Young entrepreneurs with real-world experience build companies that scale fast
Waterloo founder built one of Canada’s fastest-growing tech companies by solving a problem for international students like him
Waterloo founder built one of Canada’s fastest-growing tech companies by solving a problem for international students like himBy Beth Gallagher University Relations
Martin Basiri was an ambitious undergrad at a top university in Iran when he decided to study abroad for graduate school. He had already built a startup, won a national innovation competition, and excelled in school.
But even for someone like Basiri, who loves solving complex problems, the overseas application process was a struggle. It was more than a year of phone calls, paperwork, language tests, missed messages, and web searches. “It was so confusing and time-consuming,” Basiri says. At one point he hopped a plane and visited universities in person.
Basiri was eventually accepted into a graduate engineering program at the University of Waterloo and today, he is the CEO of ApplyBoard, one of Canada’s fastest-growing tech companies. Basiri (MASc ’13) co-founded the company that streamlines the application process for international students, along with his brothers Meti and Massi Basiri, who also lived through frustrating experiences as international student applicants.
“We pay very close attention to our customers. We understand the frustrations and challenges,” Basiri says. “We know what students need today because we’ve experienced it.”
It’s that lived experience that helps turn a startup idea into a scaleup with exponential growth like ApplyBoard, Jay Shah (BASc ’11) says. Shah is a Waterloo alumnus and former director at Velocity, the University of Waterloo’s flagship entrepreneurship program. “ApplyBoard’s founders were painfully aware of how hard it was to interact with institutions from abroad,” Shah says. “Their killer advantage is that they understood the problem because they experienced it deeply.”
Shah points out that the University of Waterloo’s renowned co-operative education program, which gives students two years of paid work experience with rigorous academic learning, is a critical ingredient to the success of the University’s entrepreneurial programs.
“A founder who actually has industrial experience is going to be way more productive and way better about building a business than someone who doesn’t,” Shah says. “If Waterloo didn’t have co-op, the output of Velocity would be significantly diminished.”
Nearly 20 percent of startup founders in Canada graduated from the University of Waterloo, according to a 2019 report from the University of Toronto Impact Centre and more recently an Economic Impact Report from Deloitte found Waterloo’s entrepreneurship programs have generated $2.3 billion in revenue in a little over a decade. Overall, Waterloo adds more than $3 billion to Canada’s GDP every year.
“The quality of ideas are often better when founders have diverse experiences,” Shah explains. Co-op students come up with strong ideas for entrepreneurial ventures because they’ve had six co-op terms and they understand what industry needs.
While Waterloo’s co-operative education program supports new business in Canada, it also supplies fast-growing scaleups, like ApplyBoard, with a rich pipeline of talent. Co-operative education is a win-win for students and employers. Hiring co-op students for four-month work terms allow ApplyBoard to evaluate potential full-time hires up close and train young talent in the specific skills needed in the organization.
ApplyBoard is growing fast — with more than 350 employees in their Kitchener headquarters and 59 countries around the world. Basiri says the University of Waterloo has had a huge impact on his growing business: “It’s the biggest asset we have in this region for creating talent and growing that entrepreneurial spirit.”
Canadian employers realized $2 in economic gains for every dollar they invested in co-op students, for a total of $525 million in gains in 2018/19, according to the Deloitte Economic Impact Report. Locally, more than 70 percent of companies in the Waterloo region depend on highly skilled Waterloo graduates and students as a source of employment.
On the other hand, co-op students get to gain experience at multiple companies within an industry or even across sectors, giving them a rich professional network and deep industry experience when they graduate from Waterloo.