AC’s Paul Salvini says “Lights, camera, action” to new perspectives – and new techJackie Gill - March 4, 2020
In the centre of the Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park, the water’s an intense cobalt blue. At the edges, it fades to a greenish turquoise, then pops into a ring of sunflower yellow. Finally, at the rim, it turns a burnt reddish-orange.
The world’s third-largest hot spring comes by its name honestly – it’s pretty much a rainbow in a lake. And it’s the star in one of Paul Salvini’s favourite photos.
“We had to lean out of the plane as we turned around to take these pictures,” he says. The result of that aerial photoshoot hangs in his office at the Accelerator Centre, where he’s been CEO for over five years.
That picture may be close to his heart, but it’s not the first aerial photo he’s taken. Armed with his own pilot’s licence, Salvini flies around North America regularly. He brings his Canon 5D Mark IV SLR camera, too.
“It’s pretty neat to be able to see things in rather unsuspecting ways. We’ll explore things that otherwise might look mundane and boring from one perspective, but all of a sudden are really interesting from above,” he says. “Even if it’s a giant wheat field or a cornfield, to see the wind and how it blows through, there are some pretty amazing things you can see from the air.”
For Salvini, new perspectives are about more than getting in a plane, though. It’s something that’s served him well whether he’s behind the camera, being a father, serving on community boards, patrolling the ski slopes… or helping startups going through the AC’s program find success.
Where math meets art
Though photography is a hobby for Salvini, that wasn’t always the intention.
“I was always a very visual person and loved the visual arts,” he says. Even when he was young, he knew he wanted to work in a creative place. And after landing newspaper jobs in high school working for the Uxbridge Times-Journal and the Stouffville Sun, “I started my career and had full intention to be a photographer.”
Then came a shift in perspective, care of a Grade 11 computer science class. “I can still remember one of the first assignments we did. We drew a house and used math to rotate the house,” Salvini says. “That was the first time I saw a connection between math and computer science, and math and something visual.”
“It’s pretty neat to be able to see things in rather unsuspecting ways.”
– Paul Salvini, CEO of the Accelerator Centre
His teacher, Richard Watson, inspired him to continue with the subject. So when it came time to pick a university, Salvini followed in his footsteps and enrolled at the University of Waterloo for math and computer science. “I figured, if it was good enough for him, it would be good enough for me,” he remembers.
That education laid the groundwork for two more achievements: a masters in engineering for computer simulation – another visual take on math and computer science – and a job at a Toronto-based company on the frontier of 3D graphics in film and gaming, SideFX Software, “Which, again, was a beautiful mix of the creative and the technical,” he says.
Salvini started at SideFX in 1996. Back then, Independence Day, Twister and Mission Impossible topped the box office charts with eye-popping computer-generated graphics. Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated feature film, was just a year old.
There, he worked with the team on software that would one day be used for modeling, animation, lighting, rendering and more in Frozen and Zootopia.
“It was amazing to work in a time when research was just going on to make those things even possible in the first place.”
– Paul Salvini
“There’s a great example of technology transforming an industry,” he says. It pushed them to think about what would come next. Could they make a fully realistic computer-generated film or game? Would it be possible to create a photorealistic human? Will there be a day when we could replace humans with digital graphics? “It was an exciting time because it was about the art of the possible.”
And that’s what made it so rewarding, especially with the perspective he has today. “Now we think nothing of watching a movie where people age forwards or backwards in time and incredible things happen, because everything is now possible today. But it was amazing to work in a time when research was just going on to make those things even possible in the first place, and then over time to make them practical.”
Where business meets community
At the same time, SideFX was a rapidly growing business. As much as Salvini loved the visual and the technical, the team had to focus on the commercial as well – another new perspective. “While I was going through that process, I realized that it would be helpful for other people who were coming from a technology background to have some help with the business side,” he says.
After starting his MBA at the Rotman School of Management, the University of Toronto approached Salvini to help launch a program for applied computer science masters students about entrepreneurship and how to start companies out of the technology they were creating.
“I think that’s probably where it started, this idea of working with and helping other people who were entrepreneurially minded,” he says.
But to complete this story, Salvini needed to return to Waterloo. That happened after he served on a panel creating the Canadian Digital Media Network, where he met Christie Digital Systems President and CEO Gerry Remers.
“I was really amazed by his story and how he was helping local startups in the Waterloo Region,” he says. “Even though I had come to school here in the 1980s and early 90s as an undergraduate, he really introduced me to the support that was going on within this community for entrepreneurs and people with technology ideas.”
“I realized that it would be helpful for other people who were coming from a technology background to have some help with the business side.”
– Paul Salvini
Salvini was 15 years into his career at SideFX when he accepted the role of CTO at Christie. He moved to Waterloo with his wife and two kids and discovered a very different place than he remembered.
“My perspective is very different. I don’t know that the region has changed as much as I’ve changed. And what I see is a very connected, caring community of individuals who want to do the right things,” he adds.
So when he was given the chance to support that entrepreneurial community in a dual role as the CEO of the Accelerator Centre and VP of Research Commercialization at the University of Waterloo, he just couldn’t say no.
“What I see is a very connected, caring community of individuals who want to do the right things.”
– Paul Salvini
“It was only natural when the opportunity at the AC opened up that I would be able to have this role where we could help, again, people who were coming from a technology background build really strong, amazing technology businesses, much like what we had in Toronto with SideFX,” he says.
Where technology meets the future
There’s no doubt about it – it was pretty cool working in 3D graphics in that sweet spot when the technology was at the right place to make new things possible.
Here’s the best part: Salvini still gets to experience that thrill.
“I feel equally blessed today, working with AI companies or nanotechnology companies or quantum companies [at the AC], because these are the early days of those technologies, just like those were the early days of computer graphics,” he says.
The Accelerator Centre has been helping early-stage companies find success – whatever success looks like for them – since its first cohort in 2006. Built on a four-phase curriculum delivered by a team of specialized mentors over two or three years, it teaches founders and their teams every aspect of running a business beyond the technology itself.
And he’s still finding new, unsuspecting ways to look at things, he says. “One of the most amazing things is the diversity of the founders that come to the AC, not only in terms of their backgrounds of technology but also their outlooks, what they’re trying to achieve and the areas of industry that they’re trying to impact or serve.”
Though these days he spends more time in front of businesses than he does behind his camera, he’s still looking for that next aerial shot of the Grand Prismatic Spring – that next big achievement – through the community he serves.
“It’s just interesting to see how things are going to evolve, to look at these underlying technologies and try to imagine, what’s our role going to look like? How are people going to live and behave differently? What parts of society will be advanced by this and what parts of society might be put at risk by some of the technologies that have been built?” he says.
“It’s really neat to be there while it’s happening, and to see that transformation, and to be able to see the world before, and the world after.”