Tech, science jobs are starting to happen here
By David G. Watumull
Back in 1996, presidential hopeful Ross Perot perceived the loss of U.S. jobs to Mexico as a "giant sucking sound" that could be heard across the land. In the Aloha State, we've experienced our own version of this "sucking sound" over the decades as thousands of talented Hawai'i residents left our shores for better economic opportunities elsewhere.
Many of these departees were Hawai'i students who received their education at Mainland universities and simply stayed put. Others were Hawai'i professionals who sought opportunities not available here. Whatever their origin, these individuals were often the cream of our educational crop, many with advanced degrees whose skills were highly sought after. Unfortunately, more often than not, they were not sought after in Hawai'i.
The resulting brain drain has sapped our community of many of its most creative and productive citizens. Until recently, the reality was that few of these expats ever harbored hope that they might actually come home and find meaningful work.
The good news is that this scenario is improving. Hawai'i is actually beginning to offer new, well-paying jobs in information technology and life sciences. Through funding supported by high-tech tax credits, commonly known as Act 215/221, local tech and life-sciences companies have raised $184.5 million in investments since 2001, according to state Tax Director Kurt Kawafuchi. Much of this money came from Mainland investors. These incentives have helped provide the capital to grow promising new companies.
Yes, recently controversy has swirled in some quarters about the ability of these tax breaks to promote the growth of technology. However, as a longtime CEO of Hawai'i biotech companies, I believe that thanks to these progressive laws, our firm and others are building the foundation for meaningful new industry in Hawai'i. In addition, I can unequivocally say that we have been able to hire Hawai'i expats who otherwise may never have come back to our shores.
A typical returning kama'aina is Teresa Wong, a product of Sacred Hearts Academy in Kaimuki and now vice president of operations at Cardax Pharmaceuticals. She left to pursue higher education at the University of San Francisco and went on to complete her graduate degree at the University of California-San Francisco. She spent seven years doing patient care and conducting clinical research at the prestigious UCLA Medical Center. When Cardax Pharmaceuticals recruited her, she was pleasantly surprised. Said Wong, "I didn't realize there was an emerging high-tech/life sciences industry in Hawai'i, and the option of moving back to Hawai'i had never crossed my mind in the 20 years I lived in California." Now, she says, she's got the best of all worlds — the opportunity to work for a fast- growing biotech and to enjoy the 'ohana spirit of the Islands.
When Pearl City High graduate Dan Inoshita moved back to Hawai'i in July, the last thing on this electrical engineer's mind was finding work in life sciences. A Silicon Valley veteran who traveled the globe as a troubleshooter for semiconductor maker KLA-Tencor and Sony, he came home to care for his ailing father. Inoshita was startled by the growth of technology in his nearly 20-year absence. He was quickly recruited by Oceanit, a Honolulu IT and engineering company that develops life sciences and aerospace products, as a program manager. Now he's here for the "long haul." "After you've experienced the Silicon Valley," said Inoshita, "which means often working 8 a.m. to midnight, you realize it's not conducive to your health. In Hawai'i, I can still work hard, be creative and be close to my family."
Hawai'i's burgeoning technology startups need more than technical specialists to fuel their success. Ryan Yanagihara, also a graduate of Pearl City High School, is a recent hire by 'Aiea-based Hawai'i Biotech, which develops vaccines for influenza, West Nile virus and dengue fever. However, Ryan is not a scientist. He's a financial expert who signed on as the company's new controller. A University of Hawai'i graduate with an accounting degree, he left a Honolulu Big Five accounting firm in February 2000 for greener pastures in San Francisco. After stints at Catalyst Semiconductor and Sunnyvale software startup Mirapoint, he jumped at the opportunity to return to Hawai'i after getting an offer from Hawai'i Biotech. "Never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that there would ever be an opportunity compelling enough for me to come back," he said.
Luring back Hawai'i people has always been a challenge. Despite the desire to be close to relatives and friends, the scarcity of well-paying, intellectually challenging jobs in our state has always been a problem.
The good news is that our company, Cardax Pharmaceuticals, and others, such as Hawai'i Biotech and Oceanit, are snapping up scientific, financial and marketing talent faster than ever before. Not only do we want to bring back kama'aina, but we want to keep talented high school and college grads from leaving in the first place. The only way we are going to continue to do that is to create good-paying, gratifying jobs.
Will creating a new life sciences and high-tech industry be easy?
Of course not. We're competing with the Mainland as well as destinations such as Singapore and China. However, the fact that we're now building a nascent industry is undeniable. What's more, we're bringing our best and brightest back home to stay.