Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Photo courtesy of FreeFlow Research

Photo courtesy of FreeFlow Research and Geekdom

A growing skills gap exists in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields for workers in the U.S.

One reason for this is because there is a lack of U.S. born students pursuing STEM degrees. Peter French believes something needs to be done to fill this gap.

French is the founder of a nonprofit organization called FreeFlow Research. FreeFlow is based at Geekdom in San Antonio, the largest co-working space in Texas. The purpose of FreeFlow is to build a strong network of researchers and entrepreneurs who are engaged in basic and/or applied scientific research in areas of cloud computing, software and technology development, mobile applications, clean energy technology, and other STEM-related industries.

FreeFlow, founded in October of 2012, last year merged with the Technology Connexus Association, which formally designated FreeFlow as a 501(c)(3) and exempted it from being federally taxed. That nonprofit designation helps FreeFlow pursue its mission to recruit top international talent to the U.S.

“The secret is out that having the smartest people, no matter where they’re from, is the way that your economy is going to move forward quickly and exponentially,” French said. “The U.S., from a policy standpoint, has just been slow in responding. My original vision in pursuit with FreeFlow is let’s find a tool that doesn’t require changes in the law that we can use right now to help retain smart talent.”

The name for FreeFlow Research clicked when French thought about how ideas, like email, can move freely across borders. Patents and intellectual property can be bought, sold, and moved around the world freely. Individuals who develop those ideas can not move from place to place so easily.

freeflow-square (1)One of the main goals FreeFlow has is to strengthen the relationship between San Antonio and Mexico at the tech sector level. The other goal is to reverse flow. FreeFlow wants to bring Mexican companies and investment into San Antonio to help make them stronger and more robust companies, but also wants to help U.S. companies who want to access the Mexican and Latin American market and get a better cultural understanding of what’s happening down there.

The idea with FreeFlow is to symbolize the freedom of movement of people, as well as ideas, French said.
“People should be able to live wherever they want,” he said. “If we want to have globally competitive companies, we should be able to have a global workforce. It should be an on-demand capability. (FreeFlow) wants to help facilitate that on-demand flow of people.”

In 2000, the U.S. congress passed the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act. Before this passed, there was a sudden deficiency in talented researchers and Ph.D holders at U.S. universities and research organizations. Even federally funded programs like NASA and the Pentagon were lacking the talent they needed. The reason for this is because of the cap on H-1B visas that could be given to foreign individuals. Many of the qualified individuals who could fill positions at these places were foreign-born.

Congress thought they should make an exemption for certain organizations. That exemption is what enables FreeFlow to conduct research partnerships with for-profit entities or even other not-for-profit entities.
The Brooklyn Law School in New York has been a tremendous help and resource for FreeFlow, French said.

“They have people there that have a deep understanding of the legal issues both on the IRS side and on the immigration side, but have the willingness, desire, and drive to understand how to interpret all of these regulations to produce the outcome that we want. We’re continuing to look for people who share our vision and see the value in creating these talent communities.”

Jared Brenner, a second-year law student at Brooklyn Law and student clinician at the Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy clinic, said French is what he would call a “social entrepreneur.”

“He’s somebody who’s sensitive to the public interest, but at the same time is not averse to helping companies large and small turn a profit,” Brenner said. “I think it’s becoming increasingly important to find ways for entities to do that to kind of bridge the gap between for-profit and non-profit ventures.”

Brenner said French is an open-minded individual and he’s willing to try new ways to get the tech talent the U.S. needs.

“FreeFlow is really all about protecting the information economy and fostering innovation by allowing companies to use new innovative ways to bring over highly-skilled workers that they need, and to keep students here to develop specialized projects,” Brenner said.

There are a lot of foreign entities out there such as European startups who would love to get an American foothold, but who struggle with visa questions, Brenner said.

“I really think we should be making it as easy as possible for these people to come over here and create,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why they should be stopped by an arbitrary cap on visas for highly-skilled workers. That’s what Peter and I agree on, and that’s why we work well together.”

Luis Martinez, Ph.D, is the director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Trinity University in San Antonio. He said there has always been the challenge with regards to international students in STEM, specifically at the graduate level and undergraduate level.

“They come to the United States, get trained in science, technology, or math and then are expected or required to give back,” Martinez said. “The challenge and the difficulty with that is we train these individuals up to be amazing scientists or fantastic engineers and then we ship them back home so they can become direct competitors to the industries we’re trying to grow here in the United States.”

For our country’s economic competitiveness, it’s important that we have a broad pool of talent to be able to further fuel that engine, Martinez said.

“One of the things that makes innovation and entrepreneurship in the United States really fantastic is that you have the opportunity for a diverse pool of talent, experience levels, and knowledge base,” he said. “It’s in that diversity that we will have strength when it comes to developing the next generation of trend-setting, world-changing companies and startups.”

Freeflow has launched an outreach campaign which targets international students enrolled in STEM programs at Texas universities. French and his team is designing a skills and needs assessment tool that will provide individuals with access to immigration and entrepreneurship resources, as well as offer them a chance to explore FreeFlow’s marketplace of opportunities for research projects, internships, apprenticeships and jobs.

FreeFlow has received a grant from the 80/20 Foundation. A big push for 2014 is to pursue other grants and private funding. FreeFlow also welcomes volunteers who want to help the organization. To share a personal immigration story, fill out a fellowship application, donate money, or volunteer visit FreeFlow’s website.

Geekdom is a sponsor of Silicon Hills News