Problem Lab aims to change culture at Waterloo
A new program at the University of Waterloo is changing how entrepreneurial students think about business.
A new program at the University of Waterloo is changing how entrepreneurial students think about business.By Claire Mastrangelo Office of Advancement
Helmed by economics professor Larry Smith, the Problem Lab is dedicated to the identification and analysis of important problems, those that, when solved, can lead to revolutionary advances in industry.
With $300,000 in seed funding from Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin, the principals of Quantum Valley Investments® and founders of Blackberry, the Problem Lab supports students in the critical first stage of entrepreneurial development.
“Everyone tells students they need to solve a customer problem,” said Smith. “We say no, you don’t. You need to solve an important problem.”
Smith first conceived of the Lab in 2013, when he co-authored a report on existing programs for entrepreneurial students. Because he had decades of experience helping students launch their enterprises, the University had asked him to lead the research project.
“It was the one thing that seduced me out of the classroom,” said Smith. “We looked at what was going on in the world and discovered very interesting things.”
When he and his team examined the programs at Canadian and international institutions, they consistently found that something was missing.
“All of these services try to help students launch their enterprise, with almost no help figuring out what problem they’re trying to solve — which of course is the heart of the matter,” he added.
Smith explains that entrepreneurs who don’t spend enough time on problem identification run a greater risk of failure. Either they solve a problem that customers don’t care enough about, or they misunderstand the problem entirely. As a result, their venture never takes off — or worse, the entrepreneur struggles for years to keep their business alive before finally giving up. It’s a painful experience, and one that Smith wants to prevent as much as possible.
“The Problem Lab wants to create a culture on campus in which thoughtful problem definition becomes the norm,” said Smith.
He sees it as a first step that will lead students to the programs that will help them launch their venture.
One part of this process is the Quantum Valley Investments Problem Pitch Competition, which is funded by the gift from Lazaridis and Fregin. Designed to complement the Velocity Pitch Competition, the Problem Pitch invites students to present an important industry problem and explore its history, scope, and impact. The winners receive funding to move into R&D and start working on a solution.
“We believe that the Problem Lab and the Quantum Valley Investments Problem Pitch Competition will encourage students to focus on fully understanding a problem before venturing to solve it, and will lead to better ideas and strategies for new businesses,” said Lazaridis. “We expect the program to grow over time and play an important role in the University’s, the region’s, and Canada’s innovation ecosystem.”
In addition to hosting the competitions, the Problem Lab will collaborate with some of the University’s corporate partners and Waterloo’s co-op program to address pressing industry challenges.
“Philosophers insist that you get the question right; otherwise you’re doomed never to figure out the answer,” said Smith. “This is not some minor innovation Waterloo’s trying to create. This is both radical and audacious.”
For details on the Problem Lab and the Quantum Valley Investments Problem Pitch Competition, visit the Problem Lab website.