Immigrant entrepreneurs sought under Canada’s new startup visa program

Amid a global economic slowdown, Ottawa hopes to capitalize on its “rock-star” status by inviting innovative entrepreneurs abroad to bring their next big idea to Canada.

If you have a brilliant business plan and a Canadian investor who bets on your vision, Canada’s door is open for you, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Wednesday, floating the idea of a new “startup visa” program for foreign entrepreneurs.

“There is no doubt immigrants are among our most creative and successful entrepreneurs and investors. They are people who left behind what’s familiar to them in order to take a huge chance on an uncertain future to pursue their dreams,” Kenney said at a Toronto news conference.

“Entrepreneurs need to dream big and they can’t be afraid to take risks . . . We’d like to attract more of these bright innovators and entrepreneurs, who can create companies, hi-tech and other value-added businesses, that have the potential to create hundreds of jobs.”

However, Canada’s current immigrant entrepreneur program, established in the 1970s, is dated to an old economy and its low eligibility threshold — a $300,000 business venture in operation for a minimum two years — has managed to bring in mostly corner stores and mall kiosks.

While Ottawa plans to launch public consultations to iron out the logistics of the new program, Kenney said candidates would not need capital themselves as long as they had the backing of Canadian investors.

The federal government will cap the number of applications to be processed under the program to 2,750 a year and it is not known how many will be successfully admitted. It’s undecided if selected entrepreneurs will arrive on a conditional visa to work here or as permanent residents.

Kenney said he hopes to roll it out by the end of the year, outgunning the United States, where a similar plan has been tabled in Congress to facilitate the entry of immigrant entrepreneurs.

The proposed program has already won accolades from Canadian venture capitalists like Kevin O’Leary, co-host of the CBC TV business program, The Lang and O’Leary Exchange.

“We are the rock stars in the world today. There are very few countries that have our status,” said O’Leary, on hand to lend his support to the government plan.

“This is a huge opportunity for us because every entrepreneur who starts a business in Canada has to think global. We can’t depend on the North American market. Every strategy we build our business on has to be one servicing world economies.”

That’s where immigrant entrepreneurs come in, with their know-how and innovation to bridge Canadian investors with overseas markets.

“You get a world-class entrepreneur regardless of geography or nationality and can put him on a Canadian-invested idea. So we’ll be able to expand the number of great ideas,” O’Leary said.

“This is a fantastic idea for investors like me . . . I look at global concepts, bring them here and make them ours.”

Immigrant entrepreneurs admitted to Canada dropped sharply from 580 in 2007 to 184 last year. In anticipating the changes, the government stopped accepting new applications in July