How a last-minute visa is saving lives and salvaging Obamacare

In 2012, Fabien Beckers was out of options and out of time.

A French citizen with a PhD from the Quantum Matter Lab at Cambridge University, Beckers was in the U.S. on a student visa earning his master’s degree from Stanford Graduate School of Business. That’s when he came up with an idea to use data with graphics to help cardiologists visualize blood flow information. He launched his startup in California and tried – and failed – three times to snag an H-1B lottery visa. If he didn’t get a visa he would leave the U.S. and his business would need to die or begin again elsewhere.

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Before Beckers came along, technicians and doctors struggled to accurately measure a single patient's blood flow – a process that can take more than an hour with an MRI machine. Fabien met his founding team at Stanford and built technology that cut that time down to ten minutes, making the measurement procedures much simpler. His approach was easier on patients too, and the results were presented in an easy-to-manipulate 3D visual.

Most importantly, Beckers’ innovation has led to better patient evaluations. The blood visualization platform not only captures, but collects and analyzes patient data using artificial intelligence. The technology also allows for seamless sharing of reports within and outside the hospital, without compromising sensitive patient data. Today, doctors have tested more than 3,000 patients using the system – and the growing database of information has led physicians to change their diagnoses, saving lives in some cases.

Early on, tech angels wanted to invest $2 million in his company, but the offer was contingent on Beckers staying with the company here in the U.S. The current H-1B visa system sets an artificially low cap on the number of high-tech workers we let into this country. This year, the federal government received nearly three times the number of applications as available H-1Bs.

With so much demand for workforce talent, one might assume Congress is doing everything in its power to support U.S. startups by allowing the best and brightest to innovate here. Taxpayers spend $7 billion annually to fund the National Science Foundation's important research at U.S. universities; most of that work is done by foreign graduate students. Yet with few exceptions, we train these students in cutting-edge science – offering them the very best education and instruction – then kick them out of the United States a year after they graduate.

In fact, in the last two decades – between the Clinton and Obama presidential administrations – the total number of available H-1B visas has actually declined. Several temporary increases enacted during President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHouse Democrat pledges 'there will be open hearings' in impeachment inquiry Democrats dig in ahead of Supreme Court ruling on 'Dreamers' Even with likely Trump impeachment, Democrats face uphill climb to win presidency MORE's administration, along with increases in fees to be used to retrain displaced U.S. workers, were left to expire under President George W. Bush’s administration, dropping the cap from its peak of 195,000. It’s no coincidence that the influx of visas in the 1990s coincides with the internet boom – a period of great technology innovation in this country.

Today, there are seven percent fewer available H-1Bs than there were in 2003. As American tech innovation has advanced over the last decade-plus, this critical policy providing much-needed talent has shifted into reverse.

Desperate to stay and drive the momentum of his company, Fabien reached out to our organization, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)TM, since we were advocating for Congress to allow highly-skilled and U.S.-educated immigrants to stay here in the U.S. to innovate. Fabien became our flag bearer for why the immigration laws needed to be changed.

We ran full-page ads featuring Becker in Capitol Hill newspapers. We published editorials detailing his story. We urged individual members of Congress to reconsider our broken immigration system, and in the interim, seek a special exception for Beckers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

We were thrilled – and Fabien received the most welcome surprise of his life – when in December of 2012, he received a letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) saying his request for "exceptional ability" status had been granted.

The fight was certainly worth it. Last year, Beckers’ company, Arterys, had ten employees. Now they are 30 and growing. And the faster it grows, the more lives will be saved. The company’s work is so valuable, that GE recently invested in the company as part of a $12M round and announced plans to use Beckers’ innovation to release the application in 2016 on its MRI portfolio, comprising thousands of MRI machines worldwide.

The genius in Beckers’ company’s innovation is that its practical applications extend far beyond analyzing blood flow. His team has created a new platform for patient evaluation, analysis and treatment based on artificial intelligence and deep learning, which could one day help treat brain damage, cancer and other major illnesses. It could also be used to detect and prevent possible future illness as the visualization, data aggregation and predictive capabilities improve daily. The bigger the database, the better the results.

In the last seven years, the U.S. government spent $36.5 billion to make electronic medical records interchangeable, with the hope of creating better patient treatment programs and making it easier for doctors to share patient information. This strategy – a key component of Obamacare – has yet to be realized. Now Beckers’ model may leap frog the electronic record strategy and blaze a new path for aggregating health data.

I can't help but wonder what would have happened if Fabien had been forced to leave the U.S. Other countries don't have the capital investment pool or willingness to invest in risky ventures. His efforts may never have been funded. His big ideas might have been diverted into other pursuits. Some patients may have had unnecessary surgeries, while others may have not received a life-saving diagnosis.

Thanks to one visa grant, diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of illnesses may radically improve in the next few years. As Beckers says, it’s like going from paper maps to Google maps – new worlds open thanks to the power of technology.

Perhaps skilled immigration reform would be how a President Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders: 'Outrageous' to suggest Gabbard 'is a foreign asset' Clinton attacks on Gabbard become flashpoint in presidential race Saagar Enjeti: Clinton remarks on Gabbard 'shows just how deep the rot in our system goes' MORE demonstrates her recognition of the value of the U.S. tech sector, the jobs it creates and the economic benefits it ensures. If she ties skilled immigration reform to overall immigration policy she may follow President Obama and decimate our ability to attract and keep the best and brightest.

Until our current system changes, the U.S. risks losing some of our best and brightest minds, foregoing the innovations they deliver and jobs they create, and hurting our global competitiveness. We can’t afford to lose the next Fabian Beckers because of an outdated immigration system.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)™, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.