How Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Strengthening Massachusetts’ Life Science Ecosystem


Picture a world where you could get a vaccine without being jabbed with a needle, where you could get an expert medical opinion in a few clicks instead of a few weeks and where organ transplants are no longer a race against time. In this new world, agricultural pests and disease are controlled without traditional chemical pesticides and global pandemics are controlled quickly and cost-effectively with new vaccines. If the nominees for this year’s Barry M. Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Award for Life Science Business have their way, that’s the world we’ll all be living in soon.

With more than 1,000 biotech companies headquartered here, the Boston area is known as a global center of biotechnological innovation. The Life Science Business category is meant to show the critical role immigrants have played in making this possible. After all, more than one quarter of all biotech companies in New England have an immigrant founder. It’s no surprise that immigrants, people who are willing to leave behind everything familiar and start over somewhere completely new, are such an incredible source of fresh, groundbreaking ideas.

Revolutionizing Organ Transplants

Life-saving organ transplantation is one field in need of new ideas. Every 10 minutes, someone in the United States is added to the waiting list for a donated organ. In 2017 alone, 6,500 candidates died before an organ could be found. Dr. Waleed Hassanein is revolutionizing organ transplants and increasing the odds for many desperate patients.

As a resident doctor at Georgetown University Medical Center, Hassanein was stunned to find that organ transportation technology had not evolved beyond stuffing donated organs into picnic coolers full of ice cubes. With the same drive and determination that led him to leave his native Egypt and pursue a medical career in the United States, he began looking for a better solution. That drive led him to start his company, TransMedics, to commercialize his Organ Care System (OCS). His invention can keep hearts beating and lungs breathing outside the body, which increases organ viability by two to three times longer than traditional methods and dramatically improves the chances of a good match. To date, OCS has been used in more than 1,300 organ transplants worldwide and is poised to become the new standard of care for solid organ transplantation. Looking ahead, Dr. Hassanein believes that the OCS technology holds the potential to unlock entirely new approaches to treating disease. For example, OCS could allow doctors to treat organs with chemotherapy outside the body without the risk of the side effects.

Dr. Waleed Hassanein, TransMedics


How does OCS work?
See for yourself:

Modernizing Drug Delivery

Dr. Patrick Anquetil, Portal Instruments

Dr. Patrick Anquetil, wants to revolutionize an even older medical device: the needle and syringe. That technology has been delivering medications for more than 160 years, but Dr. Anquetil thinks we deserve better. His company, Portal Instruments, has created a needle-free jet injection device that he intends make the standard for modern drug delivery. He imagines a needle-free world where painful injections and fears of getting a shot are things of the past. In particular, this device could improve quality of life for patients with chronic illnesses who self-inject on a regular basis.

More than most, Dr. Anquetil knows what it’s like to start over in a new country. He left his native France to pursue a master’s degree from the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich and the University of Tokyo before coming to Cambridge, Mass. Here he earned his MBA from Harvard and doctorate in bioinstrumentation from MIT, and he stayed to build a life and career.  Dr. Anquetil always dreamed of starting a company. It wasn’t until he came to Boston and saw the “ecosystem” of universities, start-ups and hospitals that he realized he could do it. His extraordinary success, including the creation of two prior companies, Aretais Inc. and SynapDx, is proof that he chose well. Dr. Anquetil mentors other immigrant entrepreneurs. His top advice, particularly for those in life sciences? Come to Boston!

Democratizing Speciality Medicine

Dr. Babak Movassaghi, InfiniteMD

Ask an immigrant why they came to the United States, and you are likely to hear “for more opportunity.” Capitalizing on opportunity is an immigration super power. Dr. Babak Movassaghi saw the immense potential of telemedicine when it was still just a buzzword. If you can use the internet to have a video conversation with your friends on their trip to Thailand, why shouldn’t you be able to access the United States’ top medical experts from anywhere in the world? This German immigrant turned that opportunity into reality when he created InfiniteMD, a virtual expert opinion provider.

Dr. Movassaghi believes that neither language nor geography should be a barrier to accessing top health care. That’s why InfiniteMD collects and translates medical records in any language and provides medically trained interpreters during live video consultations. InfiniteMD provides access to 2,000 of the world’s leading physicians to 3 million people around the world. The results speak for themselves. Twenty-one percent of patients using InfiniteMD changed or corrected their diagnoses, and 72 percent improved their treatment plans. A lot more people are likely to take advantage of this opportunity as 99 percent of patients would recommend InfiniteMD to friends and family.

Achieving the Impossible

Dr. Andrey Zarur, Greenlight Biosciences

It should be no surprise that nominees for the 2019 Barry M. Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards have the potential to improve people’s lives in a myriad of ways. Two-thirds of immigrant-led biotech companies focus on research with applications to human health, compared to less than half of companies without a foreign-born founder. Andrey Zarur, from Mexico, and Marta Ortega-Valle, from Spain, founded their company Greenlight Biosciences to improve the health of people and our planet.

Using their GreenWorX platform, Zarur and Ortega-Valle are helping innovators safely and cost-effectively use RNA (DNA’s less famous cousin) to target some of the world’s biggest problems. They want to use their RNA technology to do everything from improving vaccines to protecting the world from pandemics to creating eco-friendly pesticides. Investors are taking note to the tune of $96 million over several rounds of funding.

Marta Ortega-Valle, Greenlight Biosciences

Greenlight Biosciences is proving that biotechs can have a successful business and a social conscience. In fact, Dr. Zarur has said, “We believe it is our duty to society to achieve the impossible.” To that end, the company has opened up their biological platform to help partners in academia and industry research and create RNA-based products that can positively impact society and help save the Earth for future generations.


In addition to technological breakthroughs, immigrant entrepreneurs create jobs and enable the next generation of scientists and business leaders. Immigrant-led biotech companies employ more than 4,000 people and produce more than $7.5 billion in sales in New England alone. All of the 2019 Barry M. Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Award nominees featured here are working to strengthen the ecosystem and encourage more entrepreneurship. For example, Dr. Movassaghi helped build MIT Hacking Medicine, a group created to accelerate medical innovation by teaching health care entrepreneurship. Although we have only just scratched the surface of how immigrants are making a difference, it is clear that Boston could not be the capital of Life Science innovation without them.

Meet the Latina Immigrant Entrepreneurs of Massachusetts

Yessy Feliz comes from a family of well-educated women with can-do attitudes, like her mother who worked two jobs while resettling her family from the Dominican Republic to Massachusetts. Even so, she is the first member of her family to own her own business. Tails, Inc., her animal supply and dog care store is no pet project. It’s a booming business in the heart of Jamaica Plain, one of Boston’s most diverse and canine-loving neighborhoods. For Yessy, running a business is both a fulfillment of her own dreams and a path forward for herself and other Latinx immigrants.

“Tails is a legacy, it’s a stepping stone for the next generation to come and say, ‘If she was able to do it, we are able to do it,’” said Yessy, who has been nominated for the 2019 Barry M. Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Award for Neighborhood Business hosted by The Immigrant Learning Center.

The Neighborhood Business category, which honors small business owners who are directly impacting their communities, has always been a place where Latina women shine. As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15) and this year’s Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards, we are honored to have three amazing Latina businesswomen: Yessy Feliz, Zoila Gomez originally from the Dominican Republic and Miriam Morales from Nicaragua. It should come as no surprise to see these outstanding women. Over the past five years, the number of women-owned businesses increased by 21 percent, and more businesses than ever before are owned by Latinx entrepreneurs.

Zoila Gomez of Gomez & Palumbo Attorneys at Law always knew her path in life was to be a business owner. While she originally trained to be a beautician at her family’s suggestion, she felt trapped by the thought of owning a salon. Instead, she went to Northern Essex Community College to study political science before getting her J.D. from the Massachusetts School of Law. As the founder of Gomez & Palumbo, she is fulfilling both her passion for immigration law and her family’s dream for her to run her own business.

Zoila and Yessy have built their businesses in areas that have produced many powerful immigrant women entrepreneurs. Gomez & Palumbo is located in Lawrence. Known as Massachusetts’ City of Immigrants, the population of Lawrence is nearly three-quarters Latinx a statistic that is reflected in the number of immigrant-owned businesses there. Julia Silverio, who won an Immigrant Entrepreneur Award for Business Growth in 2012, attributed Lawrence’s economic recovery after the Great Recession to the number of immigrant entrepreneurs who made a home in the city.

Tails is similarly placed in the heart of Boston’s “Latin Quarter” along the section of Center Street that’s been dubbed “Avenida de las Americas” in honor of the neighborhood’s South and Central American heritage. Across the street is Ultra Beauty Salon, owned by Damaris Pimentel, another Dominican entrepreneur who won the Neighborhood Business Award in 2015. From their windows, one can see a parade of bakeries, restaurants and barber shops flying flags from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, a testament to how immigration and economic growth go hand in hand in the neighborhood.

Hispanic and Latina-owned businesses are growing all over the commonwealth, not just in areas with a high-density of immigrants. Miriam Morales’ café, Recreo Coffee & Roasterie has two locations, one in West Roxbury and another in Boston’s City Hall. While neither location is known for a high immigrant population, Miriam feels right at home. It’s no surprise since she is serving up coffee that is grown in her family’s farm in Jinotega, Nicaragua. Not only that, but the café organizes annual trips to Nicaragua every year to educate Americans about coffee farming and fair trade practices. For her, the café is the key to staying connected to her childhood home and building a beloved community in her adopted city.

To learn more about the Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards and all the amazing nominees, click here.

Climbing the ladder, with a boost from you

When Rosa says, “Thank God for The ILC,” she’s really giving thanks for supporters like you.

Rosa and her children came to the United States in 2011 to join her husband. For seven years she struggled to succeed at low-end jobs because she couldn’t speak English. She worked in places like a bakery and cleaning at a hotel. Bosses would get frustrated at her lack of English skills or try to take advantage. Customers and co-workers could be mean. She started working at Chicken & Rice Guys last year at about the same time she started taking classes at The Immigrant Learning Center. As her English improved, her job got better. She says now she’s comfortable talking to customers and answering their questions. In August, she was promoted to supervisor.

It’s your support that makes stories like this possible. Thank you.







Diane Portnoy
Founder and CEO
The Immigrant Learning Center, Inc.

The Immigrant Learning Center®, Inc. (ILC) of Malden, MA, is a not-for-profit organization that gives immigrants a voice in three ways. The English Language Program provides free, year-round English classes to immigrant and refugee adults in Greater Boston to help them become successful workers, parents and community members. The Public Education Institute informs Americans about the economic and social contributions of immigrants in our society, and the Institute for Immigration Research, a joint venture with George Mason University, conducts research on the economic contributions of immigrants.

Cambodian-American nominated for immigrant entrepreneur award

Phalla Nol, whose family is originally from Battambang province, was among 38 immigrants nominated for the 2019 Barry M Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards, the Immigrant Learning Centre announced this week.

The Immigrant Learning Center honors 38 nominees for the 2019 Barry M. Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards

The Immigrant Learning Center is honored to announce the nominees for the 2019 Barry M. Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards. Thirty-Eight outstanding business leaders who are Massachusetts residents from 26 countries and founded businesses in 24 local communities, from Hyannis to Springfield, are contending for these eighth, annual awards. More than a competition, in today’s environment where powerful forces are sending messages to immigrants and refugees such as “go back to your country,” these Awards send a message of gratitude to the international entrepreneurs who have chosen Massachusetts as their home to live, innovate and create jobs.


Use Immigration Narratives to Build a Sense of Belonging in Classrooms


The classroom is a place where students learn much more than coursework. It is one of the primary places where students discover the great diversity of the world through personal encounters, coursework and underlying themes. All students have been affected in some way by the movement of people around the globe, yet certain stories of migration and immigration bring pride and admiration, while others are used to shame students or set them apart.

So how can all students see themselves as equal participants in the global story of human migration? Can that shared identity inspire a sense of community and belonging, even in multicultural spaces? The Immigrant Learning Center’s free, annual online workshop, 2019 Immigrant Student Success: Strategies and Tools for K-12 and Adult Educators, provided techniques to empower students to be creative thinkers and active contributors to a diverse, global society.

Teachers can promote integration, mutual respect and a shared sense of belonging for students of every age. Presenters in the 2019 Student Success workshop have developed creative techniques that help students tell their own stories, find common ground with others, and critically engage with the human story of migration and cross-cultural interaction.

In this video, Adam Strom explains why a sense of inclusion is deeply important and how students’ immigration histories can be a source of both inclusion and exclusion.

All students have unique identities and generations of history behind their arrival in the classroom. Ask your students to share about their ethnic identities and their family histories of migration. You can help vulnerable students feel more comfortable by setting ground rules for respectful communication, sharing about your own identity and giving a historical context for common immigration stories in your classroom community.

Help your students not only tell their stories but also to bring it to life using food, music, literature or artwork. Younger students may be better able to express their understanding of identity and family history through a creative project. Older students may want to share a homemade recipe, play recordings of music, or share a story or poetry.

Use media to broaden the horizons of your classroom

While all students have been affected by migration in one way or another, no classroom is a perfect microcosm of a diverse society. Teachers can help students understand and empathize with immigrants or members of diverse cultures by going on field trips or sharing stories using other media, such as the projects below.

Even in a multicultural student body, it can be beneficial for teachers to share immigration stories through other mediums as it can relieve minority students from the pressure of having to act as sole ambassadors for their culture and complement their stories in a different way.

Look for Common Themes

Participants in the 2019 Immigrant Student Success online workshop had the chance to share their own family histories and look for points of commonality. Whether they were newcomers themselves or their ancestors immigrated generations ago, many stories overlapped. In almost every case of voluntary migration, the search for a better life was the driving force.

Likewise, when students are able to find common ground across cultures and across histories, it can illustrate the common fears, hopes and motivations that shape the movement of people and cultures. It can also prime students to search for common ground even if it is not immediately evident when meeting new classmates, peers and even neighbors.

These strategies can be used with students of all ages, with some modification.

Young children will have a very basic understanding of their ethnicity or family immigration story. Encourage their curiosity using songs that celebrate multicultural understanding. With older students, teachers can incorporate more involved ways to develop appreciation for diversity, such as reading novels or biographies that showcase different groups.

In this video, Federico Salas-Isnardi demonstrates how to analyze for common themes.


When all students can place their own stories and identities in the context of a common narrative instead of something that sets them apart, it fosters greater self-understanding, mutual respect and curiosity about the rest of the world.

Sign up here for more information about our annual educator online workshops and other online training opportunities.

Educator Spotlight: Denzil Mohammed, Immigrant Learning Center

In the U.S. and across the globe, instances of anti-immigrant bias and discrimination are drastically increasing. The need to be aware and to humanize the experiences of migration is more pressing than ever. This work has led us to the The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, MA, where we spoke with Denzil Mohammed, Director of their Public Education Institute.

5 Active Groups That Protect & Advocate for Immigrants

This video by profiles five groups, including The Immigrant Learning Center, that assist people in different ways, from providing legal counsel to teaching English as a second language to rolling out the welcome wagon.

Immigrant Learning Center founder asks if we’ve already forgotten our past history

Some may look at children in detention facilities at our southern border and think, “They’re not our kids.” I am a proud, naturalized U.S. citizen, and when I see the deplorable conditions we’ve put these children in, I think, “that could have been me.”

International Day at The Immigrant Learning Center celebrates unity and diversity

On Thursday, June 20, guests were handed a passport when entering the ILC building at 442 Main St. with a list of 22 countries from across the globe. ILC students were set up in classrooms throughout the building representing their countries and their culture with food, music, clothing, and displays.