BOSTON (Forbes) — Noubar Afeyan was born to Armenian parents in Lebanon. At the age of 13, he immigrated with his family to Canada and attended college there. Noubar was accepted to a Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), at the time the only school with an advanced program in biochemical engineering.
After earning his PhD at the age of 24, Noubar started his first company. “I was naïve to think I could start a company with so little experience,” he told me in an interview. But it worked out. For 10 years, Noubar Afeyan headed PerSeptive Biosystems, which became the number two company in the bio-instrumentation field before it was acquired by Perkin Elmer/Applera Corporation in 1998. While CEO of PerSeptive Biosystems he founded or cofounded five more companies.
Recent research from the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) reported on the strong entrepreneurial drive of many immigrants, examining the impact of immigrants on the current universe of “billion dollar” startups. The impact is significant. “Immigrants have started more than half (44 of 87) of America’s startup companies valued at $1 billion or more and are key members of management or product development teams in over 70 percent (62 of 87) of these companies,” according to the NFAP study. These billion dollar startups with at least one immigrant founder have created an average of more than 700 jobs per company.
In 1999, Noubar evaluated the way his startups were formed — and startups in general — and thought perhaps the often disjointed, “trial and error” approach typical of startups could be reduced to something more systematic and organized. That’s when he founded Flagship Ventures, which develops new companies through its in-house division VentureLabs. It also invests in startups.
VentureLabs, which Noubar oversees as senior managing partner and CEO of Flagship Ventures, takes a unique approach. It conducts its own research and forms new companies after the research has started to bear fruit. Using this approach, Flagship Ventures and VentureLabs have launched dozens of startup companies, primarily in the life sciences and sustainability.