For two weeks in February, 2010, Vancouver welcomed the world for the 21st Winter Olympics. The games, which were generally regarded as an enormous success, even managed to somehow convince the city’s ponderous rain to hold off, as the city was bathed in sunshine for much of the duration of the contests.
The same year, two Romanians weren’t finding Vancouver so welcoming. Mircea Paşoi and Cristian Strat, founders of news aggregator startup Summify, were spending as much time battling the red tape of Canada’s immigration policies as they were focusing on their business.
Fortunately, the pair were about to enlist the help of some influential allies, including including former Abe Books COO Boris Wertz, and startup gurus Danny Robinson and Maura Rodgers.
Eventually, the idea of a Canadian Startup Visa would attract the broad support of the larger Canadian tech community and, not unimportantly, Canada’s Canada’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney. Canada’s Startup Visa Program will take effect April 1st.
Today, Canada’s startup visa is being hailed as the first program in the world of its kind. Meanwhile, south of the border, the move to replicate Canada’s startup visa has become political, despite the protests of Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Google founder Sergey Brin and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer.
Cantech Letter talked to Boris Wertz, who as founder of Version One Ventures has become one of the most notable early-stage investors in North America, about how Canada’s Startup Visa happened.
Boris, can you tell us a bit about your involvement in the Canadian Startup Visa?
Two years ago, Danny Robinson, Maura Rodgers and myself started to lobby for a Startup Visa Canada that would make it easier for foreign (tech) entrepreneurs to start their company in Canada. And in January this year, the government announced that it would indeed launch such a new visa which will go into effect on April 1st.
Was there a particular incident that brought your attention to a problem that the visa would address?
The initiative was inspired by the immigration struggles of the talented Summify team. In 2010, Cristian and Mircea arrived in Vancouver from Romania to start a new company. This talented pair had a big idea, strong endorsements, and venture-capital backing from top tier investors like Accel. However, rather than focusing on their startup, they faced a frustrating collection of bureaucratic red tape and immigration status uncertainty. We were hardly extending a friendly invitation to these talented entrepreneurs.
I think that the Startup Visa US initiative got caught in the political battles that are currently going on in Washington between Republicans and Democrats so it is probably more a victim of a defunct political system and not of a general opposition against it.
It seems like this happened pretty fast, at least for a government initiative. How were you able to convince government representatives that this was important?
I think that we got a bit lucky that there was a strong interest among government officials to push this initiative forward – Minister Jason Kenney (the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism) himself made it a high priority and this definitely help the process enormously.
In Canada, two of our most important figures in tech weren’t born here, Terry Matthews was born in Wales and Mike Lazaridis in Turkey. In the US, 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. Why do you think this is?
There are many studies that show that immigrants represent some of the most successful entrepreneurs – as they often arrive in a new country with little wealth, they work very hard to build a better future for their children and often see starting their own company as the best way to achieve this.
Many of the leaders of better known U.S. tech companies, FaceBook, Google and Yahoo are very supportive of the United States adopting a similar startup visa. Yet it has become a political issue. Why do you make of the opposition to it?
I think that the Startup Visa US initiative got caught in the political battles that are currently going on in Washington between Republicans and Democrats so it is probably more a victim of a defunct political system and not of a general opposition against it. But it definitely feels good that Canada was able to launch a Visa in much less time than our neighbours down south.
What does the Canadian Startup Visa mean to you, practically. Does it change the way you source talent? Could Canadians be potentially left out of key jobs?
It makes it easier for Canadian investors to source talent abroad and bring those talented teams into the country – if you invest in early-stage companies you want to be close to them to mentor and help them and this is usually very hard when they are many timezones away. Getting more tech entrepreneurs into the country is a net positive for everybody and will hopefully create many new jobs in this country as we see successful companies emerging from this program.