Killing the Golden Goose ?

This week I am travelling across the US and Canada seeing old friends.  We started the trip on the West Coast in Redwood City visting my wife’s brother, Mathieu Foquet, who is a senior scientist and one of the inventors behind Kleiner-backed Pacific Biosciences.

Mathieu’s story has been punctuated over the last few years by particularly painful immigration procedures, most of which are the result of the tightening of rules since 9/11.

He studied physics at Cornell under Prof Craighead and co-authored noted articles and patent filings in the field of nano biotechnology, for applications and instrumentation that enable high-speed gene sequencing.  The ultimate promise would be for DNA reading to be used at the diagnostics stage, which explains why the company, formerly known as Nanofluidics, got funded by Mohr Davidow, Alloy and Kleiner Perkins.  At least I think that’s what they do, the exact description being “observations of DNA polymerase activity as an example of the effectiveness of zero-mode waveguides for performing single-molecule experiments at high concentrations” according to this Science paper.

You would think the US Government would welcome someone like Mathieu with open arms.  His skills are not replicable and he has been contributing valuable patent work to a US company.  Instead he has been trying to cope with a cumbersome set of rules that forces him to spend time outside the US regularly in order to renew his working permit and go through long sessions at the consulate.

From my trip to Bombay a couple of months ago I understand that a number of excellent Indian engineers are also choosing to stay at home or return to their homeland rather than face an alienating immigration process.  I cannot imagine what life is like if your are an Iranian or Pakistani scientist.

This is anecdotal evidence for a broader trend that worries member of the startup community in the US.  Many of the great technology successes were built by Indian, Chinese or, say, Turkish engineers who were attracted by the unique environment that allowed innovation to blossom.  Besides losing its apsirational status as the undisputed champion of freedom thanks to its subtle foreign policy, the US is also at risk of forcing talent to look elsewhere, including at home, to fulfil their dreams.

Couple that with the increased difficulty in luring engineering talent away from GYM and you can see why a number of entrepreneurs that I have come across are starting to think hard about alternative locations to grow their business.  The US should watch out as it may be starting to hurt the delicate machinery that made it so succesful.

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