September 14, 2023

Member Spotlight: ITJuana

ITJuana Helps Life Science Companies Expand Their Tech Digital Engineering Capacity in Latin America and Promotes Cross-Border Collaboration

When Maritza Diaz was the senior director of digital engineering at Thermo Fisher Scientific, she was tasked with traveling from San Diego to Tijuana to help the company expand its operations and set up a software center of excellence. She was a natural fit for the endeavor: as an accomplished computer scientist, she had experience hiring nearly 1,000 software engineers spanning from Europe to India. She grew up in Ecuador and Spanish is her first language. However, she confesses she had reservations about visiting Tijuana because of perceptions about the city. “My first reaction was I had never heard of Tijuana as being a tech hub,” she says. But during her first day trip there, that perception completely changed. She was impressed with the ease of driving across the border, the city’s infrastructure, and level of technology and engineering talent. “It felt like a suburb of San Diego,” she says.

That day trip turned out to be a defining moment for Maritza as she since ventured on her own to found ITJuana in 2019, a company that specializes in helping U.S. life science companies develop technology centers in Mexico. In 2021, she was invited to the Forbes Technology Council, and this year ITJuana was included in Inc. Magazine’s list of 5,000 fastest-growing companies. In celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we spoke with Maritza about what she says is her unplanned career journey, the importance of cross-border collaboration in today’s economy, and ways companies can address the diversity gap in life science.

Your background is in engineering and information technology. How did you get involved in life science and make that career shift?

The one word that comes to mind is ‘luck.’ I did not have a plan to be in life science when I graduated from college. I had my degree in computer science, and I started working for PricewaterhouseCoopers. That experience helped me get a contract consultancy with Agilent Technologies, and they happen to be in that space. Then I had the opportunity to join Life Technologies, and that’s where I started to see the impact that I was making. Even though I was supporting the IT infrastructure, at the end of the day we were helping advance science and cure disease—it was very exciting to me. Life Technologies was acquired years later by Thermo Fisher Scientific. As I progressed in this career with these companies, I got closer to product development. At Thermo Fisher Scientific, we were helping the scientists develop products to advance science—I wasn’t just supporting the ERP [enterprise resource planning] stuff for the backend. We were front and center with R&D. And I love that experience, because I was seeing the impact that my daily job was making.

What was the catalyst to starting your own company?

In 2015, after that scouting experience I hired 250 engineers in Tijuana. It took me three to four years, and I learned a ton. Not only about business, but I learned to appreciate the opportunity that companies in San Diego have—it’s a very unique competitive edge that nobody else has, and that nobody else seems to know about. I really wanted to see more companies take advantage of this opportunity. I not only wanted to multiply what Thermo Fisher Scientific did, but I found my personal passion and how I could give back to my community in some way. What I found was the moment we started creating these jobs—that were professional and highly paid, and where people were proud of the work they do—I can give good jobs to my people and help them prosper just like everybody else.

What is ITJ’s mission, and how do you specifically help life science companies?

Essentially, it’s the same model that I did with my former employer—build, operate, and transfer [the engineering team]. I’m going to help you build your digital capability, and I don’t consider it outsourcing. When I work with my clients, the engineers we hire are their people. We specialize in life science because I have 20 years working in space, and we know what it means to create software in an FDA-regulated world. It’s a lot more checks and balances—it’s very serious.

Some of our clients make medical devices that inject insulin in the human body. Imagine that: every five minutes, they check your glucose levels. And if you need it, it starts dispensing the medicine. These devices are controlled mainly by software nowadays, and that’s where most of the innovations are happening. So we’re helping our clients deliver these products to patients. We also work with companies that are in the spine space, others are doing dialysis. We also have biotech companies that are looking to eradicate cancer through personalized, accurate and early testing.

What’s the benefit and advantage for a life science company in California to expand to Tijuana for their digital services?

I always ask my clients ‘what are your pain points?’ and the answer is usually they need talent and they can’t hire. There’s not enough engineers—we are not graduating enough engineers in the country. Mexico is actually graduating more engineers than the U.S.

In life sciences, our brands are not attracting this type of tech talent. Recent graduates don’t know that there’s phenomenal organizations [in life science] doing good for the world, and they decide to work for Amazon or Google because of the brand recognition. That’s the No. 1 problem. Number two is time zone. We’ve dealt with that for many years, and what have companies done? They go the other side of the world and hire people working 12 hours ahead. That sounds like a great idea except as you start growing, somebody (on the U.S. side) has to be awake in the middle of the night or super early in the morning. It’s not scalable.

Having an office in Tijuana, people can cross the border and be back home in San Diego for dinner. Managers could visit their teams every day if they wanted to. And similarly, employees in Tijuana could come to headquarters in San Diego. This is very seamless cross-pollination. Then there’s the cost—more recently, because of economic conditions and budget constraints, companies are finding that it is cost-friendlier than hiring here in the U.S.

As part of my job, a lot of my time goes into talking with potential clients and letting them know this is a great opportunity and competitive edge. There’s a gap between perception and reality, and I like to say that gap is an opportunity. A part of our process to get companies acquainted is we bring them to Tijuana. I try to replicate my own experience because I was once in their shoes. Then they see our beautiful facility [in the heart of Zona Rio] and tell me, ‘Wow! It feels like a site in the Bay Area.’

As I was progressing in my career, it was very lonely. I was the one woman in my class. I never met a CEO who was Hispanic, or a woman for that matter. I made my own way, and I wish I had a plan. I wish I had role models that could have helped me and clarify what is it that I wanted to do. I did find sponsors and people who believed in me, but I think we could do better having more role models early on. We have to make sure that these kids who are about to go to college and are making those important decisions have a plan.

A report from the Pew Research Center in 2021 says Hispanics made up only 8 percent of the life science workforce in the U.S. What is one thing that life science companies could be or should be doing to address this diversity gap?

I was recently in a meeting with local officials talking about this very topic, the fact that Hispanics represent 40 percent of the population. What’s concerning is that a lot of Hispanics in San Diego are not acquiring college degrees, but Hispanics will be the majority of the population. That’s a threat to the economy, quite frankly, having the majority of your population not getting access to college or these types of jobs. This problem is bigger than life sciences.

We have a program where we train students on the job, and we partner with every university [in the region]. So far, we’ve brought on about 300 students who are one to two years away from graduation, and they are from all engineering careers, not just software. They spend a full year with us and they work 30 hours a week. When they graduate, we offer them a job—95 percent of people going through this program now has a full-time job. We also have coding boot camps that last just a few weeks, and we go deep into the specific skills. In the end, they have a completed project that can help get them a job. If people have the will, they will learn. We have to provide the access to free training and remove barriers.

What was the biggest challenge that you’ve had to overcome in your career?

The lack of a role model. I grew up in Ecuador. I was the first generation to go to college. My dad always told me to go to college, but he never told me to study computer science or what to major in because he didn’t know. We didn’t even own a computer at home. So again, it was back to luck. When I arrived at college and they asked about my career track, I said I didn’t know. The woman at the office said: ‘We do have computer science that has these labs, and you can access the computer there.’ I thought, ‘that sounds fun. I’ll take that!’

But as I was progressing in my career, it was very lonely. I was the one woman in my class. I never met a CEO who was Hispanic, or a woman for that matter. I made my own way, and I wish I had a plan. I wish I had role models that could have helped me and clarify what is it that I wanted to do. I did find sponsors and people who believed in me, but I think we could do better having more role models early on. We have to make sure that these kids who are about to go to college and are making those important decisions have a plan.

What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you, and why is it important that we all celebrate it?

Part of my personal passion is giving back to my community. I believe Hispanics have much, much more to offer. There’s this perception about Hispanics in this country—if you think about who’s your nanny, or your cleaner, or your gardener, typically it’s someone of Hispanic descent. I want to change that dynamic.

I want to take this opportunity to bring the jobs of the future to Hispanics. I want us to really show who we are and what we are capable of. And I want Hispanics to feel very proud of where they come from.

For example, our mascot is of a jaguar. But if you look at it, you can see the ITJ logo embedded in it. I picked this because it looks Mayan, very ancient. I did a little bit of research, and the jaguar was one of the kings of some ancient civilizations in Latin America. The jaguar is agile, very brave, and is not afraid of challenges or obstacles. That exemplified the face that I want us to show to the world, and we have to believe it. This month is the perfect time to showcase that and to celebrate.

What piece of advice would you give to a young person who wants to start a career in this industry?

Just do it, don’t think twice. I don’t think you can find any other better opportunity than this field—imagine contributing to eliminating or eradicating cancer, improving the quality of patients’ lives, helping provide personalized medicine to people—what’s not to love? Take your chance and start. There are opportunities, like I mentioned before, such as internships. Take some training, go to college, and just get involved. There’s really no better place to make an impact in people’s lives.