University of Waterloo creates Canada’s first problem lab
The University of Waterloo is launching a new program to help students with the first step of entrepreneurial innovation — the identification and definition of an important consumer, industrial, economic or technical problem.
The Problem Lab will be spearheaded by Waterloo economics professor Larry Smith (photo), and is made possible by $300,000 in seed funding from Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin, principals of Quantum Valley Investments® and founders of Blackberry.
“Aspiring entrepreneurs are all too often left on their own until they start developing a solution to a problem or a venture to implement their solution,” said Smith. “Without guidance, most entrepreneurs find their problems randomly, rather than strategically.
“Since the degree of success of an entrepreneurial innovation is directly related to the importance of the problem, the scale of entrepreneurial accomplishment becomes accidental.”
Lazardis and Fregin’s gift will specifically support the creation of a pitch competition where students will be required to demonstrate an understanding of a unique commercial challenge.
The Quantum Valley Investments Problem Pitch Competitions will be held twice per term in association with Velocity, Waterloo’s leading entrepreneurship program. Presentations will take place in a public forum before a panel of judges. The winners will share a prize pool of between $10,000 and $20,000 to invest in research and development related to their chosen problem.
“We believe that the Problem Lab and the Quantum Valley Investments Problem Pitch Competition will encourage students to focus on fully understanding a problem before venturing to solve it, and will lead to better ideas and strategies for new businesses,” said Lazaridis. “We expect the program to grow over time and play an important role in the University’s, the region’s, and Canada’s innovation ecosystem.”
The impetus for the Problem Lab came from the 2013 “Entrepreneurship Infrastructure Project,” a report co-authored by Larry Smith.
The report found that at select Canadian universities a mere 11% of undergraduate and 13% of graduate courses on entrepreneurship focused on how to identify and understand important problems. The remainder concentrated on either developing or implementing solutions.
In addition to hosting the competitions, the Problem Lab will work with some of the University’s corporate partners to help them understand their most important problems, and with the University of Waterloo’s co-op program to enrich the co-op experience for both students and employers.
Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis have donated over $120 million to the University of Waterloo. This includes $100 million toward the Institute of Quantum Computing, housed in the Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre (QNC), established in 2002. Doug Fregin has donated approximately $30 million to the University of Waterloo in support of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology and QNC.