Immigrants and innovation: a couple of interesting revelations

You may be surprised to learn who first developed some of our key wireless technology. Plus, a new study finds almost half of the top 50 US startups had at least one immigrant founder.

Much of the technology underpinning our wireless technology -- wi-fi, Bluetooth, mobile phones, GPS, RFID -- can be traced back to spread spectrum radio, which was first intended for the US Navy's torpedo guidance systems in World War II.

So, was the technology designed by a cadre of scientists hunkered down in government, industry or university labs? No, the co-creator of spread spectrum technology was one of the era's leading movie stars, who spent time working on inventions between movie productions. The actress, Hedy Lamarr, was considered the most beautiful on screen in her time. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Austria, she and composer George Antheil, patented a "Secret Communications System" in 1941 that manipulated radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel.

Lamarr's story makes for a great true-life novel, which it now is, documented in the new book, Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by Richard Rhodes. Lamarr fled to the US in 1937 to escape the Nazi onslaught in Europe, and lived in her adopted country until her death in 2000.

But her story is also a familiar one seen among the many immigrants that have come to these shores. Many come not to seek comfortable 9-to-5 jobs, but to become entrepreneurs and innovators. In fact, a new study from the National Foundation for American Policy finds almost half of the top 50 venture-backed companies formed in the US had at least one immigrant founder.

Immigrants also comprise key members of management or product development teams in almost 75% of the venture-backed companies. Most of the countries of origin included India, Israel, Canada, Iran and New Zealand. The immigrant-founded companies created an average of 150 jobs each, the study also finds.

Some leading venture-backed companies with immigrant founders mentioned in the report:

  • Aster Data Systems Inc., San Carlos, CA: Founders: Tasso Argyros (Greece) and Mayank Bawa (India). Products: Data management and advanced analytics for businesses. Number of employees: 102.
  • Boku Inc., San Francisco, CA: Founders: Mark Britto (Singapore) and Ron Hirson (South Africa). Products: Service that lets consumers charge online purchases to their mobile-phone bills. Number of employees: 100.
  • Chegg Inc., Santa Clara, CA: Founders: Aayush Phumbhra (India) and Osman Rashid (U.K.). Products: Textbook rental service. Number of employees: 150.
  • Glam Media, Brisbane, CA: Founders: Samir Arora (India) and Raj Narayan (India). Products: Web publisher with 2,000 lifestyle sites offering advertisers targeted audiences. Number of employees: 500
  • Aprius Inc., Sunnyvale, CA: Founders: Marc Epitaux (Switzerland) and Jean-Marc Verdiell (France). Products: I/O virtualization and networked flash storage for servers. Number of employees: 25.
  • Imperva Inc., Redwood Shores, CA: Founders: Mickey Boodaei (Israel), Shlomo Kramer (Israel) and Amichai Shulman (Israel). Products: Data security and audit systems for companies. Number of employees: 350.
  • Suniva Inc., Norcross, GA: Founder: Ajeet Rohatgi (India). Product: Solar cells and modules. Number of employees: 190.
  • Vidyo, Hackensack, NJ: Founders: Ofer Shapiro (Israel), Alex Eleftheriadis (Greece) and Avery More (Israel). Product: HD-quality videoconferencing applications and services for computers. Number of employees: 200.
  • Xsigo Systems Inc., San Jose, CA: Founder: R.K. Anand (India), Ashok Krishnamurthi (India) and S.K. Vinod (India). Product: Hardware and software for managing datacenters. Number of employees: 110.
  • Zoosk Inc., San Francisco, CA: Founder: Shayan Zadeh (Iran) and Alexander Mehr (Iran). Product: Dating service using the web and social networks. Number of employees: 80.

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