Written by James Wiles, founder at QR space
As a startup founder, could you imagine launching your startup in Canada and getting a permanent resident status at the same time? For aspiring immigrant entrepreneurs with global ambitions, the Startup Visa Canada Program is an opportunity to make this vision a reality.
After successfully building and exiting a tech startup in my home country of South Africa, I was eager for a new challenge and adventure. I knew that I wanted to do another startup, but this time it was important for me to be based in North America. My knowledge of the startup and venture capital ecosystem combined with my personal experiences in the tech industry made me certain that my success as a founder was always going to be limited by my physical location. The lack of a robust funding environment and small economy is a severe limiting factor for startups based in third-world countries. The more I learned about Canada’s thriving startup ecosystem, the more I knew it was going to be a great place to grow my next venture.
I was pleasantly surprised by how easy and straightforward the Canadian government was making it for aspiring startup founders to move to Canada, especially in comparison to the current unplayable US immigration system. I have done substantial research to determine the best Canadian organization for supporting my visa application and immigration success.
In this guide, I want to share the lessons from my own start-up visa experience and how to avoid some of the common pitfalls along the way. Although the process is straightforward, it definitely requires a substantial commitment and lot’s determination to be successful, but in my view it is absolutely life-changing and worth it if you can stick to the plan. My goal is to help fellow immigrant founders see that achieving the Canadian startup dream is possible.
Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty, from choosing your investment partner to acing that pitch and navigating the visa application.
Table of Contents
- What is the Start-up Visa Program?
- Who is eligible for the Start-up Visa Program?
- Benefits of the Start-up Visa Program
- STEP 1. Choosing a Designated Organization
- STEP 2. Getting Support from the Designated Organization
- STEP 3. Meeting Eligibility Requirements
- STEP 4. Submitting Your Application
- STEP 5. Before and After Approval
- Tips for Successfully Getting the Start-up Visa
- My final notes
What is the Start-up Visa Program?
As an experienced founder running a successful tech startup back home, I was instantly drawn to the Canadian Start-up Visa Program. From my personal experience, this is an incredible opportunity for innovative entrepreneurs like myself to gain permanent residence in Canada while launching a new venture or bringing your existing success with you to a new market.
In 2013, the Government of Canada department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) introduced the Start-up Visa Program, which aims to attract global entrepreneurs to contribute to the fast growing Canadian startup ecosystem here. The requirements ensure that applicants have the skills, support, and drive to build truly innovative companies that can compete on the world stage.
The biggest advantage, in my opinion, is that approved startup founders gain permanent resident status and are able to get their work permit upfront. This provides much more flexibility and security versus other temporary visas. Personally, as someone looking to fully grow and scale my business in Canada over the long-term, this approach was the ideal fit.
Of course, the requirements are rigorous for a reason, because the immigration authorities must make sure you are going to legitimately contribute to the economy. Applicants like myself need to secure a minimum investment commitment from an established venture capital fund and angel investor group or obtain a support letter from one of the designated business incubators.
The application process definitely demands dedication and perseverance, yet now having started my journey, I can say the effort has been game changing for my personal growth. I have gained the insight to see how to build and lead my innovative startup in one of the world’s most thriving hubs for technology and be positioned to access the massive economic scale of the North American market.
Who is eligible for the Start-up Visa Program?
As I was going through the Start-up Visa process myself, I quickly learned that the eligibility requirements are specifically designed to attract truly innovative entrepreneurs who can contribute to Canada’s startup ecosystem, technological intellectual property, and tax base. The criteria ensure applicants have the skills, experience, and drive to establish successful companies here.
At a high level, there are five main requirements for eligibility:
- You must have a qualifying business idea
- You need to secure investment or get a letter of support from a designated organization
- You meet the minimum language levels in English or French
- You have proof of adequate settlement funds and capital
- And finally pass all the security and medical clearances
Regarding the business aspect, your startup plan and business idea must convincingly demonstrate innovation, global market potential, job creation ability, and strong management. I’m currently just building a new company in Canada but my experience launching a past successful tech startup helped provide credibility.
Another key eligibility factor is securing a minimum investment of $200,000 CAD from a designated Venture Capital firm, or $75,000 CAD from a designated Angel Investor group. Their stamp of approval validates that your business has real commercial viability. Alternatively, you can get support from a designated startup incubator and go through their international program (if you don’t plan to fundraise right away).
On the personal side, you must prove English or French proficiency and have enough funds to establish yourself in Canada. As a native English speaker, this wasn’t an issue in my case. I made sure to allocate adequate capital both for the startup and personal settlement costs.
Finally, clearing background security and medical checks are required, as with other Canadian immigration programs.
The Start-up Visa eligibility requirements are certainly rigorous. But speaking from experience, they ultimately ensure Canada attracts the best and brightest startup talent who can drive innovation and skilled immigration. I’m grateful the program recognized my venture’s value and potential.
Benefits of the Start-up Visa Program
As someone who is going through the entire process to obtain my Start-up Visa, I can say firsthand this program provides invaluable benefits for immigrant founders like myself. Here are some of the biggest advantages I’ve experienced.
Permanent resident status
This is huge. Unlike other visas tied to your startup, the Start-up Visa may ultimately grant full permanent residency and provide you with a working permit upfront. This gives much more flexibility and certainty to fully focus on growing your business long-term.
Getting permanent residence to the startup founders is not the main stated objective of the Start-up Visa program, but rather it is one of the program’s by-product. Think of permanent residence as “the reward” by Canada for those who built innovative businesses that create more jobs for Canadians and compete on a global scale.
Rakhmad Sobirov, Managing Lawyer at Sobirovs Law Firm
World-class startup ecosystem
Canada is recognized globally as one of the best places to start and scale a startup, with thriving tech hubs, a talented workforce, a wonderfully diverse culture, and business-friendly government policies being tremendous assets.
As a Canadian business I can hire talent from abroad more easily through worker visa programs. This is extremely helpful when looking to build an all-star team.
Access to capital
Being based in Canada’s startup hubs open doors to the country’s deep pools of venture capital and investors. This funding environment helps startups scale and capture market share.
Global launching pad
Canada’s free trade agreements provide access to international markets. This makes it an ideal base for startups with global ambitions.
On the personal side, benefits like healthcare, schools, and an exceptional quality of life also make Canada a dream destination. Going through the process myself, I can truly say the Start-up Visa is life-changing for immigrant entrepreneurs. The opportunity to build my startup while establishing permanent roots in Canada is invaluable.
Here is the step-by-step process that I’m currently going through to obtain a Start-up Visa in Canada. I’m including some of my learnings and insights so that you can get your Start-up Visa faster.
STEP 1. Choosing a Designated Organization
The first make-or-break step is choosing and securing support from one of the Start-up Visa Program’s designated organizations. Applicants like myself need to evaluate three options: venture capital funds, angel investor groups, or startup business incubators.
Venture Capital Funds
For many tech and later-stage startups, venture capital funds are the ideal choice. To qualify, you must secure a minimum investment of $200,000 CAD from a VC fund on the approved VC list.
This path makes the most sense for advanced startups. However, it would take months of networking, pitch meetings, and fine-tuning your business plan before landing the VC investment.
Angel Investor Groups
Angel investor groups offer another great option, requiring a minimum investment of $75,000 CAD. In general, Angels tend to fund younger startups and take more risks on unproven ideas. But what I’m noticing in Canada is quite the opposite. However it is important to note that Canadian Angel investor groups prefer to mitigate risk by investing only in startups with already established product market fit and solid traction.
If you are not looking to raise funds for your startup, you can join one of the designated startup business incubators (or also commonly referred to as startup accelerators). Graduating from a recognized incubator serves as an alternative benchmark for proving your venture’s worth.
This path may work for founders without a fully defined business yet. As for getting accepted into a startup incubator program; there are some that have extremely high competition, and some that are not very strict at all, but in both cases, they require an upfront payment to get in.
No matter which path you choose, do thorough research to identify the designated organizations that best match your industry, stage, and startup business model. Then begin the process of networking and crafting the perfect pitch to win their crucial support. Their stamp of approval can make or break your Start-up Visa application.
When I was faced with the decision of whether to choose an incubator, VC firm, or Angel Group, I ultimately decided to go for the accelerator approach. The reason for this choice was that I wasn’t quite ready to dilute my equity just yet. After researching multiple options, I ended up selecting the Treefrog Accelerator as the incubator that would best suit my needs.
Laurie Baker, the Executive Director of the Treefrog Accelerator, offers this advice to startup founders interested in the Start Up Visa program:
“Selecting the right start up visa program is really important. This organization isn’t just providing you a Letter of Support, they’re helping you build the skills you need to succeed, making crucial introductions, offering soft-landing services, and creating opportunities for you to expand your network in Canada. Immigration can be a long road, building a long-lasting support system makes that road easier to travel. Finding an SUV program that’s invested in your success as a founder and as a newcomer to Canada will help you navigate the challenges of building your business in Canada”.
STEP 2. Getting Support from the Designated Organization
Once you’ve identified the ideal designated organization for your startup, the real work begins – convincing them to back your venture. From my experience, this was by far the most grueling and critical part of the Start-up Visa process.
Pitching Your Business Idea
Start by thoroughly researching exactly what materials, data, and requirements each organization is looking for in a pitch. For the Startup Incubator I pursued, I needed to submit a 10-page pitch deck with a solid business plan that includes a 5-year financial projection. Additionally, I had to do patent searches, and I also decided to have my prototype built.
If you are pitching a business idea to an angel group, the requirements may be less stringent but you still need to blow them away and demonstrate traction. On the other side, VCs would expect much more from you and will scrutinize your business idea and ability to execute.
No matter what, you must articulate an extremely compelling, polished pitch highlighting:
- Your business idea, product/solution and key innovations
- Market opportunity, size, and needs
- Go-to-market and growth strategy
- Monetization plan and revenue modeling
- Competitive advantages and uniques selling points over incumbents
- Your management team capabilities and experience
I spent countless late nights perfecting my startup pitch deck and rehearsing the flow. Treat your pitch meeting like the most important conversation of your life while staying upbeat and confident.
Getting the Letter of Support
If the organization agrees to back you, they will issue a formal Letter of Support. This letter is a requirement for the Start-up Visa application. Make sure to get it directly from the organization and triple-check you meet any final requirements from their side.
With the letter in hand, you’ve cleared the biggest Start-up Visa hurdle! Now focus on completing the remaining steps flawlessly. Keep lines of communication open with the organization as you finalize details leading up to submitting the visa application.
STEP 3. Meeting Eligibility Requirements
With your Letter of Support secured, you now need to take care of the remaining Start-up Visa eligibility items – proving you have a qualifying business, meeting language thresholds, and showing sufficient settlement funds.
Have a Qualifying Business
At this point, you should have already formally incorporated your startup in Canada with you (and any co-founders) having at least 10%+ ownership stakes. Your chosen designated organization will ensure you have a sound share structure in place.
You’ll also need to demonstrate ongoing active management of the business from within Canada after you immigrate. Drafting an Operations Plan outlining your leadership responsibilities is wise to include in the visa application.
Meet Language Requirements
One key eligibility item is proving proficiency in either English or French. For the Start-up Visa, you must meet the minimum Canadian Language Benchmark level 5 across reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
I’m a native English speaker so I simply had to take and pass the IELTS General Training test. Make sure to give yourself time to take an approved language test and receive your scores.
Prove Sufficient Settlement Funds
Finally, you must prove you have adequate funds to cover personal living costs and initial startup expenses after arriving in Canada. This shows you won’t be a burden on social assistance programs.
I had to speak with my bank to get an official letter verifying my available funds to meet the minimum amount required.
If you plan to bring your family to Canada, the amount of money you need will depend on the number of family members.
(in Canadian dollars)
|If more than 7 people,|
for each additional family member
Have all your evidence ready to include in the visa application. Meeting each eligibility requirement is crucial. Thoroughly work through the checklist to avoid any gaps or issues that could jeopardize your Start-up Visa approval down the line.
STEP 4. Submitting Your Application
Once you’ve secured your Letter of Support and met all eligibility criteria, it’s time to turn to the visa application itself. This was the final stretch in my journey to obtain permanent residence in Canada.
Gather Required Documents
You’ll need to include a comprehensive set of documents and forms in your application package. This includes things like your pitch deck, incorporation papers, language scores, settlement funds proof, passport pages, police certificates, and more.
The IRCC Start-up Visa application checklist provides a detailed rundown of every item required. I’d also recommend consulting an immigration lawyer to review your package and ensure it’s complete before submitting it.
Submit Online or By Mail
You can submit your Start-up Visa application digitally online through your IRCC account if you prefer or mail physical copies. As my application will be quite substantial, I will send it via tracked courier to the designated IRCC office.
Make sure to triple-check that you’ve included every document needed before submitting. I have an immigration lawyer who will review my application one final time, which gives me peace of mind that I hadn’t missed anything.
Wait for Processing
Once received by IRCC, the waiting game begins. Government processing times indicate you’ll receive a decision in about 37 months. I knew other founders who received requests for more information though, which can cause delays.
To better understand the processing timeline and expected application completion, founders use Immitracker, the largest immigration and visa application tracker in Canada. Recently, they have introduced a new Start-up Visa program tracker, which allows applicants to enter their case information anonymously and receive processing time estimates.
Make sure IRCC has your most up-to-date contact details so you don’t miss that life-changing email.
With perseverance and meticulous execution, your efforts will pay off. Before you know it, you’ll be on your way to Canada as a permanent resident entrepreneur!
STEP 5. Before and After Approval
Getting that golden approval for permanent residence through the Start-up Visa program is incredibly exciting. But the journey isn’t over quite yet. Here are the next steps I took to stay in Canada while I’m waiting for my Start-up Visa.
Apply for Work Permit
First, I applied for a work permit. This optional work permit is available to Start-up Visa recipients, allowing you to legally work for your business in Canada while your permanent residence application is still being finalized.
The work visa processing times are estimated at around 3 to 6 months currently. So my expectation is that I will be able to land in Canada on my work permit first and immediately begin working on sales and making those important business connections. Until then I will be completing the incubator programme online via distance learning.
Once I have my approved work permit, I can officially make the move to Canada! As an immigrant founder, this was a surreal and incredible feeling to think about after so many months of effort.
I am deciding to locate myself and my startup in the New Market, York tech hub, which is located in the province of Ontario. The economic energy, talent pool, and vibrant startup community here made it an ideal place to establish my business and new life.
Grow Your Business
I will finally be able to hit the ground running with my innovative new company in Canada. Hiring key team members will be significantly faster and easier. Taking meetings with investors also becomes less complicated.
As I am working through accelerator material and carefully listening to the well chosen speakers in the incubator, I am feeling more confident about my choice and I am grateful every day for taking the leap and pursuing the Start-up Visa Program.
For immigrant entrepreneurs prepared to work hard, the Start-up Visa opens the door to incredible opportunities. My advice is to embrace this next exciting chapter in Canada for all it has to offer. The future here looks boundless.
Tips for Successfully Getting the Start-up Visa
Here are my tips for successfully getting the Start-up Visa and opening a business in Canada based on my firsthand experience:
Create a Strong Business Plan
One of the most critical elements is crafting an incredibly compelling and detailed business plan for your startup business idea. This is what you’ll be pitching to designated organizations and including in your visa application.
Take the time to validate your assumptions and ideas. Bolster your plan with thorough market research, competitive analysis, financial modeling, and other hard data. Demonstrate your venture has innovation, global potential, and job creation abilities.
Map out your go-to-market and growth strategies. Having a polished 10-page pitch deck and 5-year financial projections model was vital for me in getting accepted into the Startup Incubator.
Practice Your Pitch Extensively
Being able to pitch your startup business idea confidently and effectively is how you will win over designated organizations. Spend significant time refining your communication style, storytelling, and ability to highlight your competitive advantages.
Practice not only your verbal delivery but physical presence and body language. Rehearse key points and anticipate the tough questions you may get. Record yourself and solicit honest feedback from mentors.
When pitch day came for me, all that preparation allowed me to nail it and persuade the Startup Incubator of my choice.
Learn from Other Founders
Connect with other immigrant entrepreneurs who have been through the Start-up Visa process successfully. Learn from their experience with designated organizations, application tips, and lessons launching in Canada. Feel free to connect with me via social media, here is my LinkedIn.
I gained invaluable insights by joining online communities and meeting fellow immigrant founders who had already gone through the Start-up Visa journey I was just starting.
Hire an Immigration Lawyer If Needed
If at any point the process starts feeling too complex, don’t hesitate to hire an experienced Canadian immigration lawyer. They can help strategize, review your application, and ensure you don’t overlook important details.
Having access to that expert guidance gave me added confidence through every Start-up Visa step and was well worth the investment for me.
My final notes
My journey applying for the Start-up Visa Program has been a defining chapter in my entrepreneurial career so far. As an ambitious immigrant founder, I believe this program can empower immigrant entrepreneurs around the world to fulfill their potential and grow their business in Canada.
As covered in this guide, the Start-up Visa process requires deep commitment, resilience, and meticulous execution – from securing designated organization support and meeting eligibility criteria to completing the visa application and finally relocating your life.
But the effort will be well worth it because being established in Ontario, Canada with my new tech startup, and building solutions for customers in one of the world’s leading tech and business hubs is going to accelerate all my life goals.
For aspiring immigrants with entrepreneurial talent reading this, I hope my firsthand experience illuminates your path to realizing your full potential in Canada. Embrace this special opportunity and join the thriving startup community building the future.
Of course, be ready for challenges, long nights, and rounds of paperwork, but approach it systematically, learn from mentors, and stay motivated by your big vision. The privilege of being able to call Canada home while also pursuing entrepreneurship is truly glorious ambition.
About the Author
James Wiles is a startup founder and serial entrepreneur with 10+ years of experience in hardware and SaaS. As a leader in the industry, James is committed to sharing his expertise with others and has written numerous articles and blog posts on topics related to software development, business, and finance.