Let us stay: Innovators need immigration reform

Many know today as April Fools’ Day, a day for practical jokes and pranks. For me, however, today represents something entirely different – and much less funny. April 1 is the day the U.S. government starts accepting applications for the H-1B visa, an employment visa for high-skilled immigrants. The government will receive tens of thousands of applications – including mine – for only 65,000 spots, and they will rely on a lottery to select the recipients. If I don’t win that lottery, I’ll likely be deported.

I first visited the United States when I was 16 years old. Born and raised in a small town in Belgium, I fell in love with America’s culture and energy, so much so that I returned as an exchange student two years later. My experience as an exchange student changed me. When I arrived, I was a nerdy kid who preferred to keep to myself, but America gave me the confidence and ambition to dream big.

After graduating from college and working for a big company in Europe for three years, I decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I started a successful European-based company that sold energy efficient equipment. But I wanted to get back to the United States – and I knew that for an entrepreneur, there’s simply no better place to be than Silicon Valley.

I came to Stanford Business School in the fall of 2012 intent on starting a business, and that’s what I did. I met a brilliant technologist from Israel, Elad Ferber, and the two of us began developing wearable health and fitness technology that eventually became our company, Echo Labs. We wanted to build a device that did more than a lot of the fitness bands out there. Instead of measuring activity and step-counting, we look at blood composition using a non-invasive technology in order to deliver detailed recommendations to users. In other words, we allow individuals to customize their workouts to match their health and fitness goals with what their bodies really need. We are testing it out on professional athletes and veterans being treated for heart conditions. Eventually, we want to revolutionize the way people think about their health. I know we’ll reach our goal – the question is whether or not we’ll reach it in America.

Over the past two years, Echo Labs has made tremendous progress, and both investors and journalists are taking notice. We’ve raised more than $1.5 million so far and hired two employees – both Americans.

But there is currently no visa for immigrant entrepreneurs with a viable business plan and willing American investors. And although the student visa allows most foreign students to stay in the United States for one year after graduation, after that the visa options are limited and tremendously competitive. There is legislation – like the Immigration Innovation (I-Squared) Act – that would improve the visa system to help students and innovators like me build companies and lives in America, but the future of this legislation is unclear.

On June 30, my student visa runs out – and unless I win the lottery, I’ll have to leave – along with my technology, my company, my jobs, my revenue, and my American Dream. 

I am one part of a larger story. Immigrant entrepreneurs have played a major role in the American economy throughout history. Immigrants and their children have founded 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies, and between 1995 and 2005, more than 52 percent of startups in Silicon Valley had at least one immigrant founder. These companies generate revenue and job growth in the United States – in 2011, immigrant-owned businesses contributed $775 billion to the U.S. economy and employed one out of every ten American workers at a privately-owned company. The Partnership for a New American Economy found that every foreign student who graduates with an advanced degree from a U.S. university and stays to work in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) fields creates on average 2.62 American jobs. Current immigration policies are not just an inconvenience for the foreign-born – they are detrimental to America.

I left my small Belgian town for America because it has always been the land of opportunity. If America wants to be a leader in the global innovation economy, it must remain a land of opportunity. It’s time for Congress to pass immigration reform.

Cobut is the co-founder of Echo Labs and a graduate of Stanford Business School.