What It Means to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow

The new Presidential Innovation Fellows initiative, announced at TechCrunch Disrupt last month, will pair top innovators from the private sector, academia, and non-profits with top innovators in government to work together to deliver game-changing solutions for the American people. The first five missions include creating common-sense tools for public participation, liberating government data to fuel job growth, giving everyone secure access to their own health informationstreamlining the government contracting process for high-growth startups, and getting more bang for our foreign aid buck

What is it like to be a Presidential Innovation Fellow? One team of intrepid innovators has been piloting this model to create new solutions at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the Federal agency responsible for administering visa programs. This Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIR) team is mid-way through a focused sprint to streamline existing visa pathways for immigrant entrepreneurs interested in coming to the United States to create jobs in our country.

Paul Singh is one of these entrepreneurs in residence. As a partner at 500 Startups, a seed-stage investment fund and startup accelerator in Mountain View, California, he describes the experience this way:

One of the common things we run into [at 500 Startups] is a lot of our foreign entrepreneurs just have trouble coming into the country – even for short-term things like 90 days just to raise money. And my observation was that the real challenge was that the folks at the tip of the spear – the guys that actually interview these startups at the consulate, and the people that actually open these immigration forms at the federal processing plants – they don’t really know what startups look like. And again, it’s not because they’re inept; it’s because the rulebooks they have were designed in the ’90s, and then before that they were written effectively in the ’50s and ’60s. So I think we can all agree that startups just look different today.

We’ve been traveling to the different federal service centers around the country where the actual documents are reviewed. If you can imagine these things, these are these huge federal facilities; there’s just files everywhere, it’s amazing, I’ve never seen anything of that scale. We’re actually going there and speaking to hundreds of adjudicators face-to-face, and we’re doing these all-day Q&A sessions where they can ask us anything they want about what startups look like, what venture capital looks like, what the different documents mean, what a cap table is….

From my own perspective, before I knew how hard this was for them, in terms of all the different rules and regulations and stuff, it was easy for me to be an armchair quarterback and say, “Oh man, immigration’s broken in this country.” And I’m a U.S. citizen. But the most profound thing that I picked up, just in the first three days of going through that training, was, “Whoa, this is actually way trickier than I thought it was.”

I will say it’s been really, really eye-opening, but it’s also been really refreshing.  Because everybody we’ve talked to at the White House, at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, at the State Department, everywhere – they get it. They understand that they need to do this, and I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t feel like we were going somewhere, because it takes time away from my own portfolio. And I’ve been just refreshingly surprised and pleased by how on board everybody has been. I really do feel like we’re moving the needle.

For more information about the new Presidential Innovation Fellowships, check out: www.whitehouse.gov/innovationfellows

Doug Rand and John Paul Farmer are Senior Advisors at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  Paul Singh’s remarks were adapted from an interview first published by Tech Cocktail, a news organization focused on startups and entrepreneurial resources in cities across the country. 

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