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London visa to UK

Vanessa Ganguin writes for Business Leader

Innovator Founder visas – how the new, improved route for entrepreneurs starting up businesses in the UK will work

5 May 2023

Business Leader

Vanessa Ganguin
Vanessa Ganguin

Unlike the Start-up visa which preceded it, time spent in the UK under this new visa will count towards settlement. Innovator Founders will still need a business plan approved by a Government-appointed endorser, but unlike the previous Innovator visa, there is no requirement to have a minimum of £50,000 to invest in the business and applicants can undertake additional work to supplement their income while they invest in growing their venture.

The Start-up and Innovator routes replaced the Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) visa in 2019, when private endorsing bodies such as incubators and accelerators took over the Home Office’s responsibility to decide whether immigrants’ business ideas were viable. As the UK Government insisted endorsing bodies would not charge to endorse businesses, instead they asked start-ups they were endorsing to join their programmes such as accelerators, which could cost tens of thousands or even an equity stake in the firm.

Endorsing organisations will now charge just £1,000 to accept an application for endorsement, with another two payments of £1,000 for checking in on the business performance and assessing suitability to renew or settle under this route after three years.

However, it is important to note that there is no refund if an application is unsuccessful. The new visa hinges on applicants’ business plans being found to be innovative, viable and scalable. And there is no guarantee that a business plan or applicant will be endorsed for the three-year visa, or if enough targets will have been met to be able to apply for settlement at the end of that period.

What does the new Innovator Founder visa allow?

Successful applicants can work on their venture, as well as being free to do other skilled work and bring partners and dependent children to the UK.

After three years, Innovators can apply to switch to another immigration route, extend their visa for a further three years or to settle permanently in the UK, depending on how many success points their business plan has met.

Who is eligible to apply for the Innovator Founder visa?

Applicants must be over 18 and first obtain a letter of endorsement of their business plan from one of the approved bodies (see below) before applying for the visa. They must also show that they can support themselves and any family members joining them.

There is an English language requirement too of at least level B2.

What is the endorsement process for the Innovator Founder visa?

Founders already working on their businesses in the UK on the Start-up or Innovator route will be able to ask their current endorsing bodies to endorse their businesses to renew visas, switch to the new Innovator Founder visa if they qualify, or if on an Innovator visa, to settle in the UK.

Anyone with a plan for a business which they can demonstrate is innovative, viable and scalable can apply to one of the four new Innovator Founder endorsing bodies for the letter of endorsement they will need to apply for their visa.

To be endorsed, applicants must also satisfy endorsers that they have enough funding for the innovative, viable, scalable venture and show it’s coming from a legitimate source.

Multiple cofounders can be endorsed for the same qualifying business plan. Though every applicant must show that they have generated or contributed to the business plan and will be involved in a day-to-day role in the business for which they have the skills.

Who are the new Innovator Founder endorsing bodies?

There are three new private-sector endorsers as well as the UK Government-run GEP – though the latter only endorses founders it invites.

  • Envestors Limited
  • UK Endorsement Services
  • Innovator International
  • The Global Entrepreneurs Programme(GEP)

(NB: These will also able to endorse the new Scale-up visa Sponsor Licence for UK businesses that have trouble showing the required three-years growth but demonstrate enough potential to persuade one of these bodies to endorse them.)

What if Innovator Founders don’t qualify for settlement after three years?

Settlement is not guaranteed. Like the immigration routes that preceded the Innovator Founder, there are significant success criteria that must be shown to endorsing bodies.

If Innovator Founders are still in a key role in the business and it is progressing along its business plan targets and is sustainable, they can apply to renew their three-year visa as many times as they want until the business is performing well enough for them to settle.

To be endorsed to settle, the business needs to fulfil the Home Office’s specific success criteria, such as an investment of at least £50,000 in the business, a turnover of £1 million, or creating enough jobs.

If founders are unlikely to meet enough of the success criteria towards the end of three years, they can keep renewing their visa until they have met the requirements for settlement.

Another option for settling in the UK will always be to apply for a sponsor licence for the business and to switch founding team members to sponsored Skilled Workers for the business. All the time on both visas will count towards the towards settlement as a Skilled Worker so after five years in total on these routes in the UK, they should be eligible to apply to settle.

How much does an Innovator Founder visa cost?

On top of the £3,000 endorsement fees for the first three years, the Home Office application fee is £1,036 for an applicant or family member applying from outside the UK, or £1,292 each if applying within the UK.

If endorsed for settlement, applying for indefinite leave to remain towards the end of three successful years on this visa will involve a Home Office application fee of £2,404. (Government fees can be updated.)