From a young age in Belgium, Pierre-Jean Cobut felt inspired by America’s rags-to-riches stories and was sure he belonged in Silicon Valley. In Europe, he says, “There’s not the same culture of risk taking.”
Two years of undergraduate study in the United States confirmed his infatuation, and Cobut got the chance to return in 2012 to attend Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. “The whole thing felt like a dream,” he says. Certainly his work took off like one.
Cobut immediately teamed up with another foreign business student, Elad Ferber, an engineer from Israel, and by August 2013 the pair had launched Echo Labs, a firm that develops wearable healthcare technology. By 2016, Echo Labs had rounded up $7 million in investments and grown to some 15 workers, about half of whom are U.S.-born.
Echo Labs’ wrist-band device uses noninvasive light technology to measure vitals like blood pressure and resipratory rate, and to test the blood’s oxygen, CO2, and acidity levels. Known as an arterial blood-gas panel (ABG), the latter test is critical in determining a patient’s respiratory function, but typically requires equipment available only in a medical office.
In clinical testing the portable Echo Labs device proved just as accurate. “It’s like a Fitbit and a hospital had a baby,” Cobut says. Geared for people with chronic lung or heart disease, the device is already being used by medical researchers to test treatment ideas.
“It creates and stores continuous health data,” Cobut says. “We can get a much better picture of how their condition is evolving, then route them to the right person at the right time so they can act.”
Yet throughout the company’s success, immigration issues have threatened to stall the owners’ dream. Fears that they might be deported proved more stressful than the business itself, says Cobut. “At least with the business you feel like you have some degree of control.”
To me, it doesn’t make sense logically speaking that you would have a bunch of truly smart people who want to contribute—want to build a business, create jobs, and pay taxes—and that they would be rejected.
The pair stayed in the country initially through a program that allows students to work for one year. But because the United States lacks a dedicated entrepreneurship visa, their best option to stay longer was to obtain an H-1B, a visa for high-skilled workers.
Each had only a 35 percent chance of being selected; in 2015, there were 233,000 applicants for 85,000 available H-1B visas. Cobut won an H-1B, extending his residency three years, but Ferber did not. “It’s still a source of stress,” Cobut says. “Before we have a green card, we’re still like Class 2 citizens.”
Echo Labs needed another win in this year’s H-1B lottery to keep a critical employee, a Turkish-born biomedical engineer who’s done groundbreaking work on MRI data analysis. And the company depends on an engineer born in India who became a U.S. citizen after earning his PhD at an American university.
Without immigrant talent, Cobut says, “We wouldn’t be anywhere.”
Cobut views the immigration system as a deep flaw in a country he so admires. “To me, it doesn’t make sense logically speaking that you would have a bunch of truly smart people who want to contribute—want to build a business, create jobs, and pay taxes—and that they would be rejected,” he says, “The immigration system should really be smarter than that.”