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Research commercialization, often referred to as technology transfer, was not so long ago viewed as a periphery service function within most universities. As the vast majority of technology transfer operations rarely generate more revenue than costs, they have often been subject to the whims of budget cuts and typically viewed with indifference as a component of institutional strategic planning. Fast forward to today where increasingly advanced economies are facing the reality that they must successfully compete in the knowledge economy where the emphasis on talent development and translating research investments into new and disruptive products and services is rapidly replacing the importance of low labour rates and preferential tax policies to drive sustainable job growth. Thus, increasingly universities are being challenged by their governments, citizens, and national private sector interests to develop effective commercialization and entrepreneurship skills development programs to adjust to the new economic realities. Not surprisingly, entrepreneurship and commercialization capacity development have steadily become core features of most university strategic plans these days.
The University of Waterloo, located in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, has over its 60 years of maturity invested in unique, and once considered unconventional, teaching, research, and industry engagement strategies and programs. Today the University of Waterloo is widely acknowledged as the most innovative university in Canada. This reputation is largely rooted in three mutually synergistic core operational activities that have contributed to a pervasive entrepreneurial campus culture. Firstly, the University has a creator-own IP policy, also referred to as “professor privilege” that serves to attract and incentivize entrepreneurial minded faculty and students. Secondly, the University operates the world’s largest cooperative education program, placing 20000 students annually across 6300 international employers. Students participate in experiential learning experiences across 4 employment placements which provides them a unique insight into industry problems, which if they can solve, represent a wealth of potential startup ideas and opportunities. Lastly the University has invested in a multi-layered commercialization support infrastructure that supports each of undergraduate, graduate, and faculty innovators.
In addition to providing traditional technology transfer commercialization support for faculty driven research discoveries via the Waterloo Commercialization Office (WatCo), the University also supports the world’s largest free student focussed business accelerator (Velocity) offering an integrated program of entrepreneurship training and professional business mentorship. Further, the University has developed and integrated entrepreneurship training in undergraduate through to graduate level curriculum. For instance the Masters in Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technology (MBET) graduate studies program brings teams together to develop business ideas that are supported by entrepreneurship courses, mentoring, and active participation in global business plan pitch competitions. Approximately 30% of MBET graduates start a business one month after graduation compared to 7% of MBA grads form the Top 7 elite US universities.1 This blend of mutually supporting entrepreneurship and commercialization infrastructure has supported the creation of more than 200 start-ups raising in excess of $600M in investment since 2008 and has positioned the University of Waterloo to rank 20th globally (#1 in Canada) for the number of VC-backed entrepreneurs.2
Complementary to the University’s commercialization infrastructure is the support offered by three independent accelerator centres located in the Waterloo Region that provide physical space and mentoring programs to assist start-ups to become investment ready and to scale their business models. According to the Compass group3, “Canada’s Waterloo Region solidly ranks among the top 25 start-up ecosystems in the world, boasting approximately 1,100 start ups for a population of about half a million people—the second highest start up density in the world after the global leader, Silicon Valley”. This infrastructure is responsible for the Region achieving a 5 year start up survival rate of 80% compared to the global average of 43%.
This concentration of Waterloo entrepreneurial activity contributes significantly to the Toronto-Waterloo innovation supercluster region (110km), which supports Canada’s highest combined equity valued technology companies4 and employs 205000 high tech workers, 2nd only to Silicon Valley in North America. The Toronto-Waterloo supercluster region has also recently been the beneficiary of significant government investments in AI and Advanced Manufacturing research. The new disruptive technologies arising from this research concentration will continue to fuel the expansion of Waterloo’s entrepreneurial and commercialization ecosystem to achieve higher levels of company formation and attracting and retaining high tech talent.
- Beyond Innovation 2016 -17 Facts and Figures. Downloadable from https://bit.ly/2HtgBaE
- Pitchbook Universities Report (2017). Downloadable from https://pitchbook.com/news/reports/2017-universities-report
- Waterloo Startup Ecosystem Report: The David vs. Goliath of Startup Ecosystems (2015). The Startup Ecosystem Report Series, Compass.co.
- Toronto-Waterloo Innovation Corridor white paper (2016). McKinsey and Company. Downloadable from https://bit.ly/2IFIVGc
This article originally appeared in the University Industry Innovation Magazine 2018 Issue 1. Please find the issue freely available in full here: https://www.uiin.org/index/magazine
Scott Inwood is the Director of Commercialization at the University of Waterloo. Scott He has been responsible for significantly growing the University of Waterloo’s technology transfer capacity and building commercialization partnerships.
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