Now Is the Time to Press Even Harder for Immigration Reform The case for incentivizing U.S.-educated, foreign-born PhDs to build their businesses in America.

By Matt McCooe

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Late last year, I attended Pitchfest in New Haven where some of Yale University's most innovative life science faculty competed for startup grant money from the Blavatnik Fund. It was a day spent packed into a ballroom and it was electrifying.

One by one, members of Yale's rock star faculty got up and gave eight-minute descriptions of their mind-bending breakthroughs that could eventually save lives. As I watched, something struck me — their accents. Close to half were foreign-born. They were immigrants.

That shouldn't be that all that surprising. Studies have found that nearly half of the founders or co-founders of Fortune 500 corporations are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and last year 51 percent of domestic private companies valued at $1 billion or more — unicorns — had at least one immigrant founder. These companies employ millions.

Related: 5 Important Lessons from Immigrant Entrepreneurs

Think Alexander Graham Bell, who was born in Scotland, or Sergey Brin, the Google co-founder, who came here as a child with his family from the Soviet Union, or Elon Musk, the Tesla founder, who was born in South Africa. Would we prefer that any one of these entrepreneurs have founded their companies somewhere else? I think not.

As the debate begins in Washington over President's Trump's immigration proposal, it is imperative that business and government leaders who are concerned about economic growth press even harder to get this resolved. We need to get beyond arguing about the wall and detention policies and figure out how to get immigrants here who can create jobs and help us fill a labor shortage across the land.

It is crazy for us to continue to educate increasing numbers of foreign-born PhDs in science and engineering, then make it hard for them to stay and force them to reluctantly say goodbye to start businesses in Canada, China or Cameroon.

Related: Immigrant Entrepreneurs Flock to Franchising Opportunities

More H-1B visas are not enough

The H-1B visa program is the traditional way immigrants with at least a bachelor's degree are allowed to stay and work in this country. However, this specialized group is capped at 85,000 a year.

True, there is an exception to the cap that allows any venture that both open an office on university premises and engages in collaborative projects with that university — such as joint research and development, and entrepreneurship — to sponsor as many H-1B applicants as needed.

This exemption allows innovation-focused communities near universities to access highly-skilled talent from around the world at any time during the year. It would spur economic growth for academic-entrepreneurial ventures, help retain foreign talent from local universities and attract foreigners desperately looking for the next ecosystem that welcomes and encourages their entrepreneurial spirit.

But it is a slow process and not nearly enough universities are participating to address the crying need of foreigners who would like to work and create jobs in this country.

We need to keep more immigrant talent

Connecticut, like many parts of the United States, is suffering a brain drain. Right now, it is estimated Connecticut has 20,000 jobs we cannot fill because we don't have sufficiently skilled labor. Nationally, the US economy has more than 7 million jobs going unfilled and not nearly enough people looking to fill them. Unskilled immigrants, if they were allowed to, could fill retail, hotel, and restaurant jobs and help supercharge our economy.

Related: True Grit: How Immigrants and Veterans Are Reshaping American Entrepreneurship

Business leaders, economic policy thinkers, and legislators need to do a better job of explaining how foreign talent is vital to the future success of our communities. The truth is San Francisco, New York, and Boston have loads of immigrants and they are growing stronger with their help.

Now the rest of America needs to acknowledge that we need them, too. And who knows, maybe one of these immigrants creates the next Tesla, Sikorsky, or Google — right in your backyard.

Matt McCooe

CEO of Connecticut Innovations

Matt manages Connecticut Innovations' full array of business startup and growth initiatives, which include venture and equity investment funds, and programs to support innovation and entrepreneurship. Matt has more than 20 years of experience in venture capital, sales and marketing.

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