How the University of Waterloo Transformed Waterloo into a Tech Hub - WRX Property Group

A Brief History of UW

UW’s earliest history dates back to 1911, when the Evangelical Lutheran Theological Seminary of Eastern Canada opened to students in Waterloo (and Berlin [Kitchener]).

The seminary expanded in 1914 to include non-denominational courses, which were offered under the name Waterloo College School. Before we can see how this small college eventually became UW, we must first meet one of its graduates: Gerald Hagey.

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Born in Hamilton in 1904, Gerald Hagey attended the Waterloo College School in 1923 and received his B.A. in 1928. Upon graduation, Hagey began working for B.F. Goodrich (an American tire and rubber company – for many years, one of the largest in the world) in Kitchener.

Hagey eventually became Canada’s national advertising director for B.F. Goodrich. He’d found great success in the business world, but he’d left his heart in the world of education.

Gerald Hagey stands on the far left. In the middle is another familiar figure: Ira Needles.

Hagey left his high-power position to become president of Waterloo College in 1953. And he got to work bringing his vision for the school – and the Waterloo Region – to fruition.

Hagey saw the Baby Boom for what it was, and for what it had the potential to be: a complete sea change. An influx of new students meant the possibility to steer the Waterloo Region into a bright new future.

The Waterloo Region’s industries were still bustling in the ‘50s, but within a couple decades many would go bust. Hagey made the bold decision to shift Waterloo College’s focus specifically into technology and science.

Furthermore, Hagey wanted to bolster ties between students and local industries through co-operative education. The Waterloo College Associated Faculties – a co-operative engineering program – was established in 1957, with Hagey serving now as its president, too.

Not everyone was on board with Hagey’s ideas, though (to be fair, they did seem quite radical to many of his contemporaries). And so, in 1959, Waterloo College was officially split in two: Hagey’s Waterloo College Associated Faculties became the University of Waterloo, and Waterloo College eventually became the city’s second intrepid post-secondary institution: Wilfrid Laurier University (you can read its overview here).

University of Waterloo

The University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University have a good relationship now (from co-hosting a UN event in 2012, to the Tri-University Group agreement between them and the nearby University of Guelph, which effectively pools the institutions’ library resources) but the years following UW’s split from Waterloo College weren’t without their fair share of tumult.

There was a brief period of time when it seemed like the newly-formed University of Waterloo and Waterloo College could get back together again. After all, a third local post-secondary institution, the superb St. Jerome’s College (now St. Jerome’s University), ended up federating with UW in 1960 and is today a branch of the university (it has numerous undergraduate Arts programs, ranging from English to Sociology, as well as a Master of Catholic Thought program).

WC – UW = ?

There was to be no amicable reconciliation between UW and Waterloo College, though. Waterloo College wanted to ensure they would become the new UW Faculty of Art, which UW was not on board with.

The tensions escalated to the point that Waterloo College’s entire Mathematics Department eventually jumped ship and joined the University of Waterloo. And if this wasn’t enough, Waterloo College professors ranging from economics to various language programs also decided to leave the old school and join the new UW.

This wasn’t ultimately catastrophic for Waterloo College (again, it went on to become Wilfrid Laurier University, an excellent institution in its own right [though not the focus of this article]), and University of Waterloo ended up establishing a brand-new Faculty of Arts in 1960.

UW also took the bold step of creating not only the very first Faculty of Mathematics in 1967, but also establishing the first department of kinesiology in the world.

To this day, according to the UW website, University of Waterloo boasts the only Faculty of Mathematics in North America (many others combine Mathematics and Science) (UW 60 Years of Facts).

We’ll really get into the heart of UW’s transformation into the tech hub it is today (co-operative education, and a tech focus, turned out to be brilliant and effective) in the second part of this two-part series, but it’s worth noting again just how ambitious UW’s inception was at the time.

Gerald Hagey’s vision for the future, and the staff and students that took inspiration from his vision, would indeed go on to transform not only the school, but the entirety of the Waterloo Region.

60 Years of Innovation

The University of Waterloo recently celebrated its 60th anniversary, and “60 Years of Innovation” was its aptly chosen tagline for the occasion.

From its very inception, the University of Waterloo has been challenging conventions while establishing strong ties with local industries and employers; it’s armed its students with the skills and education to work in a wide array of fields; and it’s established itself as a worldwide presence in technology, computer science, engineering, and more.

Tomorrow we’ll look at another one of the university’s most influential presidents (and the decisions he made), another of the university’s most famous presidents, some of the technological innovations made at UW over the years, and their continuing centrality to the Waterloo economy.


Writing a proper conclusion on the first part of a two-part series seems premature, so let’s call this an intermission, shall we?


WRX Property Group, much like BlackBerry, runs out of Waterloo (we’re just a few blocks away from RIM Park and the BlackBerry HQ), and we’re both proud and pleased to be operating in and around Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge, Guelph, and the surrounding Townships of the Waterloo Region and Wellington County.

If you’d like to find out more about real estate here (whether you’re buying or selling a home), please don’t hesitate to contact us!
*Presumably through binary fission

Stand on, Stanton!

Before we discuss a pivotal moment in UW history, we must first meet another prominent figure in the institution’s history: Ralph Stanton. Born in 1923, and receiving his education (BA, MA, and PhD., in Mathematics and Physics) from Western University and the University of Toronto, Stanton came to Waterloo College before UW’s split into a separate school.

Naturally, he became part of the Mathematics Department, which was part of the Faculty of Arts.

A young Ralph Stanton

To say he was a part of the department doesn’t quite cover it, though: Stanton was the Mathematics Department’s lone faculty member. He was able to bring about quite a few forward-thinking changes, such as making computers a major part of his instruction in the early ‘60s and pushing for co-op in the eventual computer science program.

Under his direction, the Mathematics Department began to grow exponentially, eventually becoming the largest department in the Faculty of Arts. So in 1967, it split from the Arts to become the Faculty of Mathematics; the very first Faculty of Mathematics in the continent.

Stanton was able to use this autonomy to continue pursuing his vision of a tech-savvy school, and he made sure to hire young people with expertise in the growing world of computers (we’ll meet the most influential of them shortly).

The Dawning of the Tech Age

From the very beginning, UW had a cooperative engineering program. But over the years, co-op opportunities would extend to just about every other department (starting with the Physics Department in 1962).

It was one of the major ways in which the institution distinguished itself from other universities, and it remains not only one of University of Waterloo’s defining features (the trimester system, which alternates school and work terms, is quite unique), but also a big part of what makes the school such an attractive option for students, and such a cornerstone of the local community.

This could easily become a 20+ part series on the University of Waterloo, but for the sake of brevity: cooperative education puts students into the workforce early and prepares them for a wide array of jobs after graduation.

Before we take a look at one of the best examples of UW students and faculty pushing the Waterloo tech industry, we need to meet another faculty member: Wes Graham.

Stanton actually taught Wes Graham as an undergraduate student; Stanton was so impressed that we ended up hiring him. Graham had worked with IBM as an engineer, but he decided to join the University of Waterloo, where he served not only as one of its very first Computer Science professors, but also the Director of the entire Computing Centre.

Graham played a central role in acquiring millions of dollars worth of technological equipment for the universities. His pitch was that students and faculty could work on software to improve computer functionality – an attractive prospect to big manufacturers like IBM. We’ll explore the best example of this coming to fruition shortly.

The Wright Stuff

We promised another pivotal president in the history of UW, and here he is: Douglas Tyndall Wright. After obtaining his B.A.Sc. from nearby University of Toronto, his Master of Science degree from the less-nearby University of Illinois, and his PhD. from the prestigious

Trinity College in Cambridge (Cambridge, UK, not Cambridge, Ontario – no offence to Cambridge). By the time he was 31, Wright was a Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Waterloo.

It was 1958 – just a year after the institute opened in earnest – so it’s no exaggeration to say that Professor Wright played a crucial role in making UW what it is today. Indeed, the oldest building on campus built specifically for UW is now named after him: the Douglas Wright Engineering Building.

And like the other figures introduced today, Wright was all about pushing UW’s tech potential and bringing the school to the world stage.

Wright On: Unloading digital equipment from the Digital Equipment Corporation

Over the years, the University of Waterloo would receive large sums of money in federal grants (not to mention support from private donors – we’ll discuss one of Mike Lazaridis’s (founder of BlackBerry) in Part 3, much of which went toward (and goes toward) acquiring state of the art computer equipment. Indeed, by the early to mid-‘80s, UW had become home to one of the largest Computer Science programs in the world.

Those aren’t refrigerators – they’re prehistoric computers! IBM 7040s, to be specific.

WATFOR: What For?

We’ve met some of the major players in UW’s rise to ascendancy in the world of early CompSci. Most notable is Professor Wes Graham (we referred to him earlier as the ‘cracker of computer conundrums’ – a pun on his name involving graham crackers, a snack popular in Canada for its pivotal role in s’mores.

Not to get lost in the weeds, but graham crackers are to s’mores as Wesley Graham was to University of Waterloo Computer Science in the years he was active.

To further highlight how attuned the University of Waterloo was to the fledgling computer science world, its industrious students developed brand new, adaptive programming compilers, often under the tutelage of Graham.

Let’s take a closer look at one significant UW development: WATFOR (not to be mistaken with Watford F.C., a Premier League football club in England).

The earliest iteration was called WATFOR 7040. What was WATFOR for? Well, it provided several key efficiencies to the implementation of the FORTRAN programming language (first developed in 1957, and still in use today).

Notably, WATFOR (later becoming WATFIV, or Waterloo Fortran IV) was very useful as an educational tool, and it ended up being used in hundreds of universities worldwide.

In a jargon-free explanation, it is a computer programming innovation that really put the University of Waterloo on the map. WATFOR became incredibly popular with IBM, and the project eventually morphed into Watcom, a company founded by Graham and a colleague in 1981.

Headquartered in Waterloo, Watcom developed more popular, effective compilers; it was ultimately sold for $100 million in 1994. Watcom is just one great example of a local business with meteoric growth stimulated by strong ties to the University of Waterloo, and forward-thinking initiatives.

Research In Motion was founded in 1984, and it would grow to have a plurality of the smartphone market for several years (read more about it, and BlackBerry, here). OpenText, too, is headquartered in Waterloo, and is one of the largest software companies in all of Canada (it was #1 in 2014).

Velocity Garage

This is one of the most important programs at the University of Waterloo (indeed, it’s one of the most important programs in the Waterloo Region, full-stop), insofar as it plays a foundational role in the tech startup scene.

Here’s how the UW website describes it: “Velocity is a leading entrepreneurship program at the University of Waterloo, and the most productive startup incubator in Canada.

Velocity runs programs on the University campus and in the broader Waterloo region” (UW). It is where budding innovators and entrepreneurs go to become full-fledged innovators and entrepreneurs.

In 2016, the University of Waterloo pushed its technological horizons even further, for this was the year that the Velocity Garage expanded to its current size. Now, we’ve written in the past about two-, three-, and four-car garages, which can be great.

This garage is even bigger, and even bolder. You can read all about the Velocity Garage here.

The Velocity Garage is the tech incubator; indeed, according to the UW website, it is the largest free startup incubator in the entire world (UWaterloo News).

Spread out over an incredible 37,000 square feet of space, the Velocity Garage is a massive workspace devoted to turning humble startups into industry-leading companies.

Collaboration, mentorship, access to state-of-the-art equipment – it is to tech what Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory is to chocolate (though it’s much, much safer).

We discussed Communitech in our article on Technology in Kitchener-Waterloo, but in short, it is a massive space in which fledgling companies go to grow.

Located in Downtown Kitchener, in the impressive, renovated Lang Tannery, Communitech consist of well over a thousand individual companies, of various sizes (Communitech).

The Velocity Garage and Communitech have strong ties, and the journey through UW and Velocity onto Communitech is a common (and often profitable) one. University of Waterloo’s positive influence truly pervades Kitchener-Waterloo, not to mention the surrounding Region (and beyond).

David Johnston

Before we jump on to the next place, a quick introduction: the Right Honourable David Johnston. Johnston is an academic, through and through, having been educated at Harvard, Cambridge, and Queen’s, and served as a professor, dean, and president at several universities.

He was President of the University of Waterloo from 1999-2010. Oh, and you might also know that we served as Canada’s Governor General (the first selected by a non-partisan advisory committee convened by former PM Stephen Harper).

By all accounts, Johnston was an excellent Governor General, and he used his grounding in education and law to push innovation and progress.

Johnston at UW in 2006, introducing a fellow by the name of Justin Trudeau, who at this time was not even a Member of Parliament yet.

David Johnston Research and Technology Park

It’s no understatement to say that University of Waterloo projects running out of the David Johnston Research and Technology Park are incredibly influential. And not just influential on a local level, or even on a national level.

According to the UWaterloo website, “[G]reater than 70% of the world’s GDP (gross domestic product) runs on software created by companies in the R + T Park” (UWaterloo).

We’ve said it before: the research and development going on in Waterloo is not just important on a local, regional, or national level; it’s truly international.

Oh, and if all of that wasn’t enough, there is a seasonal Beer Garden that runs annually in the David Johnston Research and Technology Park. April and May, despite being the start of spring, can be a somber time for Kitchener-Waterluvians, as it’s equally far from the last Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest and the next Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest: a full six months removed.

That’s where the R+T Park Beer Garden comes into play.

Beer Gardens are open to the community and include, according to the latest poster, “Food Trucks” and “Fun.” You’d better believe there’s copious amounts of beer, too. And collapsible tables and chairs, if you’re into those sorts of things.

The specific address? 375 Hagey Boulevard, for the last one. Yes, that’s from the Gerald Hagey featured in Part 1; UW’s first president and arguably its founder.

May 2019 Beer Garden

Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

First, it must be noted that, unlike the other things mentioned thus far, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is not part of the University of Waterloo. It is an internationally renowned, independent research institute focused on, you guessed it, theoretical physics.

But also cosmology, condensed matter, particle physics, and much, much more. It’s even connected to Stephen Hawking himself: Hawking was a Distinguished Visiting Research Chair; and in 2011 the Stephen Hawking Centre was added onto the Perimeter Institute complex, providing 55,000 additional square feet of space (PI).

Perimeter Institute Flickr

So: what’s its connection to UW, beyond simply being another facet of Waterloo’s thriving and forward-thinking tech industry? I’m glad you asked!
There are three connections between the Perimeter Institute and UW.

First off is Perimeter’s founder and original donor: Mike Lazaridis, whose $100 million+ donation in 1999 truly launched the research centre. Lazaridis is also the founder of Research in Motion (BlackBerry), one of Waterloo’s greatest success stories (you can read more about it here).

Lazaridis was a University of Waterloo graduate, and he continues to support and advocate for both the city and its institutions (such as UW, Perimeter, and Wilfrid Laurier University).

The second connection is a unique program offered here: the Perimeter Scholars International. This is a 10-month Master’s program offered in conjunction with UW; the teaching and theoretical research take place at the Perimeter Institute, and graduates will receive a Master of Science from the University of Waterloo.

The third connection dates back to 2009, when UW and the Perimeter Institute joined to form the Waterloo Global Science Initiative (WGSI), “to advance scientific and technological solutions of the future” (PI).

Perimeter Scholars International, class of 2010. With none other than Stephen Hawking himself. Read more here.

Finally, just take a look at the Perimeter Institute building itself. Its architects, Saucier + Perrotte (based in Montréal and educated architecturally in Laval), won a Governor General’s Award for Architecture in 2006 for their design (RAIC).

If you’re a fan of funky, futuristic architecture, check out their other projects – the National Mountain Centre in Alberta is incredible. The Perimeter Institute is yet another world-class part of the Kitchener-Waterloo economy, continuing to push scientific research just as UW has done since its inception.

Alas, all of this is still just scratching the surface of the University of Waterloo’s pivotal role not just in the Waterloo Region, but internationally.

There is the boundary-pushing Institute for Quantum Computing, affiliated with the university and achieving incredible breakthroughs annually since its inception in 2002 (like Perimeter Institute, the IQC was launched through a $100 million+ donation by Mike Lazaridis).

There is the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, a sizable professional school in UW (4000+ students) that ranks in the top 30 Computer Science schools in the world.

It gets its name from David Cheriton, an entrepreneur, scientist, and scholar (among other things) who earned both his Master of Science and PhD from UW and donated $25 million toward the building.

We could go on and on, and perhaps to a certain extent we have,but it’s time to wrap things up.


Waterloo is a city that, in its formative years, relied on manufacturing and industry to sustain its economy, in addition to the agricultural opportunities spread throughout the surrounding countryside.

From mills and tanneries to whiskey storehouses and button factories, Waterloo gradually rose to local prominence and enjoyed steady growth through to the 1960s. Things were about to change, though: both here, and in other nearby cities.

But just when Waterloo seemed poised to enter an economic decline, it course-corrected and instead set out on the path for even more growth, well into the future.

It’s hard not to see the University of Waterloo’s emergence as the driving force in this turning point.

From Hagey’s decision to prioritize science, technology and cooperative education, to Stanton, Wright and Graham’s emphasis on computers and innovation, the University of Waterloo has been building to its current state of world-renown since its very inception. And now, its positive influence can be felt throughout the Waterloo Region.

UW is one of the defining features of the local economy. It is stable and trusted, yet also forward-thinking and bold. It is the combination of these features that makes it the place it is, and it plays into why so many tech companies choose to operate out of the Region.

For as long as there’s a UW, there will be a demand for local real estate (from the condos around Uptown and Waterloo’s university area, to the condos around Kitchener’s Innovation District, to the surrounding suburbs and Townships).

To quote from UW’s anniversary video: “74 engineers in 1957 turned into 189,000 alumni* six decades later.” It’s an incredible tale, and one that Waterloo Region residents can truly take pride in.

Written by Will Kummer

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