He’s been called the bad boy of Bay Street. He dresses like a rock star. And he’s looking to make some waves in Waterloo Region.
Michael Wekerle may be known as the newest dragon on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, but the ex-trader is more than just a showman. Passionate about entrepreneurship, Wekerle founded Difference Capital in Toronto, and has now turned his attention to Waterloo Region.
Wekerle is launching the Waterloo Innovation Network in re-purposed BlackBerry buildings on Columbia Street. He’s celebrating with #Wektoberfest, a day-long party this Sunday, Oct. 19. The party begins at 2 p.m. and features live bands, a bar and a Dragons’ Den-style panel with local entrepreneurs. Proceeds support the YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo.
I chatted with Wekerle earlier this week to find out why he’s setting up shop in the Region, and what he’s looking to find here.
Q – What is the Waterloo Innovation Network?
A – Well, it’s the starting of a location that involves physical buildings that will house what I think of as companies of excellence and learning centres, places to work, residential, commercial, retail and social gathering areas. Not dissimilar to what the Liberty Village area has done for Toronto.
I think it can be done. You know, right now I’m meeting hurdles. There’s not too much acceptance, or people believing that I can get it done. There’s a lot of guys who want to be a part of it, but I’ve got to see some cheque-writers to help me out with it. I’m working hard to get it done. I’ll keep plugging away.
I have one building pretty much leased out. You know, that’s the first [thing] – I need to get these buildings leased. Financing from banks should be a lot easier, especially these local Waterloo Region banks. However, the problem is the banks like to give loans when it’s sunny and take it away when it’s raining.
Q – What will the WIN bring to Waterloo Region?
A – From my standpoint, if there’s a co-ordinated effort among lending institutions, learning institutions, retail, corporate and entrepreneurial institutions, Kitchener-Waterloo is on the brink of something really great. And if we can show that strength, I think the federal and provincial governments will follow suit and help with infrastructure.
You know, there’s no doubt that I’m doing this for profit, but I’m doing it for a bigger reason as well, which is equally as important. Which is, to build a community. It’s a shame to see our companies go south of the border. If we can create that excitement, we’ll export our ideas instead of sell them.
Q – Why Waterloo Region? What’s attracting you here?
A – It’s an hour away. It’s close. I used to go there. My dad’s of Donauschwaben descent. So I’ve been going there since I was a kid, you know, down to Oktoberfest. I mean, it must be 40 years since I started going. I was nine or 10, just a kid. My dad would drop off my sisters in their dirndls and me in my black vest. I hated every second of it [laughs] but I always liked having all the food after. We’d play soccer in the field. And that was my beginning.
My dad’s always had a big lasting impact. He passed away a year and a half ago. My dad always wanted to do something in Waterloo. I never got to it while he was alive, so I’m working towards it now.
Q – What are you looking for from the tech community? How can we help each other?
A - Well, it has to be a co-ordinated effort for the factions like Communitech. We have to figure out a way we can create a working group, a panel that has teeth. I don’t mind having the odd beer and shooting the shit with people; that’s no problem, but we need to figure out a clear agenda that has some power and local government representation, and co-ordinate the region and improve the relationship with the surrounding cities.
We need to figure out where we want to take this to. There are a lot of things to be done. I think the region has a lot of uniqueness: Great learning institutions, a great environment to live in, great history. You know, Laurier, University of Waterloo, Guelph – they are great standalone universities. How do we get them together? How do we get public and private companies together?
You know, [OpenText Chairman] Tom Jenkins is a great guy. I’d like to see him, Jim Balsillie, Mike Lazaridis put their history and egos aside and see what we can do for the next generation.
Q – In 10 years, what will Columbia Street look like?
A - I’m still trying to identify with what direction I’m going in. The buildings today are all different. You have modern buildings, you have some 1980s architecture. There’s a water table issue. I have to understand that the University of Waterloo is going to do some interesting things in their area. What happens will depend on how we all co-ordinate. I’d like to create a template with, you know, having H&M sitting out front, and Ikea and Boston Pizza and Wahlbergers and some cool places people can go, like some Irish pubs and some residences for the middle class, not just student residents. It’s going to be an area that has a social focus, an area of health, bike paths.
This all depends on the kind of concessions I can get from government. But, create some green areas. Take what’s there now, the parking lots and old buildings, and change it.
I’m willing to put a lot more money into it. I, hopefully, am getting some people involved from Toronto, and some people from Waterloo Region. Waterloo has kind of been left behind since BlackBerry took its stumble. And it’s funny, because people say, “What about BlackBerry’s credit?” And you know, they have better credit still than a lot of companies I see in Canada. I love the Passport. The thing is perfect.
Q – We’re known to be more conservative (than some other tech towns). What do we have to do to let this change happen?
A - Oh yeah, you have to embrace change. The world of computers is taking place and you have to make sure you stay with it. You either downsize to be sustainable or move into the next era.
If you don’t want change, no problem. Let it go by you. But don’t be in the way of it.
We’re focused on Oktoberfest, Techtoberfest and #Wektoberfest this week, but there are some other great events to keep you busy. I see and hear that… starting this week, Dani Stock is teaching Vinyasa Flow Yoga for the Tech Community, every Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. at the Critical Media Lab at 44 Gaukel St. in Kitchener, beside the Grand River Transit terminal. The classes are free, but registration is required… Women Who Code Waterloo is taking over the Square Canada office this Wednesday, Oct. 15. The evening is a chance for you to work on a current project and meet other coders. Registration is required, and dinner will be provided. The evening starts at 7 p.m. in the Square office, on the 11th floor of 305 King St. W., Kitchener…. Did you miss out on getting tickets to Communitech’s sold-out Techtoberfest? We’d still like to see you. Join us for an evening of networking and music at the first ever Startups & Steins on Thursday, Oct. 16. Join us at 5:30 p.m. in Cork Hall at McCabe’s Irish Pub, 352 King St. W in Kitchener. No registration is required, and all are welcome…. There’s a big rig rolling into town this Friday, Oct. 17. Visit the kitted-out tractor-trailer parked at the Kitchener Auditorium to attend the Atmel Tech on Tour workshops. Atmel will be showcasing the latest in microcontrollers, sensors, security and wireless technology.