The United States has a proud history of providing entrepreneurs from around the world the freedom and resources to help an idea become a successful venture. Familiar U.S. companies such as Google, Yahoo, Intel, Pfizer and eBay all began as startups founded by immigrants and grew into multibillion-dollar industry leaders that now provide thousands of Americans with high-paying jobs in cutting-edge fields.
America’s ability to nurture another Google or Pfizer is now at risk, however. In the words of Robert Litan, vice president of research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurship, “the startup engine is sputtering” — at a time when we badly need it revved to get our economy going again.
The number of jobs offered by startups is dropping off partly because of the economic downturn and partly because of our nation’s broken immigration system. Many of the world’s best and brightest minds are finding that our current visa restrictions discourage them from launching new companies here. This is a major competitive disadvantage, and one that runs counter to our nation’s history of fostering foreign-born innovators — think Albert Einstein or Andrew Carnegie, for example.
More worrisome is that while we try to work out a solution, our foreign competitors are catching up and, in some cases, passing us by in many of the fields in which we once dominated. In 2009, for the first time in recent memory, non-U.S. innovators earned more patents (around 96,000) than did Americans (93,000). Only a decade earlier, U.S. innovators were awarded almost 57 percent of all patents worldwide.
Litan and other economic experts argue that one solution is to encourage the best and the brightest innovators to found companies here in the United States. I agree. Two years ago, I joined with Democratic Sen. John Kerry and Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in co-sponsoring the StartUp Visa Act, a bill we have reintroduced this year with the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several other business groups.
Our bipartisan bill creates a new visa category that allows immigrant entrepreneurs and foreign graduates from U.S. universities to appeal for a two-year visa on the condition that they secure financing from a qualified U.S. investor and can demonstrate the ability to create American jobs.
If they’re successful in growing their company and hiring American workers, they would be eligible for legal permanent residency and free to continue growing their companies, creating more home-grown jobs and carrying on our national legacy of unmatched innovation and entrepreneurship.
Evidence of the advantage of encouraging innovators to remain in the United States is right in our own backyard. The Canadian founders of Vanilla Forums, an innovative and fast-growing company, whose products are used by websites around the world to host online forum discussions, spent a summer in Boulder participating in a mentorship program with U.S.-based entrepreneurs and investors. Though numerous investors were interested funding Vanilla Forums and helping grow the company from right here in Colorado, concerns about the founders’ ability to obtain visas won over. As a result, Vanilla Forums is a successful company that is hiring employees at its headquarters ... in Montreal, Quebec.
The good news is that America has tremendous potential for growth and innovation — as we have demonstrated many times in the past — that can create jobs and reassert our global leadership position. We remain the world’s economic leader and as such, the best place to start and grow a successful business. Colorado in particular, with our highly educated populace, vast resources and quality of life, is well positioned to win the global economic race.
The StartUp Visa Act, one of several fiscally responsible proposals I have pushed, would spur private investment and help get our economy back on track.
While I continue to believe that broader reform of our immigration system is long overdue, this fix is important to ensure we don’t unnecessarily hinder the innovators and entrepreneurs who will help drive America’s future economy and job creation.
Mark Udall is the senior United States Senator from Colorado.