Kickstarter PBC, the eight-year-old technology company that is practically eponymous for crowdfunding, has opened its first international office in Canada through the acquisition of Vancouver live-streaming video startup Huzza Media Inc.
On its own, the acquisition is a good moment for Vancouver's tech community, but it also serves to highlight Canada's immigration policies when it comes to entrepreneurial newcomers after a tense weekend in the United States that saw more than 2,900 members of Canada's tech industries sign an open letter to the Trudeau government urging it keep the country's borders open.
Huzza is the brain child of Justin Womersley and Nick Smit, two South African émigrés who moved their startup from Silicon Valley to Canada in 2016 as part of the Citizenship and Immigration Department's Startup Visa program, which gives permanent residency to entrepreneurs if they can get an investment from a qualified venture capitalist interested in bringing their company to Canada.
"That's Canada's gain and America's loss. I think it's a great program and wish we had something like that here as well," says Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler, who said a big part of opening the new Kickstarter office in Vancouver's Gastown is about bringing in some of that startup energy. "We're building a team there, we're hiring five people, we're expecting that team to operate as its own startup there."
The Startup Visa program began as a five-year trial in 2013, and to date has resulted in about 170 new Canadian residents and 48 companies located primarily in British Columbia and Ontario. While the numbers have increased from the first year, which only saw 10 new residents, it's still far short of the program's 2,750 allocated visas.
"There are hundreds of people who show interest, we get a thousand applications who want to come," says Yuri Navarro, CEO of the National Angel Capital Organization, which administers one of the application streams for the program.
Mr. Navarro said potential startup visa candidates include international students attending Canadian universities, but also investors who seek out overlooked talent by working with investors, incubators and universities in Ukraine, Africa and China.
Another relatively new source has been from foreign-born entrepreneurs living in the United States as the political climate around immigration has changed following the election of Donald Trump.
"I'd say we have seen a bump in interest recently," said Mr. Navarro. "In the past it's been hard to pry away people from Silicon Valley, the best investments often found a way to figure out their immigration status. Now there's more concern about that."
"The issues highlighted by Trump's changes to immigration policy have served to further highlight the opportunity that exists for a program like Startup Visa to play a meaningful role in attracting talented business owners and entrepreneurs to Canada," Mr. Navarro wrote in an e-mail after the chaos at American airports following Trump's executive order on immigration.
Mr. Strickler also took to Twitter to decry the executive order, and declare that he had donated to the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups fighting the Trump administration in court.
Huzza's Mr. Womersly and Mr. Smit grew up together in Cape Town, South Africa, and started a travel-oriented tech company together in their home country before Mr. Womersly travelled to the United States to attend Stanford University. While there, Mr. Womersly developed his new idea – a livestreaming service for musicians that would allow viewers to pay them directly for the performance – and invited Mr. Smit to join him in the U.S. to work on developing the idea.
Living in the U.S. on a business tourist visa, Mr. Smit found himself in a curious position when the duo was invited to the Matter tech accelerator. "I at no point was able to work for Huzza. I couldn't draw any income. I could only set up the company," due to the restrictions of his visa. Meanwhile, Mr. Womersly saaid he had been eyeing Canada's startup visa as a way to join the North American business scene.
A chance introduction with Marcus Daniels, CEO of Canadian venture capital firm and tech accelerator Highline, resulted in an investment and successful application to the visa program. Now the duo, and their wives, are building their new lives in Canada.
"We've had a really warm welcome. I've been really impressed by the B.C. government's commitment to tech; when we arrived we met with a load of people in various government organizations who were really helpful in getting us set up," Mr. Smit says.
Huzza came to Kickstarter's attention thanks to a concert by Vancouver singer Amanda Palmer, who mentioned during the show that it was being livestreamed by a company from her hometown. Sitting in the audience was Perry Chan, co-founder of Kickstarter, who e-mailed Mr. Strickler asking him to find out more about them. The company used Huzza's technology to set up the new Kickstarter Live interactive portal, which launched in late 2016, from which talks of a combination flowed. Even though the rest of Kickstarter's 120 employees are in Brooklyn, New York, the new Canadians have no plans to move again.
"Justin and I had the opportunity to move to the U.S. and we would much rather put down roots here, we love the way of life here." For one thing the duo are avid skiers and can now hit the slopes in 45 minutes, quite a change from South Africa where finding snow involved getting on a plane.