PALO ALTO, CA. - Inspired by the movie Terminator, Yingzhe Fu has wanted to make robots ever since he was a child.
That dream is now being realized in the form of a smart device for new homes, created by a startup called Togg that he co-founded. The computer would be built into the infrastructure for new homes, so it can turn lights on and off, respond to commands, such as giving a weather report, and even tell jokes.
“So we are basically making a mini computer. Home builders directly build our devices into the wall, and that device will help you to connect with your mobile phone, [and] with your other smart devices,” said Fu.
Being from China, Fu said there was little chance he could have stayed in the United States to start a company without the aid of an early-stage venture capital firm called Unshackled.
“Without their help, without them sponsoring me, I don’t think I would do that,” said Fu.
Unshackled was created to help immigrant entrepreneurs stay in the United States as they pursue their dreams of entrepreneurship.
One of Unshackled’s founding partners, Manan Mehta, is an American, but he learned first-hand the challenges facing foreign nationals who aspire to be entrepreneurs in the U.S.
“Both me and my co-founder Nitin, respectively, had to shut our own companies down due to co-founders on visas, so for the last two and a half years," said Mehta. "We’ve been putting our minds to how do we navigate and solve the problem that a lot of immigrant founders face which is, 'How do I start my business and maintain sponsorship in the United States so I can dedicate every waking hour to my entrepreneurial desires?'"
Foreign nationals often stay in the United States by getting a job with a company that can sponsor a special workers’ visa called the H-1B. But getting this type of visa is not easy.
In 2017, there were 236,000 applications for a skilled workers visa. There are just 85,000 visas available, some of them requiring an advanced degree. H-1B visas also make it tough for foreign nationals to start their own businesses in the U.S.
"As a H-1B holder, you’re not supposed to be unemployed at any given point of time," said India native Prateek Joshi. "You have to be under employment contract, so the thing is, you cannot just quit your job and start working on your product because that’s not allowed. So you have to do it nights and weekends."
That is why Mehta’s earlier startup failed.
“We were left to work with them on nights and weekends, and in this day of improbable innovation, if you don’t move fast, you’re falling behind,” noted Mehta.
Mehta and his partners created Unshackled to solve that dilemma and allow immigrant entrepreneurs to work on their startup fulltime, in the United States.
Unshackled sponsors work visas and hires founders of startups to work fulltime on their own projects. The firm invests up to $300,000 in the startups and provides entrepreneurs with a free co-working space in the heart of Silicon Valley.
“In the initial days of a startup, any cost saving is very, very helpful. For example, we would not be able to afford this space in the middle of Palo Alto if you’re going to pay rent,” said Joshi who now is able to work on his startup, Pluto AI, a platform for water management.
Unshackled also provides a network of resources, legal help and mentors for entrepreneurs who may be relatively new to the United States.
“One of the biggest challenges we see with immigrant founders is that they don’t have deep networks," Mehta said. "Someone like myself who’s born and raised in the U.S., I have 32 years of networks that’s been built. But if you came to this country for university or for a job, you may be limited to five or seven years at most.”
Fu said the “business idea development, marketing and how to do the pitch for investors to get funding” were particularly helpful pieces of information that Unshackled provided for his startup.
“So by having this ecosystem where we have everyone working out of our space, they now also create a community which allows them to share and move faster on experiences and things that work and oftentimes things that don’t work,” said Mehta.
Unshackled has invested in founders from 15 different countries, on almost every continent, with the hope that the company will benefit financially from startups like Togg and Pluto AI as they become successful in the future.