How co-op alumni founders are shaping the future through innovation

The road to entrepreneurship begins with an idea. For Pooja Viswanathan (BMath ’06) and Joseph Lee (BMath ’99), their journeys began with ideas that sparked during their co-op student work term experiences.  

Viswanathan (she/her), CEO and founder of Braze Mobility, provides navigation solutions for wheelchair users. She has spent over a decade researching smart wheelchairs to make them safer and increase user independence.  Pooja Viswanathan

“We've developed the world's first blind spot sensors for any wheelchair,” says Viswanathan. “This transforms it into a smart wheelchair that detects obstacles and provides the users with alerts through intuitive lights, sounds and vibrations.” 

Viswanathan discovered the field of assistive technology while studying computer science at Waterloo. She chose the bioinformatics academic option and spent her co-op work terms in a variety of positions. The experience of working in a variety of industries and research labs during her co-op work terms helped Viswanathan to solidify her passion for assistive technology.  

“It all started in 2006 when I first visited a long-term care facility and saw residents slumped over in manual chairs that they couldn’t self-propel. They weren’t allowed to use power mobility because of safety concerns,” she adds. “I was intrigued and felt like that was a violation of human rights. At the time we were starting to see sensor technology on cars and I thought, let’s see how this technology could help with this problem.” 

Ten years later, Viswanathan felt amazing once she started using Braze’s technology to work toward solving the problem.  

Today, Viswanathan is eager to spread her love for assistive technology to other co-op students. She hires students in roles such as product experience designers, electronics integration interns, and research and development (R&D) interns.  

“The first co-op student I hired ended up becoming my right hand and headed up our R&D department. He was largely responsible for bringing the product to market,” says Viswanathan. “For a startup, it's such a wonderful experience having co-op students in your organization.” 

A humble beginning  

JOseph LeeLike Viswanathan, Joseph Lee (he/him) claims that his experience with co-operative education and the University of Waterloo changed the direction of his life. Lee was among a group of Waterloo computer science students that founded Volanté Systems. Volanté began in Lee’s basement and today is a leading point of sale (POS) system focused on the food industry.  

“My brother and I were working with a POS software company which was using old technology,” says Lee. “While we weren’t thinking of starting a company at the time, we decided that since we had just graduated to take a few months to create software we thought would be better.” 

Now, Volanté has hired more than 100 people, including co-op students, in roles that include financial analysts, technical writers, and finance and administrative roles.  

According to Lee, his own experience as a co-op student helped him in his journey to start his own business. “I started this company straight out of school, so the experience of co-op helped me to get an idea of how things worked in the business world,” he says. “At each company, I learned a little more. You get motivated with the change in roles every four months because change is good.” 

Entrepreneurship, innovation and problem solving 

Lee claims that Waterloo’s culture of innovation drives students to want to achieve greatness. The team at Volanté continues to innovate with the goal of changing their industry with developments in their next-generation product.  

It is new developments and constant changes that tie entrepreneurship to innovation for Lee. He believes entrepreneurs are creating opportunities that will change the world. “All you need is persistence to get through the ups and downs to solve problems,” Lee adds. 

Like Lee, Viswanathan also views innovation as a form of problem-solving and encourages people to focus on providing solutions that benefit the customer. “You can adopt innovation in your day-to-day life by aligning your passion and being open to learning new things,” says Viswanathan. “I feel like you're always one pivot away from success in finding the right solution.”

Both Viswanathan and Lee encourage employers to bring in emerging talent, like co-op students, to help shape their organization with innovative ideas.