By: Avery Mullen

As well as greater funding rounds and more success stories, another sign is emerging that Halifax is becoming a more mature innovation ecosystem: foreign companies relocating to the city.

Amanda Tarr, manager for venture services at Innovacorp, told said in an interview that the provincial VC Crown corporation receives hundreds of applications annually through the Startup Visa Program, even during the pandemic.

The federal program allows foreign founders to apply for a letter of recommendation from accredited organizations, such as Innovacorp, asking Ottawa to grant them permanent resident status. It is a common vehicle for companies moving to Halifax.

Tarr said Innovacorp receives a few hundred Startup Visa applications every year — 386 in 2020. Successful applicants hail from a wide range of countries, she said. India, China and the United States — nations notable for having their own well-developed innovation economies — are among the most common places of origin.

Crucial to Halifax’s appeal for many startup founders, Tarr said, is the standard of living on offer. In interviews with Entrevestor, many founders cite factors such as access to outdoor activities, the city’s comparative lack of density and its affordability compared to other startup hubs.

“I’d say the No. 1 [reason] – and we always ask that because we try to figure out our advantage – when it comes down to it, is often about quality of life,” said Tarr. “They want to raise their families here. They want to have a good lifestyle.”

She added that another important factor historically has been the lower cost of labour in Nova Scotia than in most major cities.

More recently, the economic appeal of Halifax has been imperilled by a technology-sector labour crunch that has left employers competing hard for staff and caused wages to rise dramatically.

But Tarr said that so far, the worker shortage has not been reflected in Startup Visa applications, of which Innovacorp has received about 150 so far this year.

And for some Halifax newcomers, the local labour pool remains an appealing proposition. Ali Mousavi and Arash Helmi are the co-founders of MOC Biotechnologies – a life sciences company that has developed technology for 3D printing medical implants and other items compatible with human biology. In the spring, MOC became the latest company to move to Halifax via a startup visa.

Mousavi told Entrevestor that, based on his experience doing business in economic hubs around the world, he expects the ready supply of well-educated STEM graduates in Nova Scotia to help make it an internationally recognized player in the world of biotechnology.

“I know that the potential of the growing of life science will be on the East Coast,” he said. “I believe the Atlantic region will become a ‘life science Silicon Valley.’”

Other companies that have relocated to Halifax in recent years include agtech startup Reazant, originally from India, data analytics specialist Invisible Agents, hailing from Texas, and Ottawa-founded cleantech company Planetary Hydrogen.

“Things changed for our startup when we connected with Innovacorp because they understand early-stage startups,” said Reazant CEO Sumit Verma last year. “When we met them, we just had a dream... Once you have some support from this sort of organization, things start falling into place.”

Perhaps the most notable success story of a startup moving to Halifax, though, is that of advanced materials developer Meta Materials, which does business under the name META.

Founder George Palikaras originally started his company in the United Kingdom. The move to Nova Scotia was spurred by Lunenburg businessman Maurice Guitton. Guitton, who became META’s chairman, asked Palikaras had to move to Halifax so the two entrepreneurs could have a closer, mutually beneficial relationship.

“[Guitton] said, ‘George, we can help you, but you have to come to this region so we can have a relationship that is efficient,” said Palikaras during the Entrevestor Live virtual conference on Oct. 7.

META would go on to become Halifax’s first startup valued at more than $1 billion when it started trading on the NASDAQ stock exchange. The business’s market cap is now about C$2.2 billion, meaning that one of the most valuable companies in Atlantic Canadian history is one that moved across the Atlantic Ocean to be in Halifax.

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