Why Silicon Valley needs more visas

When I hear protesters shout, “Immigrants are welcome here!” at the San Francisco immigration office near my startup’s headquarters, I think about how simple a phrase that is for a topic that is so nuanced, especially for me as an immigrant entrepreneur.

Growing up in Brazil, I am less familiar with the nuances of the American debate on immigration legislation, but I know that immigrants here add a lot of jobs and stimulate the local economy. As an immigrant entrepreneur, I’ve tried to check all of those boxes, and really prove my value to this country.

My tech startup Brex has achieved a lot in a short period of time, a feat which is underscored by receiving a $1 billion dollar valuation in just one year. But we didn’t achieve that high level of growth in spite of being founded by immigrants, but because of it. The key to our growth and to working towards building a global brand is our international talent pool, without it, we could never have gotten to where we are today.

So beyond Brex, what do the most successful Silicon Valley startups have in common? They’re also run by immigrants. In fact, not only are 57% of the Bay Area’s STEM tech workers immigrants, they also make up 25% of business founders in the US. You can trace the immigrant entrepreneurial streak in Silicon Valley from the founders of SUN Microsystems and Google to the Valley’s most notorious Twitter User, Tesla’s Elon Musk.

Immigrants not only built the first microchips in Silicon Valley, but they built these companies into the tech titans that they are known as today. After all, more than 50% of billion dollar startups are founded by immigrants, and many of those startups were founded by immigrants on H-1B visas.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/jvoves

While it might sound counterintuitive, immigrants create more jobs and make our economy stronger. Research from the National Foundation of American Policy (NFAP) has shown that immigrant-founded billion-dollar companies doubled their number of employees over the past two years. According to the research, “WeWork went from 1,200 to 6,000 employees between 2016 and 2018, Houzz increased from 800 to 1,800 employees the last two years, while Cloudflare went from 225 to 715 employees.”

We’ve seen the same growth at Brex. In just one year we hired 70 employees and invested over $6 million dollars in creating local jobs. Our startup is not alone, as Inc. recently reported, “50 immigrant-founded unicorn startups have a combined value of $248 billion, according to the report [by NFAP], and have created an average of 1,200 jobs each.”

One of the fundamental drivers of our success is our international workforce. Many of our key-hires are from all over Latin America, spanning from Uruguay to Mexico. In fact, 42% of our workforce is made up of immigrants and another 6% are made up of children of immigrants. Plenty of research shows that diverse teams are more productive and work together better, but that’s only part of the reason why you should bet on an international workforce. When you’re working with the best and brightest from every country, it inspires you to bring forth your most creative ideas, collaborate, and push yourself beyond your comfort zone. It motivates you to be your best.

With all of the positive contributions immigrants bring to this country, you’d think we’d have less restrictive immigration policies. However, that’s not the case. One of the biggest challenges that I face is hiring experienced, qualified engineers and designers to continue innovating in a fast-paced, competitive market.

This is a universal challenge in the tech industry. For the past 10 years, software engineers have been the #1 most difficult job to fill in the United States. Business owners are willing to pay 10-20 percent above the market rate for top talent and engineers. Yet, we’re still projected to have a shortage of two million engineering jobs in the US by 2022. How can you lead the charge of innovation if you don’t have the talent to do it?

What makes matters worse is that there are so few opportunities and types of visas for qualified immigrants. This is limiting job growth, knowledge-sharing, and technological breakthroughs in this country. And we risk losing top talent to other nations if we don’t loosen our restrictive visa laws.

H1-B visa applications fell this year, and at the same time, these visas have become harder to obtain and it has become more expensive to acquire international talent. This isn’t the time to abandon the international talent pool, but to invest in highly specialized workers that can give your startup a competitive advantage.

Already, there’s been a dramatic spike in engineering talent moving to Canada, with a 40% uptick in 2017. Toronto, Berlin, and Singapore are fastly becoming burgeoning tech hubs, and many fear (rightfully) that they will soon outpace the US in growth, talent, and developing the latest technologies.

This year, U.S. based tech companies generated $351 billion of revenue in 2018. The U.S. can’t afford to miss out on this huge revenue source. And, according to Harvard Business School Professor William R. Kerr and the author of The Gift of Global Talent: How Migration Shapes Business, Economy & Society, “Today’s knowledge economy dictates that your ability to attract, develop, and integrate smart minds governs how prosperous you will be.”

Immigrants have made Silicon Valley the powerhouse that it is today, and severely limiting highly-skilled immigration benefits no-one. Immigrants have helped the U.S. build one of the best tech hubs in the world— now is the time for startups to invest in international talent so that our technology, economy, and local communities can continue to thrive.

Boston-area startups are on pace to overtake NYC venture totals

Boston has regained its longstanding place as the second-largest U.S. startup funding hub.

After years of trailing New York City in total annual venture investment, Massachusetts is taking the lead in 2018. Venture investment in the Boston metro area hit $5.2 billion so far this year, on track to be the highest annual total in years.

The Massachusetts numbers year-to-date are about 15 percent higher than the New York City total. That puts Boston’s biotech-heavy venture haul apparently second only to Silicon Valley among domestic locales thus far this year. And for New England VCs, the latest numbers also confirm already well-ingrained opinions about the superior talents of local entrepreneurs.

“Boston often gets dismissed as a has-been startup city. But the successes are often overlooked and don’t get the same attention as less successful, but more hypey companies in San Francisco,” Blake Bartlett, a partner at Boston-based venture firm OpenView, told Crunchbase News. He points to local success stories like online prescription service PillPack, which Amazon just snapped up for $1 billion, and online auto marketplace CarGurus, which went public in October and is now valued around $4.7 billion.

Meanwhile, fresh capital is piling up in the coffers of local startups with all the intensity of a New England snowstorm. In the chart below, we look at funding totals since 2012, along with reported round counts.

In the interest of rivalry, we are also showing how the Massachusetts startup ecosystem compares to New York over the past five years.

Who’s getting funded?

So what’s the reason for Boston’s 2018 successes? It’s impossible to pinpoint a single cause. The New England city’s startup scene is broad and has deep pockets of expertise in biotech, enterprise software, AI, consumer apps and other areas.

Still, we’d be remiss not to give biotech the lion’s share of the credit. So far this year, biotech and healthcare have led the New England dealmaking surge, accounting for the majority of invested capital. Once again, local investors are not surprised.

“Boston has been the center of the biotech universe forever,” said Dylan Morris, a partner at Boston and Silicon Valley-based VC firm CRV. That makes the city well-poised to be a leading hub in the sector’s latest funding and exit boom, which is capitalizing on a long-term shift toward more computational approaches to diagnosing and curing disease.

Moreover, it goes without saying that the home city of MIT has a particularly strong reputation for so-called deep tech — using really complicated technology to solve really hard problems. That’s reflected in the big funding rounds.

For instance, the largest Boston-based funding recipient of 2018, Moderna Therapeutics, is a developer of mRNA-based drugs that raised $625 million across two late-stage rounds. Besides Moderna, other big rounds for companies with a deep tech bent went to TCR2, which is focused on engineering T cells for cancer therapy, and Starry (based in both Boston and New York), which is deploying the world’s first millimeter wave band active phased array technology for consumer broadband.

Other sectors saw some jumbo-sized rounds too, including enterprise software, 3D printing and even apparel.

Boston also benefits from the rise of supergiant funding rounds. A plethora of rounds raised at $100 million or more fueled the city’s rise in the venture funding rankings. So far this year, at least 15 Massachusetts companies have raised rounds of that magnitude or more, compared to 12 in all of 2017.

Exits are happening, too

Boston companies are going public and getting acquired at a brisk pace too this year, and often for big sums.

At least seven metro-area startups have sold for $100 million or more in disclosed-price acquisitions this year, according to Crunchbase data. In the lead is online prescription drug service PillPack . The second-biggest deal was Kensho, a provider of analytics for big financial institutions that sold to S&P Global for $550 million.

IPOs are huge, too. A total of 17 Boston-area venture-backed companies have gone public so far this year, of which 15 are life science startups. The largest offering was for Rubius Therapeutics, a developer of red cell therapeutics, followed by cybersecurity provider Carbon Black.

Meanwhile, many local companies that went public in the past few years have since seen their values skyrocket. Bartlett points to examples including online retailer Wayfair (market cap of $10 billion), marketing platform HubSpot (market cap $4.8 billion) and enterprise software provider Demandware (sold to Salesforce for $2.8 billion).

New England heats up

Recollections of a frigid April sojourn in Massachusetts are too fresh for me to comfortably utter the phrase “Boston is hot.” However, speaking purely about startup funding, and putting weather aside, the Boston scene does appear to be seeing some real escalation in temperature.

Of course, it’s not just Boston. Supergiant venture funds are surging all over the place this year. Morris is even bullish on the arch-rival a few hours south: “New York and Boston love to hate each other. But New York’s doing some amazing things too,” he said, pointing to efforts to invigorate the biotech startup ecosystem.

Still, so far, it seems safe to say 2018 is shaping up as Boston’s year for startups.