The bet was modest. The payoff, enormous.
Velocity, the University of Waterloo’s startup incubator, Friday celebrated 10 years of helping incubate startups, and in so doing served to remind the community of the outsized role it has played in putting Waterloo Region onto the world’s technology map.
“We are building the future of our country together,” said University of Waterloo President and Vice-Chancellor Feridun Hamdullahpur during anniversary celebrations held at the Velocity Garage.
“Velocity gives us the card, the key, to be able to make that claim.”
Velocity’s legacy during the past decade is plain enough: 300 companies have found their start within its walls. Those companies have employed 2,500 people and have attracted more than $800 million in private investment.
In fact, Velocity has spawned companies which have, in one way or another, helped transform Canada’s technology sphere: Kik, Thalmic Labs, Vidyard, Sortable, Maluuba, MappedIn, BufferBox. And dozens of others.
Those companies have, in turn fashioned a culture of co-operation and pay-it-forward. Kik founder Ted Livingston, for instance, donated $1 million to Velocity in 2011, not long Kik made its first significant raise, sparking the start of the Velocity Fund, which was created to provide seed funding and pitch experience for new companies. Others, like BufferBox, have also made donations.
“If you build a community of smart people that are passionate, great things will happen,” said Velocity’s current director, Jay Shah. Shah is himself an entrepreneur, who co-founded BufferBox. The company was ultimately acquired by Google in 2012 for what’s believed to be $25 million.
“[Velocity is] a little bit of the [notion that] if you build it, they will come,” Shah said. “They were spot on. They couldn’t have been more spot-on.”
Today the Velocity Garage maintains 37,000 square feet of space at the Lang Tannery building dedicated to assisting budding entrepreneurs affiliated with the university. The UW students, profs and alumni who start companies under its umbrella retain the rights to their intellectual property – something that has played a key role in Velocity’s impact.
"To unleashing the maximum entrepreneurial output from academia/research we must minimize any friction that gets in the way of inventors taking ownership of their creation and running with it,” said Shah. “UW's intellectual property policy, that creators own what they create, does exactly this. It empowers entrepreneurs to make the most of their creations."
Programs are offered to further assist those entrepreneurs, programs like Velocity Start, Velocity Science, and the aforementioned Velocity Fund.
And Velocity operates the Velocity Residence, a dorm for UW students who want to pursue tech-based entrepreneurship.
It was at the Residence that the Velocity concept got its start in 2008. Then-assistant registrar Sean Van Koughnett wrote a one-page memo that recommended the university establish space for students to pursue their ideas. The idea was implemented, and there was no looking back.
“We created a great environment for them to thrive and they did exactly what they were supposed to. It’s just a function of all the pieces coming together nicely,” said Mike Kirkup, who was the first full-time Velocity director, joining in 2012. Kirkup is now Chief Technology Officer at Encircle.
“Velocity matters because it fosters a team, group, community environment that’s so important for [the period when] companies are getting started,” he said. “It’s so hard to build a company, and having peers around you all the time as they go through those different stages is really important.
“The thing Velocity does really well is it has a stage-based approach. “They’re clustering the companies based on what stage they’re at. There is so much diversity across the set of startups, everything from hardware to science to software. That diversity creates more opportunities to see what works and what doesn’t.”
Shah says the 70 companies currently incubating at Velocity have, this year, generated an average of $1 million in funding per month.
“Just at this ideation, seed, conception, product-fit stage, that’s how much of a private-market signal they’re sending to pull that capital in,” said Shah.
The university’s president perhaps best summed up the legacy of the past 10 years, telling the audience:
“This is a place where I’ve repeated many times: [If] anybody needs recharging, about anything, come here. Spend half an hour. Talk to our brilliant students.
“You will be overcharged, not fully charged.”