Dr. Siva Sivananthan has a story that exemplifies two important trends in Illinois – the crucial roles both immigrant scientists and entrepreneurs play in the state. Dr. Siva, as he is known, came to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) from his home in Sri Lanka to pursue a PhD in physics in 1982. By graduation, he had developed a revolutionary new material used for night vision. After getting his degree, Siva worked in the faculty at UIC for the next decade before starting a company of his own called EPIR Technologies, Inc. That company was founded with the mission of “protecting those who protect us,” and it provides the U.S. defense industry with the night vision material Siva developed as a student. EPIR has also expanded its capabilities to fabricate night vision sensors and provide these products for commercial applications.
Siva’s company was successful almost immediately. He quickly realized, however, that there was a lot of scientific talent in Illinois going unused, and many research advancements were not making it out of the academic lab. So in 2009, Siva took almost everything he’d earned and formed what he calls his “final dream” – Sivananthan Laboratories, an incubator that helps small companies bring technologies to the commercial market. “I really wanted to be a place where we provide support for small high-tech businesses,” Siva explains, adding he wanted to “create a Silicon Valley in Illinois.” And with his hard work, he’s beginning to achieve that now, creating jobs for a host of Illinois-based workers: Today, Sivananthan Laboratories, along with Dr. Siva’s other ventures, including EPIR Technologies, Inc., Episolar, Inc., and Episensors, Inc., is a multi-million dollar enterprise employing approximately 50 people.
His work in creating photovoltaic technology for night vision sensors has also served as the platform for groundbreaking next generation solar cells. To that end, he helped found InSPIRE (the Institute for Solar Photovoltaic Innovation, Research, and Edu-training), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote research, development, workforce training, and technology commercialization in the solar energy industry.
Dr. Siva was named a “Champion of Change” by the White House in 2013 for his efforts as an immigrant innovator and entrepreneur to create American jobs, grow the economy, and make the nation competitive in the world. He also received the “Friend of the Night” award from the U.S. Army Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate. He was named an “Outstanding American by Choice” by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and he was recognized by Crain’s as among Chicago’s top “50 people in technology you should know.” He is an International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE) Fellow and an American Physical Society (APS) Fellow.
He continues to dedicate himself to teaching, as a Distinguished Professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UIC, the Director of the Microphysics Laboratory, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and a member of the Honors College Faculty.
Dr. Siva is a great example of someone who has achieved the American Dream. But, like many other STEM-based entrepreneurs, the growth of his companies is somewhat hampered by the current U.S. immigration system. Siva, a scientist with more than 10 patents to his name, says he encounters many talented people who have the potential to be great additions to his team but are limited by the immigration system. “Often scientists and engineers who are brought to the United States for training are unable to stay and contribute their knowledge and skills to this country,” he says. “We should not have to lose these valuable assets.”