Pierre-Jean Cobut is co-founder of Echo Labs, a Palo Alto-based developer of wearable technology that provides real-time insight into the human body by acquiring and analyzing physiological signals. According to Business Insider, he’s one of 17 Stanford University business school graduates who are going to change the world.
In a recent email interview, I had the opportunity to chat with Cobut about his work, and I started off by asking him about the history and significance of Echo Labs having joined StartX, a Stanford-affiliated incubator. He said they joined StartX after going through an extensive interview process in which only 10 percent of more than 300 applicants were chosen.
“StartX has been a great place for us to grow as a company, having access to world-class workshops—like how to use LinkedIn, taught by the founder of LinkedIn—as well as a batch of talented and diverse founders,” Cobut said. “The community is the greatest value of StartX, allowing us to contribute, as well. Every founder has great experience, and sharing our day-to-day challenges with each other has been incredibly productive.”
Echo Labs is all about wearable technology that captures health data, so I asked Cobut what the launch of Apple Watch means for his company, and whether they’re developing apps for it. He said although they’re not developing apps at this stage, the launch is “great news” for them.
“Apple is going to raise consumer awareness for wearable technology,” Cobut said, “in a way that no other company could.”
I asked him if there are any applications for the technology Echo Labs is developing other than health-related applications. He said the use cases for continuous monitoring are very diverse.
“Other than for typical health care and fitness uses—general fitness, athletic performance improvements, remote patient and elderly care, medical research, treatment compliance,” he said, “we have received a lot of interest from insurance companies, automotive manufacturers, and those that need to monitor high responsibility/high risk jobs, like pilots and truck drivers.”
Of course, no once said any of this was going to be easy. Cobut is from Belgium, and the other co-founder of Echo Labs, Elad Ferber, is from Israel. That’s a problem for them, because their immigration status is up in the air. An article on the Partnership for a New American Economy website summed up the problem this way:
But despite their early success, Ferber and Cobut worry about what will happen in the future with their immigration status. “I’d say immigration stresses us both out more than the business itself does,” Cobut says, “At least with the business you feel like you have some degree of control.” Both Cobut and Cobut graduated from Stanford this June and will initially remain in America through a program that allows students to work in the U.S. for one year in a field related to their educational training. The plan is to keep building their business during this time, and they are hiring two engineers this summer. The U.S., however, lacks a dedicated entrepreneurship visa for companies with venture funding. And the H-1B, a visa for high-skilled workers, was the subject of a lottery this year that resulted in more than half of applicants being rejected. Many young startups are also ineligible for the program. “There’s an incredible uncertainty around what will happen,” Cobut says, “and it really hangs over our heads as a business.”
I asked Cobut if he could elaborate on all of this, and he said the problem with current U.S. immigration policy with respect to entrepreneurs is that it doesn’t take into account what it is that makes a successful entrepreneur.
“There is no immigration status that looks at metrics like economic value of the company, jobs created, taxes paid, capital raised, potential for innovation, or patent portfolio,” he said. “Instead, two visa statuses may apply: H-1B, which is largely determined by chance; and O-1, a visa for highly-skilled individuals, but limited to past achievements, and targeted at scientists and artists.”
Finally, I asked Cobut if he and Ferber are really going to change the world. He said they’re certainly aiming to.
“We decided to be entrepreneurs because that’s how we think we can be most impactful,” he said. “Going into health care was not a random decision. We could be building apps, but we prefer working on core technology that has the potential of changing the way we practice medicine, as well as how well people understand their health.”
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.