German Immigrant Makes Notable Contribution to Biosciences

While a student at Cornell University, German native Jonas Korlach helped invent a machine that allowed scientists to read the entire human genome faster than they had ever done before. Although Korlach’s path to stay in the U.S. wasn’t an easy one, that invention eventually became the capstone of a successful U.S. company.

Jonas Korlach, a U.S.-based biochemist, says that as a young man, he never would’ve predicted the path his life would take in adulthood. Growing up in East Germany, he was just 16 years old when the Berlin Wall fell, opening up a whole new universe just 15 minutes from his doorstep. And as a scientist with dreams of working on cutting edge technologies, his sights quickly turned towards the United States. “I was very intrigued by the power of the U.S. university system and the scale of research that was going on there—it was like nowhere else in the world,” Korlach says.

After several visits to the US for internships or exchange programs, Korlach enrolled in Cornell University’s PhD program for molecular biology at the age of 24. While in Ithaca, he developed a technology that allowed scientists to read the entire human genome faster than they had ever done before. The machine that resulted from that invention is now the capstone of an entire company: Pacific Biosciences, a firm that reported revenues of almost $34 million and a staff of almost 300 people in 2011.

Despite his critical contribution to an enormously promising invention, Korlach had to overcome obstacles to remain in the United States. In fact, a U.S. Congresswoman had to speak up on his behalf to help him receive a temporary residency visa in 2004. “I felt so humbled and honored to have her support,” Korlach says, “but I wonder what happens to all the foreign students who aren’t as lucky as I am.”

Learn more about the contributions of immigrant inventors in the Partnership’s report, Patent Pending: How Immigrants Are Reinventing the American Economy.



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