We are a startup machine

“Something is going on in Waterloo because the applications we get from Waterloo students are better than those we get from students of any other university.”

Paul Graham
Co-founder, Y Combinator

What is the secret behind Waterloo Engineering’s success at producing entrepreneurial engineers? For such a young engineering school (founded in 1957), it has produced a remarkable number of startups and spinoffs who have Waterloo Engineering students or alumni as founders. At the last count, there were  over  600 companies in Canada and abroad who can claim Waterloo Engineering is in their “DNA.”

Clearpath Founders RYAN-GARIEPY-and Matt Rendall with the Kingfisher water robot.

Clearpath Robotics founders Ryan Gariepy and Matt Rendall with the Kingfisher robot.

It would be accurate to say that the entrepreneurial culture was embedded at Waterloo Engineering from the very first day of its existence. On July 1, 1957 a group of Kitchener-Waterloo businessmen founded what would become the University of Waterloo, making engineering its first Faculty. At that time, the business leaders/university founders ensured that real world experience would be part of every engineer’s education—and co-op education was launched. (Waterloo Engineering now has the largest co-op in the world.) They also pioneered an inventor-owned intellectual property policy (in various forms) to spur on the entrepreneurial spirit, as well as making it easy for researchers to partner with investors and industry to commercialize ideas and patents.

Complete entrepreneurial ecosystem

This powerful combination was the primordial soup that led to a complete entrepreneurial ecosystem. With the cross-pollination of ideas from co-op work terms and the academic learning in the classroom, along with an inventor-owned intellectual property policy to support commercialization, a completely new breed of engineer was born. This Waterloo engineer was one who knew about real-world engineering in a business setting but also had an extremely rigorous engineering education. Combining these essential components created a confident engineer who could tackle the truly difficult problems and in real world any setting—Waterloo Engineers hit the ground running.

Waterloo is probably the best up-and-coming startup city in the world…the breadth of exposure to different sorts of engineering that you learn, the co-op program, and the way that there is just such a culture of thinking about problems in the world and ideas… it’s really good.

Sam Altman
President, Y Combinator

Confidence is an invaluable trait. It allows people to have the courage to take calculated risks. All great inventors and technologists know the path to true success is through a succession of failures. Fail fast and fail forward is how Edison created a working light bulb and how Elon Musk became the first private citizen to send a supply space rocket to the International Space Station as well as creating the world’s most advanced electric car. It is what allowed Waterloo Engineering student Mike Lazaridis to invent the world’s first smart phone with the iconic BlackBerry. Confidence helped Eric Migicovsky invent the Pebble watch, and allowed Michael Litt of Vidyard to redefine video analytics. The ground-breaking technology of the Myo gesture-controlled armband invented by Thalmic Labs founders Stephen Lake, Aaron Grant and Matthew Bailey—all Waterloo Engineers—can be attributed to the confidence (and knowledge) gained with their multiple co-op terms that spanned an impressive array of industries.  Entrepreneurial DNA is evident with Suncayr, a company founded by Waterloo Engineering nanotechnology students who became the first Canadian team to win a prestigious James Dyson Award this past fall.

Waterloo Engineering icons & technology rock stars

Stephen Lake, Aaron Grant, Matthew Bailey, founders of Thalmic Labs and the Myo.

Thalmic Labs co-founders Stephen Lake, Aaron Grant and Mathew Bailey using the Myo armband to control computers.

Entrepreneurs also become part of the Waterloo Engineering legend. When students arrive on the Waterloo Engineering campus, most of them already know of the engineering icons and technology rock stars who have gone on before them, including those who are so recently graduated they may have occupied a Waterloo dorm room just a semester before. This electric atmosphere of “can do” and fearlessness is heavily supported by the entire University of Waterloo campus. Mentorship is a strong component of our program; the sense of awe that a student has when mentored by an industry icon is never lost, yet our mentors tell us the knowledge transfer is always a two-way process. Everyone is learning from everyone.

Startup culture

Waterloo Engineering has an incredibly strong startup culture and when students are immersed in this entrepreneurial-infused environment, anything seems possible. Companies literally spring up overnight. Student design teams go from school project to patented technology with VC funding. It’s known all over the world, if you want to be something, be a Waterloo Engineering. The company you keep will be an interconnected global network of engineers. The trajectory of a Waterloo Engineer is always sky high.

But what makes Waterloo Engineering students and alumni so bold and confident they are willing-and able – to take on the big risk of starting a company? It’s simple–they have access to entrepreneurial support and training, they have the know-how and they also know that no matter how much they risk, how much they win or lose, they will always have the gold standard in engineering education in their possession. A Waterloo Engineering education is valued all across the world.

students getting advice from mentor at they work on their start up.

Our entrepreneurial DNA means students get ample startup support.

Entrepreneurial support at Waterloo Engineering

Most of the students at the highly rated Velocity program are Waterloo Engineering students. We offer an entrepreneurship option for engineers and there are multiple University of Waterloo programs and initiatives to help entrepreneurial engineers get started and keep going. These programs include:

Inventor-owned intellectual property policy

Steve Waslander operates an autonomous quadrotor.

As autonomous quadrotors become more advanced, Waslander predicts they’ll play a role in everything from inspecting offshore oils rigs to assisting wilderness search and rescue efforts.

The legend goes that University of Waterloo has always had an inventor-owned intellectual property policy since it was founded in 1957. That’s not quite true. The fact is there were no policies in place concerning who owned what when it came to ideas and inventions. In those early days, there were few policies for anything – getting bogged down by red tape and excessive policies was the last thing that the Waterloo Engineering faculty wanted – they were men of decision and action. According to University of Waterloo historian Ken McLaughlin, it wasn’t until 1972 that the University finally introduced the principle of faculty members’ ownership of intellectual property with two policies: Policy 42 (Patents) and Policy 61 (Computer Software). It took another 15 years (1997), before a formal Intellectual Property Policy #73 was introduced replacing both 42 and 61.

From attracting world-class researchers to the entrepreneurial-minded engineering student, our progressive “inventor-owned” intellectual property philosophy, then policy, along with the unique co-op system, is essential element in enabling and encouraging the entrepreneurial environment at Waterloo Engineering.