Startup Chile’s government-sponsored program is attracting entrepreneurs with what may be the most generous offer of all, an immediate grant of $40,000 (U.S.) with no strings attached. Foreign entrepreneurs whose business plans are approved get an expedited visa to come and set up a company. Very little else is required other than owners stay in the country to run the businesses for at least six months and share their expertise in workshops for the local startup community.
The program has proved to be extremely successful in its first two years. Half of the 16 Canadians who have participated are still in Chile. Several of the others who decided to move on after the experience have handed off their businesses to local Chileans to run, said Maitetxu Larraechea, spokesperson for Startup Chile.
The buzz created by the program has meant Chile hasn’t needed to recruit applicants, aside from a couple of trips by staff members to speak at entrepreneur events. “Our best advertising is what entrepreneurs tell each other about the program,” Ms. Larraechea said.
Edmonton software developer Ashley Reddy read about the Chilean program last winter on a hacker site. He applied and was approved within weeks and he has been in Santiago for three months developing paperhater.com, a program for scanning and organizing business documents.
“The program was appealing to me because it didn't require giving up any equity in my company,” which is often a requirement for startup grants and venture capital. “And I’m getting to meet entrepreneurs from all over the world. Dinner often looks like the United Nations: with Spanish, Romanian, German, Irish and of course Canadian entrepreneurs” getting together, Mr. Reddy said.
While some participants have seen it as just a six-month commitment and then move back to Canada, Eric Jobidon became so successful in Santiago that he’s moved there full time, and he was recently joined by his wife and three children, none of whom spoke Spanish at the time.
A local cluster of like-minded professionals is more important than the money, the software developer (originally from Montreal) has found since the move to Coquimbo, Chile in late 2010. There is a network of other entrepreneurs who also participate in the program and people are eager to help each other out. The synergy has enabled him to move on to other products after marketing his software for dentists, called Praccel, in Chile and the United States. “There are opportunities everywhere.”
“It’s the quality of people you have access to, and the mentorship available is often much more important than the money” for attracting talent, said Lloyed Lobo, partner with consultancy Boast Capital in Calgary. “If you are an entrepreneur from anywhere, you are going to be attracted to the place that provides conditions that will help you succeed.”
Mr. Lobo is behind Startup Camp Canada, which is taking Canadian entrepreneurs to the United States to give them more access to expertise and venture capital, but the intention is that they will come home and flourish because of the experience, he said.
There were 50 Canadian applicants for the accelerator series of workshops, speaker series, mentorship sessions and active coaching it organized in a joint program in entrepreneurship it developed with the Plug and Play Tech Center in California. The first 10 weeks will be in Silicon Valley this summer. The American and Canadian participants will then follow up with 10 more weeks of workshops and mentoring in Calgary during the fall and winter. The mentors will include people behind successful startups, including YouTube and Skype, as well as universities and venture capital companies, he said.
The program even got an application from an entrepreneur from Bulgaria, Mr. Lobo said. “He said he was attracted to the program because he didn’t have access to experienced mentors in his own country.”
Access to mentorship is an attraction Canada should be playing up as it tries to attract foreign startups, Mr. Lobo said.
The federal government should be looking at all these models as it shapes its new immigrant entrepreneur program, said Victoria Lennox, co-founder of Startup Canada. The non-government advocacy group is travelling across the country this summer to solicit ideas on how to kick-start businesses and sectors and technologies that should be priorities. She hopes to catch the ear of federal officials as they shape the Canadian entrepreneur immigration program.
“There is no one solution to creating a more entrepreneurial culture and ecosystem,” she explained. “It takes an appetite to try new things and see where they go, and perhaps most importantly, it requires vision and leadership to pull everyone in the same direction.”