Dear Sophie: How can early-stage startups improve their chances of getting H-1Bs?

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

TechCrunch+ members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.

Dear Sophie,

We have a stealth early-stage biotech startup.

Do we qualify to petition a co-founder on STEM OPT for an H-1B in the lottery? Is it worth it or are there better alternatives?

— Budding Biotech

Dear Budding,

It’s absolutely possible for an early-stage biotech (or tech) startup in stealth mode to successfully petition a founder or founding engineer for an H-1B in the lottery or even an H-1B transfer. Here’s how, starting with some background on how the H-1B lottery works for startups.

In recent years, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has leveled the playing field for startups entering an employee or prospective employee in the H-1B lottery by creating an electronic lottery registration system. Because the demand for H-1B visas far outstrips the annual supply of 85,000 (20,000 of which are reserved for individuals with a master’s or higher degree), USCIS uses the random lottery process to select companies that are eligible to petition for specific beneficiaries.

Before 2020, companies had to submit to USCIS a completed, paper-based H-1B petition package for every employee and prospective employee they wanted to enter in the annual lottery. USCIS adjudicated the H-1B applications that were picked in the lottery and literally mailed the unselected paper applications back to the lawyers. The time, energy and legal costs for submitting an H-1B application made participating in the lottery under this system quite onerous, particularly for startups, because you had to commit to paying for a full H-1B before you knew if your candidate had a chance.

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn (opens in a new window)

That all changed in 2020, when USCIS instituted an electronic registration process for the lottery. Now, sponsoring companies only need to pay a $10 fee to register an employee or prospective employee in the lottery, which significantly reduced the barrier to entry for all companies, including startups. That means that you can enter as many candidates you would like to sponsor in good faith into the lottery.

If people quit after they are selected and before you file, you don’t have to follow through with a full H-1B. If your budget doesn’t allow for you to currently sponsor your entire international remote team but you still want to give everybody a chance, you can do that.

Can early-stage biotech startups get H-1Bs?

Yes, most definitely! The biggest issues facing early-stage startups when getting an H-1B visa for their founder or co-founders are: