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Friday, 9 September 2016
Waterloo in the News
Article CourtesyThe Globe and Mail
Startup city: The high-tech fever reshaping Kitchener-Waterloo
Waterloo’s next wave
As BlackBerry fades to a shadow of its former self, a new generation of entrepreneurs is rising out of the Waterloo region. At its centre is an indispensable institution, talented inventors and a dedicated group of community leaders co-operating to support the hub’s ambition to become a world-class technology centre
On a sticky August Saturday in 2008, Steven Woods got a call on his cellphone. The Saskatchewan-native had just moved from Silicon Valley to Waterloo, Ont., to serve as Google Inc.’s site director for an outpost of engineering excellence in the mid-sized Canadian city. He was surprised to get a call while he was unpacking boxes in his new house, on a phone he’d received that day. On the line was Iain Klugman, the CEO of a local organization called Communitech, a private not-for-profit company devoted to supporting startups, inviting him out for dinner. Still reeling from the stresses of the move, Mr. Woods suggested they talk Monday and figure something out. Mr. Klugman was in more of a hurry, and suggested the next night, a Sunday.
The following night, Mr. Woods arrived at a local restaurant to find a group of people with a mission. “I get there, it was Iain, Tom Jenkins from OpenText, David Johnston from the University of Waterloo [now Canada’s Governor General], and a couple others,” says Mr. Woods. “And it was like, ‘Welcome, here’s a glass of wine. Okay: What are you doing for us?’ Seriously, within five minutes the conversation was ‘we need to talk about what Google is doing for us in town.’”
Mr. Klugman makes no apologies for his cajoling, and his efforts have been paying off. Waterloo, long considered little more than the home of BlackBerry, has become one of Canada’s technology hot spots, attracting some of the biggest rainmakers in the business.
Canada has its share of startup hubs where an entrepreneur can set up shop: Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, and, to a degree, Calgary and Halifax. The Kitchener-Waterloo region is among the smallest by population, with about 550,000 people. But the Southern Ontario centres are among the most successful.
“Internationally, their reputation is off the charts. I’m not sure Canadians understand that,” says Mr. Woods, who has a PhD and a master’s from the University of Waterloo. In just the past five years, 1,845 new technology startups have formed in the area many call KW, raising at least $650-million in investment.
If technology and innovation are the future of the Canadian economy, then the group of dreamers, toilers, coders and entrepreneurs who live 100 kilometres away from Canada’s biggest city think they have the inside track.
“We believe there’s this future where Waterloo is one of the top cities for technology in the world,” says Ted Livingston, CEO of chat app Kik, Canada’s largest homegrown social media company, headquartered in Waterloo. “Right now, for those of us inside, that’s already true.”
‘One of the best places in the world to build a technology company’
The names Research In Motion and BlackBerry will always define Waterloo, and former co-chief executives Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie still make their presence felt in the city: Mr. Lazaridis’s Perimeter Institute is harnessing theoretical physics to discover the next generation of technological breakthroughs; Mr. Balsillie is still an active investor in the area.
But this isn’t a story about how Waterloo has been defined by BlackBerry. This is about a generation that grew up alongside BlackBerry and seeks to forge a new identity for the city. At the centre are an indispensable institution, the University of Waterloo, a bunch of young people starting companies, and a dedicated group of community leaders eager to support the region’s ambition to become a world-class technology centre.
Leading this rebirth is Communitech. Founded in 1997 by local tech leaders including Mr. Balsillie, Communitech is funded by all three levels of government, by member companies and by corporate partners. It operates as a hybrid economic development agency, marketing board and business support network.
A compact, tanned man with perpetual silver stubble, Mr. Klugman got his MBA at Wilfrid Laurier University, and his start in marketing at Nortel in the 1990s. Prior to joining Communitech in 2004 he worked in communications for the CBC and the Ontario government.
His job at Communitech is to help the community punch above its weight when it comes to providing support for startups.
“We feel that we have to try harder and work harder because we don’t have a lot of natural assets to work with – we don’t have an ocean or mountains or a beach,” Mr. Klugman says with a shake of his head. But what the region lacks in breathtaking scenery it makes up for with the talent of its residents. “We invented the smartphone here,” he adds, “we invented the foundation for search with Open Text, we invented the touchscreen display here, we were at the forefront of wearables here.”
Attempting to keep track of the startups setting up shop in town is one of many tasks Mr. Klugman performs. In 2010 some 155 startups registered with Communitech; that figure doubled the following year, and topped 500 in 2014. Some of those new ventures – Miovision, ClearPath Robotics, Aeryon Labs and Thalmic Labs, among others – have attracted a lot of buzz and investment. There have been stumbles, too, notably Communitech’s Hyperdrive accelerator that failed to take off.
If things were moving any faster, Mr. Klugman fears, a scarcity of talent might force companies to pump the brakes. “The first thing somebody does when they do a startup is they want to raise some money and hire three people. So you’re talking about 1,500 people immediately,” he says.
Indeed, a 2013 PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey attributes more than 20,000 jobs to the region’s innovation ecosystem.
Communitech’s efforts have included startup mentoring and peer-to-peer networking, and its latest plan is to give entrepreneurs a head start on building a sales strategy. It does all this by hosting events, encouraging executives of established firms to participate in its education sessions, luring venture capitalists and lobbying various levels of government. And fledgling firms needed the help because, says Mr. Livingston, “It’s a massive disadvantage in partnerships and funding and press not to be in Silicon Valley.”
But that’s changing. “Waterloo right now, I have to believe, is one of the best places in the world to build a technology company,” says Dave Caputo, CEO and co-founder of Sandvine Inc. which mixes hardware and software to optimize the flow of data over some of the world’s biggest telecom networks. And he would know: He’s done it twice in the past 20 years – first with PixStream, a video conferencing company, which he and his co-executives sold to Cisco Systems in 2001, and now Sandvine.
“I assumed that Communitech-like organizations were everywhere, but I’ve come to learn that they are relatively rare,” says Mr. Caputo.
For decades, global tech companies set up shop in Waterloo even if it was just to recruit and ship out talent. Intel, Electronic Arts, Google and SAP moved in alongside local enterprise tech companies such as OpenText, Descartes and Desire2Learn. Waterloo engineers can be found in large numbers in many of the biggest companies in the capital of global tech, Silicon Valley. But now, local players say, people with those skills have reason to stay.
“Let me say what’s changed here: It is now an absolute career alternative of students graduating from Wilfrid Laurier University and University of Waterloo to say, ‘I am gonna start off as an entrepreneur,’” Mr. Caputo says. “There was significantly less of that when I graduated university. The idea was, if you wanted to be in technology … go make your mistakes with some big technology company, and then eventually you might want to start a tech company.”