Post Written By José Morey José Morey, M.D., is considered the first Intergalactic Doctor, and is a leader in exponential technology innovation. @DrMorey1
September 20, 2017, is a day that will be forever remembered in Puerto Rican history. It's the day Hurricane Maria made landfall along the eastern coast of the island of Borinquen. The onslaught that followed devastated the island. A million people were left without running water for months, millions more were left without electricity — some for over a year — and the death toll numbering in the thousands will never be truly known.
This led to an economic fallout that caused hundreds of thousands to leave the island and worsened the economic reality of thousands more who stayed. According to a report from USA Today, some estimates had the total economic impact of the hurricane at over $100 billion. The report also claimed that over 40% of working Americans on the island of over 3 million inhabitants lost their jobs and have been unable to recover. Political turmoil both on the island and at the federal level have further worsened these losses.
However, with great hardship comes great opportunity. I believe Puerto Rico has the potential to unleash an economic and educational renaissance throughout the island unlike any time in its history if it focuses on the future — and that future is STEM.
Jobs related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are leading world economies and will continue to lead all economies into the future. It has been an emphasis on STEM that has allowed China to become an economic powerhouse at the world stage. Over 60% of the value in the top five of TechCrunch's Unicorn Leaderboard (via Forbes) comes from Chinese startups.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the growth of STEM jobs in the United States alone between 2012 and 2022 is estimated to rise by 13%, However, according to research published by the Smithsonian Science Education Center, there were an estimated 2.4 million unfilled jobs in the sector in 2018.
I believe there is not only a need but an opportunity for Puerto Rico to transform itself into the future powerhouse of STEM jobs by focusing on education at all levels and harnessing the budding tech industry developing on the island.
In my opinion, it can be and should be done. In fact, a country not too much larger by population or dimension has already done it. Israel is only about twice as large both in land area and population in comparison to Puerto Rico, yet when it comes to STEM-related talent and proficiency, it competes with the European Union, the United States and China. According to research published by Hacker Noon (via Forbes), Israel has almost 1,000 startups in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) alone, and in the last five years, the exits for these companies have averaged $121 million. A study conducted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that Israel's focus on STEM education from early childhood through adulthood may have contributed to the rise in startups.
I believe Puerto Rico can do the same and that it already has the beginnings of infrastructure support through technology startups and STEM nonprofits.
CiencaPR is a nonprofit that was established in 2010 with an emphasis on promoting STEM throughout the island and creating future scientists. Parallel18 (P18) is a global accelerator for STEM startups that is already on its sixth generation of startups and recently announced a partnership with Google Launchpad to further augment its startup's global reach. The Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust leads many efforts across the island to stimulate the economy via STEM-related projects and has already invested upwards of $50 million. It's helped support CiencaPR and P18 as well.
Many co-working spaces are popping up across the island such as Piloto 151, which provides corporate services at a reduced cost for multiple STEM startups at the same time. These types of efficiency and groups are integral in supporting startups as they gain traction in the marketplace.
The space industry and NASA has had a foothold in the Puerto Rican STEM community since the inception of the Arecibo Observatory. This indelible piece of science has continued to push the boundaries of our understanding of the cosmos — from the detection of the rotation of Mercury in 1967, to the discovery of the first exoplanet in 1992, to the discovery of the first repeating fast radio burst in 2016. NASA is continuing to push STEM on the island through partnerships with the Space Foundation in developing workshops for space entrepreneurship.
FourthBrain—the brainchild of Andrew Ng, previously at Google DeepMind—is pushing the boundaries in AI as far as NASA is in space. It is looking to transform the island into a powerhouse for AI engineering education, and if anyone can do it, this group will.
From a legal perspective, the island is also ripe for disruption in STEM startups thanks to Law 101, and Act 20 and 22. Law 101 fosters research and development activity conducted at local universities in Puerto Rico, allowing qualified principal investigators or a co-principal investigator to seek tax exemptions for salaries earned from eligible R&D grants. Act 22 provides incentives to businesses to move to the island with exemptions on R&D and operational costs and Act 20 provides incentives for individuals.
The destruction that Maria brought and the political aftermath have left the Island of Enchantment picking up debris even to this day. But from the ashes of that calamity, there is an opportunity to reinvent itself for the future of its citizens if it leverages developing projects and focuses on future economies through STEM education and entrepreneurship. And from the ashes, a new island will emerge. An island of promise. An island of hope. An island of the future.