If you’re in the UK on the Start up route, you may want to switch into the Innovator Founder route as a longer term option to remain in Britain.
In this guide for Start up visa holders, we look in detail at how to switch from a Start up to Innovator Founder visa, from the eligibility requirements to the application process and costs involved. We also look at switching from an Innovator Founder visa to indefinite leave to remain (ILR), allowing you to settle in the UK and run your business on a permanent basis.
Staying in the UK after the Start Up visa
The Start up visa and Innovator visa are both closed to new applications. If you are currently in the UK with a Start Up visa, you will have been given permission to stay in the UK for up to 2 years to develop your business. With no option to extend your visa and no direct a path to UK settlement, you may be considering your options to remain in the UK lawfully after your visa has expired.
One option is to apply to switch from the Start Up visa to the Innovator Founder visa, to allow you to continue growing your business. The Innovator Founder visa has many advantages, including the ability to renew the visa and after three years, you can become eligible for UK indefinite leave to remain.
What is the Innovator Founder route?
The Innovator Founder route opened to applicants on 13 April 2023, and represents a single immigration route that has replaced both the former Innovator and Start up routes. Even though new applications under the predecessor Start up route are no longer possible, for those already in the UK on this route, your visa will still be valid. You will also be able to apply to switch into the new Innovator Founder route if you meet the requirements.
The Innovator Founder route is designed for overseas nationals looking to set up a business in the UK based on an innovative, viable and scalable business idea. For those already in the UK on the predecessor Start up route, applicants will be able to switch into this route to extend their stay and continue running a UK business which is now active and trading.
Under the Start up route, a visa will usually be valid for a period of 2 years, where you will need to apply to switch into the Innovator Founder route prior to expiry of this visa.
How to switch from the Start up route to the Innovator Founder visa
When applying to switch from a Start up to Innovator Founder visa, you must be awarded 70 points in total, where 50 of these points must be scored under the “same business” criteria of the relevant immigration rules. The “same business criteria” applies to anyone applying for an extension of their visa on the Innovator Founder route. However, these also apply to those applying to switch from a Start up to Innovator Founder visa.
The 50 points for the “same business” criteria are made up of:
- 10 points: where your previous permission was in the Start up route and you are pursuing a business previously assessed by a Home Office approved endorsing body
- 20 points: your UK business is active, trading and sustainable, and it demonstrates significant progress against your business plan
- 20 points: you are active in both the day-to-day management and development of your UK-based business.
To be able to score the necessary points under the “same business” (or “switch”) criteria, in addition to having or last having had permission on the Start up route, your application must be supported by a fresh endorsement letter. This letter can be from the same endorsing body that supported your previous application, referred to under the rules as a “legacy endorsing body”. A legacy endorsing body is an organisation previously approved under the rules to endorse an applicant under either the Start up or Innovator routes, but is not permitted to endorse a new individual or business under the Innovator Founder route.
You can also obtain an endorsement letter from one of four newly-approved endorsing bodies although, under the new route, a letter from one of these bodies must confirm that:
- you are considered a fit and proper person to receive an endorsement under the applicable rules and guidance
- the endorsing body has no concerns over the legitimacy of any source of funds or modes of transfer of funds that have been invested by you into your endorsed business, and
- the endorsing body has identified no reason to believe that you or your endorsed business may be the beneficiary of illicit or otherwise unsatisfactorily explained wealth.
When it comes to your UK-based business being active, trading and sustainable, you must be able to show that you have made significant progress against your business plan. You must also be able to show that your business is registered with Companies House in the UK, and that you are listed as either a director or member of that business.
Finally, in the context of the day-to-day management requirement, you must be involved in the daily management of your business and play a key role in its development. You will be able to continue to undertake additional work alongside this, giving you the flexibility to earn a living while your business is still in its infancy, provided you also continue to be involved in the day-to-day management and development of your business. Any other employment must also be in a role that requires a skill level of not less than RQF Level 3.
English language & financial requirements when switching
The remaining 20 points required to qualify for an Innovator Founder visa come from meeting an English language (10 points) and a financial requirement (10 points).
Under the English language requirement for an Innovator Founder visa, you are required to show English language ability to at least level B2 of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for Languages. However, if an applicant has already met this requirement in a previous successful application, at the level required for their current application, then they will be treated as having met this requirement for the purposes of “switching”. As you should already have met an English language requirement at CEFR Level B2 for your application for a Start up visa, you should be exempt from meeting this requirement again.
Under the financial requirement for an Innovator Founder visa, you must show funds of at least £1,270 for a 28-day period prior to applying, unless you are applying for permission to stay and have lawfully been in the UK for 12 months at the date of your application. As you will not need to apply to switch from a Start up to Innovator Founder visa until shortly prior to its 2-year expiry, you should also automatically meet the financial requirement.
Innovator Founder visa application process
To apply to switch from a Start up to Innovator Founder visa, you will need to complete an online application and pay the relevant fee. You may also need to re-enrol your biometric information at a UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services (UKVCAS) service point.
As with your application for a Start up visa, under the new Innovator Founder route, you must have been issued with an endorsement letter before you apply to switch no more than 3 months before the date of your application. As with your previous endorsement, this part of the process is based on the principle that it is the (legacy) endorsing body, rather than the UK Home Office, who is best placed to assess whether a business meets the relevant requirements and, where applicable, to carry out a due diligence assessment.
However, the endorsing body will not be required to make any visa decision, where the necessary immigration-related checks will be conducted by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), the division of the Home Office responsible for issuing visas.
Innovator Founder visa supporting documents
To apply to switch from a Start up to Innovator Founder visa, you will need a current passport or other valid travel document. As the English language and financial requirements should already have been met in your application for a Start up visa, it is unlikely that you will need evidence of your English language ability or to show funds.
You will also not need to provide a copy of your endorsement letter, as the (legacy) endorsing body will make a copy of this letter available via an online portal and notify UKVI of their endorsement decision. This will enable the UKVI caseworker dealing with your application to proceed to the immigration stage of your “switch” application. Your copy of the endorsement letter will also contain a unique endorsement reference number to use when you apply. This reference number will remain valid for 3 months after issue, where you must use it to make your application to switch routes during this timeframe.
However, as it is the remit of the (legacy) endorsing body to make a decision on whether or not your business is active, trading and sustainable, and if it demonstrates significant progress against your business plan, you will be required to submit a number of documents when applying for your endorsement letter. These must include a detailed business plan confirming that you will have at least two contact point meetings with your (legacy) endorsing body at regular intervals during the validity of your Innovator Founder visa. Also known as checkpoint meetings, these will be at 12 month and 24 month intervals to enable the endorsing body to regularly monitor the progress of your business moving forward.
How much does it cost to switch from the Start up to Innovator Founder visa?
The fee to apply for a visa on the Innovator Founder route is £1,292. This is in addition to a £1,000 fee (excluding VAT), payable to the (legacy) endorsing body for an endorsement letter in support of your application to switch from your old route to the new route.
You will also be liable to pay an immigration health surcharge at a cost of £624 per year of stay, where this will enable you to continue to access the UK’s National Health Service.
How long does it take to switch from Start up to Innovator Founder visa?
Having submitted your online application with UKVI, paid the fee and attended any UKVCAS appointment to re-enrol your biometric information, you should receive a decision from UKVI on your “switch” application within a period of 8 weeks.
However, the endorsement process can be complex and time-consuming, not to mention the time involved to prepare the documentation needed to request an endorsement letter. It is strongly advised to seek advice and assistance from an immigration specialist, in this way helping to minimise the time involved and maximise the likelihood of a successful outcome.
Innovator Founder to ILR
Once you have received a positive endorsement letter and been approved for an Innovator Founder visa, you will be granted leave to remain in the UK for a period of 3 years.
After 3 years, you will have the option to apply for an extension under this route to stay for an additional 3-year period or to apply for ILR to permanently settle in the UK. In either scenario, your business would need to continue to be endorsed. For ILR, you would also need to meet a continuous residence and a knowledge of life (KOL) in the UK requirement.
The continuous residence requirement will be met if you have continuously lived in the UK on the Innovator Founder route for a period of 3 years, although you must not have been outside the UK for more than 180 days in any 12-month period. Further, any time spent on the Start up route will not count towards the qualifying continuous residence requirement. Under the KoL requirement, you must pass an approved Life in the UK test.
Importantly, the endorsement standard for a settlement application is more stringent and complex than for a previous endorsement at any “switch” or “extension stage”. In an ILR context, you must be able to show that your business has achieved a level of success which meets the endorsement criteria for settlement. This means that, in addition to meeting the “same business ” criteria applicable to your “switch” application, the endorsing body must be satisfied that you have met two of the listed “success” criteria under the rules. There are a number of options here, including minimum investment or gross revenue thresholds, a customer base increase, engagement in research and development, as well as job creation.
There is no limit to how many times you can be endorsed under the “same business” criteria. This means that if you cannot meet the criteria for settlement, you can instead apply for an extension of stay. However, at each stage, the endorsing body will expect to see further progress and achievements from when the previous endorsement was last given.
Under an extension application, you will also have an ongoing commitment to attend two contact point meetings with your endorsing body at regular intervals, where you run the risk of being rejected for any further endorsement if you fail to comply with this requirement. You may even be at risk of having your Innovator Founder visa revoked.
DavidsonMorris are UK business immigration specialists. For expert guidance on switching from the Start Up route to the Innovator Founder visa, contact us.
Start Up to Innovator Founder visa FAQs
Is it possible to switch from the Start-up route to the Innovator Founder category?
You can switch from a Start up to Innovator Founder category if your business is active, trading and sustainable, and has ongoing support from an endorsing body. You must also have a key role in its daily management and development.
What is the difference between Innovator Founder and Start-up visa?
The Innovator Founder visa has replaced the former Innovator and Start up routes for overseas nationals looking to set up a business in the UK based on an innovative, viable and scalable business idea.
Last updated: 18 October 2023