration in this country, we will not have innovation in the long term,” Afeyan tells Xconomy. “If you cut that lifeline, it will have huge impacts on innovation itself.”

Last week, Afeyan received the Golden Door Award, an honor that recognizes contributions made to immigrant and refugee causes. The International Institute of New England (IINE), a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants and refugees settle in communities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, gives the award each year to a U.S. citizen who was born in a foreign country. Previous recipients of the award include architect I.M. Pei, musician Yo-Yo Ma, and the late Henri Termeer, former Genzyme CEO. The award draws its name from part of the Emma Lazarus inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “From her beacon hand glows world-wide welcome… I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Flagship has invested in numerous life science startups, such as Moderna Therapeutics, Rubius Therapeutics, and Seres Therapeutics, all three based in Cambridge. Afeyan says his work at Flagship does not mix with his philanthropic endeavors, but his thoughts on the connection of immigration to innovation are reflected in his firm’s investments. In many cases, the science is unknown and the risks are ever present. Entrepreneurs must adapt in order to move their companies forward. Afeyan says this “immigration spirit” is not exclusive to those who come to the U.S. from other countries, but U.S. born entrepreneurs may need to make a more conscious effort to form that mindset and apply it to their work.

Afeyan speaks about immigration from his personal experiences, and those of his Armenian ancestors. His grandfather was among the hundreds of thousands of Armenians taken to the Syrian desert to die during the Armenian Genocide. But Afeyan says his grandfather owed his survival to the fact that the forced exodus took place on a German military railway and he happened to speak German. Two German soldiers spared him and his brother, and gave them work.

Afeyan’s grandfather eventually settled in Beirut, Lebanon, where Afeyan was born in 1962. But unrest later uprooted the family again. When civil war began in Lebanon in 1975, Afeyan’s father successfully sought refugee status in Canada, and the Afeyan family moved to Montreal. Afeyan’s own move to the U.S. was to pursue his education.

Although he grew up in Canada, Afeyan looked for ways to reconnect with his Armenian heritage. Armenia is like a startup, he says. The former Soviet republic struggles to grow its economy, a challenge compounded by a lack of resources. Afeyan has supported several economic development initiatives in Armenia. Two years ago, he also co-founded a humanitarian program, the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. The prize, named for Aurora Mardiganian, who witnessed the genocide and wrote a book about it, honors those who have overcome a challenge or made advances preserving human life and advancing humanitarian causes. Afeyan says his current humanitarian work is motivated by the events of the past.

Speaking during the Golden Door Award ceremony last Thursday, Afeyan referenced ongoing humanitarian crises throughout the world. He noted that Armenia, a country of 3 million people, has welcomed 20,000 Syrian refugees. He said that that support came from the realization that other people had helped Armenians, so now Armenians have the responsibility to help others. Afeyan added that individuals and companies can take a similar approach.

“We seem to be disrobing from all the good values that made America America,” Afeyan told the audience. “I’m here saying it’s our obligation to look back. We tell our kids, we tell our companies [to] always look forward. We’re living in a time where it also helps to look back and figure out what it is that made America what it is, and then try to bring some of the past to the present and the future.”

Because the life science industry has such a large presence in the Boston area, companies have a responsibility to immigrants and refugees, Afeyan says. Immigrants comprise a large part of the life science workforce, including the staffs of companies that Flagship has founded or invested in.

Afeyan says he had been asked in prior years to consider accepting the Golden Door Award, but he declined. This year, the increasingly hostile rhetoric directed toward immigrants changed his mind. He adds that he wanted to honor the legacy of Termeer, who in addition to being a past recipient of the award was also an IINE board member. Termeer, he says, always emphasized to people that companies had social responsibilities in addition to their corporate obligations. Afeyan pointed to the nonprofit Life Science Cares as one example of an effort to embrace the industry’s social responsibilities.

The Golden Door Award ceremony drew more than 700 people from around the Boston area. The event raised $850,000 that will support IINE’s work. Afeyan says he hopes that awareness of the issues facing immigrants and refugees will spark life science companies to continue that support.

“It’s time that we collectively act in this way because it’s a sense of responsibility—a sense of gratitude that you turn into action,” he says.

Photo by Flickr user Ana Paula Hirama via a Creative Commons license.