communitech @20 box

Jay Shah felt exhausted as he blearily looped the knot on his tie. The breakfast he was heading to started at seven and he and the co-founders of his fledgling company, BufferBox, had for months been working what they jokingly called “the new nine to five”: 9 a.m. to 5.a.m. But even with their abbreviated sleep schedules, this was one meal they couldn’t skip.

The team behind BufferBox – recent University of Waterloo graduates Aditya Bali, Mike McCauley, and Shah – made a point of going to this type of networking event. Organized by Communitech, each TechWorking Breakfast featured a prominent speaker, and before each presentation, a local startup had five minutes to pitch its product. On this April morning in 2012, it was the BufferBox team’s turn to showcase their concept to a who’s who of the Waterloo Region tech community.  

As McCauley looked on, Shah took the stage and delivered the BufferBox elevator pitch with self-deprecating humour: While everyone else was focused on the growing world of social, local and mobile technology, they were pitching an outlier: a hardware and logistics company. BufferBox was, in effect, a parcel-pickup service, where users could accept packages in a central location. When your package arrived, you’d get an email and a one-time code that allowed you to retrieve it; once you picked it up, another user would be free to use the same compartment in the self-serve kiosk.

BufferBox was just the warm-up act, but their presentation caught the attention of Steve Woods, the senior director of engineering at Google – though neither McCauley nor Shah knew that until they flipped over his business card at the end of their conversation. “He came up to Jay and I afterwards, and said, ‘Hey, I think what you guys are working on is really interesting,’” McCauley remembers. Soon, Google had its own BufferBox inside its Waterloo Region office; a few months later, it acquired the company itself.

There were many more late nights in between that meeting and the acquisition by Google, of course. “But I think that that’s the type of connection Communitech was able to provide for us,” McCauley says. “And obviously, that one led to something that was bigger than we would have ever expected.”

(Illustration: Aleksandar and Una Janicijevic)

(Illustration: Aleksandar and Una Janicijevic)

BufferBox’s backstory is a familiar one to a generation of young Canadian tech entrepreneurs. Bali, McCauley and Shah came up with the idea for their company during their final year of school and took advantage of local programs available to business-minded graduates – first at the Accelerator Centre, and then, after winning a $25,000 Velocity Venture Fund grant, inside the Velocity Garage. The space embedded them in a cluster of friendly competition, meet-ups and events – including the TechWorking Breakfasts.

Fortuitous events and unforeseen connections are a part of every business success story. But in the case of many companies that have grown within the rich startup environment of Waterloo Region, one organization makes these seemingly random events possible every day. For almost 20 years, Communitech has been at the centre of a thriving ecosystem, leveraging local academic expertise and combining it with the entrepreneurial acumen of experienced mentors.

Many of the nascent businesses that have been touched by Communitech are working with cutting-edge science or technology; others simply have a good new idea. Just over two years ago, Kevin Forestell was on vacation with his family in Florida when he was struck by a thought that will be familiar to many: “Like Airbnb, but for…”

Having already built up one of the largest landscape, construction, maintenance and snow removal companies in Canada, Forestell had a lot of heavy equipment sitting around at any given time. Suddenly, he and his family realized that the same market forces that allowed them to rent an empty beach house in Florida could solve their idle equipment issue.

To make their idea a reality, Forestell’s wife, Erin Stephenson, suggested they try an organization she had encountered through her previous work at BlackBerry: Communitech. Forestell, his brother Tim and Stephenson were paired with a mentor, and soon their new equipment-sharing company, DOZR, had been accepted into the Google for Entrepreneurs program, hosted at the Communitech Hub. Next they entered the Communitech Rev Accelerator. Whether it was building a scalable sales process or learning how to optimize search-engine results, Forestell says they found help in every direction. And the DOZR team members were quick studies: In 2016, they won the Rev Demo Day prize, taking home $100,000.

(Illustration: Aleksandar and Una Janicijevic)

(Illustration: Aleksandar and Una Janicijevic)

But there was one serious hurdle left: DOZR needed a special insurance product that would cover renters in case of losses. So last February, Forestell found himself at Communitech’s “Insurance Disrupted” event, where leaders from the insurance industry gathered with startups and entrepreneurs to talk about how to innovate in a field not known for embracing risk.

While he didn’t know it at the time, he wasn’t just pitching his company as a client for a new kind of insurance product – there were people in the room looking to invest. The decision makers at Fairfax Financial Holdings, who had just launched FairVentures, an innovation lab at the Communitech Hub, saw an opportunity in both cases. One of their Canadian branches created a product specifically for DOZR, and shortly after, FairVentures announced it was investing $2.5 million in the growing company.

With Communitech’s help, Forestell has settled into his new role as the CEO of a thriving startup. “The basic business principles are still there, but you have way more opportunities to scale,” he says. “That’s probably the biggest change. That, and there’s a ping-pong table in the office.”

The business community immediately saw the value of DOZR; sometimes, however, it’s consumers, not venture capitalists, who lead the way. When former University of Waterloo student Eric Migicovsky was developing Pebble, a sleek smartwatch that ultimately jump-started the market for wearables, he struggled to find investors. So he turned to crowdfunding – and immediately destroyed every target he had set. In the end, Migicovsky raised more than $10 million, setting a long-standing record for the most money raised on Kickstarter. (He would go on to double that result in a follow-up 2015 campaign).

Migicovsky first had the idea for a smartwatch four years earlier while on exchange at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. As he rode through the streets on his bicycle, his cellphone was buzzing constantly. He couldn’t reach into his pocket. What if, he thought, he could look at his wrist instead?

(Illustration: Aleksandar and Una Janicijevic)

(Illustration: Aleksandar and Una Janicijevic)

When he returned to Waterloo, Migicovsky began working on the project in earnest. He got an early break at a pitch competition in 2008, where Communitech awarded the young student $1,000 in seed money. Next he joined the University of Waterloo’s Velocity program, an incubator that connects entrepreneurial students with mentors and resources, and eventually created the inPulse smartwatch – a precursor to the Pebble that tethered to BlackBerry devices – as his fourth-year project.

While Migicovsky went on to move to Silicon Valley, he hasn’t forgotten his roots at the University of Waterloo. “I met a great network of people who are also very good at building things,” said Migicovsky in an interview with Communitech News, shortly after the launch of the Pebble. “That’s where it started.” And where it continued: Pebble had an office in downtown Kitchener before the company was acquired by Fitbit in late 2016.

For their part, McCauley, Shah, and Forestell remain close to their roots at Communitech. While Forestell is still receiving mentorship as his business grows, McCauley has come out the other side: He went on to work at Google X, the company’s super-stealth “moonshot factory” in California, then moved back to Waterloo Region to help build a venture fund, Garage Capital, which invests in local startups. “I think that creative environment comes from the fact that the early successes from this region have always given back,” he says. “The first thing that comes to everyone’s mind when they meet someone new and hear about what they’re working on is who do I know that this person could speak with who might be able to help them?”

Shah, who has since left Google to become the Director of Velocity, agrees. “Things have changed in some really exciting ways,” he writes – the scope, the complexity, the facilities, and the Waterloo Region brand have all grown. But the most vital things have stayed the same. “What’s special is that our ecosystem builds things. And more often than not, we build things people want.”