A prominent venture capitalist challenged entrepreneurs to think big this week as he announced the first three startups to receive funding through a three-year, $2-million program to provide guidance and financial support to promising University of Waterloo ventures.
“I’m hoping to find the next global company to emerge from here,” said Lyon Wong, a co-founder and general partner of Spectrum 28, a US $170-million fund based in Silicon Valley.
“The question is simply, do you want to live your life fulfilling someone else’s dream, or do you want to create your own?”
Wong, who graduated from Waterloo with a degree in systems design engineering in 2003, surprised three teams he has been working with for months by revealing they will share $400,000 in funding to pursue projects in the medical technology, automotive and insurance industries.
But the good news for the startups – Elucid Labs, Knote and Acerta Systems Analytics – came only after more scrutiny by Wong and about 50 audience members during a two-hour event hosted by program partner Waterloo Engineering.
Honest, ongoing feedback is central to Wong’s approach to the Spectrum 28 Mentor & Venture Program, which helped dozens of Waterloo startups after applications from teams of senior students and faculty members were invited last spring.
Unlike pitch competitions that wrap up in a few hours, Wong provides extensive mentoring and expects to see growth, particularly through listening to experts and customers, before betting on the abilities of early stage entrepreneurs to build winning companies
“It’s about progression over time – do these dots form a line that looks like it’s going to be successful?” he said in an interview.
Founders also cited criticism and input as crucial parts of the process.
“It’s helped me grow – one, as a CEO and two, as a company and a team,” said Greta Cutulenco of Acerta. “A big part of where we are today is owed to the mentorship that we’re receiving.”
Cutulenco, who earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in engineering at Waterloo, co-founded Acerta with Professor Sebastian Fischmeister and PhD student Jean-Christophe Petkovich.
The company has developed a cloud-based system to analyze data from new vehicles to identify possible defects when they come off the assembly line, avoiding extremely costly recalls down the road.
“The biggest value of our platform is that it looks through this huge haystack of data and finds these needles, these malfunctions that are difficult to detect today,” said Cutulenco.
Knote has its origins in an algorithm that founder Ron Glozman wrote as a Waterloo computer science undergraduate to summarize textbooks while cramming for exams more than two years ago.
It has since pivoted to tackle “information overload” in the insurance business, using a branch of artificial intelligence called natural language processing to automate the search for errors in policies. Glozman’s business partner and vice-president of sales is Justin Aniballi.
“This is the beginning,” he said of the Spectrum 28 funding. “The next step is delivering the results we promised.”
Elucid grew out of research by Farnoud Kazemzadeh for his PhD at Waterloo Engineering. His company co-founders are Alexander Wong, a systems design engineering professor, and Iman Khodadad, who also earned a doctorate at Waterloo.
It features the most innovative technology of the three startups, a small imaging device for the early detection of skin cancer without taking biopsies, revealing telltale signs before they can be seen during visual inspections.
“It is the only form of cancer that is fully treatable, as in no one has to die from it,” said Kazemzadeh. “The only way that is possible is by early detection and diagnosis.”
'Have fun and seek good people'
The event also included some practical advice, in both life and business, from José Daire, a serial entrepreneur from Chile whose company, Mobile Safety SpA SmartClip, just launched a pocket security device to summon help in emergencies.
“I encourage you most of all to have fun and seek good people to surround yourself,” he said.
Wong said he has a “gut feeling” there is potential for great companies at Waterloo, in large part because its rigorous programs produce resilient engineers who are willing and able to persevere.
“It all starts with the three of you guys,” he told the winning teams. “Thanks for working with us. Hopefully you make us proud.”
The process to find the next cohort of early stage Waterloo entrepreneurs for the Spectrum 28 Mentor & Venture Program is expected to begin in June.
Photos: Brian Caldwell and JK Liu