Startup Visa Alternative Gives Foreign Entrepreneurs A Workaround : All Tech Considered Immigration advocates often tout how many startups are founded by foreigners. Yet the U.S. does not offer startup visas. Some entrepreneurs turn to a program started as an experiment in Massachusetts.
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Without A Special Visa, Foreign Startup Founders Turn To A Workaround

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Without A Special Visa, Foreign Startup Founders Turn To A Workaround

Without A Special Visa, Foreign Startup Founders Turn To A Workaround

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's one thing we mean when we say that America is a nation of immigrants. Immigration advocates contend that about half of the most lucrative startup businesses in this country were founded by immigrants. But it is complicated for a foreigner to start a company in this country. There is no such thing as a startup visa. And so some entrepreneurs have begun hacking the immigration system, as Asma Khalid of WBUR reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Paolo Melo lived most of his life in Portugal. He only came to the U.S. a few years ago for his Ph.D. at MIT. When he graduated, he created doDOC. The startup helps pharmaceutical companies streamline communication. Melo wanted to build his company in Boston, but there was one major problem - his visa or lack of a visa.

PAOLO MELO: There's a lot of things in motion when you're building a company. You're learning a lot. And at the same time, you have to deal with your visa. And a lot of times, it takes a lot of your time and energy.

KHALID: When I meet Melo on a busy street in Cambridge, he tells me he remembers feeling so stressed out.

MELO: There's some days where you feel like it's too much. And you have to put in the hours and you don't sleep. And, well, you know, that's - you kind of chose it that way. You know the rules.

KHALID: The rules he's talking about are immigration laws. Usually employers sponsor work visas. But Melo was his own employer. He didn't have anyone to sponsor him. So when he heard about this wonky workaround at the University of Massachusetts in Boston called the Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program, he jumped at it.

MELO: It was through that program that, you know, I was able to stay longer in the country.

KHALID: He says it's changed his life.

MELO: Otherwise I wouldn't have been here. I couldn't have done what I've done at a personal level, at a professional level.

KHALID: Melo's startup now has deals with some big pharma and has hired employees in Massachusetts and Texas. The visa program that helped him began as an experiment in 2014. Back then, there were just two foreigners enrolled. Since then, there have been more than three dozen. Here's how it works. The university sponsors Melo on an H-1B visa. Those are the visas for high-skilled workers. They're usually capped for tech companies but not for colleges.

Technically, startup founders are employed by the university. But really, they get to build their business in the U.S. And on campus, you'll see foreign-born entrepreneurs mentoring students, giving them feedback on a business proposal, stuff like that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I mean, I can give you some feedback first. But I actually want to ask you guys a question. So did you guys see the Lego blocks?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Building Legos?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Not a building one...

KHALID: This is part of their job. It's the side hustle that makes their visas legitimate. It's all legal, just kind of a loophole that's become systemized. A venture capitalist in Boston, Jeff Bussgang, first came up with the idea.

JEFF BUSSGANG: I was seeing all of these terrific entrepreneurs from overseas be inspired by our innovation ecosystem. And yet, when they wanted to start a company, we were telling them they were not allowed to stay.

KHALID: He initially focused on Massachusetts. But in the last couple of years, the Massachusetts idea has become a model for the tech community nationwide. Near the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder, I meet Craig Montuori. He's a political junkie, a former software engineer and the man responsible for taking the Massachusetts model across the country.

CRAIG MONTUORI: And so you see a lot of people who could be entrepreneurs choosing not to because they see the visa system as being unfriendly or they see no clear path.

KHALID: Montuori is trying to forge a path. He's expanded the program to five states. He sees it as helping the American economy. But the idea of hacking the immigration system can really rub some people the wrong way. Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa says foreigners are colluding with U.S. universities. He refers to the program as a, quote, "exploitation of loopholes in the law."

As for Paolo Melo, the MIT grad from Portugal we met earlier, he's hesitant to talk politics. But he is eager to share an update.

MELO: I applied to the Extraordinary Ability Visa. And I just got a confirmation that it got approved. So that has been great.

KHALID: Melo's story is the ultimate end goal in this program, you eventually snag a rock star visa, the kind basketball players or Nobel laureates use. It's for people at the top of their field so you can stay out of visa limbo long-term. For NPR News, I'm Asma Khalid.

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