How Universities Are Leveraging H-1B Visas To Fuel Startup Hubs

As obtaining an H-1B visa becomes more difficult due to the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration and work visas, universities around the country are tapping into a creative way to legally attract and retain foreign talent: the Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program (GEIR).

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Started by the University of Massachusetts Venture Development Center in Boston, the program invites foreign entrepreneurs to work part-time at a school, either as a mentor or an adjunct professor. In return, entrepreneurs may get a cap-exempt H-1B visa that gives them the latitude to work on their own startups when not fulfilling university duties. The idea is that the foreign-born entrepreneur stays in the program for about two years, or until they secure a green card or another visa.

The program is looking for founders that want to start their own companies, according to William Brah, the founder and executive director of the UMass branch. In their case, the majority of startups born out of the program have been tech-focused. Some of the startups born out of this program include Ori Systems, Enigma, and Loggr.

A year after UMass experimented with the program, a few venture capitalists—like Brad Feld, co-chair of Foundry Group and Jeff Bussgang, co-chair of Flybridge Capital—got together and created a national organization: the Global EIR (GEIR) coalition, said Brah.

In recent years, other colleges have hopped on, including the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

Craig Montuori, the executive director of GEIR, added that the program gives universities the chance to support their immigrant students while also boosting their own local ecosystems. It’s the economic advantage of having an entrepreneurship hub that has truly “pushed the needle” of inspiring diverse institutions to partner with the program.

“Boston is very special [because of its] student talent and venture capital and entrepreneurial ecosystem” said Jeff Bussgang, a co-founder of GEIR. “But if you’re another city and you want to create that ecosystem—this is a fantastic tool.”

Cities like St. Louis, Anchorage, and most recently, Albuquerque are installing the program as a way of feeding back into their local ecosystems.

“While there was a lot of rhetoric in support of solving the startup visa program,” Montuori said. “There wasn’t much of a market for it.”

According to Montuori, the Albuquerque branch will be the first branch that is not through a university. It is going to be started by InnovateABQ,  a a public-private partnership created to develop downtown Albuquerque. It “is looking to revitalize the downtown with newer businesses forming and taking space there,” he added.

UMass gives them proof that the bet might actually work. Since starting in 2014, the UMass chapter has given 50 entrepreneurs the chance to start their company here. Those companies have raised over $416,442,265 in funding and created about 847 jobs, according to Brah.

Bussgang added that there are exceptions where the entrepreneur may not start their own company, but instead join a company: this happened once when Pill Pack, recently acquired by Amazon, needed a data scientist. So GEIR fed one in.

Can Kisagun, the founder of San Francisco startup Enigma, which wants to enable public blockchains to handle sensitive data, went through the UMass program in 2017.

He said that he spent part-time working in San Francisco on his startup and part time back in Boston giving back to the university. Since graduating from the program, his team has grown to 16 people. They raised $45 million last summer in an ICO, led by Pantera Capital, a Blockchain investment fund.

When asked about the success of GEIR in University of Alaska, Anchorage, executive director Christi Bell explained that, for them, GEIR was never about “launching a certain number of businesses or engaging a certain number of students.” Instead, it was about identifying blind spots and creating an ecosystem of entrepreneurs.

Update: A quote was amended for clarity. The change is marked with brackets.

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