Sunday, March 20, 2016

Our Editor Went to the Annual University of Waterloo Capstone Design Competition and Got a T-Shirt

          By Chuck Black

It's spring at Canadian colleges and universities, when faculties show off their best and brightest with the intent to recruit next year's freshmen class. And one of the more memorable of these events is the annual University of Waterloo (UoW) Faculty of Engineering Capstone Design Competition.

The main floor of the William G. Davis Computer Research Centre on March 18th, 2016 showing various presentations from fourth year mechatronics engineering students participating in the annual UoW Capstone Design competition. Displays varied throughout the event, with software engineering, nanotechnology engineering and management engineering student displays being the focus of the March 16th, 2016 presentations and the mechatronics students taking over on March 18th. The event will continue through March 21st and 22nd with displays from the mechanicalchemical, systems design and civil, environmental & geological engineering students before finishing up with electrical & computer engineering student displays on March 24th. Photo c/o author.

Capstone isn't just an academic event. The UoW engineering faculty lists over 600 companies in Canada and abroad which were founded by Waterloo graduates.

Many, including firms such as the Pebble SmartWatch (a wearable computer which managed to raise $10Mln CDN via kickstarter in 2012), the Myo armband (developed by Thalmic Labs, which lists an impressive grouping of venture companies, including Spark Capital, Intel Capital, Formation 8, First Round Capital and FundersClub, as investors and supporters), Athos Live Wear (most recently noted in the February 9th, 2015 Fast Company article on, "The World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies Of 2015 In Fitness") and Suncayr (a "smart" UV indicator to let you know when your sunscreen is "no longer protecting you"), have developed directly from fourth year student projects developed for Capstone.

The key to these successful start-ups is Waterloo's intellectual property (IP) rights policy #73, which grants ownership of inventions developed at Waterloo "in the course of teaching and research activities" to the inventor (or inventors) except in cases where "assigned tasks" are performed or in situations where "sponsored or contract research activities" are funded by outside organizations.

This policy is perceived by Waterloo executives as being a key feature in attracting entrepreneurial oriented faculty and graduate students who want to engage in commercial activities which transfer ideas and technology to the private sector.

Eleven: Eleven co-founder and forth year student Leia Shum at the UoW Capstone Design competition on March 18th. According to the Eleven: Eleven sales literature, "one in fifty Americans is affected by some form of physical paralysis. To improve patients’ quality of life, eleven:eleven is developing Periphero —a non-invasive, wearable device that reinstates real-time motor control of the upper limb. Current solutions use external mechanical methods of actuation, whereas Periphero uses electrical stimulation of pre-existing muscles to elicit desired movements with positional feedback. Periphero is a stepping stone into a greater system of controlling the upper limbs outside of the peripheral nervous system." Team members include Shum, Genevieve Serafin, Li-Yen Yang,  Farzad Niroui and Jakub Dworakowski. Photo c/o author.

As outlined by UoW engineering professor Sanjeev Bedi, the real key to a successful student project is the ability to "define the need" for any specific solution, before actually going out to build anything.

According to Bedi:
Professor Bedi at work. Photo c/o author.  
This is a high impact educational activity defined around needs. 
What we do is allow the students to spend a significant amount of time on a specific problem and interact with others, end-users, professors and students, in order to define real needs and build a polished and commercial product. 
The intent of the program is to prepare students to work in teams with other students, communications, business people and engineers in order to build a very excellent, and commercially useful project.
There are also quite a number of other UoW programs designed to help entrepreneurial engineers get started. They include:

  • The Entrepreneurship Option in Engineering program, designed for students who want to explore entrepreneurship by taking courses to enhance their technical background with business skills. 
  • The Enterprise Co-op program, which allows students to pursue an entrepreneurial co-op option to start their own business while earning co-op credits. 


  • The various programs taking place through the UoW Velocity entrepreneurship program, the largest free startup incubator in North America. These include:
  • The Velocity Garage, a home base for up to 120 startups building cutting-edge technology in the heart of the Waterloo region. 
  • The Velocity Fund, a non-equity grant program for startups that offers $375,000 annually to local startups in $5K to $25K increments. 
  • The Velocity Residence, a unique opportunity for UoW students to live in an on-campus entrepreneurial environment. 
  • Velocity Start, a new 6,000 sq ft space on-campus for people who want to learn about entrepreneurship and collaborate with like-minded people. 
  • The Waterloo Commercialization Office (WatCo), which promotes the commercialization of leading-edge intellectual property opportunities arising from research enterprise.

Chuck Black.
Taken together, these programs provide both general insight into the way in which universities are changing to remain relevant in the 21st century and specific examples of how UoW is attempting to grow into a world class blending of commercial and educational training.

It will be interesting to see where it takes them.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. He is very happy with his new t-shirt.

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