Bringing Hi-Tech Entrepreneurs to the U.S.

As we often have noted in this space, immigrant entrepreneurship has been a driving force in technological innovation and job creation in recent years. Immigrant entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley seem to grab most of the headlines, partly because it’s home to household names like Google, Sun Microsystems, Yahoo!, Intel, and so on – all of which had foreign-born founders – partly because a critical mass of high-tech entrepreneurial talent has coalesced there, drawing kindred spirits from around the world, feeding off each other’s creative energy.

Naturally, many other parts of the country want their own piece of the action, and are taking steps to lure the best and brightest high-tech entrepreneurs from overseas. One such effort is New York City’s NYC Next Idea, an international business plan competition, which awards cash prizes to the winning teams, and provides them with a platform for turning their great ideas into reality: six months of free office space in New York City. (See Mayor Bloomberg Announces Winners of NYC Next Idea Global Business Plan Competition, Press Release by Stu Loeser, Andrew Brent and Julie Wood, New York City Economic Development Corporation, 08.Apr.2011.) According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), teams from around the world – each representing leading business and engineering schools – submit a business plan that is judged by a panel of NYC-based venture capitalists, who select the winners based on which proposal they would be most likely to fund.

Of the six finalist teams, two were from India. A team from the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad devised FoodShrink, a mobile phone application to help people make healthier dietary choices, while a team from the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras proposed a guidance and navigation system to help blind pedestrians get around New York safely.  According to the New York Daily News, the winners were selected from a field of 150 competitors from around the world. (See Mayor Bloomberg Urges U.S. Immigration Restriction Reform After International Tech Students Contest, by Adam Lisberg, New York Daily News, 11.Apr.2011.)

According to the Daily News, “Bloomberg used the event to call again to reform U.S. immigration restrictions, which he said had scared away entrepreneurs the country needs to attract.” Mayor Bloomberg’s comments bear repeating, as one of the few prominent politicians still willing to speak publicly about the economic benefits of immigration, and still beating the drum for immigration reform:

“When it comes to big ideas, there is no better launching pad than New York City. Talented entrepreneurs from across the globe entered this competition with the goal of getting help to establish their ventures in the City. We want them and other budding business leaders from around the world to start their ventures here, and one of the most important things we need to make that a reality is immigration reform. Without sensible changes to immigration laws, we risk missing out on the next big thing. That would be a big loss for our City’s economy or our country’s future.”

Mayor Bloomberg is not making this up. The need for immigration reform remains pressing. A case in point: a recent Wall Street Journal article about Bostjan Spetic, a Slovenian entrepreneur who was sent home, due to visa problems, just after he had raised $3 million from investors to launch his New York-based software company – Zemanta – into the big leagues. (See Back in the USA, Zemanta CEO Pushes for Visa Reform, Wall Street Journal, 04.Apr.2011.)

According to the Wall Street Journal, Spetic was originally admitted on an L1A visa, for intracompany executive transfers, but the USCIS determined Zemanta’s New York office was not big enough for him to use this type of visa. He returned on an L1B visa, the Wall Street Journal reports, on the grounds that he has specialized knowledge that is vital to his firm. Spetic told the WSJ that, in spite of the business justification for him to be here, there was no guarantee he would be let back in, and he called the process “frustrating and irrational.” The article notes in closing that Zemanta has now raised $6 million in start-up capital.

The good news is that Spetic is back in the U.S., and should be able to proceed with his business plan – but one can’t help wondering how many other foreign-born entrepreneurs have been kept out, merely because our immigration system has not been brought up to date. Mayor Bloomberg is right: as forward-looking as they are, innovative programs like NYC Next Idea are a great start, but no substitute for meaningful immigration reforms.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.