Change coming for startup visas stalled in red tape

By Metroland News Service Staff

A pilot project announced by Ottawa last year to attract foreign startups has so far completed just two applications, but the cabinet minister responsible promises to speed up the process.

Chris Alexander, the minister of citizenship and immigration, was in town Thursday to meet with tech leaders and talk about the startup visa program. So far, that program completed two applications from a pair of young Ukrainians who are working at the accelerator GrowLab in Vancouver.

“There are more applications underway, under consideration, here at Communitech and across the country,” Alexander said at a news conference in the Communitech Hub in downtown Kitchener.

It currently takes about a year to process an application.

“By Jan. 1, 2015, we are going to be moving to a six-month processing standard for economic immigrants, ensuring that we move at the speed of business,” Alexander said.

Currently, startup visas are issued to immigrants who are accepted into a certified tech accelerator, such as Communitech’s Hyperdrive program. Startup visas are also issued to immigrants who have commitments from angel investors or venture capitalists in Canada.

The completion of two applications does not reflect the real impact of the startup visa program, the minister said. “We have sent a message loudly and clearly around the world that Canada is open for business, Canada is accepting talented immigrants and that we are one of the best places in the world to do a startup,” Alexander said.

A faster approval process will be welcomed by Communitech, which receives applications from 22 countries for its Hyperdrive accelerator. The Hyperdrive program lasts six months, and that means foreign entrepreneurs do not have a visa in hand when they finish it.

Speeding up the approval of startup visas can only help, Doug Cooper, the managing director of Hyperdrive, said. “It helps us bring entrepreneurs in from all over the world with at least an expectation we can get them to permanent residency before the program finishes,” Cooper said.

It only takes one month from the time Hyperdrive accepts a foreign entrepreneur into the program to when that individual arrives in Kitchener. As soon they arrive, Communitech starts the paperwork for permits and permanent residency.

“We couldn’t possibly wait for them to get permanent residency before we brought them in, that could be six months,” Cooper said. “If we could do it ideally in that one-month period, that would be wonderful.”

Iain Klugman, Communitech’s chief executive officer, welcomes Ottawa’s focus on economic immigration. “This minister is looking at immigration with a different lens than in the past,” Klugman said. “There is a real recognition that this could be a point of competitive differentiation in the war for talent globally.”

The minister said that economic immigration has not displaced Ottawa’s commitment to be a safe haven for refugees.

Canada accepts one in 10 of the world’s refugees, Alexander said, and that will not change because of programs to encourage economic immigration.

Kitchener-Waterloo MP Peter Braid said he continually hears two things from tech leaders in the region — they need talent and access to capital.

“The tech sector is competing globally for talent,” Braid said. “So anything we can do as a federal government to expedite the immigration processes to meet employment requirements of our tech sector will only reap positive returns.”