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The birth of Velocity; learning to crawl, walk, and run

To tell the story of Velocity is to tell the story of a startup. Ten years ago, Velocity began as a simple experiment to bring people interested in entrepreneurship together, and since that time, it has helped shape the creation of hundreds of startups that would in turn play a major impact on the landscape of Waterloo Region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem and beyond. We sat down with two people who were instrumental in bringing Velocity to life, Sean Van Koughnett and Bud Walker, to learn more about Velocity’s journey and how everything fit into place.

Velocity was initially founded as a student dorm in the fall of 2008, but to tell the story of the Velocity Residence, we need to start with a little known initiative, the Media and Mobility Network Project, which would ultimately play a major role in developing important aspects of the university that we know today.

The Velocity Residence was the result of a confluence of factors in the fall of 2006. At the time, no central unit within the university was supporting evolving trends in social and digital media, which was a problem. Social networking and new digital technologies were starting to take off, and nobody knew how to respond to, or capitalize on these trends in supporting students. And with limited central oversight of student technology across the university, the existing cellphone network was problematic, with dead spots all across campus. Something had to be done.

Bud Walker, then the Director of University Business Operations (and later the Associate Provost of Students), tasked Sean Van Koughnett, then Waterloo’s Director of Graphics (and current Dean of Students at McMaster University), with heading up the Media Mobility Network Project (MMNP), a study to look into what the university should be doing to support students in an evolving computing environment.

The findings of the project produced insights that would lead to five major outcomes at the university. First, to address the cell phone infrastructure, IST saw that they were best positioned to take over cell phone support on campus. Their ensuing efforts would led the creation of a cell tower by St. Jerome’s, which eliminated network dead spots on campus, and provide greater access to emerging smartphone technology. Ken Coates, then the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, was on the committee to review the findings of the MMNP study, and observed that digital media was an up-and-coming area of interest for students. This would contribute to the creation of the Stratford Digital Media campus, which was originally slated to be a liberal arts campus in Stratford. The study led to the establishment of the university student portal, which would become a key element in serving student needs, as well as the implementation of wireless internet in all of Waterloo’s student residences. Finally, the study’s findings provided key insights that led to the idea for the Velocity Residence.

“[Sean’s] leadership of [the MMNP], exposed him to all the itches that needed scratching, with regard to student innovation and student entrepreneurship. Because the whole idea of it was, how come we’re not supporting students in how they’re using computers for their own personal development?” – Bud Walker, former Associate Provost of Students, University of Waterloo

In parallel to the MMNP study, the University of Waterloo department of Housing was exploring how to use themed student housing as learning communities so that students with shared interests could live together. As Bud explains, students often learn more from their peers than their professors as a result of the time they spend together outside of the classroom, and so, an opportunity presented itself.

“Sean came to me and said, ‘in researching all these student needs, there’s this untapped, unsupported groundswell of students that are developing things on computing equipment and cellphones, and we don’t really have a mechanism to support it. So why don’t we establish one of our learning communities for entrepreneurship?’” – Bud Walker

From Sean’s perspective as a prior student at Waterloo for two degrees, and having worked at the university for six years prior to his work on Velocity, its students have always had an entrepreneurial mindset. Guided by the findings from the MMNP study, he was looking at how best to bring the community together to collaborate. As Sean notes, it was a matter of “how do we take an existing strength – our entrepreneurial culture – that is fragmented across campus, and bring it together so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts? The concept of the [Velocity Residence] was the beginning of bringing the whole community together.”

It’s important to note that the Velocity Residence, a dorm for students interested in entrepreneurship, was not the first concept of its kind, but it was the right idea, at the right time, in the right environment. Bud recounts how, in the late ’90s, a real estate developer in Waterloo created an entrepreneurship residence near the university. “It was a good idea, it just didn’t have all the other elements. It wasn’t the right time, it didn’t have the right person to make it fly. It didn’t have the right cohort of players who were prepared to support it. So it died.” This time, it would be different.

“There was this latent demand. Everybody was at the starting line and nobody with a firing pistol to pull the trigger. It all kind of lined up.” – Bud Walker

In the summer of 2007, when Sean approached Bud with the idea of the Velocity Residence, Sean posed a question, “what would happen if you put a bunch of great startup minds together in one dorm?” Community would be a central factor in driving entrepreneurship forward at the University of Waterloo. Over the following years, the programming of the Velocity Residence would evolve to offer workshops and bi-weekly dinners with local startup founders, but the concept of working together on projects throughout the term has always been at its core. As Sean notes, “If you look at the history of innovation, it’s people working together, sharing ideas, learning together, identifying problems. Coming up with ideas is a very social act, and there’s no more socially intense environment than a residence.”

With the idea for the residence, Sean sought input from the Deans across campus, but there was still a question of where to build the Velocity Residence. “Bud was the one who suggested the Minota Hagey residence. He said let’s take that one, it’s the smallest residence, it will be the most intimate community,” Sean recounts. And with Minota Hagey needing renovations at that time anyway, a plan emerged for the Velocity Residence, but not without the help of a few other unsung heroes.

“There’s two people that don’t get much credit for getting entrepreneurship going [at the University of Waterloo], and had they not done what they did, we wouldn’t have got things going. One of those people was [Chris Read], because he could have said that entrepreneurship was not Housing’s core business. But he was strongly supportive. The other person was Geoff McBoyle, who, as Provost, was a key advocate for change.” – Bud Walker

Chris Read, the Director of Housing at the time, and now the Associate Provost of Students, provided support and key funds from the Housing budget in order to transform Minota Hagey into the Velocity Residence, as a way of helping students at the university find a way forward with entrepreneurship and digital media. Similarly, Sean credits Chris, Bud, and successive directors Jesse Rodgers, Mike Kirkup, and Jay Shah for playing crucial roles in Velocity’s development.

“Bud was essential, in that you need to have a champion at a senior leadership level to allow this to happen. Without Bud’s leadership, Velocity wouldn’t have happened.” – Sean Van Koughnett, Founding Director of Velocity

With support for the idea, the fall of 2007 become a blitz of trying to get everything in place for the program in order to recruit students for the following fall. From developing a plan for the residence’s programming, to branding, to renovations in the Minota Hagey residence, to student outreach across campus, and working to develop corporate partnerships, the following year went by in a blur.

Sean ruefully remembers how construction was still ongoing in the residence up until 24 hours before it opened, as part of the process to take an old residence and modernize it, adding a board room and reworking the great hall for community activities. And so, Velocity was born. “I remember the initial event that we had in the fall of ’08, the kickoff event. Eric Migicovsky, who ended up founding Pebble, he was one of the first guys who ended up putting up his hand when I said ‘who has an idea that they want to talk about?’ I remember him saying ‘I have this idea for a watch, it’s going to be connected to your Blackberry.’”

Sean admits that, as with the evolution of many startups, he could never have mapped out what Velocity has become today. As he notes, “Most startups, even the really successful ones, they don’t necessarily start out with the full picture of what will happen. They start out with an idea and then they adapt to what the needs are. That’s pretty much what happened with Velocity.”

The year after the Velocity Residence began, there became a need to fill the next gap in the progression of startups like Pebble and Kik, which were emerging from the residence. Bud explains how “We got Velocity going and then after the first term, [Sean] came to me and said ‘now we have a problem because these guys have been there for 4 months, and now they’ve got to move on, where are we going to put them. We got them up and running, but there’s a cliff here they’re going to run off.’”

Bud took the problem to his boss, Geoff McBoyle, who was the Provost, receiving approval to explore renting workspace in downtown Kitchener to support startups. Which is how Sean, Bud, and Jesse Rodgers, Velocity’s next Director, ended up at Communitech, renting 1,500 square feet in the first iteration of the Velocity Garage startup incubator, which was later expanded to 7,000 square feet of space, before major renovations would bring it to its current 37,000 square footprint. As the Velocity Garage grew under the leadership of subsequent Directors Mike Kirkup (2012 – 2016) and Jay Shah (2016 – present), it has put in place a dedicated business advisor team to work with teams, developed a network of alumni, investors, and partners, and transformed into a community of high-performance startups and founders.

Both Bud and Sean also credit Communitech for playing a role in Velocity’s success, with Sean noting “Communitech and Iain Klugman have been supportive from day one… Communitech was the key partner for Velocity externally.” Bud echoed that sentiment, saying “When you have a success, like entrepreneurship has been, then there’s a big parade. And really, Communitech orchestrated the parade… We’re creating value, because of the students, and Communitech is leveraging that… They’ve been a good complement to what the university has created.”

At the end of the day, all of this begs the question, why is it important for the University of Waterloo to foster entrepreneurship? The obvious answer is that it touches so many realms of our world, from job creation to new innovations that solve important problems facing consumers, businesses, and people’s lives. But sometimes lost is the reality that not all students will become entrepreneurs, and that’s perfectly fine.

“From an educational perspective, a lot of the students who go through an entrepreneurial process, they’re not necessarily going to be successful founders, but by going through that process […] there’s nothing quite like it when you try a startup or are working within a startup, to engender that entrepreneurial mindset. That’s the type of thing, that will benefit you no matter what type of career you have.” – Sean Van Koughnett

While entrepreneurship is important, it is particularly important to students at the University of Waterloo. As Sean notes, “Co-op is the single driving force behind the entrepreneurial culture at Waterloo. When students are out every 4 months on a work term, they are able to see real world problems that need to be solved and that’s the fuel for the ideas that end up being startups. Then when you have successful startups, and when you have students and relatively young alumni being successful, that role modelling effect in turn strengthens the entrepreneurial culture and creates a virtuous cycle.”

Bud echoed the importance of entrepreneurship, specifically for Waterloo students. “The fact that we attracted young, ambitious, career oriented, smart youth, who were willing to sink or swim… it started to be that Waterloo students got a really good reputation, and that started to attract more and more of the same type. Eventually, what happened, is that Waterloo, because of co-op, attracts that type of student… that’s why entrepreneurship is a big deal at the University of Waterloo.”

This is the story of how the Velocity Residence and Garage began, but a lot has happened in 10 years, and in the successive years, Velocity would go on to launch the Velocity Fund, a pitch competition that awards nearly $400,000 in funding annually; Velocity Start, a physical workspace that offers weekly workshops and 1-on-1 startup coaching to help students learn about entrepreneurship; and Velocity Science, a discovery space for students who want to initiate a science startup.

We’ll turn to those stories next as we explore Velocity’s 10 years of memories, and on Friday, September 28, we look forward to celebrating in person. Details will soon be available on our events calendar. In the meantime, you can explore Velocity’s history through our 10 year timeline.

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