Drawing Entrepreneurs to Canada

How can Canada stop losing entrepreneurs to other, more accommodating countries?


How can Canada stop losing entrepreneurs to other, more accommodating countries?

There is a competition going on to attract and retain the world’s brightest entrepreneurs and Canada has yet to throw its hat into the ring. We have a lot to offer startup founders, including a beautiful environment, multicultural society, publicly funded health care and a strong economy. Unfortunately, Canada has fallen behind the pack as our existing entrepreneurial immigration programs are outpaced by aggressive new policies from more forward-thinking nations. Since 2006, the number of immigrants in the entrepreneur category applying as permanent residents in Canada has dropped by more than half.

Attracting entrepreneurial immigrants

Governments around the world are realizing that startups are the driving force behind job creation, exports and economic prosperity and are creating new programs to attract entrepreneurial immigrants. In Singapore, qualified entrepreneurs can obtain a visa in only five weeks with a minimum US$50,000 investment. Startup Chile is a new government-sponsored program that lures entrepreneurs from abroad to that country by offering not just an expedited one-year visa, but temporary workspace and an investment of US$40,000.

Most recently, notable American technology entrepreneurs and investors have championed the Startup Visa Act in the U.S., which would provide a two-year visa to eligible foreign-born entrepreneurs. If the Startup Visa bill passes, it is fair to assume that U.S. investors will increasingly attract Canadian talent looking to head south to set up shop.

Access to seed capital and mentorship was enough to woo Canadians Kenshi Arasaki and Eric Diep to Silicon Valley in 2008 to participate in the esteemed Y Combinator accelerator program. Fortunately, they chose to move back to Vancouver in early 2009 to build their social gaming company, A Thinking Ape. “We were in Silicon Valley during our early stages, and that suited us well,” says co-founder Arasaki. “Now that we’re in a high-growth stage, Vancouver is the ideal place for us to be.” 

A Thinking Ape is aggressively hiring and is expected to reach revenues in the eight-figure range by year-end. One can only wonder if Diep and Arasaki would still have chosen to relocate to Canada if the U.S. Startup Visa had been an option when they were looking to grow.

Like Y Combinator, local seed accelerator Bootup Labs in Vancouver received many applications from international entrepreneurs when it launched in 2008. “We were thrilled to receive applications from startup founders in Romania, the U.K. and the U.S.,” says co-founder Danny Robinson. “But even with our $150,000 investment, we quickly learned that these entrepreneurs had no chance of getting a visa under the current system.” 

Visas for entrepreneurs

Canada’s existing immigration program was intended to accelerate the approval of entrepreneurial applicants, but unless you have deep pockets – you need $300,000 in personal fixed assets to qualify under the current entrepreneurial program – you need not apply. 

Recognizing the need for change, Robinson, Boris Wertz of W Media Ventures and I have launched Canada’s own Startup Visa initiative. Startup Visa Canada would enable eligible entrepreneurs to receive a visa if they were able to raise seed capital of $150,000 from qualified investors in place of the current personal-assets requirement. To date, the initiative has attracted the support of more than 60 influential investors, entrepreneurs and organizations across Canada.

It is time to capitalize on our strengths, and expand our current immigration programs to make Canada the destination of choice for the top entrepreneurs from around the world. This is one competition Canada cannot afford to lose.

Maura Rodgers is executive director of Bootup Entrepreneurial Society in Vancouver.