With more foreign-born students now returning to booming economies in countries such as China and India, the local tech community has hopes for a proposed bill that pitches a let's-make-a-deal plan for immigrant entrepreneurs: Want a green card? Start a company.
Legislation soon to be reintroduced in Congress is designed to stop the brain drain suffered by Pittsburgh and other cities from spilling over the coasts and into foreign countries.
The StartUp Visa Act targets startup efforts across all sectors, but enthusiasm for the bill is especially acute in tech communities like Pittsburgh that see an outsize number of foreign-born students who want to stay and develop a company.
But these new visas -- a permanent resident card (or "green card") called an EB-6 -- aren't available to any immigrant with a good idea. To qualify, an entrepreneur would need to raise at least $250,000 from investors, and over two years create at least five full-time jobs in the United States, attract $1 million in additional investment or surpass revenue of $1 million.
The effort aligns with the Obama administration's new assault on unemployment -- and intersects with many of the trends that local leaders credit for Pittsburgh's growing tech presence: support for state-funded incubating programs, a drive in academia toward commercializing research and a city campaign to keep potential workers from fleeing for large firms in Silicon Valley.
Visa programs currently in place offer incentives to only foreign investors; this would be the first time an early-stage entrepreneur could build a business plan toward citizenship.
With so many foreign-born students coming to Pittsburgh to attend college, the local tech community is angling for the bill's passage, but critics warn that the legislation's benefits could bypass Pittsburgh and provide only a boost to areas already hogging most investment activity.
The StartUp Visa Act was introduced by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., last February. Interest was revived following President Barack Obama's State of the Union address. The senators plan to reintroduce the bill "probably in the next month or so," said Mark Helmke, a spokesman for Sen. Lugar.
The most recent research on immigrant-founded firms, headed by Duke University researcher Vivek Wadhwa, concluded that immigrants started 14 percent of the companies founded between 1995 and 2005 in Pennsylvania. While the national average was just over 25 percent, the research team found 52 percent of Silicon Valley firms were started by immigrants.
Pennsylvania's numbers on immigrant-founded companies have most likely grown as local organizations have stepped up efforts to retain students at local colleges.
The Pittsburgh Technology Council has been following the legislation since it was introduced last year, and an open invitation from the council for both senators to visit Pittsburgh still stands, said president Audrey Russo.
When student visas expire, she said, oftentimes the worker will either have to return home or find a job at a large company that can afford the legal fees and costs that come with sponsoring a visa. The new legislation could change that.
"This targets the individuals that aren't going to a big company but have had the opportunity to get a little immersed to start testing their hypothesis," she said.
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