Obama Fail Opens Door for Massive Startup Opportunity in Canada – If We Act Now

Canada has a brief yet incredibly valuable opportunity in front of it when it comes to attracting foreign entrepreneurs.

It needs to act on it, too.

US President Barack Obama’s Executive Order on Immigration Thursday night left foreign entrepreneurs trying to get into the US frustrated. Despite lofty promises, not much came out of the address.

“I will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed,” Obama told the nation.

RELATED: Government Officially Makes Call to Foreign Startups for New Startup Visa Program

Yet the vague sentiments failed to give talent-hungry startups what they wanted: access to more H-1B visas—designed for temporary, high-skilled workers—or at the very least, access to unused green cards. There’s a woeful shortage, and it’s going to take at least a year for congress to enact a better ruling.

The solution for many of these bright minds could be Vancouver. Unfortunately Canada is also working at a snail’s pace when it comes to actually giving out its highly coveted Startup Visas.

It’s already been well known for a year that big Silicon Valley tech giants have set up shop in Vancouver based on the ease of obtaining regular work visas, or the Startup Visas. One San Francisco-based startup Zenefits, named in a Sunday New York Times piece on the issue, said it plans on housing employees in Vancouver to offset its H-1B challenges.

Currently 65,000 H-1B visas are up for grabs in the US, with an additional 20,000 for those with advanced degrees from an American university. Only half of those who applied for a visa this year received one. The Senate passed a far-reaching immigration bill last year that would have helped reduce the green-card backup and increase the H-1B cap to 110,000, with the potential to reach 180,000. The Republican-led House refused to pick it up.

In a report Friday, the White House Council of Economic Advisers estimated that expanded options for high-skilled workers would clear about 100,000 foreign entrepreneurs to work in the U.S. through 2024.

In Canada, tech leaders had the foresight years ago to rally for the creation of the Startup Visa. When it was created in 2013 it revealed Canada’s speed and ability to act on critical economic issues. Now it has the chance to continue that momentum, as the US continues to lag behind amid congressional congestion.

Obama’s address on Thursday did little to quell the appetites of critics who want more options to keep bright entrepreneurs within US borders. 

It also shed light on the fact that foreign entrepreneurs are willing to settle for Vancouver in order to access Silicon Valley. Why not significantly add to the number of available Startup Visas?

In Canada, the government has said it will issue a maximum of 2,750 visas every year during the five-year pilot program, which is limited to entrepreneurs who already have the backing of a venture capital firm in Canada.

Eventually the US will figure its issues out, so it stands to reason that our nation could benefit from boosting the number of Startup Visas every year to 5,000.

Before we can argue for a higher cap though, it might be more appropriate for more of those 2,750 visas to actually get used.

The program was unveiled on April 1, 2013, nearly 20 months ago. As far as our research tells us, there are just two startups thus far that have benefitted from this program. The first was Zeetl, in July 2014, a startup that provides technology to enable voice conversations on social media. Just a few months ago in September, Vancouver’s social media dashboard startup Hootsuite acquired the company.

The second company came two weeks ago, when Ara Labs Security Solutions became the first successful Atlantic Canadian applicants to the program.

If this is the case, that’s just one startup visa handed out every ten months, in a program that caps out at nearly 3,000 a year.

It would be helpful to know how many companies are applying for the coveted visas, but Citizenship Minister Chris Alexander couldn’t specify to the Canadian Press in August how many applications he had received.

He did, however, comment that the number was enormous. So why so few have been selected?

While the US continues to lag behind, Canada has a golden chance to snatch more high-potential minds who haven’t yet considered Vancouver. Why the government’s efforts thus far have fallen short is a mystery.