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'How can universities foster start-ups that help solve global challenges?'

On April 10, Communitech CEO Iain Klugman is slated to speak at Concordia about how to create space for entrepreneurs
March 30, 2015
By Tom Peacock

A university’s role is to be a space where students can consider new possibilities, says Iain Klugman, CEO of Communitech, a leading innovation centre started in 1997 and based in Waterloo Region, Ontario.

“They can certainly support entrepreneurialism and they do that in a whole bunch of different ways — from the way they structure their curriculum, to the way they create opportunities, and space for people to hack.”

The Communitech Hub is a 50,000-square-foot space where Klugman and his team let people come and play, and maybe even come up with the next billion-dollar idea.

CEO of Communitech, Iain Klugman: “We limit the number of opportunities that we think we have.” CEO of Communitech, Iain Klugman: “We limit the number of opportunities that we think we have.”

To foster experimentation and growth, Klugman says the Communitech team limits the constraints it puts on clients. “We have one rule here, which is no stealing. Otherwise it's fairly self-policing. Because if they think it's theirs, then they're going to take care of it.”

We spoke with Klugman in advance of his presentation, “How can universities foster start-ups that help solve global challenges?” The fourth event in the ongoing speaker series, The Future of the University and the Future of Learning, Klugman’s talk takes place in Room MB 10.121 in the John Molson School of Business on Friday, April 10.

Maybe we can start by talking a little about Communitech, and the role it plays in Waterloo's high-tech ecosystem?

Iain Klugman: Communitech's almost like an ecosystem accelerator, or community accelerator. We work with companies at every stage — start-ups, small, mid-sized and large — so we have a very broad mandate. We've been active for a long time,18 years. And really our sole focus is on backing the entrepreneur. We're not interested in specific areas of science or technology; we're just interested in people who have ideas that could potentially build businesses, make money and grow. 

Do you fund projects outside of the tech sphere?

IK: Not really. Our focus is really on tech, just because it has the potential for exponential growth.

How does Communitech work in partnership with the University of Waterloo?

IK: We’re connected in a whole bunch of different ways. The reason that we’re able to make it work in this community is that each of the partners in the ecosystem takes responsibility for doing what they're meant to do at a world-class level. And then the other responsibility that we have is to talk together and not be a—holes to each other. That's as complicated as it is. 

My job is to make Communitech the best in the world, and the University of Waterloo's job is to make itself the best in the world. And then we each have a responsibility to make sure we work together, and don't overlap, duplicate and be nasty to each other.

How does being in the start-up business impact the research and development that's happening at a university?

IK: Universities shouldn't be involved in any commercial activities. But they can certainly support entrepreneurialism. That's their role –– to be a place that creates opportunity.

In a recent talk you mentioned the sense of urgency around the start-up culture in Waterloo Region. What do you mean by that? What's the urgency, in your view?

IK: The urgency is that if we don't grow our own economy, we're going to be left behind. Just look at the impact that oil has had right across the country. If we just continue to be overly reliant on natural resources and foreign multinationals, it's not a very promising future. 

We've got this incredible resource that’s better than oil. It's called people. Human beings. And so how do we translate that into wealth creation, as opposed to fracking for some more gas, or extracting more oil? None of those are sustainable. The only thing we've got that's sustainable is ourselves.

Waterloo is among the top 20 start-up ecosystems in the world even though it has a population of less than a million people. How do you get there?

IK: You work really, really hard and you make it your life's work. And you stay hungry and afraid, and do everything you possibly can to get more start-ups going. And once they decide to launch, you do everything you possibly can to help them be successful. And then you cross your fingers. 

Do you think universities play a part in creating entrepreneurs? Or is it just innate in some of us?

IK: It’s probably innate in all of us. It's what we allow ourselves to consider, and I think that too often there are constraints in our thinking that get in the way. The problem is, we just never consider a lot of things, and so we limit the number of opportunities that we think we have.

Do you think our schools can do something to encourage students to consider different opportunities?

IK: Definitely. 

How? By creating new spaces, or overhauling existing structures?

IK: It’s an absence of structure. Structure inhibits entrepreneurialism. 

Do you think schools are placing enough emphasis on encouraging entrepreneurship?

IK: I don't even think it's entrepreneurship. I think it's just a matter of letting people play, and seeing what happens.

Register online for Klugman’s talk, taking place Friday, April 10, 2015, noon to 1:30 p.m., Room MB 10.121 in the John Molson School of Business, 1450 Guy Street.


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