Brett Shellhammer, the co-founder and CTO of software startup Organimi, relocated to Waterloo, Ontario, after George W. Bush was re-elected in 2005. A former Silicon Valley techie, Shellhammer believes that running his business in Canada helped him save millions of dollars in healthcare and labor costs, leading to a level of success he wouldn't have been able to achieve stateside.

Now, as President Trump threatens to trim back immigration -- specifically, the H-1B visa program that has long benefitted the tech industry -- many entrepreneurs are looking to follow in Shellhammer's footsteps. They argue that Canada's comparatively open immigration policies makes it a smarter place to do business in 2018.

"It's becoming less and less sexy to be going to the United States," said Tim Delisle, the founder of the artificial intelligence startup Datalogue, in a recent interview with the New York Times. Last year, the New York-based company hired engineers from countries including Morocco, France, and Belarus, but decided to have them work from a brand new office in Montreal, Quebec, rather than in New York.

Indeed, investment in the Canadian startup ecosystem has skyrocketed over the past 12 months, which analysts say is attributable--at least in part--to the Trump administration. Hubert Bolduc, president and CEO of economic development firm Montreal International, notes that $600 million worth of investments flowed into the Montreal area in 2017, compared with just $200 million in 2015. "Could I say it's directly linked to Trump? Some explanation comes from that, for sure," Bolduc says.

In particular, businesses are taking advantage of Canada's recently introduced Global Skills program, a government initiative that allows tech workers to obtain work permits in just two weeks' time, compared with the roughly six months it would take to obtain an H-1B visa stateside. The U.S.'s H-1B program is also capped at 85,000 visas, distributed through an annual lottery, whereas Canada's program does not (currently) have a cap. In its first four months, the Global Skills program brought more than 2,000 job candidates to Canada, with the majority coming from India. 

"It's really good for companies that are in a crunch, or working to quickly come to Canada," notes Samantha Clark, a spokesperson for the Waterloo-based technology incubator Communitech, which has successfully on-boarded at least five international employees using the Global Skills visa.

Of course, it's still early days for the program, and it's not entirely clear if U.S. companies that are contemplating moving operations to Canada will actually do so. Although the U.S. Department of Homeland Security says it plans to propose various reforms to the H-1B visa program in 2018, no changes have been made thus far.  Many entrepreneurs are still in wait-and-see mode, as the H-1B lottery is set to open in April for the 2019 fiscal year.

Still others expect that even the most well-known technology companies are at least considering Canada as an option B. Indeed, Toronto has emerged as a dark horse candidate to host Amazon's second headquarters, with its comparatively low cost of living and access to talent. "For a company like Amazon, the limiting factor is not capital, it's talent," explains Ravi Madhavan, a professor of business administration with the University of Pittsburgh. The overwhelming majority of "gold collar" workers--meaning specialized engineers, project managers, and supply chain operators--come from overseas, he says. Anecdotally, Madhavan has noticed that many of his students who are offered jobs with U.S. businesses end up taking jobs with Canadian companies, because it's far easier to obtain a work visa there.

"Any company that is serious about talent has to be thinking about visa regimes and immigration," he adds. "I'd be very surprised if Amazon doesn't consider Canadian cities very carefully." It would likely be joining a host of U.S. companies that are suddenly finding the Great White North appealing. 

Published on: Jan 5, 2018