Entrepreneurs from far and wide are considering moving their headquarters, teams and families across the world to set up shop in Canada. And Spark Centre’s Pioneer Program is the newest way for innovators to learn about life and business on this side of the world.

It was November 2019 when Duc Phuc Le boarded a plane and flew to Canada. His mission was clear — he was interested in learning about the country’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and would ultimately determine whether Ontario would be the place he’d choose to settle and build his burgeoning business, currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. As one of the first participants to embark on the exciting new Pioneer Program — a two-week cohort-based deep dive into what it takes to successfully live set up shop in the province — Le is no stranger to similar programs that explore the innovative landscape in other parts of the world. With a post-graduate academic background in entrepreneurship, innovation and management, and experience in startups in the United Kingdom and in his home country, Le says he’s attended many comparable programs but this one was the most impactful. “The course was conducted with audience-targeted language and an ‘easy-is-better’ approach, making it desirable for those who wish to learn the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Canada inside and out,” he says. “Participants are walked through internal and external environmental factors affecting businesses in Canada. I was absolutely awed by the rigor and comprehensiveness of the program. It offered me precious and invaluable insights into how to build, run and grow a business in Canada.” One of the most important takeaways for Le was meeting industry and market connections. “Having access to an active and supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem encourages me to bring my business to Canada,” he says.

“The objective is to build a pipeline of high-growth startups and scale-ups from global jurisdictions and attract intellectual property, create high-paying jobs in Ontario and diversify exports.”

Those vigorous, exhilarating and enlightening two weeks he spent in Durham Region culminated in Le
making a life-changing (and business-changing) decision: He plans to immigrate to Ontario. “The Pioneer Program significantly developed my interest in building companies in Canada. I realized this is the best, most nurturing place for my upcoming startups and I hope I’m able to bring something new to the region’s entrepreneurial system.” 

Le’s experience with the Pioneer Program and his decision to relocate and grow his business on Canadian soil is music to Nova Oliphant’s ears. The client services coordinator for Oshawa, Ont.’s Spark Centre (a regional innovation centre offering technology and innovation support to launch, develop and grow businesses), Oliphant is involved in client engagement, and plays a key role in managing Spark Centre’s Start Up Visa (SUV) program (see The Start Up Visa Program, above) and the Pioneer Program. The latter launched in November — Le and his fellow participants were the program’s first graduates — and is described as an “international soft-landing program that invites foreign founders who are contemplating immigration to Canada to test the waters of doing business here,” Oliphant says. “The objective is to build a pipeline of high-growth startups and scale-ups from global jurisdictions and attract intellectual property, create high-paying jobs in Ontario and diversify exports.”

“High preference is given to those who are able to compete and expand on a global scale.”

The Pioneer Program is ideal for startups that have innovation and technology embedded in their products and are considering applying for the SUV. After filling out an application online, Oliphant and her team vet candidates to ensure their business is the right fit for Spark Centre and for Durham. “High preference is given to those who are able to compete and expand on a global scale,” she says. Entrepreneurs who are accepted are fully immersed in the Canadian way — they experience our culture, environment, how we do business and they learn what it’s like to settle in this country. A robust schedule is prepared for attendees — they go to workshops, nighttime and daytime events, take tours, and they’re introduced to industry experts, mentors and advisors who can field questions and speak to everything from local real estate to educational opportunities. They even look at individual business plans to help validate concepts and ideas. “More importantly, they gain access to Spark Centre’s growing community of local and international startups, as well as the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem in Durham Region and throughout Ontario,” she says. “We’re encouraging international talent to settle in the region, increasing the relevance of Durham to Ontario’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

Once attendees land, the program kicks off with a warm Durham Region welcome, Oliphant says, and “quickly intensifies with two days of programming devoted to market acceleration.” Workshops include topics such as business law, intellectual property, employment rights, taxation, financing, investment, sales, marketing and life in Ontario. “Often referred to as a ‘mini-MBA,’ the Pioneer Program ensures all participants are fully equipped to make the big decision to move to Canada,” says Oliphant. Besides being immersed in all things business, the visitors have the opportunity to experience what the Greater Toronto Area has to offer — from interactive tours of recreation facilities and meals at fancy restaurants to a night at Toronto’s trendy Distillery District.

“Starting a business abroad definitely brings both opportunities and challenges, including obstacles in languages and culture shock, not to mention a different business
environment and market,” says Le. “But after experiencing the Pioneer Program, I feel much more confident in settling in a new country and relocating to Durham Region.”

The Start-Up Visa (SUV) Program

Intended to attract entrepreneurs from abroad who are looking to bring their new, high-growth businesses to Canada, the only way to gain entrance to the SUV is to be accepted into a program offered by a designated Canadian business incubator or accelerator. Spark Centre’s program, which serves technology and innovation entrepreneurs, requires applicants to first submit their business plans and show that their business is generating revenue that’s scalable and sustainable. (The full list of eligibility criteria can be found at sparkcentre.org.)

Upon successfully completing the application process and landing in Canada, Spark Centre strategically provides support to clients based on the stage of business maturity when onboarding, says Spark Centre’s Nova Oliphant. “We provide education, networking and advisory to all clients and require founders be coachable, fully engaged and committed to their business success. Our objective is to build a strong entrepreneurial community and, as such, clients are invited to participate in networking events that accelerate business development and give back to the community,” she says.

SuVP Consulting is a consulting firm with a focus on start-ups in the Canadian market. In operation since 2017, they specialize in matching entrepreneurs’ products and services here at home. Nazila Akbari, the company’s president, says it’s all about leveraging existing business to address a need the Canadian
market. “The entrepreneur’s business should be innovative, globally scalable and create jobs for
Canadians,” she says, adding she and her partners have an understanding of what’s involved in the world of startups and innovations. “Each startup is unique, and it takes a multidisciplinary approach to determine if the business is ready for the market. We have worked with all stages of startups; our services are tailored to the need of each venture we work with.”

Immigrating to and settling in Canada

Moving your life and business to a country across the world is an incredible endeavour. What do entrepreneurs need to know before making a life-changing decision to live and open up shop in Ontario? We asked Jade Calver, the principal and CEO of Calver and Associates Immigration Services in Oshawa, Ont. and Cobourg, Ont., as well as a registered immigration consultant with the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council, for three pieces of advice to make the transition a smooth one.

Get your team ready.
“My biggest piece of advice for SUV applicants is to equip yourself with a strong team of advisors to give you support during the process. My firm assists SUV clients with navigating the immigration system, but applicants should also have a business lawyer, accountant and business consultant who are familiar with the SUV program and its processes,” she says.

Get organized.
The SUV program and immigrating to Canada takes an incredible amount of planning, Calver says. “From bringing a business to Canada and moving family members to finding a home and settling, there’s so much to stay on top of.” Calver suggests keeping documentation organized and using professionals to ensure your application is completed accurately.

Get educated.
Educate yourself on everything related to the program. “Everything is very country-specific, and the permanent residency process is long, which clients need to understand,” says Calver. “We very much encourage SUV clients to take advantage of the work permit option so that they are able to come to Canada and start working on their business as soon as possible.”

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