Waterloo is the smallest, geographically speaking, of seven cities that make up Canada's Technology Triangle. Small in size it may be, but this second-time Top Seven honoree casts a big shadow in terms of technology-based growth. The Triangle itself is home to 334 technology companies and another 404 providing related services that employ about 10% of the labor force, but account for 45% of job growth.
Among the seven communities, Waterloo is home to 40% of the high-tech firms. Its recent history illustrates the power of getting a few critical things right and then working together to nurture and manage the resulting success over time.
The community's first and perhaps most important "right thing" took place at the University of Waterloo. The University was founded in 1957 by two businessmen, Gerald Hagey and Ira Needles, who saw an opportunity to create a high-level technical institution to train local business leaders. In the 1970s, the University established an intellectual property policy that was unheard of in its day. The policy allowed students and faculty members to own rights in intellectual property they developed at the University.
The University's timing was excellent. When the introduction of the personal computer began a decades-long wave of ICT growth, Waterloo was positioned to benefit. Like Stanford University in Silicon Valley, it spurred spin-outs of technology-based businesses, and local entrepreneurs began to build clusters of companies working on the most exciting technologies of the day. Fast-forward a few decades and the Waterloo region is a place where investors have poured C$1.8 billion (US$1.5bn) over the past 10 years into acquiring privately-held technology companies. It is also the home of companies that, over the past eight years, made up 10% of successful IPOs on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Publicly-held technology companies in the Waterloo region have generated a 26% internal rate of return since 1994, according to Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and the original investors in firms that were acquired or went public have received more than a seven-fold return on their investments. Waterloo's leading technology companies today include Research in Motion (RIM, creator of the BlackBerry), Sybase, Open Text, DALSA and Descartes Systems Group.
Today, the University offers the world's largest post-secondary co-op program serving over 11,000 students. It operates more than 50 research institutes, 12 Federal and Provincial Centers of Excellence, is a partner with the city, region and nonprofits in developing a Research & Technology Park. But it does not stand alone. Wilfrid Laurier University is home to one of Canada's largest business schools as well as the Schlegel Center for Entrepreneurship, while the Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning has earned a #1 ranking from the Province of Ontario for eight straight years.
Engaging Business, Citizens and Government
The community's second "right thing" was a local government that has engaged actively with business and citizens in planning for a prosperous future. A Strategic Resource Information Plan developed in 1990 set the pattern for data-sharing and integration among agencies and pointed the way toward the 1998 introduction of the award-winning, Internet-based Waterloo Information Network. Today, Waterloo offers a wide range of online services, from the minutes of council meetings and city program registration to tax assessment tools, interactive GIS maps and marriage license registration.
In 2000, the city undertook a year-long project called Imagine!Waterloo. This city-wide public consultation aimed to determine the best possible future for the city. Its recommendations ranged from environmental protection to transportation, culture to city communications. An Intelligent Waterloo Steering Committee formed in 2006 - led by Jim Balsilie, co-founder of RIM, Waterloo's Mayor and University of Waterloo President David Johnston - stages events to educate business leaders, academics and citizens about the challenges Waterloo faces and engage them in setting goals for educational achievement, access to services, investment in infrastructure and social inclusion.
Collaboration and Reinvestment
The third "right thing" in Waterloo is a culture of collaboration and reinvestment. Perhaps because cooperation among business, academia and government has been so successful, folks in Waterloo make partnership a priority and are eager to give back to the community. Waterloo-based Tech Capital Partners manages C$95 million in venture capital for early-stage companies, while a group of business leaders has recently launched Infusion Angels to find and fund ideas from University of Waterloo students and alumni. UW and Wilfrid Laurier jointly run a Launchpad $50K Venture Creation Competition for students, researchers and community members who develop business plans and start successful businesses. Successful entrepreneurs have also reached into their pockets to fund or contributed their time to the founding of the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Institute for Quantum Computing, Center for Wireless Communications, the Waterloo Technology StartUp Network, and Communitech, a capacity-building association focusing on technology in the region. Each fall, the Waterloo region celebrates Entrepreneur Week, North America's largest innovation festival.
Sharing the wealth extends as well to people for whom technology is more a challenge than opportunity. Like other Canadian communities, Waterloo participates in the Federal Community Access Program that places Internet workstations in public access locations. Waterloo's public libraries have become ICT learning centers that, thanks to company donations, lend laptops as well as books. Through Wilfred Laurier's Center for Community Service-Learning, nearly 1,000 students a year engage with 200 local partner organizations in programs that connect community service to classroom learning. Business and nonprofit organizations have joined forces to create the Waterloo Region Immigrant Employment network to help match recent immigrants to job opportunities, while the Waterloo Public Library has developed an online portal, ProjectNOW, to provide settlement and labor information to newcomers.
With 76% of businesses and 47% of households on broadband, and 75% of adults using the Internet, Waterloo is already a broadband economy success story. The challenge the community has set itself is to sustain and accelerate its success in a global economy that competes harder for investment, talent and ideas with each passing year.
Top Seven Intelligent Community 2006, 2007. Intelligent Community of the Year 2007.
Top Industries Education, research, insurance & financial services, information & telecom technology.
Canadian Council on Learning Case Study of Waterloo
"Waterloo Ranked Tops in World for High-Tech Intelligence," Globe and Mail, May 23, 2007
"Waterloo Wins Intelligent Community Award," The Record, May 18, 2007
"Balsillie Funds Waterloo Effort to Grapple With Global Issues," The Record, June 26, 2007
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Click here for a presentation on Waterloo to the 2007 MISA conference.
"Decoding the Universe" by Paul Wells, MacLeans, Aug 27, 2008