Waterloo Engineering Student Venture Program features ties to Silicon Valley

The following is a guest post prepared by Dean Pearl Sullivan, Waterloo Engineering.

For most of its 59 years of existence, Waterloo Engineering was rightfully known for its co-operative education model that sees engineering students gain up to two years of real world, paid experience during their studies and its intellectual property policy that gives the inventor ownership of his or her idea. But over the last decade or so, these two “differentiators” have created a positive feedback loop that has given rise to a third unique aspect of Waterloo Engineering: a pronounced entrepreneurial culture.

As more entrepreneurs emerge from Waterloo Engineering – at last count 650+ companies have been founded by our students, researchers and alumni – more students with entrepreneurial aspirations make Waterloo their first choice for education.  To support these budding entrepreneurs, the University has mindfully created a culture that gives students, researchers and recent alumni access to entrepreneurial education, funding and physical space for startup support that helps to mitigate some of the risks these teams encounter in a global market. It’s working because within the last decade, Waterloo has become a global hotspot for entrepreneurial engineering talent.

Student Venture Program

One such program to advance the early success of entrepreneurial teams is our recently launched partnership with Spectrum 28, a venture capital firm based in Silicon Valley. The collaboration sees Spectrum 28 partners, working with Engineering faculty, to identify, mentor and provide $2 million in early stage funding for select engineering student ventures.

Lyon Wong is the catalyst behind the Waterloo Engineering | Spectrum 28 Student Venture Fund program. The co-founder and general partner of Spectrum 28, a Silicon Valley VC firm with a $160 million fund, Lyon believes in investing in teams who “can make history, not just money.” He, along with Waterloo Engineering Faculty, are providing mentorship to select entrepreneurial student team, along with early stage funding.

This collaboration is strategic and personal; the founder of Spectrum 28 is one of us: Lyon Wong is a Waterloo Systems Design Engineering ’03 alumni. Lyon understands our irreproducible Waterloo culture because he lived it and has seen how it has led to uniquely educated engineers, or as he says, “People [here] are bold. Nothing is too big, too complicated, or too far-fetched for Waterloo.  Impossible is a word you’ll never hear. Instead, they’ll say, ‘we’re working on it,’ so there’s the mindset to take risk and that’s great for Canada.”


The partnership between Waterloo Engineering Faculty and Spectrum 28 addresses a real problem in Canada; a funding gap in seed and Series A levels. Despite the abundance of engineering talent and willingness to take entrepreneurial risks, Canadian investors are not funding early stage teams at equivalent levels that happen in the US.  The Waterloo Engineering-Spectrum 28 Student Venture Fund was set up to help address this shortfall.

Mentorship Essential Component

Waterloo Engineering Faculty members, Wayne Chang (Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Centre) and Professor Carolyn MacGregor, Systems Design Engineering, offer expert insight and mentorship. They are key members of the judging panel who chose the student/teams that qualify for the extended mentorship and possible equity funding from the $2 million Waterloo Engineering Spectrum 28 Student Venture Program.

Of course, there is a unique Waterloo Engineering twist. Part of our educational approach is to continually enhance student experience, so this program also provides optional foundational classes in entrepreneurship, and, crucially, hands-on mentorship from Lyon, along with other successful entrepreneurs and our own Faculty experts.  For many of these students who will go on to be serial entrepreneurs, it will be the mentorship lessons and the relationships they form now in this program that will lead to long-term success, and perhaps Canada’s next unicorn.

Just three months into this student venture program, it’s already a success with several teams making it to the next stage of extended mentorship. We have a second intake of students this fall. Funding decisions will be made over the next year at the discretion of the Waterloo Engineering-Spectrum 28 panel of experts, and most of these student teams will enter incubators as they grow their companies.

In the first foundational entrepreneurship class on “Problem Identification”, Lyon and team assemble guest speakers to share what types of problems that venture capital firms are keen to fund. “Solving the big problems” is where Waterloo Engineering – Spectrum 28’s interests are focused.

In the second of two optional pop up classes on entrepreneurship, a select group of students spend four hours in an intense group setting where “founder traits” are examined and personal reflection on goals, passions and desires are examined. Students and mentors engage deeply in discussions about the realities of being a founder.

During Fast Feedback Day, students have 60 seconds to share their entrepreneurial idea in front of the judges. Here, decisions are made for extended mentorship with funding possibilities. It’s not a “pitch” for funds at this stage – it’s a feedback session. Funding decisions will be made on Demo Day in April 2017, which marks the end of the first year of the three-year program.

Yet, we always have an ace or two up our sleeves as the next phase of this student venture program is tapping into our vibrant alumni community – to add to the funding and share their insight as mentors. With more than 30,000 people working in Waterloo Region’s tech sector producing goods and services valued at more than $30 billion a year, and  more than 1,100 startups – many of them founded by Waterloo engineers, we are uniquely positioned as our nation’s engineering talent pipeline for both entrepreneurial ventures and industry.


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