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CU, Feld Create Residency to Lure Foreign Entrepreneurs to Boulder

Xconomy-Boston - Fri, 04/03/2015 - 14:39
Michael Davidson

Boulder is opening its arms to entrepreneurs from around the world with a new program created by venture capitalist Brad Feld and the University of Colorado’s Silicon Flatirons center for entrepreneurship.

The university announced this week that it has launched a new entrepreneur in residence program that will give up to four entrepreneurs a year $25,000 stipends in exchange for working with students and faculty and helping them build businesses. Feld, a managing director of the Boulder, CO-based Foundry Group, is financially supporting the program, along with his wife, Amy Batchelor.

The program is open to entrepreneurs from around the world, and the hope is it will attract foreign interest, said Phil Weiser, the dean of the CU law school, which is overseeing the program. To lure them to Colorado, the university will make them employees who are eligible for temporary H-1B visas that allow them to work in the country—and sponsor their applications. U.S. citizens also are welcome to apply.

The idea is very similar to the Global Entrepreneur in Residence program that state of Massachusetts began last year with the University of Massachusetts. But the program’s future was put in jeopardy after its budget was cut from $1 million to $100,000. The CU program will be backed with private funds.

In Colorado, the academic commitment appears substantial, requiring up to 20 hours of work per week on campus during the academic year. The work will include mentoring students and faculty in one-on-one sessions that could involve discussing subjects including business models, product development, and raising capital.

Aside from the commitment, entrepreneurs will be free to pursue their ideas, work on their companies, or try to create new startups. Entrepreneurs get a one-year appointment at the start, but that could be extended to three years. Interested entrepreneurs can apply to the program now, and it’s accepting applications through late May.

Feld’s involvement and the link to Silicon Flatirons might suggest the program is for tech entrepreneurs, but that’s not the case, Weiser said. It might draw from the worlds of biotech and cleantech, or areas such as natural foods, lifestyle products, or outdoor apparel—three areas where Boulder and Colorado’s entrepreneurial scenes are just as strong as tech.

“We’re trying to bring great talent to the university and the community, and we’ll be open minded about who we bring on board,” Weiser said.

Although the law school is running the program, Weiser believes business-minded undergraduates and grad students in many disciplines will take advantage of it, much like they do with existing programs such as the school’s New Venture Challenge.

“There’s a huge appetite for mentors,” Weiser said.

The “in residence” concept is familiar to both academia and the tech industry. Colleges have long hosted and financially supported artists and writers as they worked on their projects, often in exchange for leading workshops with students, giving readings, or displaying their work.

In tech, venture capital firms have supported entrepreneurs in residence, who typically are successful entrepreneurs who have exited one company and are in the very early stages of starting another. The host firm tends to have worked successfully with the entrepreneur in the past and is likely to back him or her again, and the support can be financial or logistical.

Now business schools and universities have combined the two concepts. CU certainly isn’t the first to try the idea, and it is viewing the first year as a pilot program.

“This is all an experiment, so we’re going to keep an open mind about how it’s going to unfold,” Weiser said.

The idea to embrace foreign nationals came from Feld, who Weiser said also came up with the idea for the program.

In a blog post, Feld outlined his motivations and hopes for the residency program. Feld over the past several years has been an outspoken advocate for reforms to U.S. immigration policy, especially those that allow foreign entrepreneurs to work here. He’s backed the proposed Startup Visa, which would establish a visa program distinct from the H-1B program, which ties foreign workers to their sponsor employers. The Startup Visa would give entrepreneurs the chance to create companies.

While the tech community has rallied behind the Startup Visa idea—and it even has received some bipartisan support in Congress—the proposal has become wrapped up in the political battles over comprehensive immigration reform.

It’s a battle Feld is tired of fighting, so he’s taking a new approach.

“I’ve gotten worn out on the federal level immigration fight,” Feld said. “I’m happy to continue to participate in advocacy for change around visas for entrepreneurs, but I’ve decided to focus my energy, and money, on exploring and experimenting with state-oriented solutions.”

Finally, there’s a broader hope that extends beyond the university. Weiser said the program wants to reinforce Boulder’s reputation as a haven for entrepreneurs, spread it around the world, and strengthen the local environment.


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