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Waterloo’s incubator residence

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | APR 07 2008

There’s never been anything quite like it in Canada: the University of Waterloo is setting aside its smallest student residence to serve as an “ideas incubator” filled with entrepreneurially inclined students. Starting in September, the 72 students picked to live in the university’s Minota Hagey Residence will work together to imagine the future of mobile communications, the web and new media.

One of the residence lounges will be turned into a corporate boardroom, another into a project lab, and the main common area will double as a presentation and events area. Throughout the fall term, the “dormcubator” – as one IT magazine dubbed it – will host guest speakers, workshops and an end-of-term symposium where students can show off their work.

The project, officially named VeloCity, isn’t an academic initiative, but rather is being organized and funded through the university’s housing department. The project is largely the brainchild of Sean Van Koughnett, director of UW graphics and manager of the Media and Mobility Network Project. That project, started a year ago, aims to “transform the communications technology environment on campus,” starting with the residences.

Mr. Van Koughnett says he came up with the VeloCity idea while listening to some senior corporate executives at a conference speculating on what might be the next big thing in communications.

“I was sitting there thinking, you know what? The next Facebook, the next Google, is going to start in the mind of an undergrad student,” Mr. Van Koughnett recalls. “So what would happen if we developed a program where we recruited some of our best students, put them all in one environment, and gave them some resources and structure … I think we could get some pretty cool results out of that.”

Much of the project’s success will depend on choosing the right students, since there is nothing to compel them to actually participate once they’re in, says Mr. Van Koughnett. Most of those chosen so far are in their upper years in engineering and mathematics programs, but a handful come from other areas, including the arts faculty, environmental studies and business.

Corporate partners – including Research in Motion, Google, Apple and Microsoft – are “all very enthusiastic about this,” says Mr. Van Koughnett. As are the students: “They’ve already started online discussions, trying to meet each other and decide who to team up with,” he says. “And this doesn’t even start until the fall.”

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