Why Canada needs to speed up the immigrant entrepreneur visa program

February 27, 2022

By Toronto Star |

Mike Lazaridis, Arlene Dickinson, Tobi Lutke, Susur Lee — what do these Canadians have in common? They immigrated to this country before going on to entrepreneurial fame.

Each has a unique story, but immigrant entrepreneurs play a special role in this country’s economic development. First- and second-generation entrepreneurs undertake 34.7 per cent of all early-stage entrepreneurship in Canada — significantly higher than most other comparable economies. And according to Statistics Canada, immigrant-owned companies are younger, grow faster and have higher rates of job creationThey’re also more likely to enter global markets.

This country has turned around its traditional brain drain problem with the help of the Global Talent Stream and Trump-era U.S. immigration rhetoric. But venture capital funds, angel investor groups and business incubators have been leaning on another, less heralded tool to bring more promising entrepreneurs to Canada — the federal Start-up Visa Program (SVP). In the past five years, 1,613 foreign entrepreneurs have been approved for permanent resident status under the program, producing about 200 new companies.

Founders love our cultural openness, our research environment, our ease of doing business. But there’s a problem: The pandemic has slowed SUV approvals nearly to a halt. The advertised six- to 12-month wait for permanent residence is now pushing three years.

That doesn’t work in the startup tech world, where advantage can be won or lost in a few months or even weeks — and there are two dozen other countries out there with competitor start-up visa programs. Without picking up the pace of approvals, we risk losing these talented founders to countries that are willing to move faster.

Spark Centre, where I work, is one of the most aggressive users of the SUV program. A selection of Canada’s SUV successes — and frustrations — appear in a new report by the Innovation Economy Council, an independent voice for the innovation ecosystem founded by MaRS Discovery District. The report, “Relocation Nation: How Immigrant Tech Founders Boost Canadian Innovation,” is authored by Nora Underwood.

The most popular countries of origin for Canada’s SUV program applicants are Iran, Vietnam, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, followed by Brazil, Egypt, Nigeria, Japan, India, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Libya. These founders work in a range of sectors, but particularly life sciences, advanced health, advanced materials and advanced manufacturing.

Most have two degrees, some have three degrees, in their area of expertise. They’ve spent decades in their fields, they’ve become experts and have decided to create a business abroad with all the knowledge and network amassed throughout their careers. They typically arrive with their own savings plus $400,000 to $500,000 in investment capital. We should want these talented people setting up shop here — as quickly as possible.

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