Photo: “I think absolutely I fell back in love with this community and I think we’re going to do some incredible things, not only for the high-tech and startup world, but in general,” says Dr. Paul Salvini, CEO of the Accelerator Centre.

Passionate barely begins to describe Dr. Paul Salvini.

Last Thursday, Salvini was named CEO of the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo. He will also serve as the new Associate Vice-President, Research Commercialization at the University of Waterloo.

For Salvini, it’s a career move that’s been decades in the making, but it wasn’t until the last six years that the stars aligned for him to return to his first love – Waterloo Region. Prior to last week’s appointment, he drove innovation at Kitchener-based Christie Digital Systems, as its chief technology officer.

When we chatted with Salvini after the announcement, he sat beaming at the possibilities for this region’s tech sector to produce the next BlackBerry or OpenText.

Here’s what he had to say about his experience, his new double role and his plans for the Accelerator Centre to continually leave that “wow” impression on people outside the region.

Q – How will your background serve you in your new role? And what lured you to it in the first place?

A – I have the folks at Communitech and Christie to thank for [my] originally coming to Waterloo after many, many years.

I studied at the University of Waterloo for my undergrad in math and computer science, and then I moved back to Toronto. It was about six years ago that I was serving on an expert panel in Ottawa for the federal government when they were doing funding for different centres of excellence, and a group came from Waterloo Region to pitch the idea for the Canadian Digital Media Network. That’s where I met [Christie President and COO] Gerry (Remers), [Communitech VP of Marketing and Communications] Avvey Peters, [Communitech CEO] Iain Klugman and [CDMN Managing Director] Kevin Tuer.

They all showed up and told this amazing story about this startup – Miovision – run by Kurtis McBride, and how this community got together to help Kurtis launch and grow his business. I heard all about the Accelerator Centre and a great story about connecting Kurtis with the established community, including Gerry Remers at Christie.

That was when I first made this note of, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty amazing community, where people would offer their time to help mentor and work with startups.’ And I made this note of, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to one day to have the chance to work with Gerry and be a part of this community?’

A few years later that opportunity came up and I came to Waterloo Region to work with Gerry, and it’s been absolutely amazing, and what a tremendous guy.

In terms of this role, I have always been involved in technology and entrepreneurship, and I was a technology entrepreneur myself before I came to work at Christie. I was working at a company in Toronto called Side Effects Software, where I still remain a part owner of the company. And that was a company that was focused on visual effects for Hollywood films, so developing software for that.

I left that job to come to Waterloo, but I have always been mentoring students and been involved in teaching for the past 20 years at different universities in Toronto, for the last five years at the University of Toronto teaching technology entrepreneurship, and that’s a program that I built for them based on my experiences as an entrepreneur. So it was kind of a perfect fit to be able to work with people who are trying to grow businesses and help businesses succeed.

I had served as president, and still do, of the University of Waterloo Alumni council, so I was always connected with the university and coming back to the community for that.

I certainly knew that the community was special and saw what was happening, especially with the University of Waterloo and their plans. I was serving when [former UW President] David Johnston was here and [saw] the amazing things that he did to build this community, and [had] the pleasure of working with [current UW President] Feridun Hamdullahpur for the past four or five years that he’s been here, and have seen his dedication to the student experience, and his investment in the whole area in helping people succeed.

Q – What can we expect to see from the Accelerator Centre? And how does your double role as Associate Vice-President, Research Commercialization at the University of Waterloo fit into to that?

A – This is already an amazing place with a pretty rich history and legacy, so the first thing is to continue the great things that are happening here, and they have a really good team.

However, things are changing within the broader ecosystem, so there are certainly some opportunities to grow the impact of the Accelerator Centre and grow the impact of Waterloo and all of our partners, including Communitech.

And people are starting to look, thanks to all those things that have happened. In the last eight or nine years, they are looking to Waterloo as a model for how you incubate new businesses.

Every tour I have done in the past three years, whether at University of Waterloo, through the Research Park or down at Communitech, people were left saying, ‘Wow, we wish we had that’ in whatever city they were from in the world, and that’s pretty amazing.

There is no question that we need to grow, and we could grow 10 times within the capacity of this region for startup activity and still not have enough resources to handle all the demand.

My plan would be to work with our startup ecosystem to grow in four distinct areas. The first one is the work we’re doing today. When you asked my students 20 years ago who wanted to be an entrepreneur, nobody put up their hand, or maybe one brave person did, because they were unemployable or they didn’t fit into society and couldn’t work for anyone.

Today I ask that and it’s the opposite. Now almost everybody wants to be an entrepreneur. The dream is no longer to work for a big, stable telephone company or bank; the dream for young people is to have control over their success and failure, to follow their passion, not to take someone else’s view of what a good job is. And you know what, if it doesn’t work out [they’ll] try something else, and if that doesn’t work out, [they] can always go work for an established corporation.

The biggest change that we’ve seen is this tremendous change in attitude towards what it means to be an entrepreneur and about who can be an entrepreneur. As a result of that, it’s sort of been hand-in-hand with the change in the ecosystem to support entrepreneurship.

So now you have almost every student being taught how to be an entrepreneur and about what it takes to be an entrepreneur, and they are made aware of the resources available within this awesome community to support entrepreneurs. It just makes it that much easier and that less scary to think about getting together with a bunch of your friends and turning what was a project or an idea into a viable business.

My passion, and a piece where we can really succeed, is how do we get the companies that are already a little bit rooted – so now they have a start, they have their first few customers, their first few employees, but they really want to turn that into a business that’s going to grow beyond a few of their friends – to become a company with 50 employees, 100 employees, 1,000 employees. How do we get the next BlackBerry, the next OpenText, the next Christie Digital within this community?

So that’s the first big change that’s increasing the demand for these kinds of services.

The second one would be all the people who started working for established companies when it wasn’t cool to be an entrepreneur. They are kind of looking at what’s happening in the community, saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I have ideas and I don’t want to do this job, I’m not passionate about what I do anymore, I want to start my own thing.’ And so they want to be able to have an environment where established, experienced talent can be supported by the community to create a business, and the challenge there is they need income, they have a job to pay the bills, feed their family and keep the lights on at home. And so how do we create programs that will increase the productivity of our existing labour force in Waterloo Region, and de-risk that to allow people to be successful entrepreneurs, who didn’t start when they were 17, 18, 19, 20, or 22?

The third one speaks to the uniqueness of the double role that I am going to play, being an AVP of Research and Commercialization at the University of Waterloo, and that speaks to the amazing transformational research that is going on here at the University of Waterloo. And that’s only because I am familiar with that institution, but I know that there is great work being done at Laurier, great work being done at the University of Guelph, and great work being done at Conestoga College. A lot of that research has the potential to be commercialized, and so the challenge for us is how do we help make it not scary to take an idea and commercialize it.

The University of Waterloo itself is pretty unique in that it allows the faculty, the graduate student or undergraduate student to own that IP, and that means that we are able to uniquely attract top talent that want to develop an idea and potentially commercialize that idea.

If we provide all of the infrastructure to allow university research to be commercialized, then we are really going to increase the value and the potential that’s held within that research.

So that explains a bit of the dual role. We know that we can do a better job to support that activity and make it less scary, and to mentor people who are amazing researchers, but who maybe haven’t thought about entering the business world. So how do we transfer opportunity from the research world into the commercial world and industry, to allow the region to benefit?

And the fourth area, if we do the all of those things right, is we’re going to have non-stop people knocking at our door to come to the region to set up businesses, because we have that ecosystem in place.

I believe Waterloo Region without a doubt is going to become a premier destination – globally – for people to come and set up businesses, because it is such an amazing place to be. It is amazing from affordability, quality of life, safety and security; if you have a family, if you want to have a research appointment, there is no better place on the planet.

For all those reasons, I will say that the plan is that we have to figure out how to work together really well as a community, as we have in the past, and hit a home run on this thing, because the opportunity is huge.

Q – Would you say that you have fallen in love with the region all over again, after leaving when you graduated university?

A – Absolutely, I think that’s a great way to put it. I think that I appreciated it, but it wasn’t until I came back that I realized how amazing the community was.

David Johnston tells a story where his wife was doing some books on a farm and one of their Mennonite neighbours was there, and she was struggling with how much to insure the barn for, because they were struggling to keep the costs down. And he said, “Why do you need to know what the barn is worth?” and she explained, and he goes, “No, no, no. If your barn burns down, we will get together some people in the community and will get some wood that we have, and we will rebuild the barn. You don’t have to insure it for an amount, that’s just what we do in the community,” and at the end he threw in, “Maybe put it down for $2,000 for shingles.”

That’s an amazing story and that’s that concept of barn building; it’s the concept of people being willing to take the time to help other people. That’s amazing and that’s what this community is all about, and that’s what I see here every day.

Even in startups, when people should be too busy to help their colleagues, because they’re starting their own businesses, they are taking the time to share their experiences, ideas, give feedback and mentor each other. That’s pretty special and amazing.

I think absolutely I fell back in love with this community and I think we’re going to do some incredible things, not only for the high-tech and startup world, but in general, by building up this community and creating jobs and prosperity within the region, within the province and for Canada.