The word ecosystem comes up often when we talk about tech in Waterloo Region, and for a good reason — we're home to a network of organizations that support startup and scale-up founders as they build their businesses. We’re proud to be part of that ecosystem, from our CEO Wes Worsfold’s roles at Velocity and Conestoga College to our partnership in SnapPea Ventures.
It's also been a year of change at many of these organizations, including new leadership at Communitech, the Accelerator Centre, the University of Waterloo Velocity Incubator, and at StartUp Lab at Wilfrid Laurier University.
If the name StartUp Lab sounds new to you, don't worry, you're not out of the loop — it's the new name of the startup support program at the university's Lazaridis School of Business. Formerly known as Laurier Launchpad, the program has undergone several changes over the last year, including new leadership with Jason Whalen taking the reins as Manager the previous spring. We sat down with Whalen to learn more about his role at StartUp Lab and his entrepreneurial journey. Originally from the East Coast of Canada, Whalen studied kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick. After graduating, he worked in Toronto for two years before a friend working in Korea suggested teaching English overseas.
"A friend of mine had started a fledgling teacher recruitment company and emailed one of our old Yahoo groups and asked if anyone was interested — and I said sure, tell me more. Two weeks later I was on a plane to Korea," Whalen said.
In Korea, Whalen taught at a small private school, then moved to teach high school students and eventually taught at a public university.
"I taught there for five and a half years, but halfway through, I had this realization that I really needed to have control of my revenue. I opened my own study room in Korea which grew very quickly to capacity. I moved to a bigger one with two classrooms, and again, that grew very quickly to capacity."
Whalen found himself at the same crossroads many entrepreneurs find themselves at — do you quit your day job and go all in or try to balance both?
"I chose to go all in — we opened a full-fledged language school with 160 students, a library — the whole bit."
After operating the school for five years, Whalen and his partner decided to move back to Canada. The same friend who had made the offer to move to Korea had moved back to Canada and was working at Wilfrid Laurier University managing international recruitment and admissions.
"He was starting a new program called the Pre-MBA. It was a program for international students who want to do the MBA. He asked me if I was interested and I applied — that was in 2011 and I've been at Laurier ever since."
At Laurier, Whalen started his MBA. His original plan was to pursue an MBA specializing in marketing, but his choice of Laurier Launchpad for his Applied Business Research course changed his trajectory.
"I fell in love with the idea of entrepreneurship and pivoted quickly to an MBA with a specialization in entrepreneurship," Whalen said.
After earning his MBA, Whalen continued his work with the university as the Pre-MBA Coordinator until the role of Manager at Laurier Launchpad became available.
"I noticed the job posting, applied for it, and was excited to get the role."
One of the first projects Whalen was involved in was the renaming of the organization. It was a change to address the audience they served and differentiate it from another one of the university's Laurier LaunchPad program at their Brantford, Ontario campus.
"Branford is very much community facing whereas we're more student and alumni facing. We do welcome community members into both programs if they have a student or alumni co-founder. Brantford also does a lot of work with Six Nations and their Chamber of Commerce."
Whalen said that StartUp Lab is also returning to helping early-stage startups build a solid foundation to scale. Supporting founders at this stage can help set them up to be ready for the services offered by other ecosystem partners once those startups are ready.
"We're part of this great ecosystem to grow your company. Our partners in the region have great connections for funding, networking, and scaling, but we strive to be the best place to start if you want to learn about the basics and how to do things right from day one," Whalen said.
StartUp Lab helps more than tech startups, too — something that Whalen said allows entrepreneurs of all types to find success.
"That's one of the things we do differently than a lot of the other incubators and startup accelerators in the region. We're industry agnostic. We see the value in food service companies and textile companies or in fintech. We have startups that are dealing with clothing, we have online marketplaces, we have mental health and well-being services — they really run the gamut. We welcome entrepreneurs of all walks of life with all ideas big or small."
StartUp Lab has been virtual during the course of the pandemic, but Whalen said the mentors and founders have continued to find success even without being in person. Still, Whalen is excited to get people into the same room once it's safe.
"If there's a program that you want to be in person, this is it. Entrepreneurship can be a very lonely place sometimes. It really helps to be in the same room with like-minded people who are experiencing the same challenges, being able to cheer each other on, being able to celebrate each other's successes, and coach each other through the challenges."
Whalen hopes to have people back for in-person programming in the new year, along with some new content and programming for their founders.
"We're really looking forward to rolling out some new programming, getting people super pumped and engaged, and reinvigorating the program for the entrepreneurs to see what they can do in the new year."