From Idea to Unicorn: The Canadian Start-Up Visa Journey

Discover the power and potential of the Start-Up Visa in fostering entrepreneurship as we delve into the past, present, and future of one of Canada’s most popular immigration pathways with Startup Visa Services CEO Slava Apel.

In 2010, Martin Basiri arrived in Canada from Iran to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Waterloo.

Then, in 2015, he, along with his two brothers, established a company under Canada’s Start-up Visa (SUV). Their goal was to simplify the application process for international students seeking admission to foreign universities, which they had realised could be quite complex.

This venture, known as ApplyBoard, swiftly emerged as one of Canada’s most prominent and highly valued start-ups. By 2020, following multiple successful funding rounds, ApplyBoard’s valuation soared to C$2 billion, officially attaining unicorn status.

“ApplyBoard stands out as one of the success stories within the SUV,” states Slava Apel, CEO at Startup Visa Services. “Its valuation has now soared to C$4 billion, and the firm has created employment opportunities for thousands of people in Canada,” he adds.

The SUV was initially introduced as a five-year pilot programme in 2013 and became a permanent fixture in April 2018. This federal programme swiftly gained prominence as one of Canada’s most sought-after business immigration pathways. Applicants don’t require much more than a promising and impactful venture proposal, which is one of the reasons why the programme is so unique and great, according to Apel.

Features of the SUV

A key advantage of the SUV is that it provides a direct path to permanent residence. “This sets it apart from numerous other start-up programmes, where residency is often closely tied to the success of the start-up itself,” says Apel.

The SUV also does not require the founder-applicants to invest any of their funds or have a minimum net worth. They only need to show that they have ample funds to support both themselves and their families upon their arrival in Canada, with a benchmark of C$26,000 for a family of four.

However, to be considered for the SUV, a start-up must meet specific investment criteria, such as either attracting a C$200,000 investment from a designated Canadian venture capital fund or securing a minimum investment of C$75,000 from an approved Canadian angel investor group. Another avenue to access this immigration pathway is by gaining acceptance into a Canadian business incubator programme, which do not require third-party funding.

Facilitating the Process

Facilitating this process is where Startup Visa Services’ team plays a pivotal role. Given the varying requirements and procedures of different organisations, each start-up’s pitch process may differ. While Startup Visa Services doesn’t directly engage with applicants, the firm provides essential back-office processing support to accredited agents and law firms involved in the SUV application process. The firm’s services encompass critical aspects of securing start- up funding, including business validation, advisory, business plan preparation, intellectual property protection, market research, interview and pitch preparation, and even post-landing support and peer review defense. Apel is proud to have been able to assist over one thousand of the world’s leading mobility professionals, with a nearly perfect record of approvals throughout the year.

Apel, who moved to Canada from his native Moldova over three decades ago, brings not only his personal immigrant experience but also valuable expertise in start-up finance to the table. With years of experience as a business adviser and mentor, he actively participates in various angel investor groups and networks dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship and nurturing start-up growth.

Apel says the applicant pool is diverse, with individuals from various corners of the world and a wide range of backgrounds. Among the applicants are engineers, lawyers, manufacturers, bankers, software specialists, accountants, real estate developers, and company owners who wish to expand their products to Canada. The top applicant countries include Pakistan, India, Nigeria, South Africa, Russia, Vietnam, China, and Iran.

Business and VC ecosystem

Apel says the government is aware that around 80% of start-ups fail, but this outcome is not a significant concern. Entrepreneurs are also not required to leave the country should their venture not take off. The programme’s underlying rationale is to draw in individuals with a resilient entrepreneurial spirit: “We are attracting individuals who possess the ability to adapt and persevere. If their initial business venture, ‘A,’ faces challenges, they are poised to launch ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and even ‘D.’ They will persist until they achieve success.”

Meanwhile, VC investment in Canada is flourishing, thanks in large part to the country’s robust business support system. Apel explains: “In Canada, we benefit from a plethora of government grants and subsidies designed to assist businesses. Whether you’re a fledgling start-up with minimal staff or a large corporation with hundreds or thousands of employees, the government offers programmes to aid entrepreneurs in areas like training, marketing, as well as research and development.”

“VCs and angel investors here recognise that their investment dollars stretch further. If someone were to secure a million dollars in Canada, they might also receive a matching million from the government. Because of that, I would say our pockets are much looser than those of our colleagues in other countries.”

Addressing the Backlog

Ironically, much like many attractive programmes, the SUV is currently grappling with a backlog. In its early days, full permanent residency had been granted in under three months. However, as the programme became more popular, the processing time for permanent residency extended to 12 to 16 months. Presently, there exists a three-year backlog of applications awaiting assessment. However, efforts are actively underway to address this issue. “Reports are indicating that it is inching closer to the two-year mark. Former immigration minister Sean Fraser, and current Immigration minister Marc Miller, have made commitments to expedite the immigration process to Canada in general, including hiring of additional personnel to streamline the various immigration procedures,” Apel explains.

Ongoing Evolution

In the realm of investment migration, it’s common for programmes to either open or shut down over time. The fate of these pathways often hinges on factors like budget changes or new leadership. Fortunately, Apel says, recent history has shown a positive trend, with increased quotas and improved conditions for the SUV.

One particularly notable development is the Canadian government’s commitment to allot a significant number of permanent residence admissions to the federal business category, which includes both the SUV and a self-employed programme. Historically, this allocation was limited to 1,000 per year. However, in 2023, it saw a substantial increase to 3,500, and according to Canada’s Immigration Levels Plan, it is projected to rise to 5,000 in 2024 and further to 6,000 in 2025 and 2026.

Furthermore, the SUV is continuously evolving. For example, entrepreneurs who have already applied for permanent residence through the SUV can obtain an optional work permit. This allows them to engage in business activities while their application is being processed. Originally limited to one year, in 2023, this work permit duration has been extended to three years, and applicants can even apply for an “open” work permit, which grants them flexibility beyond working solely for their own start-up.

“In my view, the SUV is continually improving, which makes me optimistic about its future. Our support team is there to assist the increase in demand. These ongoing enhancements indicate that the government acknowledges its role in attracting the brightest people to Canada,” Apel concludes.

A New Venture

Underscoring the entrepreneurial zeal of Canada’s immigrant start-up pioneers, Martin Basiri, the founding CEO of ApplyBoard, set his sights on a new challenge in the summer of 2023. After passing the leadership role at the edtech company to his brother, Meti Basiri, he launched a start-up called Passage. The core mission of Passage is to address Canada’s skilled labour shortage by helping potential immigrants interested in studying and working in high-demand fields such as science, technology, engineering, mathematics, cybersecurity, and healthcare move to Canada. However, while ApplyBoard made it easier for financially privileged international students to pursue studies abroad, Passage is dedicated to assisting individuals with limited financial resources in obtaining the necessary funding to learn and work in Canada, removing a significant obstacle that often hinders their ability to come to the country in the first place.

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