Tuesday 20 December 2016 4:15 am

Reform visas to make Britain the tech leader of the twenty-first century

In my career, I have been privileged to work in some of the world’s greatest universities – Imperial, UCL, Harvard – on some of the world’s most interesting problems.

Most recently, we used quantum systems to sense individual electrons, a billion times smaller than had been possible before, helping to transform what humans can understand and effect with technology.

I returned from Harvard to the UK because I wanted to build a company that provides value to the world. The UK is the perfect place for this, and with our heritage in science and technology, outstanding higher education establishments and language advantage, we have the potential to be the most innovative country in the world. We all know what the next technological revolution is – the ability of artificial intelligence to harness the ever-larger stock and flow of data, and to create insights, change, and efficiency from them. Britain needs to be at its forefront.

But that will only be possible if we have the best people.

Read more: Stephen Hawking: Artificial intelligence research crucial to the human race

Most startups in the London tech community face a recruitment problem. People, not money, are the real constraint. At ASI, we work with top quantitative PhDs and postdocs who want to leave academia to become expert data scientists and data engineers. Three times a year we place new “fellows” with companies, and train them to be data scientists by putting them to work on real problems. Since 2014 we have worked with dozens of companies, from seed-stage startups to the biggest organisation in the UK. The majority end up recruiting the fellows permanently.

Why does the fellowship work? In large part because of the talent pool. If we were recruiting from the top 30 per cent instead of the top 10 per cent of PhDs, the results would be less startling.

Unfortunately, we are missing out on as much talent as we are recruiting. Fifty per cent of our fellows are non-British, but almost all come from Europe. Why? Because visa requirements and restrictions make it far harder to run our fellowship for non-EU graduates. We turn down incredible people from Harvard, Stanford, MIT and Tsinghua every year because of visa constraints.

Read more: Business groups slam proposed £1,000 employer tax

In five years’ time, if British visa requirements for EU citizens map those for outside the EU – even for skilled workers – I am not sure we could run our programme at all. This really matters, because the people we recruit have options. They are talented and in demand. They could go to any university in the world, and get a job in almost any country. They will choose to work where they are most welcome, and where the hassle is low. Britain should be their top choice.

We have been small-minded and parochial for too long. By being so biased towards the 700m Europeans in our visa policy, we missed out on the other 6.5bn people; 90 per cent of the world’s talent.

So what should the government do? First, it should aim to reduce friction: a small company like us should be able to complete a visa application in half an hour and wait a few days for an answer. Instead it takes a few days worth of work with several months of waiting.

Read more: Brexit is a chance to build a points-based visa system that actually works

Second, it should understand that rhetoric matters. I would like to see the government speaking to those in our universities, and in the top universities around the world, and telling them that Britain wants them. They should repeat this message every single time they talk about reducing net migration.

Third, we should have an explicit policy that quantitative graduates from across the world will be able to enter and stay in the UK. It is the greatest skill shortage we have, and these are the people we most need to compete with the rest of the world.

Right now, demand for our fellowship remains high. Only one in 10 of those who apply will get on the programme. But in a decade? I’m not so sure. Other countries will realise that our loss is their gain – their universities will seek out the smartest students, and their visa policies will make it easy for them to stay and work in the country.

What is most frustrating about our current policy is that it isn’t even popular. It is clear that the public want to reduce low skill immigration. But it is also clear that they would like more great scientists and entrepreneurs.

We can give them what they want, and also make it easier for the economy to grow and for Britain to be the world leader of the twenty-first century. This is obvious to both Remainers and Leavers in this country, and the government needs to catch up.