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Meet the Waterloo dropouts living the digital dream

Meet the Waterloo dropouts living the digital dream

Posted by PanamericanWorld on February 08, 2016

Hongwei Liu is standing in his office wearing head-to-toe black: crisp poplin shirt, jeans, suede sneakers. The co-founder and CEO of MappedIn, a multimillion-dollar company that crafts touch-screen directories for shopping malls and retail stores, is a University of Waterloo dropout who oversees a staff of 26.

He is 24 years old.

Liu is among a small but growing number of young adults in the Kitchener-Waterloo area who are redefining what it takes to create a successful business. They’ve abandoned their studies in order to launch startups in this cauldron of tech ingenuity. It could be argued they epitomize the entrepreneurial spirit, skipping classes to get in the game instead, following in the footsteps of industry icons such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

There’s even a lucrative program for these dropouts. The Thiel Fellowship, established in 2011 by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, hands out $100,000 (U.S.) and invaluable mentorship to university students under the age of 22 who are willing to leave school to pursue a tech project. Two University of Waterloo dropouts, Liam Horne and Harry Gandhi, were among the 20 recipients of the two-year fellowship in 2015. More than 2,800 people had applied.

Harry Gandhi of Medella Health in Kitchener.

Harry Gandhi of Medella Health in Kitchener.

In Liu’s case, after three-and-a-half semesters he abandoned his electrical engineering studies to focus on MappedIn, which he founded in 2011 with two classmates. Less than five years later, the company now boasts clients such as Cadillac Fairview and Canadian Tire.

“This is the longest single thing I’ve done in my whole life,” Liu says with a laugh. “It got to the point that I could no longer pass school because of the amount of time I was spending on MappedIn. It was a pretty practical and necessary decision.”

Liu says going to university isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “When my parents were going through post-secondary education, it was a distinction; now it’s a norm.

“It’s not going to guarantee anything anymore … that’s what a lot of parents miss out on, but I think most people our age have already figured that out.”

“There’s been a change, I would say, in the last five years with this generation of Internet kids,” says Iain Klugman, CEO of Communitech. The not-for-profit company is the Kitchener-Waterloo region’s leading tech hub and startup accelerator.

“They are latchkey kids. They’ve had access to the Internet their entire lives. Their peers are more important than their parents. They think differently and they communicate differently.”

During the past five years, more than 2,200 startups have been launched in Kitchener-Waterloo, raising nearly $850 million in investment. Innovation is the area’s forte, spurred by an alchemy of university-fuelled research, government investment, eager young minds and the presence of tech giants such as Google and BlackBerry.

Communitech is a hive of laptop-wielding 20-somethings located in a reclaimed downtown Kitchener factory once home to the largest leather tannery in the British Commonwealth. The Tannery is a place where startups are engaged in everything from data analytics to creating wearable technology for horses.

Walk through its colourful labyrinthine halls and you’ll also find Velocity Garage. Velocity, which provides University of Waterloo student- and alumni-run startups with workspace, mentorship and funding opportunities, has nurtured 165 companies, including MappedIn, since its 2008 launch. Sometimes that support creates such momentum in students’ startups that they need to drop out of school to see their business ideas through.

Reinforcing the program’s community spirit, many in the Garage’s open workspace wear Velocity hoodies and T-shirts. Their average age is 23.

“It’s never been cheaper to build a company and so the opportunity for young people has never been better,” Velocity director Mike Kirkup says. “They’re only constrained, ultimately, by their vision.”

Dropouts, Kirkup adds, are still in the minority — he estimates there is one for every five or six entrepreneurs who stay in school. But Klugman believes the number of dropouts is growing, even though the university aims to keep students by allowing them to use their businesses for co-op credits and class projects.

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