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 … Next Page »

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