Ecuador Is Building a $1B Self-Contained ‘Tech City’

Yachay will include a university, research stations, and city housing 20,000 people and dozens of companies.

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May 22 2015, 9:00am

All photos: Dilek Genc

Yachay, "city of knowledge" in the local language of Quechua, will be 4,500 acres of research stations, a university center, and city housing dozens of companies in the petrochemical, biotechnology, and geological industries. It's estimated that at least 20,000 people will live there.

Situated about 120 kms away from the capital city, Quito, its closest neighbor is the tiny town of Urcuquí, population size 16,000.

The campus is a combination of local architecture and glass facades sprawled over acres of Ecuadorian highland. The existing infrastructure was part of a historic hacienda used as a sugar mill. The machinery was preserved and acts as the interior design to staff offices, the library, and restaurant. More classrooms and offices, a Tech Transfer Center, and auditorium are under construction; new dorms have to be built every year to accommodate incoming freshman.

Students are housed in dorms overlooking the Ecuadorian highlands, just a short walk away from the classrooms and laboratories.

I traveled to Yachay to see what all the commotion was about. Besides a traveling band of motorcycle enthusiasts who had chosen Yachay Tech as their monthly expedition, not much was happening on campus. The beautiful scenery makes up for the lack of human contact, however.

Construction began in 2012; the university is mostly finished, but construction of the city will take around 30 years.

Nearly half of Ecuador's economy consists of money made by oil extraction from the Amazon region. The abnormal decrease in oil prices in the past few months put the country in a tough spot and widened the budget deficit.

The university overlooks the Yachay valley. Closest city is Urcuqui, home to 16,000 inhabitants.

The other half of the national budget comes from agriculture, namely bananas, cacao and the famous Ecuadorian roses. There's basically no industrial production and yet Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian president, is hoping to change the country's economy to one that is knowledge-based, by creating the greatest research center in Latin America.

This is where Yachay comes in. The first sustainable biotechnology, petrochemical, and nanotechnology innovations in Ecuador will come as a result of ventures taken by the new generation of entrepreneurial students educated at Yachay Tech, the most senior of whom are in their second semester.

Still under construction are some administrative offices, classrooms, and an auditorium.

These six hundred-something students are the best and brightest of the country. The average score on the national college entrance exam, ENES, was a 939 out of a 1000.

It's impossible to visit Yachay and not feel inspired by the gorgeous countryside and academic prowess. It currently offers a five-year undergraduate program in IT, biotechnology, geological, chemical and physical sciences, and engineering, in addition to a social sciences school that will train students to become the nation's new entrepreneurs.

Every member of its faculty holds a PhD, virtually unheard of for an Ecuadorian university. Daniel Larson, chancellor of Yachay Tech, is responsible for making sure the university has world-class faculty from all over the word.

Eucalyptus trees fashioned into figures representing the different schools at Yachay.

"Companies from outside believe in Yachay's vision," said Larson, who has been the Penn State dean since 1998, and joined Yachay in January of 2015.

The focus is on research, innovation, and production. The construction of Yachay City will give students the chance to intern and gain practical experience at one of many startups and companies. This, however, is currently a long-term goal; students won't be able to reap its benefits until companies have moved in.

Petroamazonas, Ecuador's public oil production company, has already signed an agreement with the university. "We're going to have very strong programs that have connections with that industry," said Larson. "We can help with the research that will lead to more sophisticated and sustainable methods."

Part of the purpose of Yachay is to move Ecuador away from raw products to higher value ones, according to Larson. "The students are already getting some exposure to entrepreneurial thinking and ideas," he said. A social sciences school will focus primarily on innovation and entrepreneurship and push students to make connections with industry.

The main building at Yachay Tech is a hacienda that belonged to the Salvador family of France. Most buildings either functioned as part of the sugar mill or as extensions of the hacienda.

Currently no tuition exists at Yachay Tech for Ecuadorian students. Dorms are $36 a month, with total feels amounting to $60, seemingly reasonable considering the $340 monthly minimum wage. Classes are in Spanish until the third year of the program, when all students are required to continue in English.

Yachay isn't without its critics. Several Ecuadorian universities have lamented that even a portion of the allotted funds could drastically help improve them, too. The response has been the same from top Yachay executives: Yachay Tech is supposed to be entirely different, and it is much more difficult to change the culture of an existing institution.

"This isn't just building a university, it's intended to transform the country and the whole region," says Larson. As soon as five years from now, Yachay Tech alumni will be entering the workforce. Let's hope that Ecuador's economy is ready for them.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Daniel Larson as the president of Yachay Tech; he is the chancellor.