There’s a building on Regina Street in uptown Waterloo called “The Button Factory” that currently contains an Arts Centre. On the surface, simple clothes fasteners are an odd thing to memorialize in a cultural facility. But 120 years ago, that building was at the heart of a burgeoning industry: Waterloo led the world in button manufacturing.
The bottom eventually fell out of buttons thanks to cheaper imports from abroad and the rise of new competing technology in the form of zippers – and yet Waterloo region continued to thrive.
The echoes of Waterloo’s experience with the button business feel familiar to us today as our community watches BlackBerry press forward into difficult headwinds.
So, the story of Waterloo’s rise as an international hub for innovation neither begins nor ends with BlackBerry’s successes and challenges – not by a long shot.
The communities of what used to be called Waterloo County have a long-standing knack for entrepreneurial success and innovation.
Kitchener’s Lang Tannery was the British Empire’s largest producer of leather products in the late 1800s. It’s now the home to multiple tech startups. The Seagram Distillery, once a global drinks brand is now the site of high-rise lofts in Waterloo’s chic uptown. In the era since the Second World War, Waterloo region was Canada’s dominant rubber and tire manufacturing centre.
Local businesses in our region have sprung from a curiously entrepreneurial culture that has given rise to dominant global players in these as well as other seemingly mutually-exclusive sectors.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously observed that culture is what ultimately determines the success of society. The same is true for regional economies. It does so precisely because culture runs deeper and broader than particular industries, companies and even generations.
In fact, this century-long history of industrial and entrepreneurial innovation is what led to the founding of the University of Waterloo – now the driving force that propels growth and innovation in Waterloo region.
Identifying the need to build a pipeline of engineering and scientific talent to fuel a booming regional and national postwar economy, local business leaders and entrepreneurs came together in 1957 to establish a unique university rooted in experienced-based learning and attuned to the needs of industry.
By embracing innovative learning methods and industry connection, our founders went directly against the grain of traditional higher education, preceding what is now an emerging consensus on university-industry partnership by nearly 60 years.
It was nothing less than iconoclastic, and it laid the groundwork for a thoroughly entrepreneurial university environment. Underpinning this new model for university education is the University of Waterloo’s “creator owns” intellectual property policy – whereby researchers who create IP reap its full benefit – as a magnet for entrepreneurial researchers and graduate students, pushing private sector innovation out from the university and into the surrounding community.
We know that in the long run, it is better for the university to defer an immediate payoff from our researchers’ work. We want to maximize the incentive so that the best and most enterprising researchers come to this region, drive our competitiveness, create breakthrough innovations and contribute to the deepening of our ecosystem.
Programs like our VeloCity student startup incubator – easily the most successful of its kind in Canada – give our students exciting opportunities to experience entrepreneurship in a supportive and collaborative environment.
By providing access to capital, space for interdisciplinary collaboration, business mentorship, and flexible “entrepreneurship co-op” terms to students, we provide them with the enabling factors they need to churn out new business success stories, and those successes keep coming.
VeloCity alum Bufferbox was recently acquired by Google. Our student start-up Pebble is on the leading edge of smartwatch design and manufacturing, and VeloCity’s Thalmic Labs has made an armband that interprets muscle movement to help the user control electronic devices.
Startups now offer career options for students and graduates in a way they never have done before. Both in Waterloo and elsewhere, it’s working: BMO recently found that 46 per cent of students plan to start a business after graduation.
It is not ironic, but rather representative of the region’s ongoing leadership in innovation that BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis has invested heavily in the University of Waterloo to establish the Institute for Quantum Computing, now the world’s largest concentration of quantum information science.
BlackBerry has been a massive benefit to our community, but its competitiveness is not a litmus test for the vibrancy and viability of the community that enabled it.
The innovation eco-system in the Waterloo region continues to thrive and evolve because our community has established the right mix of pro-entrepreneurship policies and priorities.
Our future prosperity is grounded in this region’s rich entrepreneurial culture, one that’s not button-holed by any single success.
Dr. Feridun Hamdullahpur is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo.
This is the first part in a series. Tomorrow: What Silicon Valley entrepreneurs think about the future of education.