22 August 2023

If the UK wants to remain a startup superpower, we can’t afford to turn our backs on immigrants


Politicians are fond of reminding us that people are the ‘lifeblood of the economy’. It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for good reason. In advanced economies like ours, the greatest limiting factor on growth tends to be the stock of available talent. You can have all the raw materials and capital equipment in the world, but they’re somewhat redundant without the individuals who know how to put them to best use.

Improving that stock of talent can come in different ways. Of course, investment in skills matters – populations that are better educated will obviously be better placed to produce not just more stuff, but more innovative stuff too. The other thing we can do to boost skills is to import them, to put it crudely, in the form of immigrants. While we can, and should, do both simultaneously, this latter approach also has the advantage of showing results far quicker and less expensively than the decades of time and money you need to plough into training domestic workforces. 

Moreover, evidence suggests that when it comes to the very cutting edge of the economy, immigrants play a disproportionately important role. Research released today from The Entrepreneurs Network underscores the vital contribution that immigrants make to our startup scene – with 39 of the 100 fastest-growing companies in the UK boasting a foreign-born founder.  

Among the businesses these individuals have helped create are leading artificial intelligence firms such as Synthesia, innovative financial services companies like Zilch, and big names like Oddbox and Zapp. A plethora of less well-known (for now, at least) startups specialising in avant-garde technologies, clean energy breakthroughs and healthcare products also feature.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that immigrants are so overrepresented in our list. If you’re the sort of person who’s willing to take the risk of upping sticks and moving to a new country, you’re probably also the sort of person who’s willing to take a risk setting up a new company too. (Though that being said, not all of our foreign-born founders are immigrants out of ‘choice’. Nazim Valimahomed, for instance, fled the terror of Idi Amin’s Uganda as a child refugee before eventually coming to the UK to co-found Kroo, a digital bank that now boasts more than three-quarters of a billion pounds in total customer deposits.)

What’s clear from our research, however, is that if the UK wants to remain a startup superpower, it cannot afford to turn its back on immigrants. In fact, in our increasingly competitive global economy, it’s not enough to simply hope immigrants continue to choose the UK as the place to make a living. We should be pulling out all of the stops to enable and encourage talented individuals to come to the UK, start a business, and begin contributing to our economy. 

In our report, we make a handful of suggestions of how the Government can do this – from reducing visa fees, to simplifying Home Office bureaucracy. But for one particularly interesting idea, we looked across to our friends in Canada.

In July, the Canadian Government offered anyone with a lucrative US H-1B visa, which enables employers to hire foreign workers with specific skills to work in America for  sepcified period, the chance to apply to come north of the border with an open work permit for up to three years. The number was capped at 10,000 – which was duly filled within just two days of the scheme going live. In this way, Canada received an influx of highly skilled immigrants for virtually no effort at all, simply piggybacking off the bureaucracy of their American cousins. 

The UK should copy the copiers, and similarly allow holders of sought after visas like the H-1B (and also those of other allied countries) to easily relocate to Britain – reaping all of the rewards with none of the bureaucratic burden. Such a policy might be rather unabashed, but it wouldn’t be entirely without precedent. Note that within recent memory, we already did something similar when it comes to approving new medicines – with those already authorised in Australia, Canada, the EU, Japan, Switzerland, Singapore and the United States automatically benefiting from fast track processes with our own regulators. 

Britain’s entrepreneurial ecosystem might feel like a crowded place, but there’s always room for more. To grow the economy and develop the new and innovative technologies our society sorely needs, the last thing we should be doing is throwing up barriers to top international talent wanting to contribute to that mission. As our research shows, if we just let them come, they’ll help build it. 

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Eamonn Ives is the Head of Research at The Entrepreneurs Network.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.