What happens when an AC grad returns to help others? It's all about community, says Catalyst Commons' Kurtis McBride and AC CEO Paul Salvini.
A Draft Canada original.
The scene opens on a University of Waterloo student sitting in lawn chairs at an intersection, clipboards in hand, counting the cars passing through. It’s the summer of 2005. The days are hot and the work is tedious, but the data he’s gathering is important because it’ll help the city make big (and sometimes expensive) decisions. He thinks: there has to be a better way.
The scene changes. Now we see the same student – only now he’s a co-founder, and he’s walking into the Accelerator Centre. It’s 2006, and in the past year, he’s launched Miovision, a startup that’s all about capturing and analysing traffic data using IoT technology. Until now, they’ve been running out of a basement, but today they step through the doors of the AC as one of the first startups to join the ground-breaking new innovation hub.
This shot fades into another, this time a bigger company in a new space. It’s still Miovision, but it has since graduated from The Accelerator Program and is settling into a new office – one all their own. It wasn’t easy getting here. They had to scout locations, sign a lease, buy new equipment. But with a growing team, it was a leap they had to take, and they had help from the AC.
We see a cloud of dust. It clears, revealing a newly constructed 500,000 sq ft building called Catalyst137. Built on the lot of an old tire warehouse, this isn’t just Miovision’s third new home – it will be home to other IoT businesses, economic development, marketing agencies, even a café and brewery. The space is founded by Kurtis McBride, Miovision’s co-founder and CEO, and Frank Voisin of Voisin Capital.
Then we fast-forward a little into the future: to Nov. 1, 2020. Inside of Catalyst137, a new 60,000 sq ft co-working space called Catalyst Commons is opening. And into that space, they’re welcoming the expertise of the Accelerator Centre – the same accelerator that helped them find their footing and grow – through a new partnership that’ll help support other startups, small- and medium-sized businesses, and enterprise companies as one interconnected community.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever watched The Lion King, but it’s a bit like the circle of life,” says McBride.
Though Miovision graduated from the Accelerator Centre years ago, some lessons stuck with McBride.
“Up until that point, I thought engineering was the hard part. If you build a great product, then it’ll sell itself. And then you realize, actually, engineering is ten per cent of what it takes to build a business,” says McBride.
Those were the formal lessons he gleaned from the programming itself, from mentors like Kevin Hood and Rod Foster. But there were less obvious ones, too – some that didn’t fully reveal themselves until after his company moved out on its own.
“In the AC, there were about 15 different companies that were all in similar stages and experiencing similar good days and similar bad days,” he remembers. “We would all go out into the lunch room and just riff with each other about what we’re doing to succeed, what we’ve just failed at.”
“When we moved out, we had our own office, which was great. But we lost the ability to learn from that experience.”
He remembers the growing pains – buying desks, hiring cleaning staff, paying utility bills. Never mind the feeling of jumping off a cliff and locking into a multi-year commitment. “When we moved out, we took a lease. It was terrifying and too large to take.”
Though Miovision eventually moved past those challenges, McBride never forgot what it felt like to lead a young company through the challenges of rapid growth. As he became a landlord and began mentoring other entrepreneurs himself, he took the lessons he learned at the AC with him.
Even starting Catalyst137, “We had a vision of what we wanted that place to be. It was a place where small and large companies could come, could access all the amenities and services that they would need to grow and to build great products and scale them in the markets,” he says. “The one thing that we never managed to execute in that brand vision was a place for smaller companies and startups once they graduate from the incubators in town.”
Catalyst Commons fills that gap while maintaining that ongoing sense of community that McBride missed when Miovision moved into its own space. More than a co-working space with flexible terms that go from one hour to three years, it’s also a place where businesses can collide and support each other.
“That’s probably the thing about our experience at the AC that we’re trying to most recreate with Catalyst Commons, is that community vibe, that opportunity for collision and learning,” McBride adds. “We basically looked around the community and said, how can we partner with best-of-class service providers and create a brand experience that feels like Catalyst Commons is the place where you can access all these different things?”
So when McBride started looking into partnership opportunities, one stood out as an obvious choice: The Accelerator Centre.
And it turns out, even before Catalyst Commons, the AC was following McBride, Miovision and Catalyst137. In fact, they were looking for ways to get involved, says Accelerator Centre CEO Paul Salvini. In this project, they found the right opportunity.
“Being part of The Accelerator Program prepares companies to launch into the real world. We help them get all the key business fundamentals in place, and then we support them as they gain their confidence and independence as entrepreneurs. But graduating and launching into the great unknown is a scary, vulnerable time for startups,” Salvini says.
“To be able to combine The Accelerator Program and the mentorship that we provide with this community of not only fellow startups but also companies that are ahead of you on the journey, is a fantastic way to bridge the gap from startup to scale-up.”
Through their partnership, the AC will offer its world-class mentorship through the Catalyst Commons’ Mentorship Services Program, giving members access to its dedicated professional mentorship team that spans corporate areas from sales and finance to HR and culture.
It’s an opportunity to expand upon what they already do best. But Salvini hopes it’ll give their late-stage clients and graduates another option outside of signing that frightening first lease as they graduate from The Accelerator Program.
“As they’re emerging from the Accelerator Center, they might not want to take the leap into a space of their own. They’re used to a community and not having that interaction and just being on a little island is a deterrent from taking that next step,” he says. “Our partnership with Catalyst Commons is about giving choice to our clients, and I think it’s going to be incredibly successful.”
Part of the draw is the space itself. McBride describes it as a combination of hot desks, dedicated desks and offices that range from one-person to multi-team in size, all radiating out from a core common space that features a large common lunch space and a central all-season courtyard, complete with trees, opening roof and a faux firepit made possible with mist and lasers.
“The flow is, everyone’s going to obviously work in their own spaces, but they have to come through that common space to get to where they’re going, and to leave, and to get coffee and beer. So it will create initially a socially distant mingling, and then eventually just mingling,” McBride says.
Plus, “Waterloo has this pay-it-forward sort of mentorship culture to it. You can get access to people who have built billion-dollar businesses with a short email and they’ll be on a phone with you that afternoon,” he adds. “Catalyst Commons isn’t going to make the culture of Waterloo; we’re going to be a physical manifestation of it. It’s going to be a place where that culture can really come to life.”
Salvini knows what a community like that can do, because they foster it every day at the AC. “I remember a great example at the Accelerator Centre where a newer company had the benefit of being able to consult with a more established company whose entire expertise was next-generation networking. They formed a peer mentor relationship and worked to lay out a technology roadmap. The more experienced founder helped this company not only build in a way that would make it resilient for the future, but also give them a competitive advantage in an area where they didn’t think they would have a competitive advantage,” he says.
“It’s that beneficial cross-pollination if you will, of knowledge and experience that you end up getting. You end up with a much richer, more diverse, comprehensive knowledge workforce than you otherwise would get in any single organization.”
And Salvini couldn’t be prouder to continue supporting – and receiving support from – one of the AC’s first graduates.
“It makes you wonder, who will walk through AC doors for the first time next? What will they achieve?” -Paul Salvini
We see him sitting at his desk at home. Since COVID-19, the AC’s been running remotely, but it doesn’t stop them from delivering their programming – even widening their reach. A smile spreads across his face as he thinks about the companies that have come and gone on to do great things.
He speaks. “We have so many grads that have gone on to build successful companies, but for sure the part that makes me proudest is we’ve almost always instilled in these companies that sense of social purpose, that sense of giving back,” he says. “Kurtis is to me exactly what we’re looking for in this community in terms of amazing leaders who not only have built something fantastic in their own company, but have also then turned their sights to helping to build the community so that others can be stronger, better off, better supported.”
The camera fades to black – for now. But the story isn’t over. “It’s a beautiful domino effect. The Accelerator Centre helped Kurtis and his Miovision team to grow and succeed, and now he’s helping others access the same support. It makes you wonder, who will walk through AC doors for the first time next? What will they achieve? How many fellow entrepreneurs will benefit from them one day? It’s exponential. It’s exciting.”
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