The Waterloo Engineering /Spectrum 28 Mentor & Venture program made its first investment of $400,000 in three Waterloo startups on April 3, 2017. Elucid, Acerta and Knote will share the money, billed as “pre-seed investment” to help grow their startups. (click on headline for entire story)
The funding came from Lyon Wong, co-founder and general partner of Spectrum 28, a $170 million venture capital fund based in Silicon Valley. The mentoring program is open to Waterloo Engineering undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty members and taps into a $2 million fund Spectrum 28 set aside for promising University of Waterloo ventures.
“I’m hoping to find the next global company to emerge from here,” said Wong, a 2003 Waterloo systems design engineering graduate.
“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 surprised the three teams he has been working with for months by revealing they will share $400,000 in funding to pursue projects in the medical, automotive and insurance industries.
But the good news for the startups came only after more scrutiny by Wong and about 50 audience members during a two-hour event hosted by program partner Waterloo Engineering. The mentoring portion of the program means students get to see the behind-the-scenes process of what a venture capitalist is looking for when investing in startups
Unlike pitch competitions that wrap up in a few hours, the Spectrum 28 Mentor & Venture program offers extensive mentoring from Wong and his investment partners over many months. The expectation is to see growth, particularly through listening to experts and customers, before betting on the abilities of early stage entrepreneurs to build winning companies.
Wong pulls no punches when he dissects a team’s progress. Hard-hitting, 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.
“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 Wong’s laser-focused 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 a master’s degree in electrical and computer 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.”
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.”
Waterloo Engineering Faculty
Conrad’s Wayne Chang and Carolyn MacGregor, associate chair of undergraduate studies in Systems Design, are key members of the mentoring program, which is just wrapping up the first of the three-year program.
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. Waterloo Engineering undergraduate, graduate and faculty are encouraged to attend the sessions and to apply to the mentorship program.