Noubar Afeyan

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On Monday, Moderna, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, announced that its mRNA-1273 vaccine, developed in partnership with the US government, appeared to be 94.5% effective against the novel coronavirus. 

It was a major breakthrough in modern science. And it was made possible in part because of an immigrant from the Middle East named Noubar Afeyan. 

The 58-year-old is the cofounder and chairman of Moderna, and founder and CEO of the venture-capital firm backing the company, Flagship Pioneering. Born in Beirut to Armenian parents, he moved to Canada to study at McGill University in Montreal. 

“As a teenager I dreamed of living in the US. Like many immigrants drawn here, the US was not just a country, but an animating idea where people from different places, different religions, different races, could come together as one,” he told Business Insider. 

He then earned his PhD in biochemical engineering at MIT on a student visa and stayed in the US to work thanks to an H-1B visa (a visa for high-skilled foreigners). In 2008, he became a US citizen. 

The biotech leader credits his success to his “immigrant mindset.” (Moderna’s CEO, Stéphane Bancel, is also an immigrant, born in France.)

“Innovation is really a form of intellectual immigration,” Afeyan said. “Leaving the comforts of what you know, exposing yourself to criticism, going to something that others don’t believe to be possible and to keep at it until you make it a reality.” 

Moderna’s scientific breakthroughs serve as a reminder of the importance of immigration to the American economy. In recent years, President Donald Trump has cracked down on foreign visas, the very same visas that brought Afeyan to the US. This is a move that could stifle innovation because behind many of America’s scientific breakthroughs, including potential coronavirus vaccines, are immigrants.  

Immigration has long had a sizable impact on US innovation

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The impact of immigrants on US innovation can’t be overstated, said Giovanni Peri, professor and chair of the department of economics at the University of California, Davis. 

“There is nothing to be surprised about because immigrants and foreign-born scientists and engineers have been driving American innovation and technology for at least the last 30 years,” he told Business Insider.  

Top health and science companies like Moderna and Pfizer frequently bring highly skilled immigrants to the US on H-1B visas. 

For example, Moderna received or renewed 27 high-skilled immigrant visa applications in 2019, according to analysis of data from the US Office of Foreign Labor Certification. In 2019, that that number was 100 for Pfizer. 

Entrepreneurship, too, has greatly prospered because of immigrants. Immigrants are twice as likely as US natives to patent, Jennifer Hunt, professor and chair of Rutgers University’s department of economics told Business Insider. Immigration increases US productivity and gross domestic product, she said. 

Between 1980 and 2000, nearly 40% of all PhD scientists and engineers employed in the US were foreign born. From 1990 to 2004, over one-third of US scientists who had received Nobel Prizes were immigrants. 

One 2007 study estimated that one in …read more

Source:: Business Insider


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