Waterloo puts up IT whiz-kids in ‘dormcubator’

The University of Waterloo is giving over one of its residence halls to Velocity, a new incubator where students can collaborate on Web, mobile, and digital media applications with their fellow budding tech entrepreneurs and perhaps help breathe some life back into the incubator model.

Velocity will be housed in the 72-bed Minota Hagey dormitory on campus and will house 70 upper-level students per term who will work together on creating viable products and brushing up on their business skills, according to project leader, Sean Van Koughnett, who manages the university’s Media & Mobility Network Project.

While working on more long-term implementations like a campus-wide IP telephony system, Van Koughnett wanted a project that would further digital media on campus but with more immediate results. He figured that many students were already working on mobile and Web applications on their own time, so why not bring them together? Said Van Koughnett: “We don’t know if something will come out of one of these teams, but having a place where everyone can help work on it might help it to happen.”

The residence will undergo a $400,000 overhaul this summer to prep it for its first round of students this fall. The renovations will include Wi-Fi access, server space, increased bandwidth, and a 12-foot projection screen. Each of the three common areas will be transformed into a necessary space for the beginner businesspeople, including a mobile device lab and a corporate-style boardroom for product presentations.

This will come in handy during the symposiums planned for the students. Not content to just bring the students together and then leave them be, Van Koughnett has arranged for a boot camp at the beginning of term where the students can meet with corporate and consulting entities, checking out recruitment possibilities and getting real-world feedback on their ideas. An end-of-the-term symposium allows the residents to present their offerings. During the term, there will be additional one-day training sessions with role model types as well.

Said Vincent Guyaux, chairman of the Montreal-based start-up and business consultancy Embrase: “Bringing in these speakers is very important. (Learning about speaking about and selling your idea or product) is usually the most important part, but that’s usually where start-ups are the weakest.”

Info-Tech Research Group lead analyst Andy Woyzbun said that it will be imperative for industry partners to come and remain on board for the program to be really successful. “It really needs a level of involvement by industry that is serious, not just some executive from RIM to come in and talk once in a while. It will require significant time and money from companies.”

To get into the Velocity project, students need to answer several in-depth questions about their technical and entrepreneurial savvy, and undergo a lengthy interview. The program has already received around 75 applications, with 55 offers extended and 40 accepted so far. Van Koughnett anticipates that the program will be full for its very first term starting in September. (The university has received applications from as far away as Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Toronto, but the program is only open to University of Waterloo students.)

The house is open, technically, to all students, but it will most likely be filled mostly with upper-level undergrad and graduate students with the requisite skills and experience and drive. (There has even been some interest from high school students, according to Van Koughnett, who said that he would be open to such a young applicant if they showed the necessary moxie and technical experience.)

The house will also be co-ed; the program has received about 30 per cent female applicants, according to fourth-year software engineering student and co-founder of student entrepreneurship group Impact Gaurav Jain, who has been involved with getting the project off the ground. He sees it as a valuable way to collaborate on the most cutting-edge projects. “Classwork is all about the fundamentals, but the information is often four years old, so when it comes to your pet projects you can work on the newest stuff like AJAX and PHP,” said Jain. “And with pet projects, you usually don’t have any structure, mentoring, and no help, and they never turn into a start-up…but here you can do something different and actually start a company—do something innovative.”

It’s not just the techies who’ve been angling for a spot in Velocity: “Students from all sorts of backgrounds have been applying (in addition to computer science and engineering students), like from arts, environmental studies, mechanical engineering, sciences, and business,” Jain said. The participants have already begun to group into teams with similar interests or a project in mind. Singles with no built-in team can reach out to their fellow residents before the term starts via their Google Group, or an administrator will attempt to place them with a team with a similar bent and skill set.

Such an ambitious workload for a full-time senior student could be a real challenge, according to Woyzbun. “Young people in the tech field tend to have fairly heavy courseloads,” he said, suggesting that one of the best ways to get around burn-out would be for the university to give participating students a course credit.

Van Koughnett said that program administrators are actually using this reluctance to not take on another project as a criterion to “weed out” the less committed. However, he said, some applicants are working around the time management issues by being on a work-term during their stay at Minota Hagey to free up their nights, or using a senior-level project-based course to work on their Velocity project.

And, if they manage to come up with a viable idea that makes it to the venture capital stage, there could be some iffiness around the intellectual property issue, said Guyaux. “If there’s a lot of people sharing information (and then it turns into a sellable idea), then who owns that product?” Van Koughnett said that he will be soon consulting with intellectual property lawyers on this issue.

Overall, however, the start-up consulting biz sees the project as a positive move toward improved innovation in the nation. Said Raymond Luk, founder of the Montreal-based business start-up and business consultancy Flow Consulting: “Any initiative that promotes entrepreneurship in Canada is great, because it is sorely needed. When it’s Canada versus the United States in terms of economy, growth, and innovation, if there’s one area that Canada is lacking, it’s innovation…and it makes sense for the university to encourage its students to dip their toes into entrepreneurship.”

One stumbling-block that they might face, said Luk, is the project’s focus. “When it’s a physical space-based incubator, there can be a disconnect between the physical presence and what it actually requires to build a company. The challenge for incubators with a physical presence is against empire-building, where (the incubator administrators) just want to protect the infrastructure, which is different than the needs of the entrepreneur. They don’t need office space, Internet access, or Foosball tables—what you really need is people and money, which is what’s lacking in Canada. You need mentors and other successful entrepreneurs—that’s what will be worth everything.”

The recent spate of closed-down incubators might have something to do with the emphasis on a physical space, h

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