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 – Focus and growth. Velocity has grown beyond its original mandate, which really was an experiment, as we were mentioning in the introduction blog today. It’s grown beyond helping student entrepreneurs with business ideas or entrepreneurial aspirations. It has evolved from a student residence to a plethora of programs, both on and off campus. And the incubator program, widely known as Velocity Garage, has grown so much that it sometimes casts a big shadow over student entrepreneurship.
After talking to students on campus, we learned that they often feel intimidated by the [Velocity] brand. So we had an issue there, because we started off as a student entrepreneurship program at UWaterloo, 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 often times students 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 early on, we want students to develop that entrepreneurial mindset, whether they end up starting a company or not later on. Just developing an entrepreneurial mindset is a huge skill.
If they are playing around with a concept or an idea, we want them to come to us; we want to be able to coach them through the initial business process. We don’t want them to feel like “Oh, no, I can only go [to Velocity] with a fully baked idea.” And then conversely, the founders in the Velocity Garage are often referred to as students, when really the one of the basic requirements to become a part of the incubator is to be dedicated to your startup full time (ie. not be a full-time student). You can see there is a bit of a brand confusion here.
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 around that. We looked at what we really do and we have two different audiences: one is students and the campus community, and then the other is startup founders and startups.
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 Velocity’s pre-incubator program, so if you’re interested in entrepreneurship, and you want to be exposed to business thinking, entrepreneurial ideas and the mindset while at UWaterloo, 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. Concept’s offering on campus is essentially a pipeline for Velocity, where students could start off at the top of the funnel, with just a general curiosity about startups and maybe a broad idea they are fiddling with, and we coach them on the commercial aspect. The goal is to get students to be well-positioned to apply to Velocity or any other incubator or accelerator program in the world.
We’ve developed a network of coaches who are entrepreneurs from the Velocity community. They are either previous or current founders who are putting in a few hours a week on campus to essentially coach students and advise them on business. Coaches work closely with the 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, it is our goal to become more approachable/less intimidating to students. We want to make it clear that, as a student, if you are entrepreneurially curious or have a very early-stage idea, you can go to Concept. No matter how early you are [with an idea], Concept is a place for you to go to meet other like-minded students, to get advice from the coaches that we have in our network and learn from their experience. We have a network of about 12 coaches which we are launching on campus starting this September.
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 unclear on whether or not you have to be a UWaterloo alumni to be in Velocity, and that’s because of the strong association with all of our campus activities. So now, Velocity can identify itself as an incubator, and can more easily communicate that message externally – that you can apply to this incubator no matter what your university affiliations are.
And at the same time, Velocity can better focus their resources on the current startups that are in the space. So, Velocity will be able to more clearly communicate to the world that they’re open to startups from anywhere in Canada, and at the same time, focus the team’s resources and time on the startup and founders currently in the Velocity space, so we can develop better programming, better business advising, expand our investor network and so on.
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 – Concept is Velocity’s campus brand. The strongest pipeline for Velocity will no doubt continue to be 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 and we don’t foresee that changing. The UWaterloo pipeline will always be the strongest because Velocity is pouring in their knowledge, resources and expertise on campus via Concept, so they’re equipping the campus community to be really successful in the process of applying to the incubator.
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 initial idea was a great idea. The bet the university took 10 years ago, to start this community of entrepreneurs by offering them a place in residence, was brilliant. As it turns out, today, over 300 startups have gone through Velocity and almost $1 billion has been raised by Velocity alumni.
This all speaks to the success of the initial 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 physical location on campus. We’re in the South Campus Hall, second floor, through a partnership with Food Services. We share the space up there, and it’s the space we use for our events every Wednesday for example, and our team is located there, as well. So students go there for lunch, it’s a place where they hang out, so they can easily just pop in and ask questions.
We also work very closely with the faculties. We have a long standing partnership with the Faculty of Science and we have a partnership with UW Housing as well. So by working with campus partners, we try to meet students where they are.
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 revealing the news. They’ve been sharing it on their own networks and their campus bulletin board. Also, different units on campus have their own newsletters and social media channels, which they have shared our news on. We tried our best to provide them with specific information that they can easily share. What matters is that the students are hearing about it, maybe even from more than one place.
And, of course, we’re having a big launch event on Oct. 10 in the Student Life Centre from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. We’ll be giving out lots of swag, we’ll have interactive booths set up where students can get a feel for all the different programming we’re offering on campus. There will be a coaches’ booth, a pitch karaoke booth, a few surprise snack booths and of course a couple of large prizes for the students who are most involved.
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 at this point in time. I’m very passionate about students and the experience they get while in university, and I think Concept will absolutely add to their academic experience. Whether or not they start a company is not the sole focus. I would be really happy if we could say, ‘You know what, uWaterloo students are more entrepreneurial, or have a more entrepreneurial mindset, because they’ve been exposed to what we do on campus.”
Communitech is a partner of Startup HERE Toronto. This article originally appeared on their site.