Big tech, small city – how Waterloo’s Accelerator Centre launches world-famous startupsJackie Gill - February 26, 2020
Search for Waterloo, Ont. on a map and it doesn’t look like much.
About an hour southwest of Toronto, it’s a not-quite-rectangular 64 km2 patch of land inhabited by 104,986 Waterluvians. You might know it as the home of Oktoberfest, the world’s second-largest Bavarian festival outside of Germany, or Canada’s largest farmer’s market.
But nestled amid the Mennonite communities dotting the city limits, there’s a surge of talent from the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and Conestoga College. Ideas pour out of more than 150 leading research and development centres. You’ll also find Canada’s second-largest tech cluster – where world-renowned tech companies like Applyboard, Miovision, Axonify, Smile.io and Plum got their start.
And those innovators in particular share something special: they’re all graduates of Canada’s top-ranked private business accelerator, the Accelerator Centre®.
Living up to its name
If you haven’t heard of the Accelerator Centre, we’ll fill you in. It’s a tech startup accelerator – just as the name suggests – that takes startups through a two-year, four-phase curriculum from market validation to global scaling. It offers programs that provide specialized mentorship and resources, and a team of full-time mentors that know their stuff.
Since launching in 2006 as a response to a growing need to commercialize the world-renowned research that was coming out of local post-secondary institutions, it’s supported well over 500 startups, helped those businesses land over $600 million in funding, created 3,000-plus jobs, and has “graduated” 65 companies from its core offering, The Accelerator Program.
The survival rate of companies coming out of The Accelerator Program? Ninety-six per cent. And 89 per cent remain in Waterloo Region.
“We work with the founding teams and early-stage companies to create the right conditions for those companies to be able to succeed.”
– Paul Salvini, CEO of the Accelerator Centre
But talk to CEO Paul Salvini and it’s clear the AC’s success goes beyond the numbers.
“We work with the founding teams and early-stage companies to create the right conditions for those companies to be able to succeed, whatever success looks like for them,” he says.
That might mean helping with funding, bringing more people into their networks, proving a positive workspace, connecting with other businesses in the same industry or stage of growth, finding early adopters or landing those crucial first customers.
But their secret sauce is the way they cater that support and resources specifically for each client. That’s important, considering the range of businesses they work with, says Salvini.
“It’s every area of technology that is likely to impact the planet in the future,” he says. Quantum technology, nanotechnology, AI, data science, health technology, clean technology, environmental and even autonomous vehicles – they do it all. “Really, things that represent all of the exciting things that are happening right now.”
Their founders come from many different backgrounds as well, which means they often need to start at square one for business knowledge, he adds. “It’s everything from how do you create the right culture within a company, how do you grow a company to ensure that it has the right people and the right diversity of thought within the organization, and then how do you scale that company?”
That’s why the AC’s curriculum includes a set of detailed steps proven to work for repeatable results, but it’s delivered through mentors that know how those steps apply on the individual level.
After all, when it comes to helping such a diverse set of businesses grow, an in-and-out, one-size-fits-all solution just won’t do, Salvini says. “Unlike some programs that might work with companies for 60 days or 90 days, companies typically spend two or three years at the Accelerator Center. And that allows us to really get to know the company.”
Blind spots and tough love
Not only does the Accelerator Centre provide space for startups – including their headquarters just north of the University of Waterloo campus, a hardware innovation lab in downtown Kitchener and its TD Sustainable Future Lab in evolv1, Canada’s first zero-carbon building – but their mentors also act as a built-in board with industry experts.
For Hugo Fuentes, co-founder and CEO of The Owl Solutions, those mentors play a vital role.
“One of the things that I really notice is the fact that, when you start a business, there’s so many blind spots that you don’t see,” he says.
The Owl Solutions is an analytics platform for supply chain management that’s all about helping manufacturers make better data-based decisions and improve supply chain performance. Fuentes brought the business to the AC in August 2019.
His blind spots looked like this: “I’m not a sales guy. I’ve been in supply chain for 20 years,” he says. “Now being the CEO of the company and pretty much doing everything together with my co-founder, I’ve been involved in sales, business development, a lot of activities that I really didn’t know.”
“We hired our first employee a couple of weeks ago, and we’re already having more and more and more sales. The pipeline is growing.”
– Hugo Fuentes, CEO and co-founder of The Owl Solutions
After the mentorship team helped Fuentes put a formal sales strategy and process in place, he’s already seeing the results. “We hired our first employee a couple of weeks ago,” – a business development manager – “and we’re already having more and more and more sales. The pipeline is growing,” he says.
Ruth Casselman, COO and co-founder of Alert Labs, agrees that mentorship makes all the difference.
When her company, which designs and builds IoT sensors for real-time water consumption measurement and analytics, first joined the AC, “We had hopes and dreams and some circuit boards,” she says. “We knew that we wouldn’t be able to scale an international company out of our kitchen.”
Not only did the AC put her in contact with a cohort of businesses at the same stage, but she also found the leadership and guidance she needed from industry experts.
“Where else do you get that opportunity to have people who have that level of experience be integrated in your business almost overnight?”
– Ruth Casselman, COO and co-founder of Alert Labs
“Sometimes it is tough love. They question you and they ask hard things,” she says. How would they grow their business? How would they sell more product and reach new markets? “They would be pushing us to think ahead, think bigger and think about potential problems.”
Today, Alert Labs has over 10,000 sq ft of manufacturing space and just hired its 45th employee. They’ve spread through Canada and into the U.S. and expanded their product shelf from two to six commercialized sensors and accessories.
It’s a testament to how much that tough love worked. “Because they were so integrated into who we were, where we’re going and where we’re at operationally, they could contribute in almost real time,” she adds. “Where else do you get that opportunity to have people who have that level of experience be integrated in your business almost overnight?”
Been there, done that – and ready to share
There’s no denying mentorship is key to success for the Accelerator Centre’s clients. So who are those mentors, anyway?
For starters, there are six of them who work together as a team, each with their own area of expertise ranging from product management, marketing and communications, lead generation, growth, leadership, HR, culture, finance and sales.
And mentorship isn’t just something they do on the side. Helping each client is a paid job, says Ellyn Winters-Robinson, the resident mentor for marketing and communications.
That’s important to note, she says. In other organizations, “There’s no real deep commitment to the clients, and they tend to be a little bit more in rotation. So there’s no constancy for the startups. The mentor team here are very dedicated. Dedicated to the AC, dedicated to the clients and their success.”
Winters-Robinson is a business owner herself. After a career in enterprise software marketing, she started Ignition Communications, a full-service communications and public relations firm that deals primarily with the tech sector and the emerging cannabis market.
“The mentor team here are very dedicated. Dedicated to the AC, dedicated to the clients and their success.”
– Ellyn Winters-Robinson, AC mentor and founder of Ignition Communications
In her ten years with the AC, she’s helped founders like Fuente and Casselman with everything from naming their businesses and writing websites to marketing strategy and brand value.
While having a mentor may feel like having a watchful parent guiding you along your path, being a mentor feels a bit like having a kid graduate school and land their first job, Winters-Robinson adds.
“I’m just proud of all the success,” she says. “I love driving to work here, looking at the buildings that surround the AC and seeing our clients’ logos on those buildings.”
One for the wall
The very first thing you see when you walk into the Accelerator Centre’s headquarters is a wall of logos. Each represents a company that has graduated from the program, and it reads a bit like a who’s-who of tech companies in Waterloo Region. There are 287 up there right now, and Salvini is looking forward to adding more names in the future.
Whether it’s a research project coming out of the University of Waterloo for commercialization, someone from a specific industry who has a bright idea or a company from overseas that wants to grow roots in Canada, their doors for applications are open, he says. They just have to come to Waterloo.
“They come to the Accelerator Center to be to be surrounded by others who can help them make that a reality.”
– Paul Salvini
Because in the end, they all have a dream. “They come to the Accelerator Center to be to be surrounded by others who can help them make that a reality,” says Salvini.
And for Casselman, seeing Alert Lab’s logo on display – it’s on the right edge, second from the top – there’s no better sign that you’re achieving those dreams.
“You walk past it and think, could I ever possibly be on that wall?” she says. “Fast forward three years and you are. It’s very rewarding.”
Ready to accelerate your business? Apply to the Accelerator Centre today!