Nearshore Americas

Niche AI Startup and Ambitious Founder Aim to Reverse Brain Drain in Guyana

Most recent talk of Guyana has revolved around its oil and gas boom, which, having turned the country’s fortunes on its head, also provided the thrust behind this small slice of South America becoming the fastest growing economy in the world in 2019.

While Guyana’s BPO market is small but advancing solidly, local entrepreneurs are eager to kick off the country’s tech ecosystem. 

By developing a laser-focused tech services industry, Eldon Marks, CEO at V75 Inc., a tech company of just under 30 engineers specializing in conversational AI, believes that the country can reduce the far-reaching impact of its brain drain – where half of the population with tertiary education leave the country and 39% of citizens live abroad – while positioning itself as a valuable Nearshore tech option. 

Eldon Marks, CEO at V75 Inc.

“The amount of people leaving has a tremendous impact and what we’re trying to do here, at least in the realm of tech, is to dampen that statistic,” Marks explained.

“In a nutshell, our intention is to pair upskilling initiatives and talent with the alignment of employment opportunities here, to retain our talent and engage them and grow the local tech ecosystem,” he added.

Marks formed V75 Inc. four years ago after a 13 year academic career at University of Guyana. He watched student after promising student leave the country in search of greater opportunities in a booming industry, and decided that genuine opportunities had to be created at home. Through the company and its NGO arm, NEXUS Hub Inc., which helps bridge the gap between formal education and professional expectations, he is among the lead architects in the construction of Guyana’s fledgling tech ecosystem. 

In a country where 60% of GDP is based on the export of six commodities from agriculture that are “highly susceptible to adverse weather conditions and fluctuations in commodity prices,” (according to Moody’s), new sources of job creation are vital. 

“The country’s economy is growing quickly and we’re in an explosive investment stage at the moment, and Guyana has the advantage of clear government support,” Peter Ramsaroop, Chief Investment Officer at GoInvest, the Guyanese government’s investment promotion agency, told Nearshore Americas recently.

The IPA is “interested in helping and promoting” the country’s budding tech ecosystem, he added.

Peter Ramsaroop, Chief Investment Officer at GoInvest

Guyana offers strong cost saving potential against onshore talent in the US and Canada. V75 charges US$55 per hour for its top tier AI engineers who have several years of experience. This mix of quality expertise and low cost has helped the firm capture business from several major global corporations including Barclays and Wells Fargo. Its relationship with Clinc, a Michigan-based conversational AI vendor, has been vital to the expansion of the company and that of NEXUS Hub. 

“We began with just two engineers trained on Clinc’s AI stack. Through NEXUS Hub, we trained up another 25 conversational AI engineers who are  employed here and have worked for directly with Clinc,” said Marks.  

XR and Game Development: Innovative Technologies

The focus on a niche specialization – conversational AI – has allowed the company to carve out its own space in the Nearshore market, and to offer valuable expertise that are not found easily elsewhere. This approach was in part a remedy to the country’s limited opportunities for scaling, and part a way to provide a career path for engineers at home. 

“From inception we wanted to develop a niche. We could have gone after the India model, the generalist model, but we deliberately went after new and innovative industries because there is a future in that for us. It’s the most effective route to maximize our Nearshore impact given that we’re a very small country,” Marks explained. 

In Guyana, half of the population with tertiary education leave the country and 39% of citizens live abroad

V75 is now moving into the Extended Reality (XR) and game development markets, promoting these areas as growth verticals with long-term potential. The global game development industry is set to surpass US$256 billion in value by 2025, while investment into development of wearable technologies for consumers and industry by global tech companies is soaring.

“Our decision to focus on AI was very deliberate and the expansion into game development and XR that we’re in the midst of now is also deliberate. Game development and XR are new, innovative tech industries that have low automation potential when it comes to occupations; there will be job security for the foreseeable future for specialists up skilled in these and other similar industries,” said Marks.

Teething Problems

However, there are hurdles to be overcome before Guyana becomes a rival to niche regions like Eastern Europe. Primarily,  The country’s main tertiary education institution, University of Guyana (UG), had only 449 students enrolled in its Computer Science Department for the 2021/2022 academic year. 

Part of the reason for low student figures could be the lack of engagement at the government level. 

Aside from hackathons and a handful of small promotional events, there have been “no substantial strides to support local tech ecosystems” from the government, said Marks.

“We could have gone after the India model, the generalist model, but we deliberately went after new and innovative industries because there is a future in that for us. It’s the most effective route to maximize our Nearshore impact,” — Eldon Marks

Yet recent changes to legislation, as well as the impact of the pandemic, are helping to develop opportunities for a growing sector to take. 

On October 5, 2020, Guyana’s telecom sector was liberalized and a decade-long monopoly by Guyana Telephone & Telegraph Company ended. This has led to an improved internet, including the rollout of high-speed connections, and generally helped develop telecoms infrastructure, Marks said: “In developed areas on the coast we can now get 600mbps connections.”

The pandemic is likely to have increased young people’s interest in technology as a career in Guyana as it has elsewhere, and UG’s enrolment figures have more than doubled in five years.

Tax Benefits for Exporters

Other incentives for tech services are provided under government given export tax allowances, which according to the World Trade Organization, “is granted as a percentage of export profits, varying between 25% and 75% for non-traditional exports outside of CARICOM.” Both foreign and local investors receive the same benefit.

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“Over 90% of our revenue comes from clients abroad, so we qualify for this allowance and it has helped us tremendously to put money where it matters and help growth,” said Marks.

“This wasn’t set up for the tech industry, but legislation does not preclude tech entities. We need more incentives like these done deliberately by the government to help support the local tech ecosystem’s growth,” he added.

Peter Appleby

Peter is former Managing Editor of Nearshore Americas. Hailing from Liverpool, UK, he is now based in Mexico City. He has several years’ experience covering the business and energy markets in Mexico and the greater Latin American region. If you’d like to share any tips or story ideas, please reach out to him here.

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