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Pre-accelerator offers way to help Puerto Rico-based young entrepreneurs

After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, "this was the time when we needed to have more entrepreneurs,” said the program's executive director.

by Carmen Sesin /

To help combat a mass exodus of young professionals from Puerto Rico, a pre-accelerator is offering a program for local entrepreneurs.

Pre18 is offering a way to boost those in the early stages of establishing a company, granting them $20,000 plus support and training.

Pre18 is looking for 20 startups in Puerto Rico with innovative business ideas that are looking to reach overseas markets in the long-term. It is being offered by Parallel18, a global business accelerator that has been operating on the island for the past couple of years, along with the Puerto Rico Science, Technology, and Research Trust. The aim is to give an opportunity to talented entrepreneurs that may otherwise leave the island.

Puerto Rico’s decade-long economic crisis, which has been felt in the island since 2006, has led to a brain drain that was exacerbated in September when Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. Since the hurricane, over 200,000 people from the island have arrived to Florida alone. The lack of professionals and entrepreneur class has led to fewer jobs.

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For Lucy Crespo, CEO of the Puerto Rico Science, Technology, and Research Trust, it’s not only about keeping Puerto Ricans from leaving the island, the trust also wants to change the mentality of Puerto Ricans so they can feel empowered to think in more entrepreneurial terms.

“We really need to change the way we have been educating our students to work for someone else,” Crespo said.

Since Parallel18 established in Puerto Rico less than 2 years ago, it has had much success, accelerating over 100 companies from 15 different nations that established startups on the island. The aim was to convince young entrepreneurs from the U.S. and other countries that Puerto Rico was the right place place to start a business, with a bilingual, educated workforce and other advantages. The Parallel 18 acceleration model is 20 weeks long and each company is granted $40,000 and given support and training.

Parallel 18 participants like Ryan Lupberger, co-founder of Cleancult, which makes non-toxic, "green" laundry pacs, told NBC News in August he was considering making a permanent move to the island after his success with the program.

But after the devastation of the hurricane, many feared the program would come to a pause since the island was dealing with a major disaster and there was virtually no power or internet connection. But the reality has been quite the opposite.

“My view was that we had to double down. This was the time when we needed to have more entrepreneurs,” said Sebastian Vidal, Executive Director of Parallel18 by phone from Puerto Rico.

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That’s when they decided to launch Pre18, to pre-accelerate companies that are still at the beginning stages of establishing and prevent Puerto Ricans from leaving the island.

Entrepreneurs have until January 15 to apply.

Vidal said they wanted to “create an impact in the short term in Puerto Rico and also follow our view that entrepreneurship can solve the problems of the economic recession.”

“We knew there were people leaving and if we give them the right incentives or the right opportunity they will stay,” Vidal said.

Emmanuel Oquendo, 24, is an entrepreneur who took advantage of Parallel18, about a year ago.

Oquendo found success in an artificial intelligence company called BrainHi, which launched in January. The company is focused on healthcare and created an automated virtual receptionist that is able to talk to patients and engage with them.

“Parallel 18 helped us understand the global aspect of our product and the value we can provide,” Oquendo said. They already launched pilots in other countries, like Colombia.

Paralel18 has been committed to helping the entrepreneurs. The day after the hurricane, when the electrical grid of the island was virtually wiped out, Parallel18 was already contacting Oquendo and telling him where he could work.

Now, engineers Oquendo studied with at the University of Puerto Rico who left the island are talking about returning to Puerto Rico to pursue a business idea.

“What I would say is that if it wasn’t for Parallel 18, it would be highly likely I wouldn’t be here in Puerto Rico,” Oquendo said.

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