Securing innovator visa endorsement is the first step in the application process for the UK’s new innovator route for foreign entrepreneurs.

Provided you meet the eligibility requirements, you will first need to compile and submit an application to one of the government’s appointed endorsing bodies.

We look in more detail at what innovator visa endorsement is and what this means for making an application under the innovator route.

A reformed route into the UK for entrepreneurs 

The innovator route officially opened on 29th March 2019, as the Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa scheme closed to new applications.

The application process for the new route varies significantly from its predecessor.

Under the old Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa, applicants applied directly to the Home Office. This included details of the proposed business, source of funds and evidence in support of satisfying the general grounds for admission.

Following a review in 2015 of the Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa however, the government-commissioned Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) raised concerns, among others, as to whether Home Office caseworkers with “limited business experience and knowledge” were best placed and best experienced to evaluate the viability of business proposals that formed the basis of entrepreneur applications, and to decide ultimately whether to grant or refuse the visa.

The new innovator route has been designed largely in line with the MAC’s recommendations. Evaluation of the business idea no longer sits with the Home Office caseworker.

Instead, it is for a group of government-appointed bodies to endorse the viability of the business proposition and the candidate’s business credentials. The innovator visa endorsement approach follows that of the existing Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa, which also requires applicants to be endorsed by an authorised professional body.

The list of approved endorsing bodies for the innovator route includes business accelerators and incubators, venture capital organisations and seed funds from across the UK economy, both in terms of geography and market sector. This is expected to be a moving beast as bodies withdraw (as happened within the first few weeks of the route) and new bodies become authorised.

In theory, it is a welcome and pragmatic development that applications and businesses ideas are evaluated and assessed by parties with commercial insight and market and technical knowledge. However, the practical implications of the new rules are far-reaching for entrepreneurs looking to make the move into the UK market to establish a business.

Which endorsing body?

A critical consideration for innovator visa endorsement will be for applicants to select which body to apply to. At the time of writing, endorsing bodies are at varying stages of being ‘match fit’ and open to receiving applications, with many not yet accepting applications at all.

The Home Office guidelines for endorsing bodies are far from prescriptive, allowing considerable discretion on the part of the bodies as to how they can approach the endorsement process.

This will necessarily result in variation between bodies as to their own individual application and appeals processes, documentation, fees, terms of business and decision-making criteria.

For example, the guidelines specifically refer to endorsers having the choice as to whether a pre-existing working relationship or activity with the body is a prerequisite to endorsement.

A number of bodies have adopted this approach and are not accepting ‘open’ or ‘independent’ endorsement applications from parties they are not already supporting or working with through investment or related activity.

In practical terms, where shared ownership or investment via a business accelerator programme is not sought or required by the applicant, options for endorsement immediately become limited. This is expected to impact experienced and established entrepreneur applicants – which the innovator route is specifically aimed at.

This is critical information for applicants in assessing which bodies will accept and consider their application for endorsement.

Applying for innovator visa endorsement

Importantly, whereas Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa applications were submitted direct to the Home Office for processing, innovator applicants first have to apply to the endorsing body for endorsement.

Guidelines issued by the Home Office for endorsing bodies are clear that applicants are not to direct speculative enquiries to endorsing bodies and are only to contact endorsing bodies if applying to them.

The applicant will need to show they have £50,000 to invest in their business from any legitimate source. The funding requirement will be waived for those switching from the Start-up route who can evidence significant achievements against their business plans.

While the detail of the application processing and decision-making remains with the individual endorsing bodies, the Home Office has stated the following outline tests are to form the foundation of application evaluation:

  • Innovation: the applicant has a genuine, original business plan that meets new or existing market needs and/or creates a competitive advantage.
  • Viability: The applicant has the necessary skills, knowledge, experience and market awareness to successfully run the business.
  • Scalability: There is evidence of structured planning and of potential for job creation and growth into national and international markets.
  • Commitment: The endorser must also be “reasonably satisfied that the applicant will spend the majority of their working time in the UK on developing business ventures”.

It is only with confirmed endorsement that an applicant can then proceed to apply to the Home Office for leave to enter or remain in the UK under the innovator route.

Speak to our specialists for advice on Innovator Visa Endorsement

Considerable uncertainty surrounds the innovator route as the new rules and guidelines are put into practice and tested.

Before making an application under the innovator route, take professional legal advice to ensure you have selected the most appropriate route, and for guidance on how to meet Home Office requirements and make a successful application.

Recognised by the Legal 500 UK for our expertise in advising entrepreneurs and investors to pursue their business goals in the UK, DavidsonMorris provides advice from the initial stages of the application process, advising on eligibility and suitability of the relevant route and visa options for any dependants, through to detailed support with compiling your supporting evidence and business plan, completing the application form and guidance on presentations and interviews.

If you have any questions relating to your application, please contact us.