Recap: January Dinner with Nancy Heide and Popy Dimoulas-Graham from Velocity

It’s 2015 and we’re back at it! We kicked off the year at the Communitech Hub, with Nancy Heide, Associate Director of Velocity, and Popy Dimoulas-Graham, Velocity alumnus and founder of Charity Republic.

(Side note: my apologies for any missing or incorrect info; I wasn’t able to stay for the presentation and am recapping from notes and Nancy’s deck.)

Velocity is a program that began at University of Waterloo in 2008, starting off as a Residence for entrepreneurial-minded students. Thanks to its popularity and success, it has expanded greatly since then, with the Velocity Garage at the Communitech Hub opening in 2010, the Velocity Fund launching in 2010, Velocity Alpha (formerly the Velocity Campus program) arriving in 2012, Velocity Science kicking off in 2013, and the Velocity Foundry starting up over on Water Street in 2014.

To date Velocity has created 84 companies, representing over 3,000 University of Waterloo students. Collectively these companies have raised over $160 million in funding, and have created products that are getting the world’s attention.

The Velocity Residence (the Minota Hagey building on campus) hosts 70 students each term. That’s over 1,100 students in the program’s six years to date. Some notable startups that have come out of it include Kik (with users in the hundreds of millions, and the last independent of the big messaging apps), Pebble (with one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever, raising over $10MM), and MappedIn (helping us find our way around everything from hospitals to shopping centres). They live and work there while hashing out their entrepreneurial ideas, and the environment is highly creative and collaborative. Students also have access to microfunding to help get their ideas off the ground.

The first week of each term is Bootcamp, to really get students into the Velocity mindset and introduce them to networking, building a business plan, and the tech, mentors, and companies to which they’ll have access for the rest of the term. Each week there’s a dinner with an entrepreneur guest speaker, so students learn from the trenches and from real-world experiences.

The Velocity Garage hosts over 30 companies in a big, bright, open space (>7,000 sq. feet) at the Communitech Hub (it was actually just down the hall from where our Girl Geek Dinner took place). The space is free for members to use, which is pretty important, given that rent and finding good space is a huge time and money drain for startups. Because of this perk, the program is intended for startups with >250,000 in revenue.

The program has done rather well so far, and alumni include Thalmic Labs (currently shipping it’s 50K+ pre-ordered armbands, and coming to Amazon), VidYard (which just raised an 418MM Series B round of funding), and BufferBox (acquired by Google in late 2012 — so they could just move upstairs).

The Garage is meant for more embryonic startups, and is intended for teams of 10 or less. (I can attest that they get packed in there pretty tight as they grow.) The Garage is also intended to be an ecosystem, with teams working together and helping each other out, community-style. Given how tight-knit the Waterloo Region tech scene is, this is key to integrate into culture early. The Garage has welcomed both software and hardware startups.

The Velocity Fund made it a bit easier for worthy startups to obtain seed capital to help them develop and grow. It presents grants of $5,000 (three of them), $10,000 (one, for hardware) or $25,000 (four, for the best companies by current students or recent alumni) in a competition-style format. “Fund Finals” happen on campus on March 26th. (The audience at the event can win prizes, too!)

These are truly grants, and Velocity doesn’t take equity or intellectual property rights from the companies that win. The Fund was established following Ted Livingston’s $1 million donation (he’s founder of Kik, Velocity alumnus) in 2011. The hardware grant was added in 2013 with a donation from the founders of BufferBox. In 2014, Waterloo Region angel investor Mike Stork donated an additional $1 million.

Velocity Alpha is where you get involved when you have an idea and lots of questions, but perhaps not much else yet. Conceived as Velocity’s campus program, it provides education and resources to help you flesh things out. It’s free and open to all UW students and the public, and there are weekly workshops. To date over 2000 students have learned with Alpha.

Alpha is open to any kind of business idea, not just tech. If you want to develop and run your own business, Alpha is there for you. Alpha helps teach skill-building, as well as enabling networking. Each week, through all school terms, there are workshops, panel discussions, and networking events.

Each week Alpha focuses on a specific business topic, and successive weeks are designed to build on each other to improve skills and provide hands-on business experience. The goal is that by the end of each term, students who’ve attended regularly will have the skills and experience they need to launch their own businesses.

The Velocity Science program expanded Velocity’s reach even further, and has had 10 companies hard at work to date. It’s free to join, and open to all UW students. Its events have drawn over 300 attendees.

The Science program is located on the UW campus, and while its focus is technical, it moves away from software and hardware, specifically, to include biology, chemistry, physics, and earth and environmental sciences. Make no mistake, though, it is as startup-focused as all other Velocity programs, and members are expected to build on business ideas.

The program is only open to UW students, and in addition to training them to build products and companies and become contributing members of the local tech and startup community, there are also important elements like training and working with correct lab safety procedures. (If code compiles wrong, it’s unlikely to kill you…)

The Velocity Foundry occupies a great space of 11,000 sq. feet at the corner of Charles and Water, just down the block from the Tannery District. It hosts 25 companies, and is also free for members to use. It’s intended to get hands on, and welcomes hardware prototyping (I bet BufferBox wishes it had been open for them…) and has a simple wet lab (but no wet Labs). 🙂

In addition to invaluable space and equipment, like all of Velocity’s programs, it provides members with access to resources and mentorship, as well as networking and development of tech/startup community participation. The Foundry, like the Garage, is intended for small teams of 10 people or less with >$250,000 in revenue.

MaxMixology, who you may remember as guests of ours back in the fall, are Foundry members. There’s a lot of really interesting life sciences/healthcare work being done there, too.

The main takeaways from Velocity is that despite the fact that building businesses can be lonely, hard, solitary work, it doesn’t have to be. And, often, is better when it’s not. There are people with experience you’re looking for, or skills you need to learn, or just extra hands to pitch in. As Popy shared, “Do your homework. Don’t be a lone wolf. Persevere. Get uncomfortable.”

Big thanks to Nancy and Popy for joining us (sorry for the A/V trials). It’s great to spread the word about this fantastic program, and we can’t wait to see what the Next Big Thing out of Velocity will be…

Our announcement for February is coming up soon, and will take us back to the Internets, featuring your own co-organizer, me! (Melle.) Stay tuned, and hope you’ll join us!

And, as always, if you have events, jobs, projects, etc. to share, are job hunting, or otherwise would like help amplifying what you’re up to, let us know by email or Twitter.

Don’t forget that we also have a low-volume mailing list as well, if you want to be sure to get all the important announcements and updates (we keep it absolutely private). Join us!

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