Answering the Question: "Why Not?"

Waterloo Accelerator Centre CEO Paul Salvini Reflects on a Decade of Incubation Success

Since opening its doors to early stage entrepreneurs in 2006, the Waterloo Accelerator Centre (AC) at the University of Waterloo has enjoyed incredible success. The facility has helped launch some of Waterloo Region's fastest growing technology companies, including Clearpath Robotics, Kik, Magnet Forensics, and Miovision among others. On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, Watch sat down with AC CEO, Paul Salvini, to reflect on the accomplishments of the last decade and what lies ahead for the award-winning startup incubator.

WATCH: The AC is celebrating 10 years of operation, a remarkable feat. What do you believe are the reasons behind its longevity and success?

SALVINI: Our success is a function of the incredible quality of the clients that we are able to attract combined with the value we add through our unique mentor-based programming. We are a mirror for the innovative strength of this community and the passion for entrepreneurship that is fostered in our educational system.

WATCH: The AC was doing startups before startups were 'cool'. Back in 2006 the entire ecosystem was very immature in contrast to where it is today. From where or to whom can you attribute the foresight to focus on nurturing early stage companies?

SALVINI: Credit must go to individuals who envisioned the idea of building a tech park on the North campus of University of Waterloo. The R+T Park offers a fantastic environment where industry can directly interact with the university environment accessing research and talent. It also became the perfect home for the AC - a place where we could scale up new businesses leveraging research coming out of our academic institutions. At the University of Waterloo, there has always been a spirit of "why not?" - a willingness to have a bold vision and to take risks. We see that same spirit today in our clients. It's a spirit that is developed within the academic environment and one that fuels every startup entering the doors of our facility.

I recently had the pleasure of looking at the initial planning notes for the AC from over a decade ago. The original committee explored some future scenarios. They asked, "if the AC is a success, what does it look like in 10 years?" They looked at worst case, expected and best case scenarios. I'm very pleased to say that here we are 10 years later, and our actual results sit somewhere between the committee's expected and best case scenarios. And let me add that even the expected scenario was pretty bold! I decided to ask the same question to today's board at our most recent board meeting and it was great to see that our passion to have a meaningful impact and our enthusiasm for setting bold goals hasn't diminished with time. It was a tremendously fulfilling discussion.

WATCH: As you reflect back on the last 10 years, what are some of the highlights for you?

SALVINI:The first highlight is the significance of some of the companies that began their lives at the AC. It is rewarding to see their impact on the transformation of the surrounding landscape of the Region. I drive around and see their signs on the buildings and know I'm witnessing the emergence of a new economy for our region. These companies couldn't have come on the scene at a better time. In parallel, we were experiencing the decline in employment at Blackberry where a lot of strong talent was being mobilized. But rather than being only negative, the talent leaving Blackberry in many cases became the fuel these startup companies needed for growth. While no one would have wished ill on Blackberry - a company that continues to build an incredible legacy - startups in the Region are benefiting from the top talent, from the facilities, and from Blackberry's investments in building up the community and new programs at our universities and colleges.

The second highlight has to be the personal stories of our early startups. It's great to see individuals such as Kurtis McBride, Matt Rendall, Ted Livingston and Matt Stevens -all graduates of the AC - actively giving back to the startup community. I remember several years ago when I was living in Toronto hearing a story about Gerry Remers, President and COO of Christie, and how he was willing to volunteer his time to meet with and help young entrepreneurs like Kurtis. I was impressed that the leader of such a successful global company would be willing to make the time to give back in such a personal and impactful way. And then I came to Waterloo, largely for the opportunity to work with Gerry, and learned just how strong that generosity is from established technology leaders within our community.

The final highlight for me has to be the strength of the world class programming the AC has built over the past 10 years. Our model is envied and studied by other incubators and accelerators around the world for the curriculum we have developed. It has become the gold standard in how to grow and scale companies -- an applied form of education that is delivered just in time by our amazingly talented and experienced mentors. It is a perfect supplement to the formal education already happening in Waterloo Region.

WATCH:The market has changed significantly since 2006. There's a lot more startups, but also more competition within the incubation landscape. How does the AC continue to attract the best of the best?

SALVINI:The emergence of other incubators in our startup ecosystem is a great thing. It represents growth in the maturation of our support network and growth in the sophistication and specialization of our offerings. We are blessed to have the level of support for startups, entrepreneurs and new businesses that we have in Waterloo Region. It's why we were recently ranked the number one emerging startup ecosystem in the world. In the early days, the AC had to be all things to all people. We had to support students, faculty, and entrepreneurs coming out of the workforce. Now, each incubator has its own differentiation and specialization. For example, facilities and programs like Velocity, Conestoga RBC Small Business Ventures, and Laurier Launchpad are allowing more students to explore entrepreneurship in spaces tailored to needs of student entrepreneurs. This strong support network is helping the 100s of young companies we can't get to, while allowing the AC to focus on a small number of companies who we believe have the biggest potential to scale and become global players.

WATCH: What's in store for the next 10 years?

SALVINI:I'm excited about next 10 years. We'll continue to see an increase in research commercialization activity. There is a great amount of research activity taking place in the the various universities and colleges around us. From the use of nanotechnology to clean water, to magnetic levitation steering robots for surgery, to 3D printing of bones for implant, we are excited about the potential to create amazing businesses around these kinds of activities. On the business side, I am very pleased to see what Wilfrid Laurier University is planning around the Lazaridus School of Business and Economics. Great businesses need more than just great technology. If we want to create truly scalable global companies, we need to focus on building strong, well rounded businesses and that will require us to call upon multiple disciplines from all our academic partners to construct companies with great culture, great vision, great user experience, and great technologies. We have all the ingredients to do this right here in Waterloo Region - we just need to put them together in the right way. When that happens, we will see a level of success far beyond what we have already seen. And that's our plan for the next 10 years. To put all the pieces of the puzzle together so we can deliver on that best possible scenario that our early founders envisioned.