How does an economy go from cloud forests to cloud computing and from wildlife to life sciences? That is the path of sustainable development that Costa Rica has successfully forged by leveraging its three main assets: nature, talent and innovation.
Since 1870, education has been free in Costa Rica – mandatory and universal for both boys and girls. In 1949, a bold step to abolish its army allowed the country to allocate nearly 10% of the country’s GDP to health and 7.36% on education, which is over 60% more than the OECD average. This long-term vision has paid off, and today Costa Rica is Latin America’s leading nation for education and innovation, according to the ‘Global Competitiveness Report 2017-2018’ by the World Economic Forum.
“Costa Rica’s successful transformation is a case study in long-term, sustainable planning. We’ve capitalised on our natural and human resources to great effect. A country of only 4.8 million, it exports $4bn dollars in services making it the top exporter per capita in Latin America. It is also exports $3bn in medical devices placing it as top per capita in the region. Medical devices are now the country’s top export product,” says Jorge Sequeira, Managing Director of CINDE, the Costa Rican investment promotion agency.
Today, more than 300 multinational organisations, including 24% of the Fortune 100 in manufacturing and services, have found Costa Rica to be the perfect partner for achieving true ROI on the triple bottom line: planet, people and profit. A cluster of over 70 companies from the medical and pharmaceutical industries, as well as from biotechnology and food research and IT companies have taken on a key role in redefining the country and helping it cement its status as a regional hub for multinationals.
Talent driving innovation
A view of Costa Rica from 33,000 ft showcases the lush greenery of its mountains. But on the ground, local and international companies are working on the next big idea; and in Costa Rica, these can come from the most unexpected places.
“Innovative and patent-filing developments are taking place in our country, sparking from synergies between the clusters we have nurtured. We see biotech and agriculture combining, but also medtech and IT. It is an exciting time for investors seeking to leverage our talent and capabilities,” says Sequeira.
That synergy is how a new medical device – which is customised for each patient and is currently sold in Europe as well as 50 other countries – took shape in Costa Rica.
It all began in 2004, when a new startup founded by Costa Ricans was taking its first steps into breast implants. By 2013 the company had designed a top-performing implant but continued to seek how to add greater value to its customers. It designed a new microchip and embedded it in its implants giving both patient and doctor the power of verification and control of the device.
But it didn’t stop there. The company then partnered with Intel Costa Rica (the only R&D megalab of this IT giant outside the US) to collaborate on a new chip and scanner that recognises a woman’s torso, does an e-construction of the patient’s physiognomy and creates the exact implant most suited for the patient using 3D technology.
Intel’s presence in Costa Rica, which dates back to 1996, provides a fertile environment for advanced manufacturing operations to respond to the latest megatrends. Intel’s activities in R&D employ 750 engineers and represent 43.8% of Intel Costa Rica’s sales in 2016, according to a case study by the ILO. From this megalab they commence final testing and validation of all Intel’s product portfolio, as well as the design of customer samples prior to manufacturing and distribution.
The company also recently opened an innovation centre geared towards IT startups, through which entrepreneurial efforts receive support from Intel employees. It also allows firms to incorporate the latest innovation within its core business or develop new lines of revenue. A local representative for Intel Capital also assess these initiatives to identify potential and corporate connection.
As Intel moves towards the development of memory, processors, and the Internet of Things (IoT), its R&D operations in Costa Rica will be better prepared to face new challenges. It will also be able to take advantage of opportunities in Intel Corporation’s global operations, as was shared with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) representatives.
Speratum is another startup showing the ambition of this generation of Costa Rican entrepreneurs. Speratum aims to develop nanotechnology to stop pancreatic cancer and reduce metastasis. Others, such as Singularities, pursue big roles in international enterprises through the development of software and apps for business. Using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence technology, this young startup provides companies with cutting-edge insight into its specific customer preferences, responses, beliefs and behaviour. It plans to provide its services to American and European companies in 2018.
Other local companies are also experimenting with the latest in computing from Costa Rica. Cognitiva, in partnership with IBM Watson, will develop applications and services for the Latin American market using AI technology.
CINDE’s Managing Director is keen to highlight how it is talent is the key in this winning formula: “As these new megatrends emerge, companies have come to learn that it is not the numbers but the people that drive success. Costa Rican talent has set its reputation for creativity and innovation as recognised number one in Latin America by the World Economic Forum,” Sequeira points out.
A booming sector therefore continues to thrive in other creative fields, such as digital technologies, animation, gaming, filming, architecture but also the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills required to leverage the data analytics, cybersecurity and cloud computing behind it.
A ‘Blue Zone’ for business
Long before global commitments on sustainability development goals, Costa Rica bet on its environment as a main resource for development. With 5% of the world’s biodiversity in just 51,000 sqkm, the country has over 50% of its territory protected and produces 99% of its energy from renewable sources, mainly water, solar, wind and geothermal.
This has helped Costa Rica raise living standards and gain widespread interest as one of the world’s ‘Blue Zones’ – an area that has an unusually high concentration of centenarians. These characteristics include a combination of factors such as diet, societal trends and environmental features. And while this trend continues to provide a fascinating field for research, Costa Rica continues to bet on biodiversity, sustainability and technology to bring the secrets of the Blue Zone to investors too.
Luxury brand Chanel recently included an antioxidant rich green coffee from Costa Rica’s Nicoya peninsula in their ‘Blue Serum’ anti-aging product. The coffee was an “ultra-powerful ingredient containing 70 times more antioxidant active molecules than are found in regular coffee beans”, the company stated.
Superfoods, such as aloe, mangostan, ipecacuana, soursop and rambutan, famed for their high level of nutrients, are also grown across the country. They have been steadily attracting investment from local and international companies due to their valuable food enhancement properties.
Detailed registries of species are monitored under the National Commission for Biodiversity Management (Conagebio), which also supervises research and bio-prospecting initiatives, including those for commercial use.
The secrets of life’s longevity in Costa Rica continue to be untapped, but the business opportunities in areas such as biotechnology, cosmetics, and nutraceuticals are groundbreaking and news is spreading fast.
Cloud technology: thriving among the cloud forest
Costa Rica has gone beyond cloud forests to cloud computing, thanks to a strong pipeline of talent – with IT and software graduates growing more than 5.6% annually. “Costa Ricans’ quick-learning and adaptable character has been a relevant component for top IT companies to set up in the country including Amazon, IBM, Oracle, Accenture, Vmware, Microsoft and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) thrive in this fresh business climate,” according to Sequeira.
And cloud computing is also at the heart of HPE’s success in the country. The company came to Costa Rica in 2003 to deliver International Trade Organization (ITO) services for one of its main clients, Procter & Gamble. Fast forward to the present day and it has reached nearly 4,700 employees. Halfway through this journey HPE established its first R&D centre outside the US, in Costa Rica. It focuses on chip design for ethernet equipment, design of embedded software for wireless equipment and design of the latest generation of chipsets. Costa Rica also became the first information technology outsourcing hub for the corporation in the Americas in 2011. The division has over 200 engineers, who mostly specialise in electrical engineering, frequencies, processing capacity and interconnectivity. This team works collaboratively with global development teams but has also filed several patented products from the country.
People here not only know how to collaborate but also create. Accenture benefits from this daily at its Digital Production Center of Excellence in Costa Rica. The firm has a team of over 900, which serves accounts worldwide. Here, they design multimedia and web apps with the latest applications in UX, and manage a full portfolio of digital strategies including e-commerce, email marketing, and digital campaigns from inception to media buy, campaign launches and data analytics.
With its recent purchase of a company specialising in big data analytics and testing, Accenture Costa Rica has become its largest analytics unit globally.
CINDE: your guide to success
Costa Rica has a specialised institution, not just for driving investment but also developing business success in the country and enhancing its commercial climate: CINDE. The Costa Rican investment promotion agency is a private, non-profit, non-political organisation, which provides services free of charge to investors. The agency was recently ranked as the world’s best institution for the attracting foreign direct investment in a recent evaluation of investment promotion agencies by the International Trade Center (ITC) – a Geneva based subsidiary organisation of the United Nations. The ITC highlighted CINDE’s culture of innovation, high quality service in its support to investors, and excellence in internal operations. Most recently, The European also recognised CINDE as the best high-tech investment agency in Latin America.
In alignment with the country’s commitment to sustainability, CINDE recently became Carbon Neutral Certified and continues to focus its efforts on Costa Rica’s winning combination: people, planet and profit.