Two of the UK's most successful entrepreneurs have called for a special 'unicorn visa' to allow the UK's fastest-growing companies – like theirs – to attract the best foreign talent without the hurdles others are likely to face after the UK eventually exits the European Union.

Rishi Khosla, CEO and cofounder of fintech OakNorth wrote in the Sunday Times earlier this month: "It would be great to see something that specifically helps the fastest-growing tech companies in the UK bring in talent from other markets – such as a 'unicorn visa' – whereby we could get applications fast-tracked from any UK consulate anywhere in the world.

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"We're growing by 15 people on average every week and last week was a record for us with 27 new joiners. A special visa like this would be hugely helpful in ensuring we're able to get access to the talent we need, when we need it, and ensure we can continue pursuing our ambitious growth plans."

Will Shu, CEO of food delivery startup Deliveroo, had backed exactly this idea earlier this year. Writing in the Telegraph, he said: "The UK has 15 [unicorns], which is great but it's not enough and nor is it guaranteed to continue in such a competitive global marketplace. So we should all be ambitious for Britain and want to see the next generation of unicorns founded and grown right here."

A report by the Centre of Policy Studies (CPS) – a right wing think-tank cofounded in 1974 by Margaret Thatcher – which was 'supported' by Deliveroo, proposes a process where the "hiring foreign nationals for companies with unicorn potential could be prioritised by way of the creation of a targeted visa scheme".

This will not just apply to the UK's current crop of unicorns, but also companies that can prove their potential to become one. The CPS report benchmarks this at an average, annualised turnover or employee growth of 40 percent over three years, and a minimum turnover level of £25 million. This could certainly give companies operating in hot sectors like fintech, biotech and AI a leg up on their peers in other sectors.

The report suggests: "Once the appropriate criteria had been met, qualifying companies would then be allowed to have Certificates of Sponsorship to issue a certain number of 'unicorn visas' – allowing them to attract the brightest and the best from around the world with a minimum of fuss."

Both Shu and Khosla clearly share the wider sense of anxiety in the technology industry around access to overseas talent and the freedom of movement of its current employees as they bid to attract and retain the best talent after Brexit.

However, is the idea of a unicorn visa just a self-serving mechanism? Could it create a worrying two-tiered system that could hurt smaller startups from reaching the success Shu and Khosla have been able to achieve?

Industry reaction

Alex Depledge is the founder and CEO of two UK startup success stories after her first company Hassle.com was acquired by the German firm Helpling, before embarking on her new venture, the home design software maker Resi.

She doesn't think that 'unicorns' should receive any special treatment when it comes to visa allocations.

Depledge asks: "Can you imagine big corporations coming out and saying the same? They would get slated and so I don't see why unicorns think that they are so special.

"For me, we need to get talent into the UK quickly and visas should be fast tracked for all business big and small. The right answer to speaking out on this is not to try to carve out particular parts of business like high growth for special treatment, as it just disadvantages employees and economic growth overall."

That being said, Depledge does agree that the issue of the high-tech skills shortage in the UK needs to be addressed as the 31 October Brexit deadline approaches.

Matt Clifford, CEO and cofounder of the talent incubator Entrepreneur First, believes: "The idea of implementing a fast-track visa system for highly-skilled technologists post-Brexit isn't without merit – though the concept of a 'unicorn visa' is fundamentally flawed."

"Limiting any scheme to those who hold job offers at existing tech unicorns is self-defeating. Rather than contributing to the ongoing growth of the UK tech ecosystem as a whole, it would just mean a small band of already successful companies effectively closing ranks and pulling up the ladder behind them."

Instead, Clifford proposes a plan "to incentivise the UK as the best place for the world's most ambitious individuals to come and leverage their deep, technical expertise".

"Ultimately, the reason why UK tech unicorns exist is because their founders were ambitious enough to create something new, and because they had access to the support of a wider community of mentors and investors," he adds. "The UK is a great place to found a company, and our tech ecosystem contains an exceptional level of capital and expertise with which to nurture and develop high-growth, high-impact startups. We need to encourage the world's most ambitious and talented individuals to see the UK not simply as a place to come for a great career with an existing business, but as the best place to create the next generation of innovative, impactful companies."

Fit for purpose visas

Currently Tier-2 visas are available to foreign nationals from outside of the EU and Switzerland who have been offered a "skilled job" in the UK and are sponsored by a company. The whole process takes weeks, if not months, to complete and costs more than £500, including the same fee for any dependents.

These are different from Tier-1 visas, for 'exceptional talent', which is defined as "a recognised leader (exceptional talent)" or "an emerging leader (exceptional promise)". Only 2,000 of these are issued a year and for technology roles all endorsements are reviewed by Tech Nation. It can take around eight weeks to be issued with a Tier-1 visa.

Ambitious entrepreneurs can also apply for the new startup and innovator visa routes, which were introduced in March.

However, what the UK's immigration system will eventually look like post-Brexit remains unclear.

The government published its immigration white paper late last year, setting out proposals which include scrapping the current limit of 20,700 Tier-2 visas per year, subject to a minimum salary threshold and a sponsoring employer, but will require EU nationals to apply for such a visa if they want to work in the UK, which they would not have had to do in the past.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has also publicly backed an Australian-style points-based system, which would prioritise 'skilled' immigrants.

A Home Office spokesperson insisted to Techworld that UK visa processing times are among the best in the world.

"The government is committed to ensuring that our immigration system continues to attract the brightest and the best from around the world," the spokesperson said. "Our visas already attract leading international business talent and we recently announced a fast-track visa offer for individuals with specialist skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics."

Vinous Ali, head of policy at TechUK, says the trade body for the technology sector would support a unicorn visa if it was something the government sought to put in place, but feels that a broader policy that spans sectors would provide a better solution to the skills gap problem for employers of all shapes and sizes.

"We focus our efforts on making the immigration system work better for everyone," she tells Techworld, with a specific focus on the Tier-2 visa. She says that TechUK also welcomes the immigration white paper, which was published at the end of 2018, and its reformation of the Tier-2 visa to remove caps on the number of skilled workers able to come to the UK.

As well as the seemingly arbitrary caps applied to this visa in the past, the issue for technology companies in particular was the complexity and speed of the existing process, which could take anything between 20 to 22 weeks.

"We have been working with the government to find those pain points, where there is duplication of information, and try to streamline that process," Ali says. "The Home Office understands this and wants to reach the point where the process takes two to three weeks.

"Improving the system in its totality helps startups and unicorns and the whole tech sector."

That being said, a unicorn visa which would help "companies hiring on a different scale to small startups would be great to see, by giving them an easy system and a process built on trust with the Home Office," she said.