Venture capitalists open-source new visa approach for foreign-born founders

UMass Boston hosts the Global Entrepreneur in Residence program.
UMass Boston hosts the Global Entrepreneur in Residence program.

Don’t expect this kind of zippy action from your Congress…

After having breakfast on Wednesday at the Mandarin Oriental in Boston, venture capitalists Brad Feld and Jeff Bussgang decided to “open-source” a novel strategy for creating more H1-B visas for entrepreneurs that was developed here in Massachusetts. By the end of the day, Bussgang had created the Global EIR Coaltion website, which urges other states to adopt the approach as a way of making it easier for founders to stay in the United States as they build their companies — something the current visa system can make complex and challenging.

The H1-B visa allows a high-skilled worker to stay in the United States for six years (and that term can be extended.) But they’re in limited supply: this year, 233,000 people applied for the 85,000 visas available.

Feld, an MIT alum and partner at Boulder, Colo.-based Foundry Group, and Bussgang, a partner at Flybridge Capital Partners in the Back Bay, are less interested in the super-talented programmers or biologists who typically apply for H1-Bs with help from their employers. They want to create more visas that will let founders stay in the States to start companies.

And here’s the interesting hack: by working in a part-time capacity for a university, these entrepreneurs can get an H1-B visa that isn’t part of that limited pool. The rest of the time, they can work on their startup. A pilot program began in Massachusetts last year at UMass. But state funding to cover the $30,000 to $50,000 in legal fees and the university’s salary costs for each entrepreneur has been tenuous. Right now, Bussgang says, there are so far only two of these “Global Entrepreneurs in Residence” in Massachusetts; at Colorado University, Feld has agreed to personally fund up to four, with a bit of additional funding from the university itself.

Bussgang says he hopes to raise money in Massachusetts to fund more, since there’s no limit on how many of these founders universities can host. “Given [Michael] Bloomberg and [Mark] Zuckerburg’s support of this issue nationally, I am hoping that we can garner some modest local funds,” he says.

Here’s Feld’s post on the new Global Entrepreneur in Residence Coalition, and here’s Bussgang’s. The goal of the new non-profit, Feld writes, is “to open source our approach and try to help every state in the US implement a similar program.”

“Brad and I have been friends and working together for many years,” says Bussgang. “We are co-investors at Dragon, Mattermark, and Techstars Boston, and he has been a guest in my Harvard Business School class for many years. And we have collaborated on various policy issues, including net neutrality and immigration reform, so this didn’t come out of the blue.”

In 2012, I wrote about how jumping through immigration hoops can make life difficult for those who want to start companies in Boston.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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