By Tim Jackson

I spend a lot of time “telling the story” of the great work happening at the University of Waterloo.

Usually when I give a speech, it is preceded by the obligatory biographical introduction. In my case, as the introduction progresses . . . entrepreneur . . . CFO . . . CEO . . . venture capitalist . . . I can see puzzlement on the faces of audience members.

“How did someone with this background end up as a university administrator?”

Typically, I address the issue up front. I don’t think any university in the country except for the University of Waterloo, would have hired someone with my background. That’s the main reason I was attracted to the opportunity to serve as its vice-president of university relations.

Since its inception in 1957, the University of Waterloo has taken an unconventional approach to creating an innovative, enabling environment for experiential learning.

The impetus for the founding of the university did not come from the provincial government or other political forces. Rather the institution was created by local business leaders to meet the growing needs of the Canadian economy (in particular the need for more engineers).

Almost 60 years later, the founding vision of an institution built to respond to the needs of society continues to drive decision making at the university.

For 21 consecutive years, Maclean’s has selected the University of Waterloo as the most innovative university in the country. To understand why, one needs to look no further than two key policies and programs that contribute to the university’s innovative and creative environment: Our intellectual property (IP) policy and co-operative education.

If you are a student or faculty member at the University of Waterloo and you invent something, you own it. It’s is that clear and simple.

Imagine the courage and foresight the university leadership must have had to enact such a policy. Naysayers would have argued the university was providing resources and facilities to enable invention and therefore should “own” a piece of those creations.

Instead, those involved recognized that providing an enabling environment for commercially oriented researchers would pay massive dividends in the long run.

The University of Waterloo’s IP policy attracts commercially oriented researchers to the institution. This has, in turn, created an environment where entrepreneurial students learn from teachers who encourage and support their innovative ideas.

Numerous University of Waterloo faculty and staff members mentor student startups on their own time, supporting this unique ecosystem.

Much like the IP policy, the adoption of co-operative education was a courageous decision that has likely exceeded the expectations of even the visionaries who first decided to implement it at Waterloo.

The notion of marrying paid work placement in positions related to a student’s field of study with standard academic terms has major ramifications for how the university operates. Faculty teach year round, the university is open twelve months of the year. Unlike our sister institutions there is no “down time”.

With roots that reach back to our earliest engineering classes, Waterloo’s co-operative education program has grown to be the largest of its kind in the world. Last year, our students worked for more than 4,500 employers in 40 countries and collectively earned $189 million on their work terms.

Thanks in large part to their work-term earnings, Waterloo co-op students typically graduate with less debt than their counterparts at other Canadian universities.

What I find fascinating is the type of student who is attracted to the co-operative education model. While it is tough to paint all with a broad brush, generally speaking, co-op students tend to be more entrepreneurial. When those students are exposed to Waterloo’s commercially oriented faculty and staff base, the institution has created a unique recipe for innovation.

Walking through the halls, classrooms and labs at the university, one can see innovation and entrepreneurial activities everywhere, thanks to the enabling environment that has been created by forward-thinking policies and a progressive approach to experiential learning.

Of course, the university doesn’t exist in isolation. We benefit enormously from being located in a region that is thriving, growing and adapting to changing economic conditions.

Just over a decade ago, my partners and I decided to establish a venture capital firm to invest in early-stage technology companies. We scanned the country for the best location and settled on Waterloo Region, mainly because of the commercial environment created by the University of Waterloo for its researchers and students.

In large part it was the university that convinced me to make this community home. Now having the opportunity to work at this incredible institution is the icing on the cake.

Tim Jackson is VP University Relations at the University of Waterloo. Tim is passionate about Waterloo Region, and we're pleased to have him as one of our View from the 'Loo guest Contributors.