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Stanislav Korsei moved from Ukraine to Canada in search of a better business environment. (Rafal Gerszak for the globe and Mail)
Stanislav Korsei moved from Ukraine to Canada in search of a better business environment. (Rafal Gerszak for the globe and Mail)

Immigrant entrepreneurs

Visa program opens doors to overseas talent Add to ...

When Ukrainian-born entrepreneurs Stanislav Korsei and Oleksandr Zadorozhnyi decided to uproot their lives and move to Canada last fall in search of a better business environment, they didn’t imagine how well it would go – at least not so quickly.

In July, the duo behind Zeetl, which provides technology to enable voice conversations on social media, became the first recipients of Canada’s new Start-Up Visa program, which provides permanent residency to immigrant entrepreneurs and their families.

Three months later, Zeetl was bought by Hootsuite Media Inc., one of Canada’s most successful social media companies, for an undisclosed price.

Mr. Korsei and Mr. Zadorozhnyi are now working with Hootsuite to integrate their new voice technology into its social media platform, the launch of which is expected later this year.

“In my mind, I imagined it would be way harder than it appeared to be,” Mr. Korsei said about his whirlwind experience becoming a new entrepreneur in Canada.

There was a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy, and Mr. Korsei said they worked hard to prove their business was worthy of Canadian investment that would open the door to citizenship. Still, it all happened quicker than he anticipated.

“We’re talking about immigration to another country … relatively, it was fast and easy,” Mr. Korsei said. Both men made the move with their spouses and a child apiece.

Mr. Korsei said there is less red tape when doing business in Canada versus Ukraine. He said the adjustment has been smooth, since he was already doing business with partners in North America. He and his wife have also travelled a lot, so there wasn’t much culture shock when they came to live in Canada.

Asked whether he is glad to be out of the Ukraine during this time of turmoil with Russia, Mr. Korsei said simply, “I am happy that my family is here with me in Canada.”

While it took some time for Start-Up Visa to produce results since being announced by Ottawa in early 2013, Zeetl has become a poster child for the success of the pilot program so far.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) Minister Chris Alexander believes the Start-Up Visa program is opening doors for investors to attract and retain talent from outside the country, while improving Canada’s reputation as a place for startups to thrive.

“It has put us on the map,” he said.

Other Start-Up Visa applications have been approved, but not yet announced as of early October, according to Mr. Alexander. There are also about 15 to 20 projects in the pipeline that are now going through the immigration process with support from the private sector, he said.

The federal government set aside about 2,750 visas a year for startup entrepreneurs and their families in the first few years of the pilot program. (They will have to live in Canada for at least three of four years before applying for full Canadian citizenship.) Immigrant entrepreneurs will have their permanent residency process fast tracked if they can secure funding from designated Canadian investors in three streams: venture capital, angel investors or business incubators.

Zeetl’s application came from the business incubator stream and the others are just starting to process applicants following a rigorous screening process, said Howard Greenberg, a partner at KPMG Law LLP, which has been hired to vet applicants on behalf of angel investors designated by CIC.

“The gates are just opening,” Mr. Greenberg said.

The results are expected to benefit not just the foreign applicants, but also Canada’s broader entrepreneur community, and the economy.

Hootsuite founder and chief executive officer Ryan Holmes said he might never have heard about Zeetl if the company had not come to Canada through the support of Vancouver-based GrowLab (which has since merged with Toronto’s Extreme Startups to form HIGHLINE).

“We need more people like this in our country,” Mr. Holmes said, describing Zeetl’s founders as classic entrepreneurs who took huge risks to grow their business. “If you want to talk about return on investment from a Canadian policy perspective – I bet this one initiative alone … more than pays for itself.”

The road to becoming a Canadian entrepreneur through the Start-Up Visa program hasn’t been smooth for all applicants.

Jose Barrios, the Mexican-born co-founder and CEO of B.C.-based Cognilab, an online lab for human behaviour research, was among the first batch of applicants, but experienced delays after his temporary resident permit expired last fall.

He received a 10-year temporary resident visa from the United States and moved to California, managing the company remotely, while his team remained in Canada. Mr. Barrios said the situation made it difficult for him to raise money from Canadian investors.

“They were as concerned as I was that I wouldn’t be able to come back to Canada to run the company I had founded,” he said.

He received a startup visa work permit in February and returned to Canada, which has helped to rekindle investment. Cognilab has since moved its base from Vancouver to Victoria and has landed more than a dozen university clients, such as Harvard, McGill and Ryerson.

In the meantime, Mr. Barrios is crossing his fingers for permanent residency though the Start-Up Visa program.

“I strongly believe that the Canadian immigration system will step up and help more entrepreneurs like me grow our companies in Canada,” he said.

But he has a contingency plan, just in case, which includes incorporating a U.S. subsidiary called Cognilab USA.

“I’ll chase my dreams wherever they may lead,” Mr. Barrios said. “That said, I hope my dreams and I can finally settle down and call Canada our home.”

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