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Young startup CEO gives $1-million to his university

In less than a year-and-a-half, Ted Livingston has founded a successful software company, drawn three million users to his smartphone application and faced a lawsuit from one of Canada's pre-eminent high-tech firms. And on Tuesday, the entrepreneur gave some of his recently earned money back to the community, in the form of a $1-million donation to the University of Waterloo.

Not too shabby for a 23-year-old university dropout who, just a few years ago, was living in a tiny dorm room and studying as an undergrad at the university that now counts him among its benefactors.

Mr. Livingston is the CEO of Kik Interactive, a 12-person firm headquartered in a non-descript low-rise in a Waterloo industrial park. The company shot to prominence last fall when its application, or app, garnered a million users within two weeks of its launch. In perhaps a sign of his confidence of future success, the $1-million he just gave away is said to represent a large chunk of his net worth.

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The app, called Kik Messenger, allows users to send instant messages to each other from their smartphones in real time. Unlike the similar BlackBerry Messenger software, Kik is designed to work on different smartphones - including iPhones, Google's Android platform and, of course, BlackBerrys.

Such "chat" systems are popular with younger users because they are faster and often less expensive than conventional text messaging.

Mr. Livingston's dizzying rise began with a stint in VeloCity, a University of Waterloo program that offers help to students trying to start businesses, in the winter of 2009. His company, then called Unsynced, started with a bid to create an app for storing and playing music on smartphones before switching to creating the messenger software.

In 2009, he dropped out of his mechatronics engineering program to devote himself to the company, which he kept afloat with $25,000 from his grandfather.

He ran into some rough water shortly after his app launched, however, when BlackBerry banned it and sued the company, claiming the app infringed on Research in Motion's patents for its messaging software. It said Mr. Livingston had worked for the company on three occasions. He rejected the lawsuit's assertions and is fighting it.

The entrepreneur's donation to the university will be used to provide similar sums of money to at least 30 other VeloCity companies, along with four months of office space, help incorporating and mentoring, as well as smaller, $500 purses, for 75 startups.

Mr. Livingston's public relations representative said he was out of the country and could not be reached this week, but the entrepreneur released a brief statement.

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"With few responsibilities and surrounded by other talented minds, UW students are uniquely positioned to start world-changing companies," it said. "Unfortunately, few investors are willing to bet on young entrepreneurs, especially in Canada, so getting the startup funds they need is a huge challenge. This fund is a step towards changing that."

The university will match the donation by putting $1-million of its own into VeloCity.

Mr. Livingston funded his donation by selling some of his shares in Kik to three venture capital investors.

His donation is the largest since the program was started in the fall of 2008.

"I thought that it might take five or seven years before we had someone who had gone through the program and wanted to give back," said its director, Sean Van Koughnett, who remembers Mr. Livingston's stint there in the winter of 2009. "He's got a good personality, he's a great communicator and he's a really smart guy. He definitely stood out."

And despite Mr. Livingston's sudden rise to prominence, Mr. Van Koughnett said, he doesn't appear to have changed much since his student days. He said the donation probably represents a large chunk of his net worth.

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"I don't think he's living too much differently than when he was a student," he said. "I saw him last fall and he was still driving an old car."

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