When Amar Sawhney came from India in 1987 to study chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin), he had little but the few hundred dollars his mother had given him after selling her jewelry. Three decades later, he is a successful researcher, inventor, and serial entrepreneur who has registered more than 120 patents; built eight thriving businesses; created surgical products used by about 5 million patients; and who employs more than 200 people. But to achieve this success — and make such important contributions to the fields of U.S. medicine and biotechnology, Sawhney had to struggle with cumbersome immigration policies.
After graduating from UT-Austin with a master’s degree, he was rejected by 30 companies to which he applied. This had nothing to do with his abilities but the fact that none of them wanted to take on the stress or expense of sponsoring his guest-worker visa. “I was nixed even before I had a chance to present my credentials,” he says.
Dismayed, Sawhney was considered returning to India when his advisor offered him a position as a doctoral researcher. Over the next few years, Sawhney earned a PhD — and, through his doctoral research, helped invent a series of groundbreaking synthetic adhesives with wide-ranging surgical and medical applications. Soon, local venture capitalists caught wind of Sawhney’s work and started a company to commercialize his inventions, eventually sponsoring Sawhney and H-1B visa for high-skilled workers. They also sponsored his green card so he could join the new firm.
Since then, Sawhney has founded five more companies and licensed his technology to support the launch of two additional firms. One, Confluent Surgical, was subsequently acquired by Coridian for $250 million. Another, Augmenix, where Sawhney is still chairman, was ranked the third fastest growing company in Massachusetts in the Inc. 500 Index and has revenues of around $25 million a year. “They’ve all been reasonably successful,” Sawhney says, modestly.
For these accomplishments, the White House named Sawhney a Champion for Change in 2013 and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service honored him as an Outstanding American by Choice.
The fact that Sawhney chose to stay in the United States instead of relocating to countries with friendlier immigration policies has been good not just for the Massachusetts economy but for the many patients who have benefited from his products. Doctors use Sawhney’s sealants for cancer treatment, in complex surgical and cardiology procedures, and to prevent post-surgical scarring. “They’ve gone on to create products used in four to five million patients, hopefully creating value for the patients whose lives they touch,” Sawhney says.
Science and technology right now is significantly powered by the immigrant community.
The holding company that administers Sawhney’s intellectual property also serves as a boutique accelerator for med-tech entrepreneurs, providing support and strategic advice to young researchers and businesspeople. Sawhney has worked closely with more than half a dozen startups, including one with a new treatment for stroke patients, and he has informally mentored countless others. “We’re interested in providing business advice and strategic support, to improve the odds of success for the entrepreneurs,” he says. “What’s important to us is to maintain a 100-percent track record and ensure that no failures happen on our watch.”
Sawhney’s contributions are a sign of what is at stake when the United States discusses immigration reform. Immigrants found companies at substantially higher rates in America than do U.S. born residents. Even when excluding large, publicly traded firms, businesses owned by immigrants employed more than 5.9 million workers in 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available. “Immigrant founders are more likely to succeed,” Sawhney says. “They’re hungrier, and they’re less weighed down by having a lot, so they’re willing to take more risks.”
In Massachusetts, nearly 40 percent of doctoral students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), fields that drive high-tech innovation — are foreign-born. “If we curtail immigration altogether or make it significantly harder for skilled immigrants to come to the country, it’ll for sure slow down innovation,” Sawhney says. “Science and technology right now is significantly powered by the immigrant community.”
What is needed, Sawhney says, is immigration reform that creates a carefully balanced system of data-driven, merit-based immigration policies with enough flexibility to allow immigrants entry for humanitarian reasons. “It’s not a black and white issue. We have to be nuanced about how to manage skilled immigration,” he says. “But if you had zero immigration, you’d have a stagnant society and fewer new ideas. You’d be losing on every front.”