The road to building a company with advanced technology from the ground up can be winding. 

For those who choose to travel that road in good company, meeting a co-founder can be methodical: taking on extracurricular projects while in school, attending professional networking events, tapping into family and friendships, and networking. But whether that relationship formalizes into a solid foundation that works in the startup’s favour can depend on more nebulous components. 

Alroy Almeida (BASc ‘13), Velocity’s director of Deep Tech, is one of four co-founders of alumni company Voltera, which develops machinery to print circuit boards. 

He met two of his co-founders, Jesus Zozaya and James Pickard, when working together on their fourth-year design project in mechatronics engineering. Their fourth co-founder Katarina Ilic, a graduate of nanotechnology engineering, joined when the group decided to transform their design project idea into a product and a business. 

He says co-founders are bound to run into difficulties and differences of opinion, just like in any other relationship, especially when there is high stress and high risk involved. 

“What always worked [at Voltera] is we had tremendous amount of respect for each other, which came from seeing how hard each other was working on making this dream a reality,” Almeida says. “You will have differences of what is the best path forward, but it should be coming from a place of wanting what’s best for the business with no personal agendas.” 

Finding the beauty in complimentary skillsets 

Ground News co-founders, Sukh Singh (BASc ‘12) and Harleen Kaur, are siblings. Their paths crossed professionally when they came together to work on their startup, which is a news aggregation platform that aims to improve access to news and temper polarizing perspectives. 

Ground News co-founders, Sukh Singh (BASc ‘12) and Harleen Kaur

Ground News co-founders Sukh Singh (BASc ‘12) and Harleen Kaur

“We both come from a background where technology can solve some very big problems, but news is a problem we think has not been solved with technology,” Singh says. “If it has — it’s a mixed bag and technology has muddied the picture as much as it has clarified it.” 

What brought the two together as co-founders was not their shared DNA, but rather complimentary skillsets — Kaur’s background in engineering and leadership in mobile technology startups and Singh’s background in software. 

“We had never worked together previously. It took us a while to get used to each other's working style and we were coming from very different professional backgrounds,” Kaur says. 

She adds that they found common ground through their differences — one being detail oriented and execution focused, the other a big picture thinker. 

“Having complimentary skillsets is the biggest thing co-founders need because if you both like doing the same thing, and are good at the same thing, you are going to have blind spots,” Kaur says. “We got lucky that we complemented each other in that way.” 

Singh adds that while having complimentary skillsets is paramount, there is a baked in benefit to having a sibling as co-founder. 

“Once we did start working together, being siblings brought a lot of benefits — it’s this absolute trust that comes from being family.” 

Building trust 

Blackbird co-founders, Robert Chlumsky (BASc ‘15) and Dr. Bryan Tolson, also identified trust as a key ingredient to co-founder harmony. Blackbird is a new method for floodplain mapping that could potentially impact flood mitigation and response. 

Blackbird co-founders Robert Chlumsky (BASc ‘15), Dr. James Craig and Dr. Bryan Tolson

From left to right, Blackbird co-founders Dr. Bryan Tolson, Robert Chlumsky (BASc ‘15) and Dr. James Craig

Tolson recalls the professionalism Chlumsky brought to his capstone project. 

“I knew right away that he was a gifted student,” Tolson says. “For co-founders, it’s important to have complimentary skillsets but having trust is the most important.” 

Chlumsky, Tolson and third co-founder Dr. James Craig started working together professionally after forging an academic relationship while Chlumsky was an undergraduate student. Although the academic path brought the three together, pursuing a professional relationship outside of academia gave important clues on compatibility. 

Chlumsky ended up pursuing a master's degree under Craig’s supervision with Tolson on his thesis committee. Now a PhD candidate, Craig and Tolson are supervisors on Chlumsky’s Blackbird research, which they are working to commercialize with help from Velocity. 

“Working together professionally on contracts outside the University was the first inkling there was a connection outside of academia that had potential,” Chlumsky said. “Running a startup is not easy. I’m lucky how it worked out, but we got to work together in all these different settings before we committed to the co-founder relationship.” 

Test for the right fit 

Some entrepreneurs find success alone, while others build companies with too many co-founders that can add pressure to an already complex job. While there is no one formula, there are better and worse ways to forge ahead. 

Almeida says Voltera benefitted from a bit of co-founder magic. 

“I’m very grateful I had three other people to lean on,” Almeida says. “We had such inherent trust in each other and were very aligned with where we were headed.” 

But before the magic worked, they benefitted from applying an informal method. He says the Voltera team had worked on other projects first before committing to the business — something he would highly recommend. 

“Founders need to develop respect, cover each other’s blind spots and complement each other’s skills sets and risk tolerances,” Almeida says. “Take advantage of working together in a lower risk setting while in school. Out of school, it could be reaching out to a former colleague — it’s about having a track record with each other.” 

He adds that the skills sets and experience of a co-founder matters. Founder-market fit is critical at the outset.  

“There is so much learning on the job,” Almeida says. “The less you have to learn about each other, the better.” 

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