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The Boston Globe

Business

INNOVATION ECONOMY

Grind of getting US visa hobbles building business

Jay Meattle’s Shareaholic helps people share online content they find interesting.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Jay Meattle’s Shareaholic helps people share online content they find interesting.

In early 2010, it seemed like all of the stars were aligning for Jay Meattle. He had raised several hundred thousand dollars from investors in Boston for his start-up, Shareaholic. And the company, which enables people to easily share online content they find interesting, had just passed the milestone of 1 million users.

But in March of that year, Citizen and Immigration Services denied Meattle’s request for a visa to continue working in this country. And so Meattle, a Tufts University alumnus, was forced to move back to his native India. And he wound up using the money that he raised here to start building Shareaholic’s team in New Delhi.

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It’s not hard to find other entrepreneurs who would prefer to build companies in Massachusetts, but are doing so instead in Israel, France, Canada, or elsewhere because they can’t get visas.

The two major presidential candidates agree that to keep our economy growing, we ought to grant more visas to entrepreneurs, and people who have earned advanced degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) from American universities. So do the candidates for Massachusetts’ US Senate seat, Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren. So do many members of the House and Senate, both Democrat and Republican.

So why hasn’t there been any action on an issue that’s so vital to ensuring our country stays on the cutting edge of innovation?

First, a few data points. Only about 25,000 graduates with STEM degrees would stay in the United States each year, if they were allowed, according to the Technology Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. That’s not a big number (about 1 million people get permanent resident status each year), but it could make a big difference to fast-growing companies that need their talents.

According to the National Chamber Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the US Chamber of Commerce, skilled immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start a business than US natives. But a report issued in October by the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City found the percentage of immigrant-founded companies has declined noticeably in Silicon Valley, falling to 44 percent from 52 percent of all companies in 2005.

From the perspective of entrepreneurs and recent graduates, the process of getting a visa is slow, expensive, time-consuming, and often unsuccessful.

Pablo Fernandez is the cofounder of Skillhound, a Cambridge start-up that helps employers recruit software developers, and a native of Argentina. Unable to get a visa in the United States, he is instead hoping to move to Canada, where it is easier for entrepreneurs to get visas.

Entrepreneurs who come here to participate in programs intended to spur start-up activity in Massachusetts also encounter problems. Chris Howard, a British citizen, participated in the three-month-long TechStars Boston program earlier this year, but his cofounder was only able to stay in the country for three weeks.

Since then, their company, Libboo, has raised $1.1 million for a service that helps people discover books they will enjoy. But Howard recently had his own visa request denied. “Because I don’t have an MBA, they said I wasn’t qualified to be starting a company,” he says. (Howard holds a PhD in computational physics.)

Even investors seeking to support fledgling US businesses can have trouble gaining entry.

One Massachusetts entrepreneur and angel investor who has worked for a succession of mobile advertising start-ups, told me that as a Canadian citizen, she was at times unable to get into the United States to meet with companies she hoped to fund, since she no longer had a work visa after leaving her last employer. (This person requested anonymity as she irons out her visa issues, so as not to attract additional scrutiny from Customs and Border Protection.)

Legislation like the StartUp Visa Act and Startup Act 2.0 has been introduced in Congress, with support from Massachusetts senators John Kerry and Scott Brown.

But neither bill has made it out of committee. (The latter bill would provide a green card to graduates with a master’s degree or PhD in STEM fields, and create a new entrepreneur’s visa for immigrants launching businesses.)

“If Congress truly cares about job creation, this is an easy, no-cost way to do it,” says Representative Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat who was part of a bipartisan group that introduced Startup Act 2.0 in the House. “We’re absolute idiots as a country for forcing people to create jobs elsewhere.”

“Irrespective of who’s in the White House, and who controls the House and Senate after the election, we still need to make sure we’re the world’s most entrepreneurial nation,” says Steve Case, the America Online founder who is chairman of the Startup America Partnership, a nonprofit that promotes entrepreneurial activity.

Concerns about illegal immigrants entering the country to work in low-skilled jobs have overshadowed the issue of entrepreneurs and people who have earned advanced degrees here, according to Case.

“Up to this point, politics has trumped policy,” he says.

This September, after spending more than $10,000 in attorney fees and assembling a visa application that ran several hundred pages, Shareholic founder Meattle finally got a visa to work here for three years. He shut down the New Delhi office, and now has nine employees in Cambridge.

“Ultimately, entrepreneurs usually figure out how to make it work,” Meattle says. “Maybe that’s part of the entrepreneur’s DNA. But immigration is quite frankly the last thing anyone wants to be thinking about as they’re building a company. The US government should do all they can to encourage more entrepreneurs to stay.”

Almost anyone you can vote for on Tuesday agrees.

But it’s up to us to urge our elected representatives to upend the status quo when it comes to immigrant entrepreneurs and highly educated STEM workers in the months following Election Day.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @Scott.Kirsner.
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