Britain Woos Entrepreneurs With Its Own Startup Visa

British passport, by M RoachIt’s no secret that the political machine in Washington can be slow… very slow. New legislation — even if it’s potentially vital for the nation’s health — can take months or years to hit the statute books, while politicians engage in their games of horse-trading and back-room negotiations. Take the Startup Visa Act, which was first brought up for debate in 2009 and introduced for the first time last year, has only just now been reintroduced to Capitol Hill by John Kerry and Richard Lugar.

In the meantime, Britain has managed to enact a similar outcome despite undergoing a change of government, debating the ideas and having to institute the changes to immigration laws. In fact, the pace has been so rapid that new rules to grant visas to entrepreneurs will come into force in just three weeks. It’s no surprise officials are crowing about it:

“Entrepreneurs and investors can play a major part in our economic recovery, and I want to do everything I can to ensure that Britain remains an attractive destination for them,” said Damian Green, the Minister of State for Immigration. “Last year we issued far too few visas to those who wish to set up a business or invest in the U.K. — I intend to change that.”

It’s very positive news for entrepreneurs who want to set up in Britain, and should be greeted with cheers for anyone wanting to see the technology scene flourish.

Most of the new rules are aimed at speeding up citizenship for big investors or entrepreneurs who contribute to the economy. In the past, for example, anyone investing large amounts of money in Britain had to live there at least 275 days each year and wait five years before they qualified for citizenship. Now you can speed that up with the amount you contribute to the economy — £5 million ($8 million USD) will mean you qualify in three years, £10 million ($16 million USD) will mean citizenship in two years — and you only need to spend half your time in the U.K. Entrepreneurs who bring at least £5 million over three years or create 10 jobs in Britain will be similarly fast-tracked.

The actual startup visa, if you want to call it that, is something different. It modifies the existing visa for entrepreneurs (which currently requires £200,000, or $320,000, of investment) so they can potentially become residents with just £50,000 in funding. Achieving that requires that you’re designated as a “high-potential business,” though what that means isn’t exactly clear.

Still, it’s testament to the work of people like Reshma Sohoni, who runs the Seedcamp mentoring program, and local venture capitalist Alex Van Someren, of Amadeus Capital, who have worked on the rules. It’s a remarkable achievement, really, given the anti-immigrant position the ruling Conservative party has traditionally dabbled in — but then I suppose hundreds of millions of investment is enough to change most people’s minds.

It’s already being cheered on by British tech media, who are reveling in the fact that they’ve beaten their transatlantic cousins to the punch. But for anyone downhearted by slow progress in Washington, it’s worth remembering a couple of things.

To begin with, the U.K. already had something like the proposed U.S. version, since entrepreneurs with $320,000 were eligible. This just lowers the bar a little more.

Then there’s the fact that Britain, which has a population of approximately 60 million people, already has access to a pool of more than 400 million potential immigrants, since it’s part of the European Union. That means any citizen from one of 27 European countries, from Ireland in the West to Cyprus in the East, can live and work freely in Britain if they choose to. It even means, thanks to the bizarre quirks of empire, that individuals from the South American territory of French Guiana or the Caribbean island of Martinique are able to do the same.

And one of the crucial elements of the latest American proposals — allowing workers to switch from an H1-B with only a minimal barrier — doesn’t apply to the British system, where there are now extra allowances from switching from a U.K. work visa that’s tied to your employer.

Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of reasons to be pleased about a British startup visa, but Silicon Valley need not get too downhearted just yet.

Image courtesy of Flickr user mroach