Since September 11, America’s increased concern with security has threatened to undermine its ability to attract global talent. Foreign-born scientists and engineers provide a critical element of America’s talent base: in the last decade, more than half of all Silicon Valley start-ups were launched by immigrants. In 2007, I warned that by making itself less hospitable to immigrant students, scientists, and entrepreneurs, the United States was undermining its own interests. "What if," I asked, "Vinod Khosla, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems and venture-capital luminary who has backed so many blockbuster companies, had stayed in India? Or if Google’s Sergey Brin had decided to apply his entrepreneurial talents in Europe?"
As Vivek Wadhwa, AnnaLee Saxenian and others noted in an important 2009 study:
A substantial number of highly-skilled immigrants have started returning to their home countries, including persons from low-income countries like India and China who have historically tended to stay permanently in the United States. These returnees contributed to the tech boom in those countries and arguably spurred the growth of outsourcing of back-office processes as well as of research and development.”
America’s political leadership has turned immigration reform into a political football and appears incapable of achieving solid progress on this increasingly vital issue. The situation has gotten so dire that private groups are taking the matter into their own hands.
Blueseed, a Silicon Valley start-up, is trying to do an end run around the broken immigration systems by dreaming up a "floating startup incubator." It would circumvent immigration laws the same way that gaming businesses once avoided gambling restrictions, by parking their clients on a ship in international waters.
Ars Technica reports that founder Max Marty and his team are "hard at work making their vision of a floating, year-round hack-a-thon a reality." He writes:
Within the next year, they're hoping to raise a venture capital round large enough to lease or buy a ship with space for around a thousand passengers. If Blueseed's audacious hack of the immigration system is successful, it will not only open up Silicon Valley to a broader range of entrepreneurs, it will also shine a spotlight on the barriers American law places in the way of immigrants seeking to start businesses in the United States.
Key to Blueseed’s plan is the B-1 Business Visa, which allows its holders to travel to the U.S. for business meetings, conferences, and seminars. Clients would live and work aboard the ship and take ferries to shore to meet with potential investors.
Immigration lawyer Greg Siskind told Ars Technica that Marty’s plan isn’t all blue sky, adding that "the real problem is that such a project is even necessary."
This is not the first such attempt to work around America’s broken immigration system. Many high-tech companies have established oversees R&D units to gain access to foreign talent. The Oscar winning director Peter Jackson moved his entire film production infrastructure to Wellington, New Zealand in part because of his ease in attracting global talent. Several years ago, Microsoft established a major innovation center outside Vancouver to act as a portal for global scientific and technical talent, a move which my Martin Prosperity Institute colleagues Kathrine Richardson, Kevin Stolarick and I studied in depth in a 2009 paper.
The Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr has said that we should "staple a green card" to the diplomas of every foreign-born science and engineering graduate of America's universities. By failing to deal with immigration policy, Washington is ceding a key competitive advantage. "Whether it succeeds or not," the Ars Technica piece concludes, "Blueseed is going to spark a conversation about America's flawed immigration system. Perhaps a decade from now, international waters near the California coastline will be dotted with floating incubators."
It would be a better thing by far if Congress put initiatives like Blueseed out of business, by allowing for the free flow of talent from around the world into America’s borders.
Photo credit: Yuriko Nakao/Reuters