Departing Velocity Director Mike Kirkup looks back on four years of building the #WaterlooRegion startup ecosystem

mike kirkup

After Velocity Director Mike Kirkup’s announcement of his departure from the incubator, I caught up with Mike to get a retrospective of his time at Velocity and the impact both he and the incubator has had on the student and startup community in Waterloo Region.

Let’s rewind a bit back to the very beginning. Why did you decide to join Velocity?

When I left RIM/BlackBerry in 2011, my wife and I decided that we wanted to stay in Waterloo even though I had several opportunities to leave the region. I wanted to see what I could do to make Waterloo an amazing place. Joining Velocity seemed like a great way to make an impact although I never would have guessed at the kind of success that we would achieve with the program.

Can you give me a retrospective of your time at Velocity? How much has it changed over the last four years?

When I arrived at Velocity it was primarily the residence program. The Velocity Fund had just written its first two cheques and there was about 2,000 sq ft of incubation space in the Tannery. In the past four years, we have achieved so much it is hard to list all of the steps in-between. We opened the Velocity Garage in 2012 and it is now North America’s largest free startup incubator at 36,711 sq ft. We started Velocity Alpha which has now morphed to Velocity Start — a clubhouse for entrepreneurs on campus. A place where students can work on their company and get the mentorship needed for success. We created Velocity Science in partnership with the Faculty of Science to help students with access to lab space. It has spawned a whole new generation of life sciences and nanotechnology companies in the Waterloo Region. It lead to the Velocity Garage being the first incubator in Kitchener with a wet lab. And of course, the Velocity Residence continues to draw some of the best people across campus who want to live with other entrepreneurs. In that time period we helped to create over 175 companies who have gone on to raise over $300M in funding.

You’ve mentored and supported an impressive number of startups during your time at Velocity. Which of the earlier startups do you think are the most notable?

The most notable companies through Velocity at this point are Kik, Pebble, Vidyard, Thalmic Labs, MappedIn, and Sortable. That said, I am very excited about the companies that are going through the program now.

Which of the more recent startups should we be watching for?

So many! ApplyBoard, Palette, Lumotune, Vitameter, Prospect and many others would make my list of key ones to watch who are in the program right now.

What impact has Velocity and its various programs (Residence, Start, Science, Garage) had on the entrepreneurial culture at the University of Waterloo? Have you seen a rise in student entrepreneurship?

It is hard to measure the overall impact of Velocity especially on culture. We have more students than ever before considering entrepreneurship. We have students who are coming to the University of Waterloo specifically because of the Velocity program. We have students in first year who are building companies and pitching those businesses at a stage that is insanely impressive for a 18 year old. But we didn’t do this alone – the faculties and other entrepreneurship programs also deserve credit for their hard work in helping to build entrepreneurs.

What is next for Velocity?

Finding a new director. 🙂 In all seriousness, the Velocity Garage will scale to hold over 100 companies all going through incubation at the same time. We recently split the Garage program into three stages – customer discovery, build and scale. It has worked incredibly well and my team will keep pushing to improve that model. Food Services will be opening up their adjoining space to Velocity Start and it will create an amazing environment where any entrepreneur or student will want to hang out. I am really excited to participate in the finishing touches of these programs.

Who will be filling in your shoes as the Director of Velocity?

At this point, there is no chosen candidate. The search is underway to find a replacement and I was impressed by the people who reached out yesterday looking to apply for the job. We are looking for someone awesome to continue building on the platform we have created and so if anyone is interested feel free to email me at mkirkup@uwaterloo.ca.

Finally, why now? What prompted the leave to Encircle?

There is never a good time to leave but ultimately this seemed like it was the best balance. The construction in the Velocity Garage and Velocity Start will be finished by the time I leave and by staying until May 20th I can help with the crunch at the start of the next term. Velocity is in its strongest position since I joined in 2012 and I am confident our world class team will continue to operate Velocity while they search for my replacement.

Why Encircle? Encircle is a company that I have worked with for the past three years and I know all of the founders really well. Paul Donald (CEO) and I worked together at BlackBerry. Ronuk and Christophe have been an instrumental part of the Velocity Residence for years and I have really enjoyed working with all of them. One of my biggest lessons learned at Velocity is the importance of having a great team and enjoying working with them. I truly believe I am joining a world class team at Encircle and I love the challenge of changing an industry especially one as huge as insurance!

Feature image courtesy of Matt Rae

Karel Vuong

Karel Vuong

Karel is BetaKit's correspondent in Waterloo Region. After a stint in Silicon Valley, Karel wasn’t convinced by its appeal and returned to the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor. He is currently a designer at Vidyard and the founder of Spaces, the place to go to discover where Canadian tech and innovation comes to life. If you have a space you’d like to show off, he’d love to talk.