Where Immigrants Find A Melting Pot Of Gold

Foreign-born entrepreneurs run high-tech legends and spawn hundreds of startups

Entrepreneurial instincts finally got the better of Yuji Ide. After 15 years as a scientist with Toshiba Corp., his team could point to 100 patents, including one for the world's first digital still camera. But Toshiba was slow in bringing his innovations to market. "I was frustrated," says Ide, flipping through photos of his prototypes that died in the lab.

So in 1995 Ide took a radical step, for a Japanese: He moved to Silicon Valley and founded his own company. With $11.6 million in venture capital--much of it from Toshiba--Ide's Cupertino (Calif.)-based Pixera Corp. has just launched its first product: a high-definition camera that connects to a PC. "I want this to be a very big electronics company," he says.

"COLOR-BLIND." Immigrants have earned their big dreams in Silicon Valley. More than 100,000 technically savvy Indians, Chinese, Israelis, and Europeans keep the area at the forefront of global technology. Indeed, according to some estimates, one-third of its engineers are foreign-born.

No other high-tech hub can match this vibrant, multinational talent pool. Where once there was a glass ceiling for foreign nationals, they now rise to the highest posts--from Hungarian-born Andrew S. Grove, CEO of Intel, to Algerian-born Eric Benhamou, head of 3Com Corp. "This place has become completely color-blind," says S. Atiq Raza, Pakistan-born founder of microprocessor design shop NexGen, which he sold to Advanced Micro Devices Inc. for $620 million in 1996. "Everything here is driven by the need to succeed."

Such diversity gives Valley companies a global marketing edge, paying huge dividends. Applied Materials Inc., a $4 billion chip equipment maker, has a veritable United Nations of top execs, representing Taiwan, Israel, Argentina, and India. Foreign managers of overseas units helped raise Applied's global market share from 6% in 1988 to 22% today, says Chief Executive James C. Morgan.

Foreign-born entrepreneurs are now spawning hundreds of startups, too, inspired by such successes as Solectron, S3, and Cadence--all co-founded by non-U.S.-born entrepreneurs. These pioneers have even developed their own venture following. Companies founded by Asian Americans have drawn most of the $72 million that Alpine Technology Ventures has invested in the Valley. In June, Sequoia Capital started a similar fund with money from immigrants such as Benhamou and Alexandre Balkanski, founder of C-Cube Microsystems, which makes graphics-compression chips. Says Sequoia partner Michael Moritz, a Welshman: "We're determined to be the beacon for immigrants in the Valley."

The payoff of this investment surge is enormous. Hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign venture capital is now pouring into the Valley annually, showering myriad niches. Asians and Israelis, for example, shine in chip design, producing such companies as Cirrus Logic, NexGen, Trident, and ESS. All told, there are 1,500 Asian American-owned tech companies in the Valley, according to a study by investment bankers Hambrecht & Quist and University of California at Berkeley's Annalee Saxenian, author of Regional Advantage. The top 30 claim a market value of $25 billion. So long as the boldest dreams continue to be realized and rewarded, the migration is bound to continue.