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Education Tech investor donating $8-million to York University’s engineering school

Doug Bergeron

Nadine Priestley

Students at York University's Lassonde School of Engineering will be going to school next fall in a building that will be named after one of the school's computer science alumni.

Doug Bergeron and his wife Sandra are donating $8-million to the new building now going up on campus, the university is announcing today. Mr. Bergeron graduated with a computer science degree from York three decades ago and has since become one of the most successful tech investors in the U.S. Until last year, he was CEO of electronics payments company VeriFone for 12 years.

Students at the engineering school will follow a 'flipped classroom' curriculum where they will watch most lectures online and use the classroom for team projects and workshops. That's a model that Mr. Bergeron believes will help train future engineers to bring their ideas to market faster than he was able to after graduating.

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"When I went to York, most universities in Canada were just starting off having computer science programs. In many universities, computer science was coursework in the math department. I found out through trial and error in my career that I did not have the particular background in being able to develop business plans, filing patents and speaking to venture capitalists," he said.

Mr. Bergeron joins other North American donors from the tech industry who remember their alma mater once they strike it big. Stanford University, Cornell and MIT for example, have received hundreds of millions from alumni who went on to successful careers in tech, engineering and science.

The couple – Ms. Bergeron is a tech executive – previously donated $2-million toward an entrepreneurship program at Lassonde, as well as funding programs for women in engineering at U.S. institutions.

"In the start-up world, you start to appreciate what you didn't at university: That time is finite," Mr. Bergeron said. Students need to learn "how to create a working prototype on a very fixed budget, on a very fixed amount of time, that works and that is compelling enough to drive an investor to believe in it."

The Lassonde school is named after Pierre Lassonde, the chairman of mining company Franco-Nevada, who donated $25-million toward the project in 2011, adding to the $50-million from the Ontario government. It will see the engineering department gain a five-story building which resembles a helix and encourages students to think about the social applications of their work.

Fund-raising campaigns at Canadian universities have become ever more ambitious in recent years. The University of Toronto is three quarters of the way toward a $2-billion target, UBC is within reach of its $1.5-billion goal and McGill hit the $1-billion mark last year.

Janusz Kozinski, the dean of the Lassonde school says the donation from the Bergerons turns the building project into a home. "A house is not a home until you have food and a fire, and now we have that."

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