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'We're In A Race For Talent': Mass. High-Skilled Visa Workaround Back In Budget04:30

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It's not easy to "win" a visa in the high-skilled labor market.

The application period for those coveted so-called H-1B visas began earlier this month and the annual quota was maxed out in just a week.

Here in Massachusetts, some entrepreneurs are trying to work around the system through an experiment called the Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program.

'We're In A Race For Talent'

The program was introduced by former Gov. Deval Patrick last year as the first of its kind in the country. But it was cut earlier this year as Gov. Charlie Baker tried to balance a $768 million budget deficit he inherited when he took office. Baker requested $100,000 for the program in his FY16 budget proposal, and the budget approved by the House Wednesday honors that request.

At least three communities in different states are now working to implement similar ideas. And just last month Colorado announced a nearly identical scheme.

So how does this Entrepreneur in Residence Program work and why are other states trying to copy it? The program was the brainchild of Boston venture capitalist Jeff Bussgang.

"The catalyst was when the immigration reform efforts in Washington failed," Bussgang told me when we met at his swanky Back Bay offices. "We're in a race for talent."

Bussgang's idea links up foreign entrepreneurs with a local university.

"If you volunteer five to 10 hours a week, where you're mentoring students, teaching, what have you, you can then be officially affiliated with that university," he explained.

And that affiliation is key.

"By being tied to a university you are, in effect, given a free pass," Bussgang said.

It's a little-known loophole in the H-1B visa process: Universities are exempt from the quota. And once you've gotten that H-1B visa you're free to stay in the country and work on your startup.

For Bussgang, this idea was more than a public policy question, it was personal.

"I teach at Harvard Business School," he said. "And at the end of my class I would have all these incredibly brilliant students come up to me and tell me about their startups that they were working on, and yet they couldn't stay to launch those startups here in the U.S. when they've been spending the last two years working on these startups right under our own roof."

Attracting And Retaining Entrepreneurs 

One of those students was 31-year-old Bryan O'Connell from Ireland. He's a guy who dresses like many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs — a casual button-down shirt and sneakers. O'Connell had wanted to snag an H-1B visa and use it to start a company in the American health care sector.

Bryan O'Connell, of Ireland, is one of the first two people to go through the state's Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program. (Asma Khalid/WBUR)
Bryan O'Connell, of Ireland, is one of the first two people to go through the state's Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program. (Asma Khalid/WBUR)

"The plan had been to build a company in the U.S., specifically I was thinking Bay Area at the time," O'Connell said. "But the visa system intervened, so I ended up actually just moving back to Ireland for a while."

Then one day O'Connell saw a tweet from Bussgang about the state's Entrepreneur in Residence Program.

With state funding, UMass Boston agreed to sponsor O'Connell's visa and within weeks he was back in the U.S. He's one of the first two people to go through this pilot program.

Part of the deal is that he works out of the Venture Development Center at UMass Boston, mentoring for a few hours a week.

It’s one of the lowest paying jobs O’Connell says he’s had in years, but he doesn’t mind — he gets a visa and the chance to launch his company in the U.S., which he’s now doing. The company is called FirstLine and O’Connell describes it as a sort of online doctor’s office on demand.

"The company is a technology platform that allows consumers to connect directly with doctors. So for minor illness treatments or simple prescriptions, consumers can text or video chat with a doctor and be immediately put in contact and have a prescription sent to their local pharmacy," he explained.

Already O'Connell has two full-time employees. He intends to move them to Massachusetts and base his company in Boston.

O'Connell is sort of shy but blunt, and he admits that if it weren't for his visa situation, his startup would likely live entirely in California

"You know, I like Boston, spent a lot of time here, went to school here, but the visa played a huge role," he said.

And Bussgang knows that.

"These entrepreneurs, they're going to start these companies no matter what, they're just gonna do them outside of the U.S. or outside of the state if we don't put something in place like this to attract them and retain them," Bussgang said.

Gov. Baker proposed $100,000 in his FY16 budget plan for the Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program, which Bussgang estimates would bring in five more immigrants next year. Without government funding, the program could theoretically continue with private funds.

But Bussgang prefers the state's stamp of approval to send a signal that this workaround is legal, and foreign entrepreneurs are welcome in Massachusetts.

Lawmakers on Beacon Hill are still debating the budget, so the definitive financial future of the program is unclear, but the House budget includes the $100,000 requested by Gov. Baker.

Asma Khalid Reporter
Asma Khalid was formerly a reporter at WBUR.

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