By Ina Iteva, solicitor at Gherson Solicitors

In a turbulent Brexit reality, immigration is a sizzling topic. The already mindboggling array of UK immigration rules, regulations and legislation continue to enjoy special attention from Parliament and to endure a succession of (some might say traumatic) changes to set the ground for the fabled new immigration system.

In March 2019 we were introduced to the Innovator visa, a route into the UK market reserved for a very specific candidate - the somewhat experienced business person, who already has a great idea, some capital to cultivate it, and the enthusiasm to tackle the UK market.

The Innovator category has not benefited from much positive publicity, which this author considers unjust. The route has been criticised for requiring Innovators to dedicate themselves to the business (as additional employment is not permitted), for limiting applicants with the introduction of mandatory business endorsement, and for offering fewer incentives to both applicants and endorsing bodies as a result. As a result there were only 2 successful applications in the category’s first three months of existence. Bad press and Brexit-related investment sluggishness must be behind this as we believe the category opens up ample opportunity for the Innovator’s taking and this is why.

The benefits of endorsement

This is not a new concept in the UK immigration system, previously used in the graduate entrepreneurial context. Simply put, a business idea must be given a stamp of pre-approval by a recognised organisation (in this case business accelerators, seed competitions and government agencies) before the individual behind the idea can apply for a visa as an Innovator. Endorsing bodies apply various criteria in determining the prospects of a business idea but the current list of approved endorsers offers wide sector coverage (including medical, engineering, fin-tech, social welfare, education, corporate innovation to cyber security, as well as those with no sector specific approach, and instead assess applications on a case-by-case basis) which is likely to suit most emerging business.

The concept of endorsement comes into play to offer emerging businesses a helping hand in the face of a market-strong and savvy partner. Getting endorsed creates opportunities for increased financial security and access to sector-specific acumen, and strengthens individual standing before the visa and immigration authorities.

General criteria

With the introduction of endorsement business experts, rather than the Home Office, will assess the potential of business ideas. This should provide the Innovator with further reassurance that their business has a bright future in the UK the same as skilled workers from overseas.

There is guidance for endorsers as to what they should be looking for:

  • The business must be ‘new’ in that it meets “new or existing market needs and/or creates a competitive advantage” (innovative);
  • The applicant has the requisite skills, experience, relevant knowledge, and market awareness required for the business (viable);
  • The business must have the potential for job creation and growth into UK national, and ideally international markets (scalability).

These overreaching criteria should assist an Innovator to build a strong documentary basis for a credible business proposal. They will also serve as firm indicators for individual applicants when preparing business plans and pitching to an endorsing body.

Smaller investment – smaller risk

The Innovator visa route requires a relatively small investment of £50,000 per individual applicant, which is a fraction of what was previously required of entrepreneurs. To top this off, there is plenty of newly-introduced flexibility for sourcing capital, including a third-party individual, the endorsing body, or an existing UK or overseas organisation.

A fast route to settlement

The most successful Innovators should be able to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (become permanently resident in the UK) in just three years, compared to a minimum of five years in other comparable routes.

Extension options also benefit from flexibility, recognising that the route to success in business is not always a straight line.

The category retains many of the peripheral requirements for individuals, such as good character and English language skills, which apply across the board, so there is little surprise here, making the option no less attractive than any other. All requirements are described in a simple and accessible way which makes it much easier to navigate.

Finally, as this is a new category, much effort has been invested in making the route more attractive. This is evidenced by the most recent update to the list of endorsing bodies on 25 October 2019 to reflect demand from additional sectors.

These are only some of the reasons why we believe the Innovator visa route has great potential to become a favourite as it offers a comparatively flexible option to talented business-driven innovators at a reduced economic risk. We are reassured by the government’s and endorsing bodies’ commitment to what the route represents and anticipate it will become a hit strategy for stimulating business growth once the stigma of Brexit dissipates.