Mike Wekerle shares commitment to Waterloo at Entrepreneurs Exchange

Mike Wekerle

Whether you know him as a former trader on Bay Street, the television personality on Dragons’ Den, or simply ‘Wek’, Michael Wekerle is a household name.

Hot on the heels of attending the 2016 Cantech Investment Conference in Toronto the night before, Wekerle graced Startup Laurier’s flagship event, the Entrepreneurs Exchange, with a very special visit to deliver the opening keynote.

Startup Laurier is an organization at Wilfrid Laurier University that brings entrepreneurial culture and community to campus. They provide students with the resources and connections to help them explore and pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions whether that be through starting your own business, working for a startup, or learning more about Waterloo Region’s entrepreneurship community.

Wekerle began his talk with a dive into his background as someone who never went to university and gained most of his early experience from the floor of the Toronto Stock Exchange. With the spirit and hustle of some of the best entrepreneurs, he became one of the Bay Street’s most eminent traders. From his time in Bay Street and Dragons’ Den, Wekerle has always had a keen eye for investments. Now, he has set his sights on a new place to invest in: Waterloo.

In 2014, Wekerle established the Waterloo Innovation Network to support and invest in the growth of Waterloo Region’s technology startups. More recently, he purchased six former BlackBerry buildings in Waterloo, making it incredibly clear that he is bullish on the region.

But Wekerle isn’t alone in recognizing this potential – especially in real estate. Google Canada’s move into its new office at 51 Breithaupt Street has injected a belief in Waterloo Region, one that was mirrored by property investors at a condominium sales event in Toronto for property in Waterloo.

“There’s a reason why the Cambridge Innovation Centre is successful. MIT. There’s a reason why Dell Innovation Centre is so successful. University of Texas. And there’s a reason why Menlo Park is so successful. Stanford University.”
– Michael Wekerle

To Wekerle, it’s not just about the higher returns or resell potential that led him to invest. “It’s not about the physical buildings… it’s where you are,” he said. And he doesn’t mean this geographically. Wekerle noted that what Justin Trudeau said at Davos was extremely important for the region. “He said that the key place to focus on… is Waterloo. Now, that’s a powerful statement – to endorse Waterloo at the world stage.” Of all the cities that Trudeau has visited in his brief time as Prime Minister, to identify Waterloo as one of the places to watch out for speaks volumes.

Wekerle said his investment in real estate is all part of his bigger plan for Waterloo Region. His goal is to create an innovation centre that rivals some of the best in the world, and he believes he knows the secret sauce that has constituted their successes.

With the flourishing tech community in the region, successful enterprises like BlackBerry and OpenText, and fast-growing startups like Kik, Vidyard, and Magnet Forensics, some might say that their successes are owed, in part, to the educational institutions based in Waterloo Region.

“When you look at everything that comes out of this environment, you guys are the mecca. Laurier, University of Waterloo, and Conestoga College,” Wekerle said.

While UW is known its world-class engineering talent, Laurier has a reputation for its strong business program. The close proximity of these two schools and their corresponding strengths help to create this strong sense of community and collaboration. With the expertise of UW students in building and designing of products combined with Laurier students who are familiar with the business side of things, it’s no wonder why Waterloo Region is such a hotbed for successful startups.

Michael Wekerle

Michael Wekerle poses with students at the Entrepreneurs Exchange organized by Startup Laurier.

Following Wekerle’s speech, a question was raised by one of the students about how the community can address the knowledge drain and keep kids in Waterloo. With all of the great talent and people coming out of the area, how do we stop them from leaving to find jobs in places like Silicon Valley?

Wekerle’s answer to this was that we need to expose students to the options that are available to them here, which is exactly what organizations like Startup Laurier, Velocity, and Communitech seek to address. After speaking to Danielle Wong, one of Startup Laurier’s co-presidents, she said that the event was a success in informing the students about these options.

“Entrepreneurs Exchange is all about showcasing the entrepreneurship scene here in Kitchener-Waterloo and getting students excited about starting their own business or working for one of the amazing companies here,” Wong said. “After talking to attendees during the event, we definitely achieved those goals.”

“Do your education at Google and then come back and do your thing.”

If that’s not enough, then why not just bring the companies in Silicon Valley here? According to Wekerle, it’s just a matter of time before “the other guys” realize what they’re missing out on and set up an office like Google Canada has.

Of course, Silicon Valley and other innovation centres have their merits. The experiences you can get, people you can meet, and resources you can leverage are valuable and shouldn’t be discounted. Wekerle’s advice: “do your education at Google and then come back and do your thing.”

To Wekerle, it’s inevitable that Waterloo Region will become a globally competitive tech powerhouse. It’s only a question of when. With the calibre of students like those that attended the Entrepreneurs Exchange, the support of UW and Laurier for entrepreneurs, and presence of successful startups and companies, the right pieces are in place for Canada’s future entrepreneurs to thrive and the region to continue its growth and evolution into a world-class innovation centre.

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.