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Originally published Thursday, August 30, 2012 at 7:05 PM

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Entrepreneurial spirit knows no borders

A Russian businessman is building a startup in Seattle with the help of changes in immigration laws that help entrepreneurs.

Seattle Times business reporter

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In the 1920s, architects designed the 23-story art deco Exchange Building in downtown Seattle to house a stock exchange. But those plans ended when the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929.

More than 80 years later, this Second Avenue building will finally host an exchange company -- an online one, that is.

That's because Denis Kiselev, an entrepreneur from Russia, set up shop in Seattle with the help of a new U.S. immigration policy.

His startup company, SnapSwap, was able to sponsor his H-1B visa

"I was lucky because until recently only well-established companies like Microsoft were able to sponsor working visas for employees," Kiselev said. "Immigration opened a special door for startup companies."

SnapSwap will be a place to trade gaming currencies such as those used in the virtual economies of "World of Warcraft" and other multiplayer, online video games.

"What we're doing is a trading platform, like the New York Stock Exchange for games," said Kiselev, founder of SnapSwap.

He aims to facilitate trade in these currencies across servers and national borders.

Kiselev set up the business inside U.S. borders because the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency last year eased visa restrictions on immigrant entrepreneurs.

Some argue the visa system needs to be altered further.

Tahmina Watson, a Seattle-based immigration lawyer, says that although immigrant entrepreneurs can now get H-1B visas, it is extremely difficult for these business owners to remain in the U.S. beyond the six years typically allowed.

"If you are self-employed, you can never get a green card," she said.

She wants Congress to pass new legislation, called the Startup Act 2.0. Watson argues that it would give immigrant entrepreneurs one path to permanent residency.

"It's desperately needed for the United States," she said. "[It's] the beginning of addressing a group of immigrants that do not have a good-fit visa option."

A coalition consisting of U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Chris Coons, D-Del.; Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; and Mark Warner, D-Va., are sponsors of the act.

John Miano, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., contends that legislation like Startup Act 2.0 has not been properly thought out.

"A lot of [the startups] are going to fail. Then what are you going to do? Throw them out?" he said. "We'd be better off making the business climate better for people here."

Startup veteran

At 47, Kiselev isn't new to the startup game.

While a financial consultant in Moscow the past five years, he dabbled as a part-time tech entrepreneur.

He also worked at the Russian central bank during that country's shift away from a communist economy in the 1990s.

"It was a kind of startup, because when I was hired for the central bank it was an age when the banking system in Russia was only developing," he said.

Kiselev came to Seattle at the end of February, initially on a short-term visa to attend a four-month entrepreneurs workshop and mentoring program, organized by a company called The Founder Institute.

Dave Parker, director of The Founder Institute's Seattle office, said Kiselev stood out.

"There are people who are dipping their toes, and then there are those who say, 'I'm going to do a startup.' That was Denis," said Parker.

Kiselev's three initial ideas, however, were shot down by institute mentors during the first week.

So Kiselev came back with an idea inspired by his son.

"He is 11 years old and he plays computer games. One day when I was trading at my trading desk in Europe, he came to me and asked, 'Can I use your credit card to buy gold,' " Kiselev said.

After a moment of confusion, Kiselev realized it wasn't the precious metal his son was after, but the virtual gold used in the game "Diablo."

"I said you have your big account on the 'World of Warcraft,' there is plenty of gold there, Go trade it from one game to another," Kiselev said.

Virtual trades

But there was no company that provided a platform for gamers to trade this virtual currency.

"Even to buy and sell it is difficult and dangerous; there is a lot of fraud," Kiselev said.

After his first week at The Founder Institute, Kiselev took his game gold idea and presented it to the mentors.

"The minute he told me about the virtual-trading platform, boom, I knew he had an idea," said Stephan Roche, chief marketing officer at Memory Lane, and one of Kiselev's mentors.

"He's a currency trader, that's what makes it so great."

By June, Kiselev had raised $200,000 for this project.

He also found a home for his company in an open-floor, planned office suite on the eighth floor of the Exchange Building alongside other early-stage startups.

The company that rents this space, Surf Incubator, provides fast Internet, conference rooms and -- like The Founder Institute -- mentoring for its tech tenants.

Help with visa

Perhaps most important for Kiselev, however, it helped him with his visa application.

"I had to prove it was not just a paper company," Kiselev said. "[Surf] provided all the necessary documents, all the contracts, all the legal framework for the premises for the position of my company here," he said.

With the move to a new country with his wife and son behind him, Kiselev says he's aiming to launch SnapSwap in October.

If the company takes off, he wants to have an office in Seattle and another in Silicon Valley. The long-term strategy, Kiselev said, is to convert his H-1B visa into permanent residency.

Under current law, he can do that with what's called "a national interest waiver."

Watson, however, is skeptical of that option.

"I haven't heard of any successful stories of a national-interest waiver," she said, but added that if SnapSwap generates jobs, Kiselev might qualify.

On its website, the Citizenship and Immigration Services says that in order to qualify for a national-interest waiver, an applicant must "have exceptional ability" whose "employment would greatly benefit" the U.S.

Kiselev perceives the challenge through the lens of a financial analyst.

It's just another dimension of the uncertainty inherent in starting a business, he said.

"This is a risk that I take as an entrepreneur," he said.

Karl Baker: 206-464-2046 or

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