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There's no US visa for startup entrepreneurs, but there's a workaround

Paulo M. graduated from MIT with a doctoral degree in 2014. Shortly afterward, he founded a startup company that helps streamline communication at life science and pharmaceutical companies. Paulo's company may take off or it may not, like any new startup. The chances are good for an MIT grad, though -- even if he is not an American citizen.

According to immigration advocacy group the National Foundation for American Policy, over half of the nation's $1 billion startups have at least one immigrant founder. Yet entrepreneurs like Paulo have no obvious way to stay in the United States and make their dreams come true.

"There's a lot of things in motion when you're building a company," Paulo told NPR. "At the same time, you have to deal with your visa. And a lot of times it takes a lot of your time and energy. ... There are some days where you feel like it's too much. You don't sleep. But you kind of chose it that way -- you know the rules."

You see, the United States offers employment-based visas to entrepreneurs with going concerns, but not startup entrepreneurs. To get an EB-5 investor visa, you need to be able to bring in a substantial amount of capital and be able to create full-time positions for 10 or more qualifying employees.

The other work visa alternative available to PhDs like Paulo is the H1-B visa. The problem with that is, you need an employer sponsor to get an H1-B visa -- and startup entrepreneurs don't have employers.

There is one other situation in which an entrepreneur can get an H1-B visa: through a university. What's more, there is an overall limit on the number of H1-B visas employers can sponsor, but not on university sponsorships.

Paulo, who is from Portugal, never expected to want to stay in the U.S. after graduation, but he felt Boston was the perfect place to build his new business. A new program at the University of Massachusetts-Boston called the Global Entrepreneur-in-Residence thought so, too, and agreed to sponsor him for an H1-B.

The idea was the brainchild of a Boston venture capitalist who said, "I was seeing all of these terrific entrepreneurs from overseas be inspired by our innovation ecosystem, and yet when they wanted to start a company, we were telling them they were not allowed to stay."

He has now replicated the program with university partners in 14 states, including California. We commend him for his creative thinking and hope the idea is followed up soon by other universities here.

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