Immigrant-led tech startups find a home in Cleveland

A growing number of younger immigrants are turning to the same place that has attracted the attention of young native-born entrepreneurs: the tech industry.


Marina Jackman, founder of Time2Talk

Marina Jackman, founder of Time2Talk

For many Americans, owning a business is part of the path to achieving the American Dream. This week organizers from across Ohio, including Cleveland, are presenting a series of live and virtual activities to mark Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW). The annual event, which is celebrated in some 180 countries, is dedicated to helping budding startups to get off the ground.

GEW brings together would-be business owners with investors, educators, and students to showcase their products, foster job creation, and create workforce opportunities.

In the Cleveland area, as in many regions across the country, immigrants make up an important part of that entrepreneurial group. A recent study by the bipartisan research and advocacy group New American Economy showed that around 120,000 immigrants — or about 6 percent of the region’s population — are immigrants, with more than 5,000 being entrepreneurs. Immigrant residents to the United States are 38 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs when compared to native-born citizens. 

While many of these recent arrivals start businesses that have offered entrepreneurial opportunities to immigrants in the past, like restaurants and other small retail establishments, a growing number of younger immigrants are turning to the same place that has attracted the attention of young native-born entrepreneurs — the tech industry.

The idea that more and more immigrant entrepreneurs are gravitating toward tech startups isn’t a surprise to Joe Cimperman, the president of Global Cleveland, a nonprofit organization, funded by a combination of private and public money, which seeks to connect recent arrivals to educational, social, and economic opportunities.


Joe Cimperman, president of Global Cleveland

Joe Cimperman, president of Global Cleveland

“There’s a saying in Israel among the tech community, a country that is one of the most supportive of immigrant entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs, that ‘we have learned to fail faster.’ We see that all of the time with immigrant tech entrepreneurs in Cleveland, because they are willing to risk it all and have a hundred doors slammed in their face, for the one that isn’t,” Cimperman said.

Cimperman said that over the last decade, three thousand immigrants have come to Cleveland each year, with many willing take the risk of starting a business, including in tech that others aren’t willing to do. “We always want to be a more welcoming city, region and state, but it isn’t just about feeling good, there are real money reasons to do that, this is jobs and dollars and cents, especially to these folks in technology.”

The Land spoke to two immigrant entrepreneurs who have recent startups based in Cleveland.

Learning Spanish on-demand

A native of Argentina, Marina Jackman was living in Spain in 2015 where she was completing an internship for her Master’s degree in international politics journalism. She met and married her future husband Chris in Barcelona, and eventually the couple moved to France. Prior to making the move, they took a rigorous five-week immersion course to learn to speak French.

In 2017, Chris, a US citizen, received a job offer in Cleveland, so the two made their way to Northeast Ohio. The couple wanted to continue master French, but found it just wasn’t working.

“Anyone who has studied a language knows if you don’t use it, you lose it. We tried to keep it up but we couldn’t. We couldn’t find a convenient way. There are ways but they aren’t modern, or adapted to current times,” Jackman said.

Jackman saw during her time in France, as well as helping her husband improve his Spanish, that the best way to learn a language is speak it as often as possible with people who are fluent in it, but those opportunities aren’t readily available to most people.

Jackman realized that the most convenient way to pair students with people who speak a foreign language was to create an app that would bring them together.


Time2Talk

Time2Talk

Jackman and her husband began working on the app in 2018, with Jackman devoting herself to the project full-time last year. Jackman launched the app which she named Time2Talk this past July.

Time2Talk connects people who want to learn to speak Spanish with “coaches” who are fluent in the language from around the world, but instead of arranging scheduled lessons at designated times, Jackman went with a different approach. Students can pick their own coaches and contact them at their convenience.

Jackman said the initial response to Time2Talk has been very good.

“People who are in the language learning process have found it so useful because it is on-demand. You can speak as long as you want. You don’t have to pre-schedule time and you only pay for the time spoken. It’s a kind of “Uber model” that we have used in other areas,” Jackman said.

When Jackman began sharing her idea about Time2Talk with various people around the city, she quickly discovered something. “People in Cleveland are hungry for innovation,” she said.

Jackman found that Cleveland proved to be the right sized placed to launch her tech startup. “I think in Cleveland, if you have something that makes sense and is meant to create jobs, and prosperity, and add value, people are going to be listening and help you.”

She turned to friends and family for her first round of investors and is now looking for other funding sources. Jumpstart, a Northeast Ohio nonprofit which provides support to budding entrepreneurs, has proved helpful. (Jumpstart is also an underwriter of The Land and provided support for this story.) In March, right before the COVID-19 shutdown, Jackman saw an event on Facebook called Cafecito and Latina Entrepreneurs Club that was sponsored by Jumpstart and several other organizations that piqued her interest.

“I thought ‘wow, that’s me.  I like coffee and I’m a Latina entrepreneur.’ I wasn’t aware there was a Latino community in Cleveland. I met the people from JumpStart and it opened a door that I would have never known how to open. Since this was a Latino event, there were a lot of people there from Latin America or who spoke Spanish so they got what I wanted to do with the app right away.”

Jackman feels the welcoming of immigrants into the Cleveland community can only benefit the region. “I have met a lot of people who have either never left the United States or their whole family lives in the same city, but they are interested in learning how the lives of people who aren’t like they are is like. The fresh perspectives we bring make them aware that there are a lot of worlds going on at the same time.” 

Jackman finds the narrative that immigrants come to the US to take jobs away from native-born citizens frustrating, but that the notion isn’t particular to the United States.

“I’ve heard that everywhere I have lived,” she said. “Immigrants usually come to create a better life for themselves, so that leads to them creating businesses and jobs.

Putting Patients First

Charu Ramanathan is on her second round of creating an innovative tech startup.

A native of India, Ramanathan came to Cleveland to earn her doctorate in biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University. In her thesis, she proposed a way to turn non-invasive technology into a way to monitor heart activity.


Charu Ramanathan, founder of CardioInsight and Vitalxchange

Charu Ramanathan, founder of CardioInsight and Vitalxchange

However, Ramanathan took her idea off the page and put it into practice. With her partner Ping Jia, they developed a vest that allows a view of the heart’s entire electrical activity in a single beat. This non-invasive approach provided electrophysiologists faster and more precise results, enabling them to better guide treatment.

With the support of a mix of private and public money, which included the Pittsburgh-based venture capital firm Draper Triangle, Case Western Reserve University, JumpStart, and the Ohio Third Frontier program, the two launched the company CardioInsight in 2005.

In 2015, Ramanathan and Jia sold CardioInsight to the medical tech giant Medtronic for 90 million dollars.  As part of the deal, Medtronic agreed to locate a team to work on the device in Independence.

During their time developing CardioInsight, Ramanathan said she and her partner began to realize something about the healthcare system in the United States.

“We found that healthcare was not patient-centric, but instead system-centric. There seemed to be a lack of transparency between the large institutions, the provider network, and those who are paying for healthcare that really affected the quality of care. Health seems to have become something that we had given control over to someone else,” Ramanathan said


Vitalxchange

Vitalxchange

Ramanathan wanted to find a way to put patients first, so she created a community and marketplace platform for health called Vitalxchange.  The app and web portal which will launch in January will be centered on what Ramanathan calls the two most important people in the healthcare system — the patient and the doctor.

“Based on our experiences we came up with a method of exchanging a very critical a piece of information that enables the average person to take that next important step in the health journey. The person can gain the information they need by connecting with a peer who had a similar healthcare experience or from the expertise of a health expert.”

Ramanathan said at this time the app is free to all members of Vitalxchange. The company’s monetization strategy will come by providing a platform for businesses to reach health care consumers. Businesses can build private communities on the platform to engage with existing customers, as well as try to reach new ones, all through remote service delivery. Vitalxchange will charge those businesses a fee for use of the platform.

Ramanathan explained that Vitalxchange is focusing its attention on autism and developmental disabilities, because those families and individuals who are in need of service often find themselves dealing with six or seven types of providers ranging from occupational therapists to pediatricians , who aren’t always under one roof.

“We found this was an area filled with so much up confusion with such a need for information that this would be a good place for us to start.”

Ramanathan explored several different locations including Silicon Valley, Washington D.C., and India as a home for Vitalxchange, but decided to keep the company in Cleveland for several reasons.

“The final decision came down to brass tacks, which was the cost of living,” Ramanathan said. “Literally for every dollar we would have to spend we would have to spend 33 times more on the West Coast, and 18 times more in Boston and other areas. We thought we could stretch the dollar to create an environment that would help us build a cutting edge company here.”

One of the difficulties Vitalxchange has encountered is a talent gap for the kind of employees it needs. Ramathan has had a hard time attracting workers to Cleveland. Ramanathan said some of that might be COVID-19 related, but whatever the reason, finding the right people has been a real challenge.

Like Jackman, Ramanathan is frustrated by the narrative the immigrants just come to the United States to take jobs from native-born citizens.

“I take a lot of pride in being an entrepreneur, having created multiple jobs, economic development, and life-saving devices. I moved here because it is the land of opportunity, that’s the value proposition of coming to the US and I’ve earned every moment that I’ve lived in this country that I call my own.”

Ramanathan is concerned that an unwelcoming attitude toward immigrants could hurt the United States in years to come.

“I’ve noticed many people in the younger generation returning to their home countries to seek out opportunities. Educational and economic systems are improving, as are GDPs.  For the United States to remain competitive, they need to have an inclusive global policy, or else the talent will go elsewhere.”

This story is supported by Jumpstart Inc., a nonprofit entrepreneurial services organization.

Dan Polletta is veteran Northeast Ohio broadcaster and writer. He has written extensively about arts and culture, with a special interest in jazz.

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