Over the last few years, Ecuador has been developing a new city that it hopes can become something of a national Silicon Valley combined with North Carolina’s Research Triangle. With public funding, it has planned and built Yachay a few hours north of the capital of Quito, and it hopes the city can help transform Ecuador from a commodity-based economy known for oil and agriculture exports to one that thrives through innovation in a knowledge-based world.
So far, there are nearly 1,000 students studying at Yachay Tech University and some 2,500 full-time residents. At least 10 companies are operating there with more than 40 contractually committed to open up shop in the near future once their facilities are completed.
To get a deeper look at the current status of Yachay and hear more about the ambitious goals ahead, we sat down with Héctor Rodriguez, the general manager of Yachay who has been leading Ecuador’s vision for the future since its inception.
Nearshore Americas: What is Yachay?
Héctor Rodriguez: Yachay “City of Knowledge” is a public initiative, a space where we plan to develop an ecosystem of innovation. Traditionally, Ecuador has been seen as a “Banana Republic” because the whole productive matrix was based on the exportation of raw materials. That dependency on commodities made the economy unable to handle external shocks. In 2009, as a government and as a people, we decided to change the long-term development strategy and orient the nation into a knowledge-based economy.
We would like to improve the quality and added value in every economic activity that we do. For example, to further develop agriculture, we are committed to improving productivity by introducing technology and more knowledge into that activity. The main focus of this strategy is to develop a space — a point of development in Ecuador — that can maintain a scale economy of all the public research institutions of R&D accumulated around a brand new research university with the support of CalTech. And around these institutions we will allocate the facilities to receive anchor companies, like IBM and Microsoft, with an ecosystem based in talent.
How did Yachay come to be?
Rodriguez: In 2010, we decided to develop a national system of scholarships that now has more than 11,000 Ecuadorians receiving economic support from the government to go to the best universities in the world. Also, we had a big reform of the system of higher education in the form of having better and certified universities throughout the whole country.
But this transformation is kind of slow, and we would like to have better results in the short term. So how do you do that? We accumulated all of our force into a single space with a philosophy of a science and technology park, putting together public investment from the national government, empowering a big research university by creating Yachay Tech, and offering the facilities to the private sector, including entrepreneurs with startups that could come to the park.
Yachay was born as a public initiative with the support of the national economy and the commitment of more than 10 private firms. Right now, we have almost 40 companies established over there and we have consolidated compromises with the private sector for more than $150 million to be executed in the next four years. This is the beginning of Yachay as a public initiative with the support of the president of the republic, Dr. Rafael Correa Delgado.
The university is the first major piece to come online. How is the school doing so far?
Rodriguez: The university opened its doors in March 2014. We have had a year and a half of operations, and it has exactly 815 students right now in undergrad programs. Next year we are going to open the postgraduate programs — master’s degrees and Ph.D. programs — in the fields of nanotechnology, information and communications technology (ICT), biotechnology, geology, and innovation.
As a university, we have a board — Comisión Gestora — that functions the same as a board of trustees in the U.S. structure of universities, and this is composed of scientists from CalTech and the support of the counselor, Dan Larsen, who is a former engineering dean of Penn State.
In addition to the university we have a community college that was recently opened. This was designed to offer short career paths for technicians with the support of a German university, The Open University of Berlin and also the Technical University of Berlin. We designed the curricula for students to spend only half of their time in classes or labs and the other half of their time in the companies.
In addition, as a planned city, we have a K-12 school, and of course — as with the university and the community college — the primary and secondary school are public institutions that are entirely free provided with the government support.
With all educational infrastructure established, how do you now build the city? How are you attracting the companies that will bring the jobs and residents to Yachay as you envision?
Rodriguez: We have 40 companies with signed contracts. The internationals are mostly in the ICT business, for example, Microsoft, IBM, IHS, and Intelworks. We also have Toyota with a big car-sharing plan inside of the city.
We have a couple of companies in the health sector, labs that specialize in the analysis of blood and genetics. In the agriculture sector, we have seven companies, mostly oriented towards developing fertilizers, biotech, and a superfood for animals like guinea pigs and horses. In services, we have three more companies, like Grupo KFC, which is a joint-venture consortium of more than 40 other franchises here in Ecuador. This is starting in Yachay with food technology development. And there is China Telecom, which is developing an innovation center for Big Data and ICT in general.
There are more than 10 companies that are operating already. The other companies are building their facilities or making arrangements to open their own operations.
How many people are currently living in the city and how quickly do you expect to see that population grow?
Rodriguez: Right now, we have — without the construction workers — more than 2,500 living over there. But we have a “floating population” of more than 4,000 people, which includes the labor force for building and construction.
We need to allocate for more than 12,000 people by the end of 2016, which means that we need to hurry up and build more houses for the families moving into Yachay. At the end of 2017, we expect to have a little more than 15,000 people, and the master plan has designed a projection to allocate for 80,000 people, with a maximum capacity of 200,000 living in Yachay.
Yachay is really near to Ibarra, which is the biggest city in the north of Ecuador. Well, big for us is a little town for the United States, but Ibarra right now has a little more than 300,000 people and we are going to grow together until we join. We are going to be a regional pole of development in the north of Ecuador, which is going to really be a success in the long-term economic planning for the country.
Now that much of the infrastructure is in place, what comes next? How does Yachay reach its potential?
Rodriguez: When the president approved this project, we were very excited. We received the support from Correa’s government, and we traveled a lot around the world. We visited more than 20 other technology parks, including the North Carolina Research Triangle, Silicon Valley, Urbana-Champaign, and Alabama.
The most exciting thing was not the planning but the implementation — becoming a reality. We learned a lot from the Research Triangle and they gave us a lot of support in the models and the technical way to manage.
There is a cultural matter in all of this. We are not used to having these kind of projects. The people in the companies are not used to risking a lot. In fact, even the corporations like Microsoft, their representatives in Ecuador, they weren’t used to having another kind of initiative other than the commercial division.
But we have a word: to “tropicalize” the north ideas. It is hard work, but it is important for the country. And we hope that this city will have a big impact on the national development and national culture. We need to evolve from a Banana Republic into a knowledge paradise.
All images courtesy of Yachay