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Chris Alexander, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, welcomed 60 new citizens at a special citizenship ceremony at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto on Aug. 22, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Chris Alexander, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, welcomed 60 new citizens at a special citizenship ceremony at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto on Aug. 22, 2013. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Immigration

Startup visa program nears approval of first applicants Add to ...

Few foreign entrepreneurs are following the progress of Canada’s Start Up Visa Program as closely as Jose Barrios.

The Mexican-born co-founder and CEO of Vancouver-based Cognilab, a virtual laboratory for psychology research, is among the first batch of applicants for the new program designed to accelerate permanent residency for foreign entrepreneurs.

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With his temporary resident permit set to expire soon, Mr. Barrios has the backing of one of the visa program’s sanctioned start-up investor groups and he is hoping Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) will approve his application in the coming weeks.

The visa program was launched April 1, to lure bright minds and their unique businesses to make a go of it in Canada. While the approval process seems slow for what is supposed to be a fast-track program, the investors working with government argue it takes time to wade through the hundreds of proposals and to find the best people and companies to put forward.

“We always wish these things moved at the speed of business, which isn’t always the speed of policy making and government, but to be fair, this is one of the fastest implementation cycles for new immigration programs in Canadian history,” says Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, who took over the program in July when he replaced Jason Kenney.

“We are close to accepting the first people ... I think you’ll see the cup go from table to lips relatively quickly.”

Being accepted would allow Mr. Barrios and his Cognilab co-founder, Canadian-born Kelsey Hannan, to push ahead with their growth plans while keeping the company in the country.

“The reason we decided to stay in Canada was because of the Start Up Visa Program,” says Mr. Barrios, who turned down an opportunity to take the project to Silicon Valley, in part because he believes the interruption would have set back the business by months, or even years.

Canada has also become home for Mr. Barrios, 27, who studied psychology and computer science at the University of Victoria. It’s where he met his co-founder and launched the business, which uses online crowdsourcing to recruit participants for research experiments.

Of the hundreds of budding entrepreneurs from around the world who put their names forward, Mr. Barrios is among the few to have his application supported by a government-designated investment group. The Start Up Visa Program has investors from three streams: venture capital, angel investors and business incubators, which was added late last month.

GrowLab, a Vancouver-based start-up accelerator that helps entrepreneurs by offering seed funding and mentoring, nominated Cognilab and two other foreign startups – Retsly from the United States and Zeetl from the Ukraine – for permanent residency status.

“We’re happy for the founders and excited for the opportunities to come,” GrowLab executive director Jonathan Bixby says.

There are also a few applicants being considered right now through the angel stream, says Yuri Navarro, executive director of the National Angel Capital Organization.

Angel investors have been wading through the applications for months, looking for businesses that stand out and that they believe can thrive in Canada. The bar is higher for foreign entrepreneurs, since their businesses have to offer something that is not already being developed in Canada.

“What the angels are looking for are knowledge-based industries that are scalable where it makes sense strategically for the company to be in Canada,” Mr. Navarro says. “If it’s not novel, you’ll have a problem with any of the streams.”

Richard Rémillard, executive director of Canada’s Venture Capital and Private Equity Association, which represents the venture-capital stream, says part of the challenge is identifying quality deals. “Our folks are in the business of finding that one needle in the haystack, and that needle needs to be a diamond needle. That takes a lot of work,” Mr. Rémillard says.

Ottawa has set aside a total of 2,750 visas a year for start-up entrepreneurs and their families, which it expects will be plenty, especially in the first few years as the program finds its footing. It was announced in January, replacing the Federal Entrepreneur Program that started in the 1970s, which was suspended in 2011 by the government because it was no longer considered effective.

To qualify for the visa, applicants must first secure a minimum investment of $200,000 from one of the designated venture-capital funds, or a minimum investment of $75,000 from one of the angel-investor groups. There is no set amount of investment required for the incubator stream, but investors can provide funding. In the case of GrowLab, that is up to $30,000 in seed funding.

While investors in each of the streams put forward candidates they think should be granted the visa, Ottawa makes the final decision.

What will happen to Cognilab if Mr. Barrios isn’t chosen? “Unfortunately I would have to move Cognilab down to the place that has already offered to invest in our company: Silicon Valley,” he says. “Cognilab would not only have to be uprooted and moved, but it would also be deprived of one of its most valuable assets, Canadian beer.

“The Canadian beer in our beer fridge would have to be replaced by American beer.”

Follow on Twitter: @BrendaBouw

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