Diverse Learning

Tokyo firm wins award for bringing interns to Japan

Jeff Wentworth (left) and William Metcalfe (right) with the award

A Tokyo-based tech start-up has been honoured for giving under­graduates at the University of Waterloo hands-on industry experience. For this, it has been named winner of the inaugural Co-operative and Experiential Education Employer Impact Award in International Excellence.

Curvegrid Inc., which was set up in 2017 by two former students of the university — located in Waterloo, Ontario — was applauded for giving undergraduates the chance to develop technical skills while living and working in Japan for the four-to-eight-month duration of one of their scheduled paid industry co-op work terms.

Giving Back

Curvegrid co-founders Jeff Wentworth and William Metcalfe said they have been motivated to bring Waterloo students to work in Japan by their own experiences on the university’s co-operative education program, and they hope that more Japanese companies might now realize the positive benefits that students from another country, culture and background can bring to an organization.

“The reality is that we are living in a global and interconnected world and it is important for both Canadian companies and Japanese companies to find ways to become more diverse because that is a strength for an organization,” said 39-year-old Wentworth, who is originally from Toronto. 

“I think that is especially true in Japan and, as we move towards global experiences and connectivity, it will become more critical,” he said. “But we also wanted to give back to the University of Waterloo because, without the experience that we both had there, there would be no Curvegrid,” he added.

Co-operative education is a key part of the university’s academic program and dates back to the 1950s. Under the program, some 23,000 students — about 70 per cent of the entire student body — take part in paid internships at a number of companies in their chosen field, meaning that they graduate with two years of relevant work experience. Many students go straight into employment, often with the companies where they interned. The reputation of the program is so high that employers aggressively target University of Waterloo graduates.

“We know how the system works and we know how much it helped us, so we wanted to pay it forward by having students come to Japan and work for us,” said Wentworth.

Strong Draw

The opportunity to work for Curvegrid is an appealing one, with 80 people having applied for just two positions this year, he said. One student turned down an offer at one of Silicon Valley’s Big Five tech firms to come to Japan. 

“As well as the job, part of the appeal is def­i­nitely the chance to come to Japan and ex­pe­ri­ence life and the culture here,” Wentworth added.

And, given that many students are short of cash, Curvegrid smoothes the way by providing successful candidates with flights to Japan, find­ing them accommodation in Tokyo for the duration of their stay and covering their rent, as well as arranging a working visa. The company even provides interns with paid vacation days to allow them to travel around Japan and learn a little about the country.

Wentworth and Metcalfe took on their first Waterloo interns in May 2018, despite having little in the way of revenue and only one other full-time employee. To date, Curvegrid has taken on 10 interns, but the internships have had to be put on hold as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The company remains committed, however, to having more undergraduates come to Japan as soon as conditions permit — so that more people can develop professionally and discover a country with which both company principals have a long history.

“We know how the system works and we know how much it helped us, so we wanted to pay it forward by having students come to Japan and work for us.”

Origin Story

At Waterloo, Wentworth, who studied com­put­er engineering, met 39-year-old Metcalfe, a computer science major who is originally from Calgary. They bonded during their own year as co-ops, spent working for a subsidiary of Seiko Epson Corporation in the city of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. 

Returning to Japan after graduation, but this time in Tokyo, Wentworth was a customer engineer and technology consultant at Dell EMC before spending six years at Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., as vice president and global product owner of block and object storage (these storage formats are used with cloud computing). Metcalfe, meanwhile, joined Gilt Groupe in New York and later transferred with the e-commerce site to Japan, where he became the chief technology officer.

But both men had long-standing ambitions to put their skills to the test in their own company.

In 2016, Wentworth and Metcalfe saw the opportunities in blockchain technology and, more specifically, in decentralized autonomous organizations, which are entities that are gov­erned by computer code and programs, and which allow its members to function without the need for a central authority.

The possibilities and potential were imme­di­ately apparent, Wentworth said, and they began to explore different applications within the blockchain space.

“We had dozens of different ideas but we often found that, when we started prototyping them, it was just too early, the technology was just too new, and there was a significant degree of complexity,” he said.

The solution was a platform that would make it more straightforward to use, with Curvegrid’s MultiBaas blockchain middleware allowing companies to build decentralized applications on the blockchain quickly and easily.

“We had both always known that we wanted to create a business from scratch, but we never knew that we would end up in Japan at the same time and that we would end up working with each other,” said Metcalfe.

The Curvegrid team at the Devcon V conference, which was held in Osaka in October 2019

Ahead of the Pack

Curvegrid’s products and services, constantly being refined and enhanced, are applicable across all business sectors. And although clients cannot be named, they include some of the biggest companies in the world in the fi­nan­cial services sector, as well as in the online gaming, document management and automo­tive industries.

Wentworth says they were also motivated by a desire to give smaller organizations better access to financial services and, through de­cen­tral­iza­tion, empower firms that might otherwise miss out on opportunities.

While the big-name tech companies are obviously potential competitors, Wentworth and Metcalfe say Curvegrid occupies a niche and its personnel have sufficient technical skills to stay ahead of the pack. Plus, Wentworth points out, the pie is large and relatively untouched as yet, so there are plenty of opportunities for collaboration rather than competition.

Build Skills

Announcing the award, the university ap­plaud­ed the commitment of Curvegrid’s founders to encouraging students to develop technical skills at the same time as they build on soft skills, such as flexibility, resilience, initiative, humour, humility and genuine interest in living and working in Japan.

The company has empowered the interns’ integration in the Japanese tech community by supporting them in a number of events, such as the Decrypt Tokyo hackathon, it said. The university also singled out for praise the support extended to co-op students — most of whom were travelling to Japan for the first time — that enabled them to adjust smoothly to the local culture and customs.

Wentworth and Metcalfe were selected for the award “because they believe that co-op students play an integral role in Curvegrid’s ability to stay globally connected because they bring a diversity of perspectives from their personal, academic and past work experience,” the university explained.

For more information about the University of Waterloo co-op program: www.uwaterloo.ca/hire