We acknowledge that we live and work on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. The University of Waterloo is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land promised to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River.
The Wolves Summit is a biannual conference that takes place in Warsaw, Poland, offering prizes of over $50,000. Having heard that startups from Waterloo had won in the past, my co-founder Toby and I applied to it, hoping to win the 2015 pitch competition prize of $100,000 for our startup, Okey Labs.
At Okey Labs, we are building a wearable mobile app that allows users to log into devices and websites securely and conveniently using physical presence rather than passwords. During the fall 2015 term, I worked full-time on the business through Conrad’s Enterprise Co-op program.
We were pleased that we were accepted to the Wolves Summit, and the only problem that remained was finances for travelling to Poland. Being student entrepreneurs, we had very few funds to spare. Luckily, we were able to apply for financial support through the Conrad Centre, which allowed us to make the trip.
The Waterloo advantage
On the first day of the conference, all attendees pitched their startups hoping to advance to the first stage of eliminations, in which ten startups were picked from over 350. The most surprising thing that I learned that day was the advantage that the Waterloo ecosystem provided over startups in the wild.
I’d expected a slight to moderate advantage in pitching by being more engaging or nailing the right points with the judges. However, I quickly found that not only were pitches from Waterloo startups more engaging, they also had a level of polish that seemed to escape the majority of European startups.
The two Waterloo startups in attendance (Okey Labs and former E Co-op company, NERv) were better timed with more concise pitch decks and ready answers to the judges' questions, something I’d thought that all startups would have down pat. I quickly realized that this was honed by repeatedly watching the pitches during E Co-op and spending time refining the pitch through multiple iterations.
The resident pitching coach Piotr Bucki even came over to compliment me on the quality of the pitch, and that’s when I really understood that the Waterloo ecosystem allows us to set ourselves apart, not only in Canada but also on a world stage.
On the second day, there were numerous meetings with investors which were valuable in that they showed me the difference between the industries in North America and Europe.
I met with the head of innovation at the largest energy company in Poland, and he was surprisingly receptive of the future direction of our company that I pitched to him. Not only was he excited despite the fact that this plan competes with how his company currently functions, he also made it clear that he’d want to keep in touch as well as eventually invest in us.
This was in stark contrast with the stories I’ve heard from startups here that have dealt with big companies in Canada, which are often uninterested in startups.
A glimpse into the European startup scene
Unfortunately Okeylabs and I did not make it to the semifinals, but the other Waterloo startup, NERv, did! While even they did not go on to win the final prize, it was quite clear that the repeated practice they had at home allowed them to go far in the competition.
Ultimately the conference allowed me to glimpse the differences in how startups in North America and Europe function, as well as the value of the Conrad Centre, and the Waterloo ecosystem as a whole.
While the conference did have quite a few organizational bumps, it was a rewarding experience in which I got to see how European industries view foreign startups, meet a few successful serial entrepreneurs from all around the globe, and gain an appreciation for the opportunities I’ve had as a Waterloo student with the entrepreneurial bug.
Sankarshan Mudkavi is a 3B Mathematical Physics student at the University of Waterloo. When he's not working on his startup, Okey Labs, he enjoys doing physics, playing chess, and cooking.