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National Security AI Entrepreneur Visa: Creating a New Pathway for Elite Dual-Use Technology Founders to Build in America

06.27.24 | 9 min read | Text by Joel Burke

NVIDIA, Anthropic, OpenAI, HuggingFace, and scores of other American startups helping cement America’s leadership in the race for artificial intelligence (AI) dominance all have one thing in common: they have at least one immigrant co-founder. In fact, in 2023, the National Foundation for American Policy released a policy analysis on the role of immigrants in the top American AI companies. According to their research, 65% of the companies appearing on the Forbes AI 50 list were founded or co-founded by at least one immigrant. Immigrant entrepreneurs are critical to America’s economic success, and as the private sector takes an increasing role in developing critical dual-use technologies like AI, they will be critical to America’s defense. 

According to a Brookings Foundation report, “China sees talent as central to its technological advancement; President Xi Jinping has repeatedly called talent ‘the first resource’ in China’s push for ‘independent innovation.’” It’s easy to understand why the CCP sees talent as critical in its efforts to dominate key dual-use technologies relevant to national and economic security – in today’s knowledge economy, those who can innovate faster win. A company like SpaceX, which almost single-handedly reinvigorated America’s spacefaring economy, would likely not exist without Elon Musk. The lists of companies and dual-use technologies critical to American national and economic security that are unlikely to have been created successfully without the right personalities behind them are innumerable. America needs these entrepreneurs more than ever as competition with China for global leadership in key fields like AI heats up.

Given increased competition for talent – from allies like the United Kingdom to competitors and adversaries like China – in critical technology areas like AI, Congress must act to support high-skilled entrepreneurs by creating a National Security Startup Visa specifically targeted at founders of AI firms whose technology is inherently dual-use and critical for America’s economic leadership and national security. To maximize the potential economic benefits of such a visa for all Americans, it can be narrowly tailored, focusing only on entrepreneurs who (1) have raised significant capital from accredited American investors and venture capitalists (VCs), (2) are willing to physically reside and start their business in an Opportunity Zone, and (3) will hire at least five Americans within the first year of operation. Immigration may be a complex issue, but there is no doubt that immigrant founders are the not-so-secret ingredient that have helped to fuel America’s rise as a tech superpower. Developing a narrowly scoped visa targeted at a critical technology segment means that America can ensure its continued dominance in AI, a technology that the CEO of Google has said may be as profound as fire or electricity. 

Challenge and Opportunity

While the United States has long been the preferred destination for immigrant entrepreneurs, America has never had more competition for global talent. Countries like Canada, Germany, and Estonia have created visas to attract entrepreneurs, and they appear to be working. After the introduction of a Canadian startup visa in 2013, the program increased the likelihood of previously U.S.-based immigrants creating a startup in Canada by 69%. These are immigrants who were already in America to study or work, and it should have been an obvious choice for them to stay and build their company in the United States. This means that the United States is losing out to hundreds of new companies and likely thousands of high-paying jobs that would come along with them. The fact that Canada, thanks to a streamlined immigration process for founders, was able to attract so many who were already in the United States should serve as a serious warning as to how the competition for talent is heating up.

Canada demonstrates how a start-up visa enhances immigrant entrepreneurship via National Bureau of Economic Research

Historically, the United States—and Silicon Valley in particular—was the undisputed leader for venture capital fundraising and the place to start a potential unicorn (a company valued at over $1 billion). However, America’s dominance has shrunk, and VC dollars along with unicorns are increasingly found across the world in tech hotspots from China to India to the United Kingdom, showing it is increasingly easy for entrepreneurs to build a successful startup elsewhere. This is critical, because when America was the only place to build a leading company, entrepreneurs had little choice but to wade through the labyrinth that is the American immigration system. Now, top talent have many choices, and the United States must compete to become not just the premier destination to build a company and raise capital but one that is accessible to startup founders who can’t afford high-priced immigration lawyers or to wait for years until their visa is granted.

While America’s largest geopolitical competitor may suffer from extreme difficulties in attracting foreign entrepreneurs to its shores, China has a massive population advantage. This can be seen directly in the STEM space and AI in particular. According to a CSIS report, “By 2025, Chinese universities are projected to produce more than 77,000 STEM PhD graduates per year, more than double the 2010 level of about 34,000 STEM PhD graduates. In comparison, the United States is projected to graduate only approximately 40,000 STEM PhD students in 2025, a figure that includes over 16,000 international students.” 

China has already outpaced the United States in the number of AI-related research articles published, and its domestic tech champions are global leaders in AI-enabled technology like facial recognition. Given the strong domestic showing in AI from Chinese researchers and entrepreneurs, with local AI startups raising billions of dollars in 2023 despite a slowdown in VC funding in China, China presents a strategic threat to America’s leadership in the AI space. America is on the cusp of losing its leadership in AI to China, but this policy creates clear opportunities to expeditiously regain lost ground by bringing in AI entrepreneurs who have already raised venture funding and are able to immediately hire American workers. 

However daunting the challenge China presents, America has long had a superpower: attracting the best and brightest to our shores to build innovative global businesses. And while many leading American AI startups have an immigrant co-founder, for every entrepreneur coming to the United States today, many more are turned away or dissuaded from applying. Take Erdal Arikan, a Turkish MIT and CalTech graduate who had difficulty staying in America to continue his research and returned to Turkey. According to Graham Allison and Eric Schmidt, “It turned out that Arikan’s insight was the breakthrough needed to leap from 4G telecommunications networks to much faster 5G mobile internet services. Four years later, China’s national telecommunications champion, Huawei, was using Arikan’s discovery to invent some of the first 5G technologies. Today, Huawei holds over two-thirds of the patents related to Arikan’s solution… Had the United States been able to retain Arikan—simply by allowing him to stay in the country instead of making his visa contingent on immediately finding a sponsor for his work—this history might well have been different.”

By creating a narrowly tailored AI National Security Entrepreneur Visa, the United States has a unique opportunity to recruit founders in a field deemed “critical and emerging” by the White House and help the nation maintain both its economic and national security competitiveness. And while many are concerned about the potential economic dislocation from AI, one way to mitigate such a risk is by helping entrepreneurship flourish in the United States, especially in underserved communities like those found in Opportunity Zones across every state. With hundreds or thousands of new businesses creating high-paid jobs in rural and underserved communities, Americans outside existing tech hubs of New York City and San Francisco could finally see real economic benefits of the tech boom. 

The economic potential for such a visa is tremendous. According to a 2024 report from the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, a startup visa could have a significant impact: “Data collected at the state level suggests that when the population’s share of immigrant college graduates increases by 1 percent, patents per capita increase by 9 to 18 percent” with the report going on to say that (depending on the number of entrepreneurs brought in) “Census and industrial data predict an increase of 500,000 to 1.6 million new jobs from young start-up visa companies in the United States after 10 years of operation.”

The time for an AI startup visa is now. It will help create American jobs and revitalize local economies, cement American global leadership, and ensure that we beat China in the AI race.

Plan of Action

Create a 10-year pilot AI Entrepreneur Visa program for a select group of countries to demonstrate the potential efficacy of the visa.

The AI National Security Entrepreneur Visa will be narrowly tailored to founders from friendly nations, who have already raised significant capital for their companies from accredited American investors and are willing to physically reside in an Opportunity Zone. This will minimize risks of visa overstays and espionage while maximizing the potential economic benefits by bringing companies that have capital ready to deploy to the United States. 

Visa Characteristics

Initial Visa Application Requirements

Visa Extension Requirements

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America is in a race for global talent, especially when it comes to AI. The data shows that the majority of leading AI companies in America were created with at least one immigrant founder—but our immigration system makes it incredibly difficult for experts to come and build their companies in America, a serious strategic disadvantage compared to China, which produces dramatically more STEM graduates. By creating an AI National Security Entrepreneur Visa targeting high-skill founders who have already raised funds, Congress can quickly close the gap with China, bringing the best and brightest from around the world to America to build their companies. Not only will this help create jobs across the United States, it will make America the undisputed superpower in AI, allowing us to set standards and control the development of a technology whose impact may surpass those of all other innovations in recent decades.

This idea is part of our AI Legislation Policy Sprint. To see all of the policy ideas spanning innovation, education, healthcare, and trust, safety, and privacy, head to our sprint landing page.

Frequently Asked Questions
Why are existing visa programs like EB-5, H1-B, or the J-1 insufficient for AI startups?
Existing visas are not ideal due to unclear guidelines for what determines a significant investment, not having significant personal funds at their disposal, ownership requirements that are out of sync with the norms for venture backed startups, not having an employer-employee relationship, and a host of other issues. The National Security AI Visa allows entrepreneurs to move regardless of personal wealth, as long as they have raised funding from accredited American investors, provides a pathway to citizenship so founders know they can continue building their companies in America, and presents a more streamlined pathway for startup founders to move to the United States, making the visa more accessible and attractive. Given the economic and national security importance of AI, creating a standalone visa will have a disproportionate impact on attracting talent from the field to America at a critical time, likely with significant economic and national security benefits.
Is the United States really at serious risk of missing out on top talent?

Yes. Take it from the founder of Yahoo and naturalized American citizen, Jerry Yang, who said “If I had to worry about a visa, maybe Yahoo wouldn’t have gotten started,” and that “There are more places around the world where entrepreneurship has taken off… so founders have more choices. And to the extent that our immigration policies are not so welcoming, people don’t want to come.”

How does this compare to other legislative proposals, such as the 2021 LIKE Act or The Startup Act?
The AI Entrepreneur Act is significantly narrower in scope than other proposals, which generally have not been restricted by nation or industry and often had additional requirements related to entrepreneurship and research unrelated to the visa itself. Additionally, the AI National Security Entrepreneur Visa only supports entrepreneurs who have already raised funding and who agree to reside and build their business in an Opportunity Zone, ensuring that jobs for Americans are created and spread outside of existing tech hubs.
What is an Opportunity Zone, and why should entrepreneurs be required to reside in one?

Created under President Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Opportunity Zones are designated areas across all 50 states deemed economically distressed by the Internal Revenue Service. Many previous technology booms have created outsized benefits to existing wealthy tech hubs like San Francisco and New York City thanks to positive agglomeration and network effects. By pushing entrepreneurs to found their business in a Opportunity Zone, which by its nature is an economically distressed area, the visa will help bring new jobs and opportunities to areas that previously had a difficult time attracting tech entrepreneurs and high-growth startups.

Is there another way to provide more power to the states and local jurisdictions for immigration rather than creating another federally administered program?

The Economic Innovation Group has written extensively about the concept of a “heartland visa,” which would allow counties to decide on specific new immigration pathways based on their distinct needs. The AI Entrepreneur Visa could be structured similarly, with states or localities opting in to the program and deciding the number and type of AI entrepreneurs they would like to bring to their communities.

Can the visa be further narrowed? If so, what options are there?

Yes. Some options to further narrow the visa:

  • Decrease the number of countries eligible for the pilot visa program.

  • Create a cap for the number of potential founders per year (recommended minimum of 10,000 to create a sample size large enough for an economic impact assessment).

  • Create a mandatory sunset for the program, requiring it to be renewed after five or 10 years.

  • Increase equity ownership requirements or implement a maximum number of applicants per company.

  • Allow individual states or counties to opt in to the program rather than it being available for the entire nation’s Opportunity Zones at the start.

Can the visa be further expanded? If so, what options are there?

Yes. Some options to further expand the visa:

  • Increase the number of countries eligible to apply for the visa.

  • Expand the technologies/industries eligible for the visa.

  • Decrease or eliminate the threshold for the amount of funds raised to be eligible.

  • Decrease or eliminate equity ownership requirements.

  • The company’s primary physical place of business must be shown to be within an Opportunity Zone.

Is there a cost to implementing the visa program?
No. The program can be set up as a fee-based application process where applicants pay a fee large enough to offset operating costs, meaning that no costs will be incurred by taxpayers.
Are there ways to offset the number of net new high-skilled immigrants coming into the country?
Yes. One could consider lowering the cap of visas for existing programs like the EB-5 Investment Visa as an offset.
Any wild high-impact ideas that could be added to the visa?
Adding an “Operation Paperclip” style initiative to the visa that gives the secretaries of Department of Defense and Commerce the authority to proactively create a list every year of the top ~1,000 people from around the world they think would be most impactful for U.S. national and economic security and proactively offer them a green card (assuming they pass a background check after accepting the offer). This could be used for scientists, executives, even top workers in critical industries like semiconductor fabrication and design.