Of the New Argonauts and Venture Capital in LDCs

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 5/14/2008 02:49:00 AM
(NOTE: This is the third and last of today's features on economic geography.) If you have the chance to borrow it from your local library and are interested in the role of diasporas in economic development, I highly recommend reading AnnaLee Saxenian's book The New Argonauts (excerpts here). As an antidote to the Dobbsian and Tancredoite econo-Neanderthal / politico-primitive stories about the evils of globalization and whatnot, it has few peers. Instead of portraying globalization as a winner-takes-all process like the aforementioned scaremongers, she advances a rather more nuanced understanding of how benefits can accrue from accommodating a new class of talented, tech-savvy workers who can span traditional boundaries and are in demand where technological advancement is desirable. Hence the term the "new argonauts." From the Harvard University Press blurb:

Like the Greeks who sailed with Jason in search of the Golden Fleece, the new Argonauts--foreign-born, technically skilled entrepreneurs who travel back and forth between Silicon Valley and their home countries--seek their fortune in distant lands by launching companies far from established centers of skill and technology. Their story illuminates profound transformations in the global economy.

Economic geographer AnnaLee Saxenian has followed this transformation, exploring one of its great paradoxes: how the "brain drain" has become "brain circulation," a powerful economic force for development of formerly peripheral regions. The new Argonauts--armed with Silicon Valley experience and relationships and the ability to operate in two countries simultaneously--quickly identify market opportunities, locate foreign partners, and manage cross-border business operations.

The New Argonauts extends Saxenian's pioneering research into the dynamics of competition in Silicon Valley. The book brings a fresh perspective to the way that technology entrepreneurs build regional advantage in order to compete in global markets. Scholars, policymakers, and business leaders will benefit from Saxenian's firsthand research into the investors and entrepreneurs who return home to start new companies while remaining tied to powerful economic and professional communities in the United States.

For Americans accustomed to unchallenged economic domination, the fast-growing capabilities of China and India may seem threatening. But as Saxenian convincingly displays in this pathbreaking book, the Argonauts have made America richer, not poorer.

Anyway, Saxenian and another well-respected author, Charles Sabel, have written a more condensed treatise that will soon appear in Econonic Geography on the matter of "Venture Capital in the 'Periphery': The New Argonauts, Global Search and Local Institution Building" that takes the case of Taiwan as an example, though similar instances can also be found in today's emerging technology hotbeds of China and India. You can read a draft version of the paper on Sabel's site. As a law instructor, Sabel is fond of warning about the litigation he will pursue if others steal too much of his IP, so I will limit my excerpts here [!] You have been warned:

This paper accordingly examines the creation of venture capital in emerging economies as an illustration of the way that public and private actors, building on networks they “find,” can construct an institution that systematically creates further networks to foster and monitor the progress of new firms and industries. We focus on the case of Taiwan, where highly-skilled first-generation immigrant professionals in US technology industries collaborated with their home country counterparts to develop the context for entrepreneurial development. The paper refers to the members of these networks as the new Argonauts, an allusion to Jason and the Argonauts who centuries ago sailed in search of the Golden Fleece, testing their mythic heroism while seeking earthly riches and glory. While most of the evidence here is drawn from Taiwan, relevant aspects of analogue developments in Israel, India and China are considered as well.

Our central argument is that new Argonauts are ideally positioned (as both insiders and outsiders at home and abroad) to search beyond prevailing routines to identify opportunities for complementary “peripheral” participation in the global economy, and to work with public officials on the corresponding adaptation and redesign of relevant institutions and firms in their native countries. They are, in other words, exemplary protagonists of the process of self-discovery or open industrial policy—though surely there are in other contexts different institutional arrangements that are as exemplary as well. We argue further that in the cases considered here, the Argonauts’ contributions to domestic institution building crystallized most clearly in the development of domestic venture capital, one of, if not the most important, supports for technology entrepreneurship.