By Mark McArdle

The Communitech Hub has been an exciting place since it opened its doors in 2010.  I have always enjoyed the atmosphere and buzz of this special place.

You’ll see a cross-section of the tech ecosystem – from university students working hard on their startup in VeloCity, to seasoned executives and investors wandering around the common areas.

And soon, you’ll see some very young proto-entrepreneurs.

This summer, I have joined forces with Dan Silivestru, a founder of TinyHippos, to coach a FIRST LEGO League (FLL) robotics team. We will be basing our operations in the Communitech Hub.

FLL is a robotics program for kids 9-14 years old. It’s designed to get them excited about science and technology, while teaching them valuable employment and life skills.

FIRST was founded by famed inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen.  He’s the guy who invented the Segway.  FIRST is an acronym for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”

That’s a wonderful fit for the Communitech Hub!

Dan has been involved in FIRST robotics for years and has been a judge.  This spring, I attended a FIRST Robotics competition for older kids in grades 9-12.  I was blown away by what I saw.

The entire University of Waterloo Physical Activities Complex was filled with very excited young people who came together to design, build, and test their Frisbee-throwing and pyramid-climbing robots -- as well as promote, market and pitch to sponsors.

I immediately saw some similarities to startup life.

Dan was a judge in this most recent contest, and I excitedly told him, “I want to do this.”  He was just as eager, and explained to me that the best place for us to start is in the younger robotics contest.

It utilizes LEGO MindStorms NXT as the platform for building the robots.  Fortunately, I had some experience with LEGO - a whole lifetime actually, and my son got the Mindstorms robotics kit for Christmas last year.  It’s a wonderful development environment and a lot of fun.

The FLL contest starts each year in late August when the challenge and all the rules are disclosed.  Last year, the challenge was called “Senior Solutions” and it involved challenges and tasks for the robot that mirrored those of a senior citizen.

The theme of this year’s challenge is “Nature’s Fury.”  The team must build an autonomous robot that navigates a tabletop arena, and accomplish a long list of tasks and challenges that win the team points.

There is also something called the “Project” that challenges the team to identify a problem related to the theme of the challenge and propose an interesting solution.

The FLL Core Values are the cornerstone of the program. They’re very good and help the participants learn about teamwork and collaboration.  And these skills are key to making it in life:

    • We are a team.
    • We do the work to find solutions with guidance from our coaches and mentors.
    • We know our coaches and mentors don't have all the answers. We learn together.
    • We honor the spirit of friendly competition.
    • What we discover is more important than what we win.
    • We share our experiences with others.
    • We display Gracious Professionalism® and Coopertition® in everything we do.
    • We have FUN!

I won’t speak for Dan, but I find the “coaches and mentors don’t have all the answers” part quite reassuring!

Those working in the Communitech Hub are already well acquainted with the “Gracious Professionalism and Coopertition” ideals.  It’s really a core value of the Waterloo Region Startup ecosystem.

Our team of six enthusiastic young robotics engineers loves our base of operations at the Communitech Hub.  They are thrilled to be working in the same space where “the experts” do it.

At our first meeting, the team decided that “The Rusty Bolts” would be our team name.  Dan and I are very grateful to Iain Klugman and the Communitech team for hosting us.

And stay tuned:  Several local tech companies that share our excitement are stepping up to further assist us with sponsorship, expertise, space and materials.

Dan and I have observed that coaching our FLL team has some similarities to being a Communitech Executive-In-Residence.

One of our early tasks will be helping the team with their corporate-sponsorship pitch.  The similarities to pitching to investors will be many, and I’m excited to help our young team learn how to do a business presentation.

I’m hopeful the skills and confidence they will gain as a member of the Rusty Bolts will serve them throughout their academic and professional careers.

So if you’re working in the Hub one night or on a weekend, and you see or hear a group of excited young people celebrating a new robotic ability or a bug fix, it will probably be our Rusty Bolts.

Stop by and say hello.

Mark McArdle is a seasoned technology executive, board member, investor and entrepreneur.