Velocity, the wildly successful University of Waterloo startup program launched in 2008, has announced a restructuring aimed at serving more on-campus students while continuing to nurture high-growth tech companies in its downtown Kitchener location.
The centrepiece of the change, announced Thursday, is the launch of a new program called Concept. Operated under the Velocity umbrella, Concept will be based on the UW campus and act as a kind of “pre-incubator” for students who have entrepreneurial aspirations, whether or not they go on to start a company.
By focusing on current students, Concept will free the downtown Velocity program to sharpen its focus on incubating high-potential startups, regardless of any connection to UW.
While Velocity will accept applications from startups from virtually anywhere, the hope is that Concept will become a pipeline from the UW campus to Velocity’s incubator, formerly known as the Garage, based in Kitchener’s former Lang Tannery alongside Communitech.
Concept will be led on campus by Camelia Nunez, while Jay Shah will head up Velocity’s startup programs in Kitchener. UW is also hiring an overall executive director for Velocity to oversee both programs.
Communitech News sat down with Nunez on Thursday to talk about the changes.
Q – What made it necessary to change the structure of Velocity and launch Concept?
A – Basically, focus and growth. Velocity has grown beyond its original mandate, which really was an experiment, as we were mentioning in the blog. It's grown beyond helping student entrepreneurs with business ideas or entrepreneurial aspirations. It's grown from a residence to a collection of programs, both on and off campus. And the incubator program has grown to a point where it's sort of taken over the campus mandate.
After talking to students on campus, we learned that they're actually intimidated by the brand. So we had an issue there, because we started off as a student entrepreneurship program at Waterloo, and then it turned out that students were feeling like they had to be a startup raising $2 million in order to engage with us on campus. And that was because of the reputation that the Velocity Garage has gotten, and it translated to campus.
Q – So a symptom of success, then.
A – Yes, which is great. It means that [Velocity] is doing well; the brand itself is very recognized everywhere on campus. It's a great brand; everyone wants to engage, but it feels like some people don't feel like they’re ready yet. So, that's really not what we exist for on campus. The reason we're on campus is because we want students to get exposed to entrepreneurship, we want students to develop that entrepreneurial mindset, whether they end up starting a company or not later on. Just encouraging an entrepreneurial mindset is a huge skill.
Whether they play with a concept – which is the name – or an idea, we want them to come to us; we want to be able to advise them. We don't want them to feel like “Oh, no, I can only go [to Velocity]. And then conversely, the founders in the garage are often referred to as students because of the brand confusion.
Q – So, people think everyone doing a startup in the Velocity space is a student, when a lot of them are not?
A – None of them are. The Velocity Garage is for founders. So we needed to bring clarity and focus. We have two mandates; we looked at what we do and we really do have two different audiences: One is students in the campus community overall, and then one is startup founders and startups in general.
Q – So, Concept will strictly be for students and Velocity will strictly be for people who are no longer students? Will it be that strictly defined?
A – Yes. We have defined Concept as a sort of pre-incubator program, so if you're interested in entrepreneurship, and you want to be exposed to business thinking, entrepreneurial ideas and the mindset, you engage while you are at university and you engage with Concept. But if you are a startup, whether you are from UW or not, you are welcome to apply to Velocity.
Q – So you don't need a connection to UW to get into Velocity?
A – No.
Now, that said, we're both UWaterloo programs, and the pipeline [into Velocity] is heavily from UWaterloo. But it's not a requirement that you have to have a UWaterloo tie to be in the Velocity program.
Q – Will there be a clear bridge from Concept into Velocity for those people who maximize their participation in Concept to the point where they do have a company?
A – Yes, absolutely. We built the whole activity plan on campus as a pipeline, where you start off at the top of the funnel, where you're introducing students to ideas, to entrepreneurial thinking.
And as they move along, they can engage in more in-depth things, such as one-on-one coaching.
We've developed a network of coaches that are entrepreneurs from the Velocity community. These are people who were founders or are currently founders who are putting in a few hours a week on campus to essentially coach students and advise them on business. Those coaches work closely with our business advisors at Velocity, so there's always a clear understanding of what are the trends on campus, what are students working on, and what's going on in the Velocity space, and then there's ultimately a transition made. When a student is at a point where they can apply to Velocity, and they have an idea that is solid enough, they transition them to a business advisor in the Velocity space.
Q – How will Concept make it easier for UW to serve students who have an interest in entrepreneurship?
A – First of all, will be more approachable. It'll be clear that that's where you go. No matter how early on you are [with an idea], Concept is the place for you to go to meet other like-minded students to get advice from the coaches that we have in our network. We have about 12 coaches who we are launching with in September. That's going to make it easier for the students.
Q – And what do you think this new structure will allow Velocity to do more effectively than it was able to do before?
A – It’ll allow Velocity to open itself to entrepreneurs from all over Canada, and really, all over the world. I'm sure that you know a lot of people who are confused and think that you have to be Waterloo alumni to be in Velocity, and that's because of the strong association with all of our campus activities. So now, Velocity can stand on its own feet as an incubator, and can more easily communicate the message that we’re an incubator, that you can apply to this incubator no matter what your university affiliations are.
And then, at the same time, Velocity can focus their resources on the startups that are in their space. So, on one hand it is opening itself to make it clear to the world that they're open to startups, that they want to recruit the best startups in Canada. And, at the same time, focus the team's resources and time on the startup teams that are in the Velocity space to develop better programming, better coaching, or get business advisement and all that stuff.
Q – It sounds like Velocity is almost detaching a little bit from the university because Concept is going to handle the on-campus student part. How will Velocity maintain its link with the university?
A – Through Concept. I think the strongest pipeline for Velocity will remain the University of Waterloo, primarily through the knowledge exchange and the expertise exchange that exists between our coaches, the business advisors, my role and Jay’s role. We're always connected to each other. We don't foresee that changing. The pipeline will still be the strongest because Velocity is pouring in their knowledge and resources and expertise via our team on campus, so they're equipping the campus community to be really successful in that process.
Q – What do you think it says about the success of Velocity that this change became necessary?
A – I think it speaks volumes to its success. This is all a result of growth and the success of the companies that went through the Velocity program. It's not Velocity’s success per se, because it's about what the companies that went through the Velocity programs did. It’s their success that has translated into the success that the Velocity brand has seen. I think that proves that we're doing something right. The idea was a great idea. The bet that the university took at the beginning of Velocity, to start this community of entrepreneurs by offering them a place in residence, was a wonderful idea. And it turned into over 300 startups going through our program and almost $1 billion raised by these alumni.
All of these things show that it was a successful idea. And sometimes when things grow, you have to re-adjust your focus to make sure you continue to grow in a productive way.
Q – You will be directing Concept on campus. What does that look like? How do you make yourself known to the students and what’s the front door into Concept if you're a UW student who wants to know more about being an entrepreneur?
A – We have a phyisical location on campus. We're in the South Campus Hall, second floor, through a partnership that we have with food services. We share the space up there, and it’s the space we use for our events every Wednesday, and our team is located there. If students go there for lunch, it's a place where they hang out, so they can easily just pop in and ask questions. That's the physical approach.
We also work very closely with faculty. We have a partnership with the Faculty of Science and we have a partnership with residents. We deploy our programming to students in residence in collaboration with housing at UW. So we kind of try to be everywhere. And then there are regular activities and events that the students are familiar with.
Every Wednesday, we have what we call an intro session. I'm going to refresh it.
Q – What kind of a communication challenge do you now face in getting the word out?
A – Definitely University of Waterloo communications has been super helpful in that. They’ve been sharing it on their own networks and their campus bulletin board that they share news on. Also, different units on campus have their own newsletters and social media channels and things like that. We gave them very specific information that they can share. So, essentially, the students are hearing about it from more than one place. It's everywhere.
And, of course, we're having a big launch on Oct. 10 in the Student Life Centre from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. This is going to be our big launch; lots of swag will be given out. And then we'll have areas set up where the students can get a feel for all the different things we’re offering on campus. There will be coaches there who they could talk to one-on-one and ask questions. There will be pitching; karaoke pitching is a fun thing that students like. That'll be the big unveiling on campus, but right now we're working with primarily University Relations and their communication channels, and then all the different groups, like grad students, grad studies office, the deans, all that stuff.
Q – Anything else you'd like to add?
A – I'm really excited, and I really think that this is the right thing to do. I'm very passionate about students and the experience they get while in university, and I think this will absolutely add to their academic experience. Whether or not they start a company is really not my focus. I would be really happy if we could say, ‘You know what, uWaterloo students are more entrepreneurial, or have an entrepreneurial mindset, because they've been exposed to what we do on campus.”