A Helping Hand Along the Entrepreneurial Journey

Waterloo Commercialization Office (WatCo) helps faculty and researchers take ideas out of the labs and into the market

From its very start in 1957, the University of Waterloo embraced the cooperative education experiential learning program that fosters deep relationships with industry. Over the years these close business relationships have nurtured a "business friendly" and entrepreneurial spirit on campus that has elevated the school's international reputation as a top talent generator as in places such as Silicon Valley and Wall Street.

Underpinning this entrepreneurial culture is the university's creator-own intellectual property (IP) policy. Radical thinking for academia back in the 1950s (traditionally any IP generated within a university belonged to the institution), the creator-own IP policy, designed to attract more entrepreneurially minded faculty, allows creators of technology to own their own creations. Over the years this policy has been the catalyst for incentivizing campus innovators to pursue start-up company creation including many of Waterloo Region's long-standing technology success stories such as OpenText, Waterloo Maple, and Watcom (now SAP).

Established in the late, 1980s, first with a mandate to support the Chemical Engineering faculty, and later expanded to support the entirety of University of Waterloo, the Waterloo Commercialization Office (WatCo) offers commercialization services and expertise, helping faculty, researchers as well as their graduate and PhD students package and convert research innovations into commercially viable products and services.

"The concept seems simple. Take a research breakthrough out of the university lab, turn it into a product and build a business, but it is never that straightforward," says Scott Inwood, Director, WatCo. "There's a lot of heavy lifting involved. You need to verify there is actually a real need in the market for the product. You need to build a prototype to show prospective customers and investors that a real product can be built in a cost effective and scalable way. You need to find and engage with those first early potential customers. And often these steps take time which requires us to go fairly deep on the patent cost investment side to protect and create an IP asset that preserves the future proprietary commercial opportunity."

Over the last number of years, WatCo has shifted its focus from licensing of research to supporting start-ups, a move that parallels the Waterloo start-up ecosystem that has blossomed over the last decade. More recent success stories include SSIMWave, a company with big ambitions to become the Dolby of video quality, KA Imaging, creators of a disruptive low cost, low dose, high resolution X-Ray imager, and Wattech Power, a zinc-air battery developer poised to be a leading contender in the energy storage market. WatCo has also forged a partnership with the Accelerator Centre under the AC Jumpstart program providing $70k in seed funding to recent Waterloo graduates to launch their companies. Since 2015 there have been 20 companies supported some of which have already started generating sales, hiring staff and attracting follow-on investment, such as Voltera with growing sales of their disruptive electronics circuit board printer.

"All of these technologies represent tremendous potential economic and social impact and have the ability to scale and become significant job creators," says Inwood. While many of the start-ups to date are originating from University of Waterloo's world-class engineering faculty, WatCo is also actively working with the broader spectrum of campus faculty researchers on a number of exciting opportunities that stand to have significant societal impact such as an e-health software solution supporting significant cost efficiencies in Ontario hospitals, and a low cost non-invasive screening test for Alzheimer's. "Our commercialization mission here at the University of Waterloo is not just about jobs and economic impact, but also to bring forward products and services that improve people's lives."

The WatCo team, which consists of Inwood, five professional colleagues and one support staff, work closely with people across the University, including supporting overlap and referrals to other ecosystem partners such as Velocity, The Accelerator Centre (AC) and Communitech to ensure entrepreneurs find the "best fit" of resources and support for each fledgling company.

"The lovely thing about our Waterloo Region start-up ecosystem is that it serves the entire spectrum of need," says Inwood. "For undergrads and recent grads, we have Velocity. The Conrad School of Business provides that advanced graduate level learning for entrepreneurs through its MBET program. For research faculty and graduate level students seeking to commercialize, there's our team at WatCo. And then, for all these embryonic ventures there is mentoring and business acceleration support at the Accelerator Centre.

At the end of the day, we want to help people navigate the commercialization process. We can play a hugely supportive role for those who don't have the time, the entrepreneurial drive or the experience to do it all by themselves."


Top photo was taken in the UW Ciars Anechoic Chamber