The “Dormcubator” and the entrepreneur by-products of higher education

Having had a great opportunity over the last year and a half to work at VeloCity I am convinced that the “Dormcubator” (The Globe and Mail made it up, not me, but have you Google’d it?) model in higher education is a hugely important effort as part of an overall student success strategy in higher education. This, in my opinion, is because it leverages a by-product of higher education and therefore is actually easy (with regards to the relative cost of new investment) to make relatively successful but it also essential to consciously enhance the experience for those students that enter University for other reasons than academic development.

The business take of by-products is pretty well explained in this Think Vitamin article, here is my take in the context of what I am doing at VeloCity in Higher Education.

Why are entrepreneurs a ‘by-product’ of Higher Education?

Higher Education is tooled to create more academics, not employees (and yes, the government talks about direct influence on job growth and training but the economic impact of higher education is itself arguably by-product). The process of undergraduate to graduate student to post-doc to finally a prof (with a few steps in-between) is a long held process to find the best of the best academics. It attracts the some of the smartest people in society to push themselves and give it a try. Pretty close to all of those that try don’t go all they way to a PhD but that doesn’t mean they aren’t hugely intelligent and capable people, they just aren’t academics.

This talent that ‘falls off’ after their undergraduate or even graduate experience is what fuels the job market with highly skilled and knowledgeable work force. Those that go on to do research fuel development of new technologies, develop greater understanding of how technology or others influence us and our world, and educate the next generation of talent. Those that don’t go on to become academics and do research and/or teach are a by-product because the primary product that higher education focuses on is the academic or researcher.

At the University of Waterloo it is a bit different. The University recognized early on that Engineers aren’t going into Engineering to be PhD’s — they go to be Engineers. Consciously or not, the University was focused on creating professionals as well as academics and researchers which crosses all Faculties. Developing the worlds largest co-operative education program made perfect sense. The University’s second core product was born, a highly skilled and educated professional worker. The University of Waterloo produces amazing Engineers, Actuaries, Optometrists, Accountants, Pharmacists, etc. All roles that could get PhD’s but it isn’t the primary focus of the program.

Enter the Entrepreneur as a professional product of higher ed

The Entrepreneur is a different professional and much harder one for a University to create a program for. An Entrepreneur tends to not fit in any one program, likely aren’t attracted to or perform well in the lecture style environment, and they come from just about anywhere without a set academic career goal. They likely go to University because it is an interesting and a challenge, not because they want to conform to a system. Waterloo has the coders that are entrepreneurial but we also have the business or medical or physics or math or recreation and leisure entrepreneurs. Even the Co-op program isn’t ideal as it is focused on getting  the student a job and a great experience as an employee. However, my theory is that the Co-op program along with new leading edge academic programs attract some of the most talented and entrepreneurial students in Canada.

Campus culture in Canada and Waterloo is weak

Where the University of Waterloo has fallen short overall is on building a campus culture and experience. The challenge of the co-op grind every 4-8 months (month 1 is apply to jobs, month 2 is interviews and midterms, month 3 is midterms, assignments, and maybe interviews, month 4 is exams, repeat), the constant moving, the lack of real community connection and culture in the City of Waterloo, along with a bunch of other things means the positive experience and culture is difficult to create. A lot is changing though.

Enter the frat house for entrepreneurs that make stuff

Certainly by no means an Animal House, VeloCity is a fraternity of entrepreneurs that share a common goal in life but come from all sorts of different programs and/or streams on campus. The living environment allows Waterloo students to establish solid friendships with future co-founders, expand their network, and find some of the best co-op jobs at startups that are out there. This has been called a “dormcubator” as it mixes a dormitory setting with an incubator like program.

The advantages to students are numerous but I think there are a few core things:

  • Broader base to build relationships with fellow students: connections across educational streams means students meet people they likely would have never met, Computer Science and Software Engineering students rarely go to class together and then we through a Business student in there.
  • A common experience: the experience in the environment gives those that live there a common but exclusive connection even if they weren’t living there at the same time. These connections are stronger than simply the ‘you went to Waterloo?’ connections — which are also fairly strong given the grind all of Waterloo Alumni have experienced.
  • Leveraging connections the University has already: Startups based in Silicon Valley, Montreal, Toronto, Boston, etc have a self selecting group of entrepreneurs to aim for at the start of every term they are looking to hire. This gives the students easier access to learn from other startups and still keep their debt loads down.

The residence, in my mind, is one part of an important shift to improve the student experience outside of the academic streams recognizing that students go to university not only for the lectures and assignments. This is something that is easier for Waterloo to do given the Co-op program is something it is already deeply committed to and it certainly is not an academic process. I would challenge other schools to look at similar ideas.

The Ryerson DMZ is another take on this model in Canada that is really exciting, lets see some more.

There is a likely a PhD in waiting on this topic so yes I oversimplified this but it is a blog post after all 😉

The VeloCity workspace

Yesterday on the VeloCity blog I announced the VeloCity workspace at the Communitech Hub. It is, to me, a piece that has missing at VeloCity as we have tried to do an awful lot in what is a residential building but what you can’t do is work as part of the startup community locally. The University of Waterloo campus is just too isolated with the way parking is and its size to try and have a space that is open to the community for various events and collaboration. When you add the cost of living in residence and housing rules that require you to be a current full time student (all understandable and reasonable) there was a clear need to have a ‘next step’ space for students that have other living arrangements and recent grads of the University.

Currently there is no better place to be than in the new Communitech Hub in Kitchener. With bigger companies like Desire2Learn (founded by a uwaterloo grad) and Google as well as smaller companies like DossierView in Tannery space along with the partner organizations within the Hub itself, it is a good opportunity to be in the middle of the best that the Waterloo Region has to offer. Plus I get to work with the Accelerator Centre and Communitech, something I love doing as they are both organizations that have climbed a big learning curve and are now really influencing the services offered to companies across Canada.

This is a fluid experiment and I am assuming certain details of how we run the space will change but it is really exciting to try. What I do know is that a similar space at Ryerson (the Digital Media Zone) is a success with a load of startups working away in a gorgeous space in downtown Toronto. VeloCity and the DMZ are working closely together to develop this new model for an incubator type service inside higher education which is also something I am excited about. My hope is that we can get more Universities and Colleges working with us but time will tell.

What I see as our big challenges going into this are:

  • Cost of the space and covering the costs of the services — current guestimates place this kind of service for very early stage startups at around $1000 a month per startup. Our costs aren’t that but I will need to keep an eye on it. Certainly we do not have anywhere close to the same staffing level as Ryerson and I am not sure we need to but we do need more help to keep things moving. That will increase our cost.
  • What does success look like? With the residence I am still not sure what success is. I know it isn’t having a startup launch out of the residence into the real world and it is more important to build a strong bond between future co-founders but I will need to work on that. With the workspace it could very well be measured by the number of startups that find some revenue.
  • What are we missing? I try not to let this drive me nuts but I am constantly trying to find the gaps in what we are doing and ensure we stay focused on what are core mission is. That means saying no sometimes but a lot of the time the ‘no’ is because we just don’t have the staff to work with certain groups. Need to tackle point one above.

In a few months I will find new challenges and see if what I think are important problems really are. This is pretty exciting! Any questions, just ask. I aim to be as open as I possibly can about this whole thing 😉

Mentor a student entrepreneur while helping your startup

Being a student at the University of Waterloo has one huge advantage over most other schools, Co-op. Startups have one huge advantage available to them available here in Waterloo, Waterloo students in co-op and the Small Business Internship Program along with a ton of other funding programs. From my perspective at VeloCity there is no better mentorship opportunity for students wanting to break into the startup world than by working for a startup.

However, it is not that easy for startups to stand out and be found by students — there is a lot of competition and with companies like Yahoo!, RIM, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and more posting jobs startups need to market themselves. On top of that, it is really hard to startups to get the timing right and navigate the co-op hiring process at the University. It’s not the fault of the process but more the nature of a fledgling business balancing a lot of demands meeting the deadlines that are at the start of each term.

Through VeloCity I want to help startups find good students to work with and I want the students to have the opportunity to gain some great experience working with a startup in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Boston, San Francisco, etc. What I ask is that startups take a moment and fill out some basic information first (at the end of the post or use this link). From there go over to the Employer Manual on the CECS site and read up on hiring a student. You will need to follow their process to get a job posted.

Next VeloCity will follow-up with you. Once you have a job posted with CECS we will need to share that job posting number with students so they can find it faster.

What we plan to do is create a list for students at VeloCity to see right at the start of each term so that the company names are front and center. We will also send out the list of students (and some recent grads) that have been in VeloCity. We will share the details as we get them and keep them informed. The last thing is that we will develop a poster for campus that can feature startups and working for them.

What is asked in return…

We have the following topics that need speakers on the specific dates at 4pm:

  • A Start-up Life, Sept 20
  • Starting a Business, Sept 27
  • Building a Team, Oct 4
  • The Pitch, Oct 18
  • Selling your Product, Nov 1
  • Financial Management, Nov 8
  • Raising Money, Nov 15
  • As well as networking lunches at the Bomber every other Wednesday starting on September 22nd that it would good if you (by you I mean the founder(s), CEO, etc) could try and attend at least one. There is also are start of term BBQ on September 20th and would encourage you to come out that night.

    Student entrepreneurs need mentors

    The end of spring term at VeloCity marks my one full year at the residence. What a way to end it. I can’t say enough about how good the students are at the University of Waterloo but this term I got to work with a few students from the University of British Columbia and Queens. There is no question in my mind that the future for Canada is bright but we (the community) need to do all we can to cultivate the talent and encourage them to think big.

    Canada has a lot of naturally talented young entrepreneurs but…

    …we don’t have a big enough community to support them naturally. We have a lot of young people that need to be given the opportunity to try something. In order to try something the support needs to be there to help them accelerate quickly to either failure or success. We have a government sponsored system in Canada that can offer life support to enable a long process of building a company around a product (with tax credits, etc), what I don’t think we have is a system (or community) that can help people with the development of ideas into product. Some localities have communities that are decently strong but they aren’t big enough to meet the need that I believe is there.

    Canada has lots of great young entrepreneurs that figure it out regardless but I see way too many talented U of Waterloo students that could be incredible entrepreneurs given the right community support that would encourage them away from the incredible job opportunities they have right in front of them. They don’t need money, they need a realistic chance of getting a product to a customer, receiving feedback, and trying again. They need the support of their peers and a place to meet new people with new ideas.

    What is needed the most are really good mentors

    My focus at VeloCity for the next year will be cultivating the mentor/student relationship. We need mentors that connect with what a particular group is doing, help them with their product, and get them to their first sale. That isn’t an easy task but if the right connection between an eager student team and a mentor happens, I am certain both the mentor and the students will learn a lot from each other.

    What I want to see from a mentor/student relationship is a team given the opportunity to test their product on people that they think would pay for what they are building or service they are providing, along with help identifying when to pivot or when to walk away. As a mentor, you provide a sense of hindsight which is invaluable to any young entrepreneur. VeloCity is working towards building this student/mentor relationship through democamp style events where the teams pitch or demo their ideas, receive feedback and the mentors can get an idea of who they are and if they can help.

    VeloCity will help a little to formalize the relationship but I would hope the connections happen naturally at these events. If you are interested in being a mentor please get in contact with me (jrodgers at

    posted on the VeloCity blog as well.

    University of Waterloo President is Canada’s next Governor General

    A few minutes of being important
    Unless you are completely disconnected from the news in Canada you must have seen that David Johnston will be the next Governor General of Canada. I think the atmosphere in Waterloo at the moment is nothing short of great pride and excitement that someone that is such a great community leader is being recognized for what is one of the highest profile positions in Canada.

    From my perspective I think it inspiring that a person that grew up in Sault Ste. Marie and worked the steel plant in his youth (only first heard him tell that story a few months ago) has taken a long path through academia, family life (he has a lot of daughters), and still works his farm just outside of Waterloo is now the next Governor General of Canada.  The University of Waterloo will certainly miss him and the person who thinks they can try and fill his shoes on campus just had the bar raised pretty darn high.

    An email went out to all the folks on campus today and I haven’t seen it online yet so I thought, since it is so well written, I would share it here and link to it whenever it ends up online (Friday July 9th’s Daily Bulletin has extensive coverage and links to other articles). Should add, I am a bit happy to see VeloCity listed as one of the things he is proud of around here 😉

    Earlier today, President Johnston informed the university leadership about his appointment as Governor General effective October 1, 2010. He noted that he will continue as uWaterloo president until September 30.

    “My wife Sharon and I are honoured to be asked to serve Canada in this way and will miss the Waterloo family enormously, but we will not be far away,” he said.

    “ I am a teacher as are my only brother and my sister. All five of our daughters are public servants. All the important things in life I’ve learned from my children. This is just one more lesson.”

    While he is excited about the new opportunity in his life, he says there is still “much to do at uWaterloo between now and Oct 1. I want to devote an enormous effort to bring Campaign Waterloo home in splendid fashion and will count on all of you to ensure a smooth and vigorous transition to my successor.”

    During his 11-year tenure at the University of Waterloo, David Johnston oversaw unprecedented growth in the university’s reputation, research capacity, and leadership capabilities.

    Of his many accomplishments, he will be especially remembered for:

    • Putting the University of Waterloo, and the surrounding region, on the national map as a centre for talent, ideas, and innovation.
    • He led Campaign Waterloo, which raised in excess of $500 million to support the university’s scholarship, students, and key building projects.
    • The Institute for Quantum Computing, founded in 2002, has become a leading centre for development of ideas that may lead to a revolution in how we store and transmit information, among many other things. The institute moves into the $160-million Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum Nano Centre in 2011, one of five current major building projects underway on the uWaterloo campus.
    • Leading research groups have formed and grown under President Johnston’s tenure, including the Water Institute, The Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy, the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact, the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (WATCar), and the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change. Research funding for the university has nearly tripled in this decade from $61 million in 1999 to $170 million in 2009.
    • He has encouraged talent and ideas through VeloCity, the university’s unique “dormcubator” residence for student entrepreneurs, and the Accelerator Centre, which provides a fertile environment for start-up high-tech firms developing new products and services.

    Demonstrating the value and impact of collaboration among academics, government, philanthropists and business to boost community building and economic development.

    • 2001 saw the launch of Waterloo’s Research and Technology Park, a 100-acre development on the university’s north campus supported by the City of Waterloo, the Region of Waterloo, and the provincial and federal governments.
    • The university’s School of Architecture opened in a renovated silk mill in downtown Cambridge in 2004, a partnership of the university, local business leaders, the City of Cambridge, the Region of Waterloo, philanthropists, and the provincial government.
    • Waterloo’s health sciences campus, anchored by Canada’s only co-op School of Pharmacy that opened in 2009, was made possible through the investment and vision of the City of Kitchener, the Region of Waterloo, the provincial and federal governments, and the university.
    • Ground will break this fall for a new Stratford Campus focused on digital media, a joint project of the City of Stratford, corporate partners including Open Text, the university and the provincial and federal governments.

    Inspiring the community through his vision of a “Knowledge Capital” that has raised the sights of Waterloo to aspire to world leadership.

    • In 2007, the City of Waterloo was recognized as the world’s Top Intelligent Community by the Intelligent Communities Forum.
    • President Johnston’s vision includes a community where universities are innovative leaders, healthy living standards raise, investments in research and development transform, smart infrastructure is developed, and social innovation is championed.

    Championing experiential education and the university’s co-operative education program, the largest of its kind in the world, which nurtures Waterloo’s students’ ideas and teaches them how their ideas are their most valuable offering in Canada’s knowledge economy.

    • The William M. Tatham Centre for co-operative education and career services opened on the Waterloo campus in 2002, a building dedicated solely to supporting and growing the university’s co-op program.
    • Half of Waterloo’s undergraduate students are part of the co-op program, with 13,000 students matched with 3,000 employers world wide.

    A presidential search was launched earlier this year to replace President Johnston, who had been scheduled to retire from Waterloo in June 2011.

    In the interim, before his successor is chosen, the university’s Policy 50 will be applied, which gives responsibility to the Board of Governors, in consultation with the Vice-President, Academic & Provost and other senior university officers, to appoint an interim President to serve until the nominating committee has finished its work.

    Meg Beckel
    Vice-President, External Relations

    G20 Young Entrepreneur Summit #g20yes

    From June 20-22 in Toronto was the first G20 Young Entrepreneur Summit with delegates from close to all the G20 nations. The idea for the summit came from Italy but was hosted and run in Canada by the  CYBF. The goal of the summit was to bring together people that support entrepreneurship in the G20 countries and identify the core issues we all face, perhaps identify solutions that may exist in other countries, and establish what could be done next to support youth entrepreneurship globally.

    The key belief underlying this summit is that entrepreneurship is the fundamental economic driver that makes recessions less painful and it is entrepreneurs that will lead economic growth. There is a shift in thinking in G20 governments from prioritizing the large employeer creating jobs and ignoring the small business entrepreneur that would create only a few jobs. The shift in thinking from the government perspective was emphasized when John Manley (former Industry Minister) took the stage and raised the point that he has seen Canada go from a nation that wants to be employees to that which what to be employers. Tony Clement‘s (current Industry Minister) statements made just before John Manley took the stage were more impressive considering where Canada was just 20 years ago.

    Canada still can do a lot more, entrepreneurs (especially in the tech world) don’t feel it is all that easy to start a business and legislation is stacked against them in favour of the large companies. However, it is through more official channels like the G20 Young Entrepreneur Summit where I think all entrepreneurs can be more effective influencing government.

    The end result of the summit is that the B20 summit will have youth entrepreneurship on their agenda along with the recommendations to discuss from the delegations that attended this summit. A secondary result is an agreement to pursue this movement into the next year with a meeting in South Korea in November followed by a summit at the G20 in France next year.

    Along with the delegate discussions there were a number of panels and presentations which just flooded twitter with some great tidbits of information. Here are some tweets from me and others that I really like that are quoting tidbits of the wisdom shared:

    You have to be born an entrepreneur – it’s a character trait. I can’t paint, but I am an entrepreneur. – Eric Boyko

    Partnership with spouse is key. Need to share responsibilities on a domestic level to avoid burnout. – Tara (mother of 7)

    “They tend to work less and they tend to talk more” Speaking of the younger people in the work place – Rahul Chawla

    the more people i meet the more i learn – Rahul Chawla

    Ur sitting on an ice cream cone in the middle of July. You must be making decisions quickly. But have humility to reverse decisions.

    No pure failure in entrepreneurship; Entrepreneurs are optimists that fail. You pick yourself up and try again – Tom Jenkins

    #g20yes Minister Peter Van Loan Canada features strongest workforce, knowledgeable&skilled workers

    Prosperity is created by successful businesses, big and small. And it’s people like you that help build this success- Peter Van Loan #g20yes

    Have a look at the #g20yes hashtag on twitter, there is a lot of info there but certainly worth digging through. Also Tom Jenkins Fireside Chat was posted on the National Post.

    On the last evening event one of the VeloCity teams that are part of the Entrepreneur Bootcamp had an opportunity to show off their work and meet delegates from all over the G20. I didn’t get a picture (there are official ones somewhere) of when Minister Peter Van Loan (Industry Minister for Canada) dropped by but I grabbed one of when they had folks from Russia, Canada, and the EU at the table.

    Bloq Software showing off their stuff

    Overall I am really impressed with what CYBF put together and the delegates that have attended. Really looking forward to what an effort like can do to help influence government policy, open up different markets to Canadian entrepreneurs, and help build a more extensive mentorship and support network.

    Converting the meeting rooms for VeloCity

    The spring term 2010 has started off at VeloCity which includes something totally different with the VeloCity Entrepreneur Bootcamp (VEB) teams along with normal on academic term students. Like last term, the start of term means I don’t see my family for a week but I do get to spend time with the students as they develop theirs ideas and try to be ready to demo something after only a few days of work.

    What we did differently this term is we moved the Saturday of coding to the Accelerator Centre on north campus. With the wind and rain making walking here a bit more challenging we still managed to have six active project teams plus the three VEB teams. We have essentially transformed some meeting rooms into coworking spaces, bring in tons of caffeine, sugar, and fruit, and try to get as much done as we can in a day.

    Meeting room 1

    Meeting room 2

    The VeloCity site will have updates throughout the day and twitter will be a little more active than the average Sunday.

    Some VeloCity lessons

    It is quickly closing on a year that I have been directly involved with VeloCity as an Associate Director. In that year (which is just three terms) we have tried some different things based on a few assumptions that came from observations of the previous two terms:

    • All 70 students are not entrepreneurs but pretty much all of them are interested.
    • We will never have 100% participation of residents.
    • Priorities with most students are #1 Academics, #2 Co-op jobs, #3 is where VeloCity should fit!
    • You can not build a product in four months, part-time.
    • We are building a farm team of entrepreneurs where a few are ready for the pros early… not all.

    Initially the recipe  for a term looking like this: a conference to open the term (VeloCity 101), speakers/mentors scattered throughout, an exhibition to show off the things people were working on with a pitch competition. There was nothing wrong with that recipe but feedback was rolling in that asked for more structure and the attendance for speakers was dropping as the term went on. Many teams were also working on projects like they were assignments and not really putting a full term of effort in. That didn’t mean there weren’t some great successes but as Virginia and I were brought in we wanted to see if there was a better way to get more people feeling they are benefiting from VeloCity.

    Looking at each term

    Where the changes started was in the Spring 2009 term were we changed the project exhibition to a DemoCamp style event and BBQ at the residence. That worked out pretty well considering we had fewer students in the residence than the other two terms and it was a bit more fun but it isn’t something we can do in the fall or winter terms as there is usually snow where the BBQ should be. We had some great demos and ended the term thinking it was pretty good considering it was Summer in Waterloo.

    Fall 2009 was more of a ‘typical’ term where focus was on speakers/mentors, VeloCity 101, and a project exhibition. More work was done to get students to community events but only a few seemed interested in participating. The Fall 2009 term was probably the most discouraging term as we really started to see that VeloCity didn’t even get to the #3 spot on priorities for most students. However we did have a couple bright sparks and we focused our energy on there. A more drastic tweak was needed, enter the ‘first two weeks’ plan.

    In the Winter of 2010 we launch the term with a much more aggressive approach. The first week had evening brainstorming events followed by a StartupWeekend style event that saw 13 teams work on ideas. The following weekend was VeloCity 101 which had some speakers followed by a DemoCamp style afternoon where the teams pitched their products and received feedback. The rest of the term focused less on bringing in speakers and more on supporting any of the teams with their progress. We closed the term with a project exhibition that only had seven teams present (a few more couldn’t make that day so around nine of the thirteen were still working on things).

    Other things we did differently in the Winter term:

    • During each of these terms were also trying to understand the balance that the Housing and Residence ‘Res Life’ program has with things. What really helped with this Winter 2010 term was the balance worked out extremely well withe Dons running a load of social events.
    • We hired a Community Manager that lives in the residence — huge amount of help putting an official VeloCity staff member in the residence when students are around (at night).

    The feedback and engagement with the winter 2010 terms says we got it right. There was a BBQ last night put on by the Dons that had 40+ students attending, chatting, and smiling. We had 50/70 associated with a team and probably a few more at least gave something a try.

    What is next for VeloCity?

    Spring 2010 terms sees the final piece of our change strategy with the introduction of the VeloCity Entrepreneur Bootcamp. We will be running the brainstorming with the weekend focused on building out a feature to test a larger product idea with the pitching happening on the Sunday afternoon with a BBQ. Then on each Monday evening of the term we have essentially a course being lead by local tech leaders and business folks. This is something we hope will set our pattern for a number of terms in the future.

    We have a few more plans for the future as well. Looking forward to sharing that 😉