San Antonio Ranks Third on Forbes List of the Nation’s Tech Hot Spots

Tower of America in San Antonio Texas City  AerialForbes names San Antonio-New Braunfels as one of America’s technology hot spots.

The greater San Antonio area earned the number three spot on the list behind number one, Washington, D.C. and number two, Riverside, Calif.

Forbes reported that San Antonio-New Braunfels gained 18.3 percent in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math jobs between 2011 and 2012. The growth during the last two years has been 4.5 percent.

Forbes hired Mark Schill of Praxis Strategy Group to examine the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan statistical areas.

“Notably absent from our list of the 10 metro areas that enjoyed the strongest growth over that period: the country’s largest cities,” according to Forbes. “Chicago, New York and Los Angeles all lost tech jobs over the past 11 years. Silicon Valley? For all the buzz over Facebook and other hot social media companies, the San Jose area has 12.6% fewer tech jobs today than in 2001.”

San Antonio has a large biomedical industry and cybersecurity industry. The city has also nurtured its technology startup community with the founding of Geekdom, nearly three years ago.

FreeFlow Research Works to Recruit More Tech Talent to the U.S.

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

Opportunities and Obstacles in America’s Visa Options

Reporter with Silicon Hills News

H1_B_Work_Visa_Application_Large_ImageLast year, Congress introduced the Startup Visa Act to provide visas to foreign entrepreneurs who have U.S. backing and whose businesses are expected to provide certain levels of employment, revenue, or capital investment. If the legislation ever passes, it may make things a lot easier, said Sweta Khandelwal, an immigrant and Silicon Valley immigration attorney who spoke Monday at Capital Factory.

Currently, choosing the best visa options requires chess-like strategy and a lot of creativity. Some visas are tied to education and job type and others to money. Visas last various amounts of time. Some allow spouses to work and others don’t. Some lead to green cards and others are only for people who have “no immigrant intent.” Khandelwal says she’s been on all of them and there is never a cookie cutter solution. And, like so many other aspects of entrepreneurship, most require “a good story.”

Sweta Khandelwal, an immigrant and Silicon Valley immigration attorney, photo by Susan Lahey

Sweta Khandelwal, an immigrant and Silicon Valley immigration attorney, photo by Susan Lahey

“Twenty five percent of the high tech companies started in the U.S. between 1995 and 2005 had at least one immigrant cofounder,” said Khandelwal, who is chair of the Silicon Valley chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “That person must be on the right visa to ensure continuity of the company. You also need to be able to hire top global talent.”

“There are no standardized regulations, you have to get creative,” she said. “No business is replicative or duplicative of another…. You have to customize your visa application and really plan ahead.”

Visas for Students and Recent Grads

A really popular visa option is the student visa, F-1 and the Optional Practice Training as well as Curricular Practical Training. With the F-1, a student can stay in the country as long as he is in school and may remain an additional 12 months in the country on an OPT visa to get further training in the area of his education. This can be extended an additional 17 months for STEM graduates who work for verified companies. CPT allows students to do work that is integral to their field of study. They can use up to 11 months of CPT without losing the opportunity for OPT.

If a graduate wants to start a company, he can get that companies e-verified and become an employee. This period gives them time to get their companies up and running and prepare to apply for a different kind of visa.

Investor Visas

The E-2 visa is for immigrants from any of 50 or so countries that have a specific treaty with the U.S. which includes Mexico but excludes India and China. This allows a foreign national to invest in a U.S. business and live in the U.S. to direct and develop the business. Generally if more than one foreign national is involved, they have to be from the same country. The investment amount does not have to be substantial, Khandelwal said. It just has to be sufficient to support the business. Around $15,000 may be adequate. But it can’t be in the form of a loan secured by the business and the investment money must be demonstrated to go into the business for items such as purchasing equipment, leasing space and so forth. Travel to and from the U.S. to establish the business, hotel bills and the like all count as investment. But the investor has to be seeking to build a business that will create economic benefit beyond a lifestyle business. The spouse of an E2 can work. You can be on the E visa indefinitely, but if you hope to get a green card, you have to get a different visa first. This is one of the visas with “no immigrant intent.”

Employee Visas

L-1 or Intercompany Transfer visas let executives, managers or people with specialized knowledge who have worked for a company during at least one of the preceding three years, to work at a U.S. company with which the foreign company has an affiliation. This might be a subsidiary relationship or a branch office. Or they might share a group of shareholders. There are several different forms the affiliation can take but the foreign business must continue to operate. You can’t just move your company to the U.S. on the L-1. One of the great things about an L1 is there’s no minimum salary they must pay the employee and no fixed number of visas, unlike the popular H-1B. L1s don’t’ require a minimum investment. The L1 is initially approved for one year but once you get the office or subsidiary established you can get it for three years. L1s can lead to green cards, Khandelwal said. But the standards for green cards are much more stringent. So while a person who receives an L1 visa can apply the next day for a green card, it’s wiser to wait and establish the business.

The H-1B Visas

One of the most popular visas is the H-1B. These are subject to quotas and they’re issued by lottery within days after the April 1 deadline. H-1Bs go to people with specialty occupations. But this is one of those places that require creativity, Khandelwal said. For example, a CEO, for the purpose of the visa, is generally not considered a specialty occupation. So she recommends people not call themselves CEOs. Instead they might be “Business Development Directors.” The business must pay for a person to come on an H-1B visa which generally costs around $1,500 for the application. The business must also pay the going rate for that employee. If other people in that region of the country, in that position, are earning $85,000, that’s what the immigrant employee must earn. H-1Bs last six years as long as the person remains employed. But with the H-1B, unlike the L-1, employees can switch employers and remain on the visa. Some countries, like Mexico, Canada and Australia, have separate visas not subject to the H-1B quotas.

Extraordinary Ability Visas

Another type of popular visa is the O-1A, or extraordinary ability visa. For this you must demonstrate that you are one of a very few at the top of your field, whether that’s the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics. How you prove that extraordinary ability is pretty much open to interpretation, Khandelwal said. It might be that you were accepted into an exclusive incubator, or won a hackathon or some other award. The standards are high but the ability to spin your circumstances counts for a lot.

These are the visas most likely to be useful for entrepreneurs, Khandelwal said. The problem is, for many companies who are trying to figure out all the domestic issues of starting a business—from investment to intellectual property laws to HR regulations, tackling immigration issues in order to bring on even an exceptional founder or employee can look overwhelming.

Peter French, founder of San Antonio’s FreeFlow Research which creates opportunities for foreign STEM students to stay in the U.S. through education, work and research, acknowledged that the challenge to find and secure the right visas could be daunting, especially to small businesses who hire 95 percent of employees.

“It is really that issue that pushed me to look at this field in the first place,” said French, whose nonprofit organization operates out of Geekdom. “We have these huge gaps in talent. The number of U.S. born students with STEM degrees is tiny, and shrinking. So, in some fields you have 80 percent of the graduate level degrees in computer science and other really high demand fields go to non-U.S. citizens and…they’re being turned away. What you heard tonight is the general story that’s told: That hiring foreign born folks is just too much trouble…. Only large companies endeavor to hire international folks and this starts at the internship level. If you read the fine print on internship application you see “Must be U.S. citizen to apply.”

Small businesses need to understand, French said, that with F-1 programs, OPT and CPT, students can string together as much as 42 months of time working in the U.S. before an employer has to sponsor a visa for them.

“Foreign born folks are twice as likely as native born Americans citizens to start companies. But then they have all these impediments to staying,” French said. “So they’ve won startup contests and they’ve received venture capital but they’ve done it all on their student visa, so then what? They hit this wall and they have to pack up their employees, profits and intellectual property and go home? It’s the antithesis of the American dream.”

SparkFun’s National Tour Teaches Kids the Basics of Programming

Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Cover PhotoOn Geekdom’s projector screen, a buffalo and crab were prepared to move around a purple race track. SparkFun’s Jeff Branson gave the students the final programming directions for moving their animated characters.
“We have to be able to rotate to drive the buffalo, or in your case the flying pancake or whatever you’ve created,” Branson said. “I have to use my slider to drive my buffalo.”
This wasn’t Branson’s first digital rodeo. The SparkFun National Tour has already visited 70 cities on the way to San Antonio while teaching kids about programming, soldering, and building circuits. The SparkFun tour is an educational outreach mission of the larger SparkFun Electronics Company — based in Boulder, Colo. — which makes components for a wide range of prototype electronic devices as well as components for students, teachers, and inventors.
Photo 1 (1)The San Antonio stop, which taught programming, was organized and funded by San Antonio nonprofit SASTEMIC – an educational organization working to organize and grow the local Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, known as STEM, community. SASTEMIC signed up for the event a year ago when they contributed $1,500 to the SparkFun Kickstarter campaign. Geekdom hosted the event.
Thirty-five students, ages 8-14, attended the event. While using Scratch, a drag-and-drop programming software, the students learned to program if-then statements and manipulate variables so that their animated character, called a sprite, could maneuver around a race track while avoiding another sprite. By the end of the day the students would have a simple game, which even included programming sprite collisions and creating a scoring system.
“When the crab runs into the buffalo, what do we want to happen?,” SparkFun Curriculum Curator Derek Runberg asked. “How about we lose one coin? What do we do when we want to subtract coins?”
Photo 2To control their game, the students used a PicoBoard– a SparkFun-created multifunctional circuit board that has buttons, sliders, and sensors and can be programmed to work with Scratch. The kids had to program their software to work with their hardware. In this case, they used the slider to steer their sprite and a button as an accelerator. Once their character moved, they collected coins around their racetrack.
While the kids might not have noticed, the exercise required substantial problem solving as well as some intermediate math.
“It’s a very concrete way of teaching variables to kids at this age. In their standard math class, they just see a variable as a letter. In this they get to see that value change over time depending on what they are doing on the board,” Runberg said. “It makes a really good mental connection between something abstract and reality.”
Programming a racing buffalo or pancake might be more fun than work, but it’s the first part of a much bigger picture for SparkFun. The ultimate goal, according to Education Outreach Coordinator Jeff Branson, is to speed up the educational process for the next generation of programming talent.
Photo 3“We feel like it’s the key to the future of innovation in this country,” Branson said. “It takes about 15 years to produce a significantly advanced engineer or computer programmer who is able to work at the levels of technology that are common in our society. If we start kids really young in these drag-and drop programming environments, by the time they get to the [Coding] languages, the vocabulary and the techniques are something they’ve already got. So it makes it that much easier, they learn that much faster, and we can push them into advanced territory that much sooner. ”
Parents such as Jay Tkachuk agree. While Tkachuk is Vice President of Online Services for Security Service Federal Credit Union, he has never been code-savvy and wants his kids to have that ability.
“To put it mildly, people who know how to code have special powers. I want our kids to not only be savvy how to use technology but to understand it on a fundamental level,” Tkachuk said. “We are trying to move away from the paradigm of just being users. I want them to be able to create or, if necessary, fix things.”
Both of Tkachuk’s 8-year-old kids, Kai and Michael, participated in the event.
“We were doing Scratch the cat, and we were making racetracks so they could race each other and see who would win,” Kai said. “I put the cat on the buffalo and I drew a Mario horse.”
The SparkFun National Tour will continue on to Houston Sunday and then will end in Victoria on Monday.
SASTEMIC plans to continue creating STEM programs, starting with a high school outreach program in January led by STEM Director Mark Burnett. The nonprofit organization purchased Geekdom’s Geekbus last summer, and will begin a high school pilot program next year using the resources of the SA Maker Space.
SASTEMIC founder and Chairman Scott Gray, who is also the President of Elevate Systems, says the programs are important to the San Antonio economy.
“The goal is to get the K through 12 kids excited about all of the STEM pathways so that they can progress and go to college and get degrees so we can hire them here in San Antonio,” Gray said.

Geekdom is a sponsor of Silicon Hills News

National Instruments Helps Train Teachers in the STEM Fields

Founder of Silicon Hills News

Earthquake simulator that runs on National Instruments' LabView software.

An earthquake simulator that runs on National Instruments’ LabView software.

Simulating an earthquake on a wooden building model equipped with sensors or studying energy flow on a miniature power plant and power grid.
Those are a few of the hands-on activities for high school kids to learn about physics thanks to a program created by National Instruments.
The Austin-based company has created a curriculum for Texas physics teachers to give their students hands-on experience with different subjects and concepts and to teach them how to apply mathematical models to real-world data.
The programs, powered by National Instrument’s LabVIEW software, provide real-life experiments that bring textbooks to life.
And on Wednesday and Thursday, 29 high school science teachers learned about new ways to teach physics at National Instruments’ corporate headquarters.
They are part of the Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching’s first program at National Instruments to expose the teachers to real-world applications of physics and engineering and show them how to teach that in a compelling way to students in a classroom. More than 60 teachers applied for the program, said Carol Fletcher, associate director of TRC. She chose teachers from many disadvantaged school districts and those who would have the best ability to train others, she said.
All of the technology and entertainment kids get exposed to today tends to dilute their curiosity, said Antonio Gomez Pedroso, physics teacher at Longview High School in East, Texas, who was attending the training.
“You have to do big stuff to get their attention,” Pedroso said.
Ray Hsu, Senior Program Manager, K-12 Education at National Instruments

Ray Hsu, Senior Program Manager, K-12 Education
at National Instruments

Ray Hsu, senior program manager with National Instruments, understands that challenge. He has been designing K-12 education programs for students for the last three years. National Instruments needs engineers and they know about the shortage of workers in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, known as STEM, fields in the United States.
“We can be viewed as a customer of the education system,” Hsu said. “We’re trying to reach out and be an industry involved in bringing real world experiences to the classroom.”
National Instruments, which has been involved in the First Robotics program since 2006, is committed to making a substantial impact on the STEM education of kids, Hsu said.
The idea comes from the principle of shared value “which involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges,” according to the Harvard Business Review. “Businesses must reconnect company success with social progress. Shared value is not social responsibility, philanthropy, or even sustainability, but a new way to achieve economic success. It is not on the margin of what companies do but at the center.”
National Instruments has taken that philosophy to heart, Hsu said.
In 1998, NI engineers created a version of its LabVIEW software for Lego Mindstorms designed for use with the Lego Education robotics platform. And all of the robotic controllers and robots used for the First Robotics competition run on the LabVIEW software platform.
LabVIEW is a system design software used by engineers and scientists to design and control applications. Elon Musk’s SpaceX uses LabVIEW “systems to control launchpad equipment and to command and monitor the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 launch vehicles and its Dragon spacecraft,” according to National Instruments. Those are the kinds of cool applications that spark student’s interest, Hsu said.
“Engineering is not as well understood in the K-12 space,” Hsu said. “We want to change that. We want to take it to another level. We want to change the classroom.”
National Instruments created a data acquisition tool called myDAQ, which sells for $175, and connects via a USB port to a computer. It partnered with Pitsco Education to create an earthquake table. With the myDAQ device and the earthquake table students can study the effects of earthquakes. National Instruments also created a curriculum as a guide for teachers and students “Understanding Structures & Earthquakes.” The booklet is the first of 12 specialized physics curriculum National Instruments is creating. The other two that are currently available include “Discover Heat Transfer” and “Explore Power and Energy.”
“Teaching is an art,” Hsu said. “If they can get students to start asking questions then they’ve got them.”
National Instruments is also working with Carnegie Mellon University to create a pathway for students to get certified in LabVIEW with a badging system to mark each of their milestones. It’s all about making real life engineering work relevant and engaging to students, Hsu said.
During this week’s two-day training session at National Instruments, teachers learned how to teach lessons on the properties of waves and sound including frequency, wavelengths, the Doppler effect, resonance and more.
Manos Chaniotakis, with Ergopedia and one of the authors of a new physics textbook.

Manos Chaniotakis, with Ergopedia and one of the authors of a new physics textbook.

Tom Hsu and Manos Chaniotakis, with Ergopedia and authors of a new physics textbook, led the instruction.
“Our focus is to make sure we get reality into the curriculum,” Chaniotakis said.
Texas is going through adoption of a new physics textbook for the first time in 11 years. The latest book emphasis hands-on learning, said Chaniotakis. It has an e-book component, which can be accessed by computer, tablet or smartphone. It features videos, illustrations and more features that extend the paper textbook and provide the student with more opportunities for learning.
“Hands on is the key,” Chaniotakis said. “You learn better by doing something.”
Unfortunately, Texas lawmakers just passed H.B. 5, which makes physics and optional class for high school students, Hsu said.
IMG_0341Joni Milanovich, a physics teacher with Roosevelt High School in San Antonio, liked the training at National Instruments and the new textbook and the interactive approach to teaching.
“It’s vey hands on,” she said.
If she gives her students a paper assignment, they won’t do it often, she said. But if it’s on the computer, they are more engaged, she said.
“They are used to using electronics and equipment to do their homework and labs,” she said.

National Instruments’ technology focused on the K-12 market will be on display next week at the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference, June 17-19 at the Austin Convention Center.

Geekdom Seeks to Educate and Inspire Kids

Louis Pacilli, director of education at Geekdom

At Geekdom, the focus isn’t just to create the next big tech company, but to inspire future generations to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Already, the San Antonio-based coworking and collaborative center, located on the 11th floor of the Weston Centre downtown, has hosted robotics programs for kids.
That’s just the start.
On Sept. 29th, the first Geekdom SparkEd program kicks off, said Louis Pacilli, the center’s director of education. The program will run from September through June, and during the school year, Pacilli expects to serve approximately 1,500 middle school boys and girls in a total of 30 weekend camps. Each camp will have between 40 to 50 kids from numerous school districts around San Antonio, Pacilli said.
Pacilli works with San Antonio middle schools to select the kids for a weekend program focused on a entrepreneurship, website design, programming or robotics. The kids get to vote on which curriculum they want to pursue, Pacilli said.
“We want to teach kids about storytelling through entrepreneurship,” he said.
For the entrepreneurship program, the weekend activities focus on business concepts such as pitching, marketing, research and writing a business plan, Pacilli said. The programs follow the guidelines of the Texas Education Standards, he said.
Pacilli has sent information to select middle schools and he plans to work with teachers and counselors to select the first kids to participate in the program, which will be free, he said. He’s looking for kids who need inspiration.
The program will rely heavily on local mentors from companies like Boeing, Rackspace, USAA, Lockheed and others, Pacilli said. It will also use local high school and college students, he said.
“We have to get the kids that are disconnected to school and re-excite them,” Pacilli said. “We want to teach them that geek is chic.”

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