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Internationals spinout guide
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International students, you can co-found US companies
Building a startup company is inherently uncertain and risky, and layering immigration hurdles on top of entrepreneurial risks can be intimidating. However, international students CAN co-found a US company, spinout of Cornell Tech, and build that company in the United States. Cornell Tech has already produced successful US-based startup companies co-founded by international students (e.g. Trigger Finance and Uru). If you are an international student looking to spin out a startup at Cornell Tech or a US student looking to co-found your company with an international, then this is a resource that will help you navigate the process.
Below are 4 actionable steps and information you need to know get your process started. We welcome feedback from international entrepreneurs and experts.
- Apply for OPT
- Setup an E-Verify account
- After your OPT is finished
- What happens during acquisition or shutdown?
Other helpful information
Note, the policies below are subject to change at any time given the changes in the federal administration, and we encourage you to speak to an immigration lawyer to discuss your strategy. We are happy to help you connect with lawyers, if you’re interested.
#1 applying for OPT is the best option and first step
F-1/OPT Optional Practical Training enables you to co-found a startup in the US and build that company for 3 years after graduation for students pursuing STEM degrees and 1 year for non-STEM (e.g. MBAs and LLMs). It is not required that you form your company with a US co-founder. Also, there is no salary requirement. Your startup must be directly related to your major area of study at Cornell Tech. For instance, your Startup Studio project would definitely qualify.
How does the 3 year maximum work authorization work: an F-1 or J-1 student may be authorized for up to 12 months of OPT. An F-1 or J-1 student with a qualifying Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) degree may apply for a 24-month extension of their post-completion OPT.
We recommend that you start this process when you are sure that you want to spin out a company, ideally a few months before you graduate. You may file up to 90 days prior to your program end-date and not later than 60 days after your program end date. When you are ready, you can reach out to Sarah Hilsman, Associate Director at Cornell International Office. For the extension, USCIS recommends that you file 90 days before the expiration of your OPT. You can expect to pay fees less than $1000. Begin the process here.
Below is a table to illustrates your qualifications based on degree program.
|Degree program||OPT 12 months||OPT 24 month extension|
#2 Setup your E-verify account
During the first year of running your company, set up an E-Verify account with the government. E-Verify allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States. You will be required to have an E-Verify account to get the 24 month extension. Setup your E-verify account here.
#3 What happens after the 3 years of OPT are completed? (or 1 year for MBAs and other non-STEM programs)
For STEM students, you have three years after graduation to make a strong case for yourself to remain an entrepreneur in the US. For non-STEM students, you have one year. Once you start looking into post OPT options, you will want to work closely with a lawyer to determine your next steps based on your specific circumstance. Below is a recommended path to continue building your company after you've exhausted OPT.
Apply for the O1 visa, which is a classification for non-immigrant temporary worker with extraordinary ability and achievement. Proving this is not as difficult as it sounds. While you are building your company, it is important to receive awards (e.g. Startup Awards qualifies), gain media attention, create thought leadership, secure institutional investors, speak at conferences, and get several reference letters ranging from from 8 - 10+ US citizens who can speak to your work. This classification can be extended without limits every 5 years. You will be able to secure this classification in 2 - 3 months if you have a strong case. For MBAs and non-STEM degree students, consider pursing this soon after you obtain OPT.
Pursue a green card, which is difficult obtain. It could take a long time, over 6 months to 1 year+; and there is a lottery for some countries.
H1-B Specialty Occupation very difficult to obtain and you should consider this option if you are planning to work for a large company.
#4 What happens if my company gets acquired or shuts down
If the case of acquisition, negotiate with the acquirer to support your O1, green card, or H1 B status. The acquirer should have lawyers who will help with the process. However, consider getting an immigration specialist involved during the negotiation and ask the acquirer to cover the legal fees.
If your company shuts down, consider working for a large company to get a H1-B or go back to school to give you time to figure out your next steps. You will have 3 months to be unemployed before you have to leave the US.
Mistakes to avoid
Don’t let a job offer that includes H1-B or green card promises stop you from pursuing your entrepreneurial goals.
Don’t be afraid, this works. This risk is not as big as it seems. OPT + the extension gives you 3 years, for STEM students. Don’t be worried about getting deported, just start the process.
When you are on OPT, the system assumes you are going to leave the country at some point, so switching from OPT to a green card hurts your OPT status. The best strategy is to first obtain OPT followed by the OPT extension or O1 (consult your lawyer on what's best for you), and then go for a green card or H1-B.
Timing (Check your VISA to see if you have to go back to get it renewed)
3 years is a lot of time, just go for it.