Published September 15, 2014

In 2011, Mike Kirkup left Research in Motion, now Blackberry, to become an entrepreneur and focus on a developing a business with co-founder Alex McCallum. They created a technology startup called NextUp Labs.

A graduate of University of Waterloo, Kirkup ran Global Developer Relations for the Waterloo technology giant. He managed a 40-person developer and support team, travelled among nine different times zones and in six different languages. Travelling constantly, Kirkup worked with global entrepreneurs who were focused on applications they wanted to commercialize as mobile products on the Blackberry platform.

Kirkup had experienced a meteoric rise at RIM. He joined the iconic company is 2001 as a wireless security software developer, and over the next decade, advanced through the positions of team lead, Technical Partnerships; manager, Developer Relations; director, Developer Relations; and senior director, Global Developer Relations.

Then he quit to start a company that failed. And he’s extremely forthright about that experience. Kirkup states that his start-up was a “really bad idea”.

Their model involved tapping into a domain’s hidden potential, which to the two entrepreneurs, translated into capitalizing on the equally “hidden needs that were incumbent to them”.

Kirkup says that NextUp Labs failed for a whole litany of reasons; the biggest issue was a lack of “domain expertise” on the part of the partners. To succeed, they had to learn so much about a domain’s reason for being, and learn it very quickly.

The partners found themselves spending an excessive amount of time learning about domain content – for example, how autistic children learn, or how concrete is ordered from a supplier, or how divorced parents report their finances to meet financial law requirements. Those three examples happened to occur “in one day,” says Kirkup. Kirkup and McCallum admitted that they were overwhelmed, and NextUp Labs shut down in the fall of 2012. However, Kirkup saw the whole experience as a lesson to be learned; he says he was anything but discouraged.

During the wind-down of NextUp Lab, a new opportunity arose. Kirkup was hired as acting director at the University of Waterloo’s startup program, Velocity. Velocity was the brainchild of former UW Warrior, Sean Van Koughnett. Van Koughnett recently moved to McMaster University as Associate Vice-President of Students and Learning and the Dean of Students. He is the first non-faculty member in 20 years, and the first external candidate in the university’s history, to be named to the post.

UW innovation

Van Koughnett’s concept involved combining life, work and study, locating an entrepreneurial program right in one of the U of W student residences. This innovation literally gave life to an idea.

In 2011, Van Koughnett solicited Kirkup to run the Velocity program. Kirkup recognized what he still refers to as an “awesome program”. He had found a role, an opportunity that linked extremely well to his job at Blackberry. In the midst of his own struggles as an entrepreneur, Kirkup found he could relate to all the intricate pieces of the start-up process.

He started at Velocity in January 2012, while still running NextUp Labs. He says maintaining the two roles was “extremely manageable”, compared to the 70 hours-plus work week he was used to at Blackberry.

Velocity was in its infancy. At the time, it was “way smaller, primarily run from the residence with a small footprint at the newly created Communitech space at the Tannery in Kitchener.”

Eight startups were involved in the program. The now renowned Velocity Garage, which is a substantial space at the Tannery, was scheduled to opened that February 2012. Van Koughnett’s hands-on, early stage entrepreneurial concept was expanding rapidly, with great success.

Kirkup was in his element. The Velocity program is one where students indoctrinate best practices into the development of an actual business. Very little is theoretical, and guidance is provided by successful entrepreneurs who themselves have gone through the many stages of starting a business.

“A coach or mentor who gives advice can be the most amazing resource you will ever have“, says Kirkup who is quick to add that “they can be the most dangerous resource,” as well.

“Mentor whiplash”

Kirkup is referring to one of the most commonly used terms coined in the startup space: “mentor whiplash”. Mentor whiplash is a mentoring phenomenon that occurs when well-respected and successful mentors offer contradictory pieces of advice, leaving the entrepreneur who is receiving the advice confused and unsure: “What am I supposed to do?” Kirkup believes a good coach and mentor is a person who has the confidence to say what they’re thinking, but also the “humility to go ‘I don’t know, that’s not my area of expertise,’ and refer to another mentor.”

As a counsellor, Kirkup tells entrepreneurs in the program that mentors are “one voice among many” – one of his favourite adages. Kirkup refers to mentors as “guides” and insists, “it’s up to the founder and CEO to make the right call”. But we’re all human, and entrepreneurs “may or may not make the right call. They may change their minds, and they may shift and learn.”

Kirkup is quick to make the point that entrepreneurs, especially the young, should always realize that the buck stops with them. He advises, “never let anyone make you believe that by not taking their advice, that you are wrong. This is your path, this is your company, you control the decisions that you are making.”

He tells his young colleagues to “sit down, think about it, make a decision. And then move on, or then go back and fix it or change it, if you’ve determined you made the wrong one.” But don’t dither. “Sitting at the crossroads is not the right path.”

Velocity structures its program in such a way to avoid mentor whiplash. “It’s one of those things that we worry about a lot.” And it is not a simple problem because advice on the same topic could be given by another mentor two weeks or two months from when the first advice was given. “This has the potential to leave the entrepreneur wondering ‘Now what do I do?’” So they step back, stop, change, shift – “it very, very quickly becomes a process where months can get lost…In a crazy sense of irony, so many times you will come back full circle.”

Turning ideas into businesses

Velocity has four programs, each one unique: Velocity Foundry, Velocity Garage, Velocity Science, and Velocity Residence. All are focused on turning ideas into viable businesses.
Recently the Velocity Foundry moved into its own workspace just down the street, at Charles and Water. Its focus is solely on hardware materials. Velocity Garage, located at the Tannery, is focused on software and life sciences. A simple analogy is that the Foundry makes physical products, whereas the Garage products take up less space – bytes and cells compared to eight wheeled smart rovers, with sensors that not only analyze but can also collect samples. Velocity Residence is the original and unique environment that is located on UW campus. It has access to the latest technologies and opportunities of both the Foundry and Garage. However it’s a 24x7 environment, where the residents, sleep, eat and breath ideas they feel will change the world. As an entry point, all students enter the Alpha program, designed to direct students with a business idea to either the foundry, the garage or life science program.

Alpha Residence is a four month cycle, and runs parallel to the term system. This entry level program is accessible to all university students who are successful in the interview process. Students learn the basics of a startup. Students in this program are mostly co-op, and always moving in and out to their next work term. The Velocity program is free – students only pay for the residence, and the cost is exactly the same as any residence on campus.

Today, a very small proportion of Velocity startups are actually in residence, less than 10 per cent.

Three key coaches run the Velocity program. Wes Worsfold, who joined the team in July 2014, runs the Garage, while Peter Heuss runs the new Foundry that opened its own doors in August of this year. Kirkup, Worsfold, and Heuss quarterback the startup program. They, along with the full suite of volunteer and paid mentors, encourage and build relationships amongst their students. Only meetings with Kirkup,Worsford and Heuss are compulsory, the rest is up to the entrepreneur.

Kirkup points out that, “Mentors get in touch with Velocity because they want to give back. They’ve had an amazing career, they’ve had a tonne of success and they want to figure out a way to give back, to get to know some of the up and coming startups and students, and in some cases, they want to invest money.” In some situations, Kirkup recognizes the program is missing “a specific set of skills” and he goes out and looks for those people. “We usually start them off by asking them for favours, because that essentially is how an ecosystem works.”

One of the most interesting things about the Velocity ecosystem is that it learns and advances alongside the companies. “As they evolve and change and shift the program to make it better, so do we”.

As an example of this mutualistic environment, Kirkup reflects on the speakers they used to invite to talk to the entrepreneurs. When they brought in experts who could speak to one business issue, he found that more than half the participants “wouldn’t care”. Then they adapted that program and started to bringing in founders of companies. “Founders can talk about anything – everyone listened.” Company founders talk about “ the whole landscape of their startup”, from how the company began, through their present journey. Kirkup says, “when you listen to the questions asked after the speaker is finished, you can pinpoint what problems the start-up asking the question, is having right now.”

Kirkup praises the tremendous support provided by not only the University of Waterloo community but by also the other post secondary schools and the community at large. “Nothing in Waterloo Region is separate, that’s one of the wonderful things about this community. We have a role to play; we are complementary to all the programs at the University. We’re unique and different in that everything we do is free of charge. There are no credit elements to anything we do at Velocity, and we sit outside of the faculty. It is extremely uncommon to find those characteristics at any other university. Most of the time, these programs will sit inside a faculty, most of the time they will have a charge or a fee associated with them, and sometimes they will have a for-credit element to them.”

The location is like no other, in close proximity to Communitech, the nationally recognized technology organization that was founded in 1997 in Waterloo by significant area technology companies, all of whom are around today. “They are a good partner,” Kirkup states. Velocity’s biggest goal, he says is to achieve “what’s best for the individual company. Whatever makes them successful. If we can concentrate the talent and the knowledge, and the networks and all the pieces here in Waterloo Region, then we can create companies that are that much stronger.”

Community support is but one advantage entrepreneurs have when they locate in Waterloo Region. Kirkup is quick to point out that if you are to look at the most tangible benefit that entrepreneurs receive in Velocity, “It is not the help of any of the paid mentors, or coaches. It is the people you sit beside.” Kirkup is referring to the student entrepreneurs who are working in the program alongside each other. “They know what problems you have, because they just had them. And they know the nitty-gritty reasons and can give you factual, current feedback on how you could solve those problems. And that’s the collaborative model that functions within a community element, and that’s what students get in this program.”

As a measure of success, Velocity celebrates its five companies that are working in the Y-combinator, the world’s premier accelerator program, located in Palo Alto, California. In total, Velocity has seen seven companies go to the California program, five from this cohort alone. Notably, they all plan on coming back, largely due to the supportive resources.

Kirkup’s determination is fierce. And the program he runs is fiercely attractive to first stage entrepreneurs. “We don’t want to give anybody a choice. We want the very, very best companies to be in here”. As a free program, Velocity is as attractive as they get. “If you say it cost X-amount-of-dollars to be in this space, the really, really good teams will say, ‘I’ll go elsewhere’. So we make it as though there is no choice. Of course you’re going to come in here. You would be crazy not to.”

Larry Smith, an economist and professor at UW, notes, “There has been a huge scale of activity with respect to student startups at the University of Waterloo for a considerable time. And it’s growing in scale.” He credits Velocity “in making a critical contribution to sparking even more of it. It’s engaging the students broadly, students are being inspired by the pitches that they’re hearing, the number of ventures, the quality of ventures, and the range of the ventures has never been greater. It’s amazing to watch it. “

Smith believes the kinds of products coming out of Velocity and other entrepreneurial programs “are the kinds of products that will keep Canadian manufacturers competitive,” in comparison to low-wage nations elsewhere. “We are not stuck in a narrow domain, the domain is broadening dramatically, and the University is helping. Communication applications to biomedical engineering and everything in-between, including automotive processes and control circuitry for manufacturing.” He admits, “it’s a remarkable development that I did not see 10 years ago”.

A benefit to Velocity and other area programs at Laurier and Conestoga College is the range of ventures supported in Waterloo Region. “The local community has the range of economic activity that would, in effect, support many new ventures. In the ecosystem, it is critically important to have that support.”

That includes support as in the expertise of mentors and advisors, but as Smith points out, it’s also important to have the support in trials and experimentation. “The success of the incubation is clear,” Smith states. “Turning students’ ideas into sustainable businesses is hot business in Waterloo.”

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