Global tech talent drawn to Toronto feels warm welcome despite Visa delays

Kora Team

At the beginning of February, global accelerator program Techstars commenced its second cohort in Toronto.

The cohort is comprised of a diverse range of companies, from crypto investors to singing apps, and POS systems for customers on-the-go. Techstars Toronto has attracted talent from across Canada – as far as the Yukon, in fact – but also international startups looking to scale in the Great White North. These companies have been drawn to Toronto’s thriving tech ecosystem, despite the challenges some still face in bringing their business to the city.

“We’ve seen different companies move their operations to Canada, or use Toronto as their epicentre as they expand into North America.”

Launched in Canada in 2018, Techstar’s Toronto accelerator is run in partnership with Real Ventures. The program runs for 13 weeks out of WeWork in downtown Toronto, and unlike Techstars’ proptech and AI accelerators in Toronto and Montreal, respectively, this program doesn’t focus on one specific industry. The cohort currently houses 61 people from six companies, spanning Toronto-Kitchener-Waterloo, one company from Montreal, one from the Yukon, as well as the two international startups.

“We look to invest in companies that are really disrupting the industries they’re operating in,” said Tariq Haddadin, program manager at Techstars Toronto. “Toronto is an incredible hub, and because of different players in the ecosystem recognizing Toronto as a city, we’ve seen different companies move their operations to Canada, or use Toronto as their epicentre as they expand into North America.”

Each year, Techstars chooses more than 300 companies to join its three-month mentorship-driven accelerators that operate around the world. Techstars invests $120,000 in each company for six percent common share equity, providing hands-on mentorship, and unlimited access to the Techstars global network for life. Haddadin noted that TechStars and its curated network of program associates, investors, and mentors is a great “soft landing” for startups looking to go to market.

“I can’t think of many other programs that even come close to Techstars’ global reach,” said Sunil Sharma, managing director of Techstars Toronto. “We have a lifetime relationship with each company, with global access to investors, partners, funders, and media.”

Sharma said Toronto has become a magnet for attracting the world’s best entrepreneur, as its profile as a global tech centre has never been higher. The managing director noted that Techstars Toronto’s inaugural cohort raised over $10 million of follow-on capital collectively upon graduation, and added that this year’s program hopes to build on the success of last year’s class.

“In ten days in Toronto, we did more than we did in a month in Lithuania.”
– Edmundas Balčikonis

This year’s cohort features two international startups with global aspirations that are making use of Techstars and Toronto’s network to lay the foundation for developing on a global scale: Kora, an Africa-focused payments solution founded in Lagos, Nigeria, and Eddy Travels, an AI travel booker founded in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Kora’s cross-border payments solution uses several technologies, including blockchain settlement, to reduce the cost of remittance while increasing the speed of payments into and within Africa. The company aims to create a unified connection between global financial systems and Africa, a continent Bryan Uyanwune, the CIO at Kora, believes is at the new frontier of financial opportunity. Founded in Nigeria’s capital city, the company has ambitions to one day become a fully-fledged digital bank.

“We want to build a global billion-dollar business,” said Uyanwune. “We knew we would definitely need expertise and a foundation and the right guidance, and Techstars has the track rate of being able to build something like that.”

Lithuania-based Eddy Travels is a virtual travel assistant created to help users find travel deals and tips through chat applications. The company’s software looks to help travellers search for flights, hotels, restaurants, and travel insurance quickly. Artificial intelligence is integrated into the application so users can send voice commands to the application for faster responses. The software is currently available on Facebook Messenger, Slack, Viber, and Telegram, and leverages services like SkyScanner.

“We’re really happy about the choice in coming to Toronto,” Edmundas Balčikonis, Eddy Travels’ co-founder and CEO, told BetaKit. “You’re right next door to huge markets like the United States, Toronto’s mentors are awesome, and in ten days in Toronto, we did more than we did in a month in Lithuania.”

eddy travels

Balčikonis said the most valuable thing about Techstars is its mentorship opportunities in the B2C and travel tech space, as well as the wealth of travel tech events in Toronto. He said the concentration of travel tech companies like Snap Travel and Hopper, played a big role in driving the team to Canada.

“The application process could be faster. It’s going to take me half a year to get [the visa].”

Balčikonis is one of the many global entrepreneurs looking to get a visa through Canada’s Startup Visa Program, which looks to expedite permanent residency for immigrants willing to move their business to Canada. Balčikonis said he plans on moving to Canada for good once he gets his visa, and although the process was clear and straightforward, it has also been slow.

“The application process could be faster,” Balčikonis said. “It’s going to take me half a year to get [the visa]. Everything is pretty straightforward, but it could be faster.”

Uyanwune said despite having to acclimatize to Toronto’s weather, he feels Toronto has given him a warm welcome, particularly as the only member of his Kora team who has, so far, been able to enter Canada.

“I’ve been here by myself. My team wasn’t able to make it due to some visa issues at the Canadian embassy,” Uyanwune said. “We’re currently trying to get that rectified, but even just being here by myself, everyone treats you like family.”

Uyanwune said he’s hopeful that five more members of his team will be able to come to Toronto and participate in Techstars’ program. He noted he is still very happy to be in Canada, but for now, interaction with the remainder of his team is limited to remote communication, with the added strain of a six-hour time difference.

“We’re still waiting for just the entry visas for Kora to be able to come to Canada and take part in Techstars,” said Sharma. “Luckily Bryan is an American citizen, so his entry to Canada was straightforward. But Nigerians need a visa, and we’re not necessarily trying to immigrate people yet.”

Sharma said there is global awareness of Toronto’s tech industry, including its availability of talent, and the decision to bring Collision Conference to Toronto is a recognition that Toronto is, by nature, international and global. He added that he wants these global companies to come and participate in Techstars, and take advantage of what the region has to offer.

“There’s this general awareness that Canada has very proactive and sensible immigration, but our visa advantages aren’t as straightforward as they appear to be. I think we as a country should be paying attention to the ways that we attract entrepreneurs to Canada,” he told BetaKit.

Images courtesy Kora & Eddy Travels.

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle is a Vancouver-based writer with 5+ years of experience in communications and journalism and a lifelong passion for telling stories. For over two years, she has reported on all sides of the Canadian startup ecosystem, from landmark venture deals to public policy, telling the stories of the founders putting Canadian tech on the map.

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