Levana Sani left Jakarta nine years ago to study biochemistry at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles. Graduating in 2014, Levi -- as she prefers to be called -- was torn between pursuing a career in science by working on a Ph.D., or studying for an MBA with the idea of eventually returning home to start a business. It was Asia's burgeoning tech startup scene that cemented her decision.
"In my mind, there's always this idealistic picture and the realistic picture," Levi says, sitting in a bustling coworking space she shares with other local startups in South Jakarta, a business district of high-rise office buildings. "The idealistic picture is, I'm gonna be in the U.S., I'm gonna be a great scientist ... but then there's also, I wanna give back to [my] country."
Over time, she adds, "It became less of a responsibility ... more of an opportunity," noting that while Indonesia is not a great place to be an aspiring scientist, for those who want to start a business, "Southeast Asia seems to be just the next big thing."
In April 2016, during a stint as a researcher at the Genome Institute of Singapore, Levi and three co-workers founded Nalagenetics, which develops genetic testing to reduce adverse drug reactions. The same year, she started an MBA at Harvard Business School, overseeing Nalagenetics part time during her two years of study in Boston.
After graduating from Harvard, Levi went back to Indonesia to manage Nalagenetics full time. In November the company, with offices in Singapore and Jakarta, raised $1 million in a pre-seed round (early funding that usually does not involve institutional investors).
Levi is just one of a growing number of so-called SEA turtles -- Southeast Asians who are returning home after studying or working overseas -- pulled in by the region's growing tech startup scene and deterred by stricter U.S. immigration policies under President Donald Trump. The term is a play on the Chinese expression "sea turtles," which was coined in the early 2000s to describe a wave of foreign-educated returnees to the mainland.
But there's another aspect to the homecoming: Among Levi's investors is Intudo Ventures, one of a growing number of Southeast Asian tech and venture capital companies that are building a presence in Silicon Valley and U.S. cities with vibrant tech sectors, in an effort to lure home professionals such as Levi. Their aim is to fill the huge need for tech talent as the region's thriving startup scene soaks up skills. Some of these companies are also investing directly in U.S. startups developing advanced technologies not yet available at home.