Chilecon Valley: Entrepreneurs very welcome

BY News Desk  October 18, 2013 at 2:15 PM EST

While United States immigration policy makes it difficult for immigrant entrepreneurs to get visas to set up shop in the United States, Chile is welcoming them with open arms. Through an initiative called Start-Up Chile, the country is aiming to be the high-tech hub of South America. Meet three people germinated their ideas there.

The Rise of Robo Roach

Back in 2008, NewsHour’s Ray Suarez met Tim Marzullo and his inventing partner Greg Gage in Ann Arbor where they were graduate students. Together they had formed Backyard Brains to build inexpensive equipment for students to measure electrical activity in nerve cells. Marzullo explains:

We had to spend seven years in graduate school to investigate the electricity that neurons and muscles generate. And the equipment took up whole rooms, but we liked education, we liked outreach, so we set about inventing equipment and experiments that allow students as young as 12 or 13 to kind of experience what we weren’t able to experience until we were at large institute universities.

Tim Marzullo in a Chilean classroom

Now in 2013, Marzullo is a participant in Start-Up Chile where he’s continued to refine the bio-amplifiers they designed back in Michigan. One of their innovations goes by the name Robo Roach. It’s a backpack they put on a cockroach that sends electrical impulses into their antenna and allows students to make the roach turn left or right.

The teaching aspect of Start-Up Chile is especially attractive the Marzullo:

It’s actually a lot of fun to go to a school and show students the technology. It’s funny because I’m not very good at Spanish and the kids always correct me. Kids in the U.S. think it’s cool but kids in Chile think it’s even cooler. In Chile it’s mostly book learning. So this is very novel.

IKEA meets iTunes

James McBennet is an Irish furniture maker who can’t move to the hotbed of furniture design in Brooklyn because of visa issues. His project Fabsie creates furniture using a program to control woodworking tools to cut a piece of furniture to exact specifications so it can fit in, say, a small New York City apartment.

McBennet says the genesis comes from a love of computer and big machines:

When I was a teenager, I fell in love with computers and crappy html websites like any geeky kid. When I got to college, I fell in love with taking computers to control big machines… In London during college I saw how you could literally build a small house with these new printers….What I want it to be is about downloadable files to make furniture. And it’s, in a way, a combination between iTunes and IKEA.

James McBennet using Fabsie

McBennet appreciates the special mentoring provided by Start-Up Chile – the previous beneficiaries who’ve gone on to success. “I think when you seek mentors you’re looking for someone that’s in your shoes but maybe one or two years ahead of you. I mean, the best mentors are not 40 years older… They are fresh and just slightly ahead of you.”

There’s no place like home

Daniel Ibarra is from Santiago. The idea for his tech start-up Go Place It came from recognizing a need familiar to many city-dwellers: What is the fastest way to find an apartment in the exact neighborhood you want? Go Place it allows users to draw a map of the exact perimeters of their desired neighborhood – even down to the street and add in criteria for the dwelling. According to Ibarra, the site has over a million properties in the database and when they open up – users will be notified of matches.

Go Place It

Ibarra reflects on the influence of ventures like Start-Up Chile: This is “a country that is developing real fast …Because people in Chile [are] learning about technology. We’re getting better programmers. We’re teaching people about how venture capital works. We’re teaching investors. We’re teaching entrepreneurs.”