Standing under fluorescent lights at a San Francisco hospital, employees of Medisas Inc. were celebrating the debut of their medical records software. It was the product of two years of planning, coding, and countless meetings with hospital administrators, all driven by Gautam Sivakumar, the startup’s founder and chief executive officer. But Sivakumar spent that day at a computer in his childhood bedroom in England.
His face appeared on an iPad via video chat as colleagues toted him around the hospital “like a baby,” he recalled. “I’d say, ‘I need to talk to that person. Can you take me over there?’” The awkward arrangement was a byproduct of an all-too common phenomenon among U.S. tech startups: immigration limbo.
When it comes to starting businesses, immigrants do more than their fair share. While 13 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born, 24 percent of tech and engineering companies created between 2006 and 2012 had an immigrant founder, according to the Kauffman Foundation, a researcher that advocates for entrepreneurs. In Silicon Valley, the figure was 44 percent. Among those founders are WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum and Instagram’s technical lead, Mike Krieger. Kunal Bahl returned home to India to build e-commerce company Snapdeal after failing to secure a U.S. visa upon graduating from Wharton. Snapdeal was valued at $5 billion by investors last year and employs more than 4,000 people.
There is no visa specifically designed for foreigners who start companies in the U.S. A six-year effort to create one died in Congress last year. Legislation won’t have a chance at passing until at least 2017 and more likely not until 2022, said Craig Montuori, an advocate for reform who estimates that hundreds of founders in the U.S. are struggling to get federal work authorization. “We got a lot of support on Capitol Hill and very little opposition, but few people were willing to make it a priority,” he said.