The Ideas City

City of Waterloo

Waterloo, named after the Belgian municipality best known as the site of Napoleon’s last stand, was a popular destination for Mennonite and German settlers in the early 1800s. Incorporated as a village in 1857, it grew to become the town of Waterloo in 1876 and finally the city of Waterloo in 1948. The City of Waterloo is currently going through one of its busiest eras – and that is saying a lot.

The city is known for its knowledge based economy as it is home to such high technology luminaries as BlackBerry, MKS Inc., Maplesoft and others. Justin McFadden, the city’s Executive Director of Economic Development, explains that it goes back to the early days of the University of Waterloo. The university started a unique intellectual property (IP) policy for professors and students and has been blazing a trail of high tech and economic success ever since.

“When IP is created it is owned by the professors and the students which fostered an innovative approach that has been a key driver behind the large number of startups found here,” explains Mr. McFadden. “Blackberry and Open-Tech were both products of this program and they are certainly two of the big players in Waterloo today.”

Most institutions retain intellectual property in a manner similar to a corporate structure; if one comes up with a patentable idea, it belongs to the employing corporation. That is typically the model in the educational world as well. The University of Waterloo, however, took a different approach which has paid obvious dividends. Other institutions have taken notice and are starting to employ the philosophy based on the success seen at the University of Waterloo.

The Waterloo area is also known for its business incubators and accelerators. Resembling an ecosystem where everything works together symbiotically, the best known and largest of these is Communitech. It is based in the adjacent city of Kitchener and provides support to technology companies from startups to global businesses. Communitech encourages the sharing of ideas while giving access to capital, talent, mentoring, connections and other development opportunities in order to create greater numbers of successful Canadian businesses.

Partially funded by the University of Waterloo, the world renowned Accelerator Centre is an award-winning facility dedicated to developing and commercializing technology startups. “They are an incubator focusing on early stage companies where they are mentored and given all kinds of different resources for driving their business forward,” shares Mr. McFadden. Some of these companies will move from the Accelerator Center to Communitech and vice versa depending on the need.

The University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University also have incubator programs on site: Velocity and the Laurier LaunchPad respectively. Between the two, a host of different areas are covered. “It’s really an amazing culture of incubation that has been born out of the universities and has found its way around the area.”

In 1999, Blackberry founder Mike Lazaridis also founded the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics as a centre for scientific research and training in foundational theoretical physics. Created to advance our understanding of the universe, the institute also shares the wonders of science with students and the general public.

Stephen Hawking, world famous physicist, has been given the position of Distinguished Research Chair at the institute and visits for regular extended periods. The institute director aims to see the Perimeter Institute become a second “research home” for leading scientists from around the world.

Mike Lazaridis has also funded the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre. This research and development laboratory for nanotechnology and quantum information science is focused more on the possibilities of commercialization within the relatively short term of a ten year window. “What technology will be the next electricity, the next microchip? What will propel us exponentially into the future from a technology perspective? There are no computers; it is all chalkboards, math and physics. They have recruited some of the leading theoretical physicists in the world and moved them here.”

Just across the street from the Perimeter Institute is the Balsillie School of International Affairs. The co-CEO of Blackberry founded it to study and educate in the field of international governmental policy. The school which, in part, shares the same campus as the Centre for International Governance Innovation, has the goal of improving global governance while creating policy designed to tackle humanity’s problems and improve the quality of life of people around the globe.

One of the reasons why Waterloo’s universities are so renowned is due to the world leading incubator and accelerator programs within them. The aim is to commercialize new ideas coming from intellectual property and move them into the real world. It’s more than just science, research and graduation. It’s about spawning ideas into real products that then get created and spun off by companies.

“It’s not just a school,” says Mr. McFadden; “it’s a factory of commercialization. Because the co-op programs are so strong, you graduate with a resume to take with you, and there is a tonne of demand for experienced new grads, whether it be here locally or in other parts of the world.”

Outside of academia and technology, one area that people may not associate with Waterloo is insurance. “We have Canada’s biggest insurance sector in the city of Waterloo. There are more people employed in it here than at Blackberry. The tech sector employs 30,000 regionally with over half in Waterloo. Technology is obviously big and what we are known for, but insurance is very important as well.”

The region is home to half a dozen large insurance companies. Insurance companies are a large part of the economy and even technology employees have found homes at companies including Sun Life Financial and Manulife Financial. “Folks that are in finance, business development and accounting are easily making the transition to the insurance companies. We are very fortunate in that regard.”

The insurance industry is also a huge supporter of culture and sport in the city as it hosts the Sun Life Financial Waterloo Busker Carnival in the summer which usually sees about 50,000 people over a four day period. The company also sponsors the Sun Life Financial Uptown Waterloo Jazz Festival which draws 40,000 people over a weekend. “We also have the LPGA’s Manulife Classic which draws about 70,000. It is one of the biggest drawing events on the LPGA Tour.”

Recently there has been a great deal of investment interest from outside Canada. As many Chinese students come to the universities, just about every other week a large delegation of Chinese investors come through the region looking for different investment opportunities whether it is real estate or in local companies.

Development is booming. Waterloo Corporate Campus is a commercial and office space project being built by Intermarket Real Estate Group in three phases. This forty acre site is being transformed into a multiuse office complex which will have restaurants, shopping, food stores, commercial and retail in 800,000 square feet. One high ceilinged, exposed beamed building is completed.

The new Boardwalk development will have plenty of retail and commercial space and a large medical center has also just opened. “For many years there had been a significant doctor shortage in the region but that has changed. One of the attraction points for doctors is this brand new state of the art medical facility built on the west side. It is one of the gems of that particular site, but there are all kinds of restaurants, shopping and other amenities. It is a really interesting and exciting new development.”

The Barrel Yards is a development uptown in the barrel yards of the former distiller Seagram’s. A developer has acquired the land and has commercial and office space on the ground floor, with residential above. A new four star hotel is under construction that will open later this year. This exciting development is in the heart of uptown, on the LRT route and will add to the continued transformation of the downtown core.

The City of Waterloo has become a beacon of ideas and investments. The mix of universities, think tanks, incubators, accelerators, insurance corporations, finance, real estate developments and foreign investment works, in large part, because of the city’s unique interdependency and sharing of knowledge, economics and research. It also has a fast growing manufacturing sector which actually has quite a challenge to find enough employees and technologists as growth outpaces skills.

As Waterloo’s position as an internationally recognized centre for technology and innovation continues to fuel startups, the local economic boom shows no signs of slowing any time soon.

For more information about the City of Waterloo, please visit

May 29, 2020, 3:48 AM EDT