In some parts of Texas, immigrant inventors and startup founders are helping to revitalize areas hard hit by unemployment. One prime example: McAllen, Texas, a city in the Rio Grande Valley, where one promising nanotechnology startup that originated at the University of Texas–Pan American is already being heralded as a potential magnet for other, high-tech manufacturers to the region. The firm, FibeRio Technology, is based on a technology invented by Karen Lozano, a mechanical engineering professor who immigrated to the United States in the 1990s to attend Rice University, where she was the first Mexican-born student to earn a PhD in an engineering field. Raised in a family where her mother, a seamstress, left school after the sixth grade and started working as a secretary at the age of 14, and her father worked long hours delivering vegetables to restaurants after being laid off from the company where he worked for 30 years, Lozano says she was taught the value of education and hard work at an early age. She also learned responsibility: All throughout graduate school, Lozano sent home $400 to her parents each month, a hefty portion of the $1,000 monthly stipend she received from her university.
When Lozano became a professor at University of Texas–Pan American in 2000, she focused her considerable intellect on a new challenge. For years Lozano and her colleagues had been frustrated by the painfully slow process of making the miniscule nanofibers they worked with in the lab – as well as all the unhealthy chemical solvents that went into producing them. So in 2006, she and another foreign-born colleague developed a greener, more cost-effective solution: A machine that used the spinning motion of a centrifuge to manufacture nanofibers more than 900 times faster than the solutions then on the market. Ellery Buchanan, FibeRio’s CEO, says Lozano’s fibers have a wealth of consumer applications. Nanofibers can be used to make thinner, more absorbent diapers or to give textiles added insulation. They can also strengthen medical sutures and enable air filters to capture evertinier particles. “We believe our company could transform the materials industry,” Buchanan says, “through the unlimited availability of nanofibers.”
Lozano is now a citizen of the United States, having earned a rare EB1 extraordinary ability visa. In addition to being a professor, she works as the Chief Technology Officer for FibeRio, and seeing the startup she helped build still amazes her. “I go to the company every Friday,” Lozano says, “and every Friday I see a new face.” Indeed, the company is growing rapidly. FibeRio has already shipped its machines to firms in America, Australia, Japan, and Europe. And although the firm employs more than 30 people now, it’s planning to expand to 250 within the next five years. Lozano says contributing to job growth in a Texas city just two and a half hours from her native Monterrey, Mexico, has also been particularly rewarding. “I used to come to Texas often as a kid, and I admired the United States so much,” Lozano says, “Sometimes my life now feels like a dream.”