Radiology researcher Anthony Chang came to the United States from Taiwan in the 1990s to study at Vanderbilt and Yale, earned a PhD in experimental physics from the University of Texas, and was hired to direct the imaging laboratory at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, where he researched new ways to spot cancer cells. Now, having finally gained a green card, he’s starting his own business to commercialize technologies that could revolutionize the way doctors diagnose and treat a wide range of ailments. “I want to change the way we practice medicine,” he says. “That’s why I decided to start a company, using my experience in the field to really make something happen.”
Chang’s company, Rethink Imaging, is developing software and new chemical markers that will allow clinicians to use PET scanners to monitor metabolic processes in real time, showing how tumors and other diseases are progressing and whether treatments are working. Chang says his technology—which he conservatively estimates will bring in $15-20 million in revenues within three years—will eventually wind up in every hospital in the world. If planned clinical trials yield positive results, Chang says, the licensing fees for new chemical markers could catapult the company’s revenues into the $300- to $500-million-a-year range.
He could have done more, and sooner, if he hadn’t been limited by his visa status.
While Chang is excited about his company’s potential, he’s frustrated that his visa made it impossible for him to get started sooner. “The reason I waited until last year to start building my own business is that I only got my green card last year, after 15 years in the United States,” he says. “That gave me the freedom to create more impact.” Chang says he could have done more, and sooner, if he hadn’t been limited by his visa status. He’s mentored college students and volunteered in STEM programs for disadvantaged high school students, but has had to pass up on consultancy work and collaborative projects with other researchers because of visa restrictions. “My hands were tied,” he says. “I could have contributed so much more.”
Chang says America is the best country in the world to be a high-tech researcher and entrepreneur—but during his time here, he’s seen many of his foreign-born peers forced to return to their home countries due to immigration problems. “I was lucky—my specialty’s kind of unique, so it was relatively easy for me to find a job,” he says. But many of Chang’s classmates from the elite institutions he’s attended—people with advanced degrees in business, science, or computer engineering—struggled to get employment visas and wound up returning to their home countries. “It’s a total waste,” he says. “That’s what immigration reform should focus on—it doesn’t make sense to me.”
What’s needed, Chang argues, is a more streamlined process to allow highly educated workers to stay in the United States, and more flexible rules to allow graduates to start their own businesses or collaborate with others, rather than tying themselves to a single employer. “The people who come to the U.S. for grad school are the top students from their own countries, and another country has already paid to give them that foundation,” he says. “If they stay here, they can make a big contribution to society. But the immigration laws right now are stopping them [from] doing that. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to keep these people here and give them the opportunity to maximize their contribution to America.”