Bay Area Tech: The Soviet Connection

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Gurevich’s grandfather, a photographer, later sold his camera equipment in a flea market to pay for some of the family’s first meals in the West.

The family settled in Los Angeles, and Gurevich had the chance to catch the startup fever during his undergraduate and graduate work at Stanford starting in 2001. As a speaker of Russian, he was one of the Bay area immigrants like Burkov who were given opportunities to form business bridges between the United States and Russia. Gurevich worked with Steve Jurvetson of DFJ Venture to set up a venture fund, DFJ Aurora, investing in high tech companies in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Litvak and Burkov also promoted business ties between the United States and Russia as co-founders of AmBAR, the American Business Association of Russian-speaking Professionals, a networking group for hundreds of Silicon Valley technology professionals that also supports entrepreneurs in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Nearly 10 years after Gurevich and Burkov came over, embattled college startup founder Alexei Stoliartchouk was able to follow immigration channels to the United States that had been well established by those who came before him. In 1998, friends from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology taught him how to apply to American universities and secure student visas. His wife Irina Makkaveeva, who was his fellow graduate of Moscow Aviation Institute, landed a spot first at the University of Memphis. Stoliartchouk followed, and the couple hopscotched from university programs to jobs across the southwest until they settled for good in the Bay area.

Though the path toward U.S. citizenship and careers was challenging, Stoliartchouk says the freedom to maneuver was exhilarating. “You kind of feel you can make it,” he says. In 2012, Stoliartchouk and Makkaveeva became co-founders of Berkeley-based startup ZappyLab with their friend Lenny Teytelman, a Soviet emigre who moved to New York City with his family as a child in 1990.

The three entrepreneurs have been employing student computer programmers at the Moscow Aviation Institute to help with the iOS and Android development of ZappyLab, an online platform where biologists can share experimental protocols and other information. But the current conflict between Russia and the Ukraine may make that international collaboration harder to maintain. Some of the students vehemently support Russia.

“They want to talk about it,” says Stoliartchouk, their supervisor, who has been wearily trying in phone conversations to encourage the students to seek out news accounts that cover all sides.

Gurevich says the struggle over Ukraine’s territory has dampened a Silicon Valley business interchange with Russia that had flourished between 2009 and 2013. The Russian government was then investing in Silicon Valley funds. U.S. venture firms were investing in Russian startups.

“Now it’s on a severe downturn,” Gurevich says, because startup investors fear that political instability will threaten the Russian economy.

But Gurevich doesn’t expect the upheaval to trigger another large exodus to the United States of immigrants from former Soviet countries. He says there’s a lot more national pride and perceived opportunities within their own economies, especially in Russia.

Burkov, however, says more tech workers are becoming uneasy about the possibility that sanctions against Russia for its territorial claims in Ukraine will lead to a recession. He says the United States should open up more work visas to snag another influx of technical talent from the former Soviet states.

“I think it would be a great advantage to the United States to admit more of these people,” Burkov says.

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Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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