Business programme fosters 'techie' entrepreneurs among students

By Phoebe Ho    
For as long as he could remember, Aaron Grant, a University of Waterloo alumni, has always dreamed of starting his own business. Now, at the age of 23, his dream has come true.

     Barely out of university with a mechatronics degree, the young techie entrepreneur is already making waves with his company, Thalmic Labs, in the country's tech hub in the Canadian city of Waterloo.
     Having developed an armband called MYO, which uses the electrical activity in your muscles to wirelessly control phones, computers and different technologies through simple gestures and motions, Grant is just one of the many young and innovative entrepreneurs who have emerged from the region. And it is no coincidence many of them are graduating from the same university.
     Renowned for its innovation and hands-on learning, the University of Waterloo has been fostering young and up-and-coming entrepreneurs in a unique business program called VeloCity, which is essentially a student startup incubator.
     Made up of four sub-programs: residence, garage, Venture Fund and campus, VeloCity, started back in 2008, has been instrumental in connecting like-minded tech students to bring their ideas to market.
     Its goal, according to the program's director Mike Kirkup, is to help students take advantage of the resources available to them, and make use of the chance to explore and build on their dreams.
     "The best time to be an entrepreneur in our opinion is when you come out of university," he said in a recent interview with Xinhua. "You don't have a lot of obligations, you have an opportunity, usually if you've gone through the co-op program already, you have a lot of experience under your belt, you understand the real world problems you can solve and even better."
     "So you're in a really unique position to really take a big stab at something," he added.
     VeloCity takes top-notch students from their engineering, mathematics, computer science and other techie programs and teach them the business side of things, instead of the other way around. And that's what sets them apart from other business programs out there, said Kirkup.
     A unique aspect of the program is its Intellectual Property (IP) policy. All IP generated by students while they're in school belong to them when they graduate. A number of VeloCity alumni, like Grant, have made use of their IPs from school and continued to build on it after leaving the program.
     Since its inception, the program has spawned over half a dozen successful start-ups, including BufferBox, the parcel-pickup service startup acquired by Google last year; Pair, an app that keeps couples connected, and many more that have made a name for themselves.
     Because of this, the demand for VeloCity has also risen dramatically. The 70-bed residence, which is the oldest part of the program, now gets double the applications they can handle. Students who are admitted into the space have access to different technologies and mentorship, and can meet esteemed guest speakers every week throughout one term, a four-month period, that they're at the residence.
     Grant, who stayed at the residence for three terms, said the best part of staying there was the chance to meet other aspiring entrepreneurs like himself.
     The final stepping stone in the program is the VeloCity Garage, a 7,000 square feet free office space where students, whose startups are generating less than 25,000 Canadian dollars in revenue a year, can test-drive their entrepreneurial skills in the real world and gain some traction with their companies before heading off on their own.
     Grant's Thalmic Labs is one of 30 companies who are at the garage right now. Having recently sold about 25,000 units in a pre-order campaign for his product, he said their success wouldn't have been possible without the resources offered by the program.
     Grant and other students like Gareth MacLeod, another University of Waterloo graduate working in the garage, agree that the most invaluable part of the program is the help and advice they get from each other.
     "For all the great mentorship that VeloCity brings into these spaces, you learn the most from your peers," said MacLeod. "We all have the benefit of each others' experiences, and I can't quantify how valuable that's been over the last three years."
     The program is mainly funded by the University of Waterloo, the province and through private donors, usually students who've become successful because of VeloCity, and just want to give back, said Kirkup.
     Their Venture Fund program itself was inspired by the generosity of a VeloCity alumni and founder of an instant message app called Kik.
     Ted Livingston donated a million Canadian dollars to the program, which now gives students a chance to win a 25,000-Canadian-dollar grant to kick start their own company.
     Despite the limited space in the garage and residence, many University of Waterloo students now have access to weekly entrepreneurial workshops through VeloCity's Campus program, which was added last year as a result of the high demand. The hands-on workshops teache them the basics of building a successful business.
     Whether they end up failing or succeeding, Kirkup said, their program is all about fostering students' passion in entrepreneurship.
     "It's kind of like a bug, once you get into startup and you have an opportunity to try and solve a problem, that's a high and thrill that you want to keep chasing," he said. (Xinhua)