Waterloo’s Innovation Advantage – The University of Waterloo Innovation Ecosystem
Organized by: The University of Waterloo and the Institute for Quantum Computing
Speakers: Eric Blondeel, Chief Technology Officer and Co-founder, ExVivo Labs; Kristine Boone, Institute for Quantum Computing, University of Waterloo and Researcher, Quantum Benchmark; Adrien Côté, Science Lead and Business Advisor, UW Velocity; Alexa Roeper, CEO and Co-founder, Penta Medical
Moderator: Robert Lemieux, Dean of Science, University of Waterloo
What makes the University of Waterloo an innovation powerhouse?
Maclean’s magazine named the University of Waterloo Canada’s most innovative university in October 2018. While the news was welcomed, it didn’t come as any surprise at UW, which has won this coveted distinction every year since the magazine began its reputation survey 27 years ago.
Dr. Robert Leumeux, UW’s Dean of Science, credits this enduring success, in part, to having the largest student co-op system in the world, with over 20,000 placements at over 6,700 employers each year.
Another strength is its approach to entrepreneurship and commercialization. In 1957, UW became the first academic institution in Canada to adopt an inventor-owned intellectual property model which motivates researchers to turn their discoveries into products and services.
UW is credited with helping to transform the Waterloo Region into the third biggest tech cluster in Canada, behind Toronto and Montreal. Its homegrown successes include OpenText, Teledyne DALSA, Thalmic Labs and BlackBerry (formerly Research in Motion), as well as more than 1,100 start-up companies.
“That represents the second highest density of start-ups in the world, after Silicon Valley,” Lemieux told CSPC delegates.
Visionary UW graduates have been another driving force. The most notable has been BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis who in 2013 launched Quantum Valley Investments. QVI provides funding, expertise and support for researchers who develop breakthroughs in quantum information science that will lead to new commercializable technologies and applications.
Lazaridis’ philanthropy also founded two new research centres: the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in 2000 ($150 million donated) and the Institute for Quantum Computer (over $100 million donated).
“Mike’s vision of turning Waterloo into the quantum valley of the world is certainly moving forward. Waterloo is now on the map globally in quantum information technologies,” said Lemieux.
One of UW’s biggest strengths is nurturing student entrepreneurs through initiatives like Velocity, the largest free start-up incubator in the world. Since its launch a decade ago, Velocity has founded more than 300 companies that have secured over $800 million in capital. About 65% of Velocity start-ups are still operating after their first three years, and the majority of these companies were founded by undergraduate students.
UW’s Velocity programs provide the knowledge, tools, space and network that start-ups and entrepreneurs need to succeed. Adrien Côté, Science Lead and Business Advisor at Velocity, said the program has two missions: supporting UW faculty and students, and scaling promising start-ups.
“We want to remove all possible points of friction for a student or faculty member … to explore and experience some element of entrepreneurship,” said Côté.
From idea to scale-up
One of the Velocity programs is Velocity Science. Embedded in the Faculty of Science, it offers a discovery and prototyping lab, mentoring and coaching to any student with a life materials science start-up.
Velocity Science was set up with acceleration in mind. Within just one or two years, students can go from idea to prototyping a product to incorporating a company and raising capital.
As companies start to scale, they move to the Velocity Garage, an off-campus incubator that provides a higher level of support to help young companies become independent and self-sustaining.
One graduate from Velocity Science and Velocity Garage is Alexa Roeper, CEO and Co-founder of Penta Medical, which is marketing a portable FDA-approved laser-therapy device that helps athletes recover from injuries. Key to her company’s success has been access to entrepreneurs who have launched a company, raised funding and secured regulatory clearance for a new product.
“Velocity Science does an excellent job in bringing those people in where usually they would be hard to access to because of the nature of how busy they are,” said Roeper.
Another student to benefit from Velocity Science has been Ph.D. candidate Kristine Boone. Her research led to the creation of Quantum Benchmark, which develops software tools to assess the performance of quantum computers. When the first Silicon Valley investors came on board, they wanted the company to move to California. But Boone said the company decided that staying in Waterloo was a competitive advantage because it’s a quantum centre with strong support for start-ups.
“Waterloo is a very different environment to grow a company in. Any help you would need to do anything, there is someone in town that can help you,” she said.
Eric Blondeel shared a similar experience with CSPC delegates. It was at Velocity Science where he met his future co-founder, fellow student Moufeed Kaddoura. Velocity mentors encouraged them to take their idea for a new allergy test to pitch competitions, and then form a company and travel to venture capital-rich California where they raised millions of dollars for their start-up.
Velocity encourages graduate students to believe they can be entrepreneurs – something many would normally never consider was possible, he said.
“It’s something I believe strongly in as a path, especially for Canada, because we have such a strong research ecosystem across the whole country. With a modicum of encouragement from programs like we have at Waterloo, the amount of creativity that could come out of our country is enormous,” said Blondeel, whose company, ExVivo Labs, is developing an easy-to-use allergy test that can accurately identify environmental and food allergy sensitivities.
But it’s much more than Velocity or even UW, adds Blondeel. The Waterloo Region has built an entire ecosystem that supports entrepreneurship. “We’re very lucky in Waterloo that there’s a pipeline to programs like Y Combinator, TechStars, Indie Bio, Hacks … these programs are networks of investors that allow Canadian companies to get off the ground.”
Looking ahead, UW plans to build a new Science Centre for Innovation. The 105,000 sq. ft. interdisciplinary facility will bring together world-class research groups, accelerator centres and entrepreneurs to work in areas such as ocular health, microbial biology, metagenomics and clean water.
The centre will also create a new home for Velocity Science as well as UW’s Science and Business program. As Lemieux explained, “You’ll have in one space an ecosystem for innovation, from basic fundamental science through to translational research to commercialization.”
But even more could be done, added Lemieux. The single biggest contribution the federal and provincial governments can make to grow this ecosystem is building a rapid transit line between Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto.
“The (financial) capital resides in Toronto but there’s a physical barrier. On a good day it takes an hour and half to go from Toronto to Kitchener–Waterloo. This is where governments could make a tremendous impact on the growth of this ecosystem.”