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Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., may have jumped the gun when it put Noblegen Inc.’s future home on its latest campus map, but at least the move was on-trend.

The local biotech company is planning to build a new 300,000-square-foot headquarters at the south end of Cleantech Commons, Canada’s newest research park. Backed by $2-million in investment from Trent and $12-million in infrastructure spending by the City of Peterborough, Cleantech Commons was officially approved in 2017, which is also when Noblegen signed on as the anchor tenant. As well as portraying the company’s as-yet-unrealized real estate plans in considerable detail, Trent’s campus map includes access roads that are slated to extend into the 36-hectare site later this year alongside city services.

Like many of the country’s 26 other research parks, Cleantech Commons is following the lead of academically driven innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley, Massachusetts Route 128 (also known as “America’s Technology Highway”) and North Carolina’s Research Triangle, says Wim Wiewel, who co-edited the 2005 book The University as Urban Developer.

“The goal is to establish entrepreneurial ecosystems that will attract companies, provide job opportunities for graduates, and host research that benefits institutions through patents and licences.”

The Peterborough project is also part of a broader trend among Canadian universities to use large tracts of endowed land for a variety of commercial developments, some of which lack a clear connection to academia.

“On one hand, I don’t think there’s anything sinful about a university putting in a Costco or something like that if it makes sense in the local context,” says Dr. Wiewel, who is also the president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland. “On the other hand, universities have a lot of constituents to please, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to hold a university to a different set of standards than you would a simple business enterprise. We have a higher purpose of serving the public good and furthering the cause of learning and knowledge.”

Which routes have Canadian institutions taken? These three developments represent a cross-section of the new, dynamic, and in some cases, contentious commercial projects taking shape on or near campuses across the country:

Cleantech Commons, Trent University, Peterborough, Ont.

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Trent University's emerging Cleantech Commons is almost half the size of the Peterborough, Ont., school's campus. Companies locating there will have a symbiotic relationship with the university.Handout

According to Martin Yuill, Cleantech Commons’ new executive director, the park’s mandate is fourfold: create a university revenue stream by hosting companies that, like Noblegen, work in environmental fields such as clean technology, biotechnology and agri-food; provide experiential learning and employment for students; forge new research partnerships; and bring economic development to the region.

“Universities in Canada haven’t been particularly good at commercializing the outcomes of research, so this is a real win-win situation,” Mr. Yuill says. “Industries will gain access to many of Trent’s facilities, as well as expertise, skills and hopefully new intellectual property that can be taken to market in a more commercial sense.”

While nearly half the size of Trent’s main campus, the 36-hectare park represents only about 6 per cent of the university’s total property, much of which is farmland. The city-managed park is now courting tenants that will engage with university research, provide experiential learning opportunities for students, partner with local businesses, and contribute to the innovative culture of the park, Mr. Yuill says.

Third-party developers, meanwhile, can play key roles in helping to realize the “Cleantech master plan,” which calls for the integration of the site into the neighbouring main campus, the maintenance of natural features, the flexibility to accommodate a range of enterprises, and leadership in sustainable design. “The opportunity is for forward-thinking developers to integrate our vision into their design concepts and make Cleantech Commons a bit of a living laboratory,” Mr. Yuill says.

Knowledge Park, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton

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Knowledge Park at the University of New Brunswick launched in 1998 and has more than 35 tenants.Handout

Two decades after starting commercial development on its 3,200-plus hectares of endowed land, the University of New Brunswick now generates about $750,000 a year in revenue through leases with ventures as diverse as a nature conservancy, a shopping centre with a Home Depot and a Costco, and Knowledge Park, an 11-hectare high-tech cluster with 180,000 square feet of Class A office space.

Since being established as a for-profit private organization in 1998, Knowledge Park has grown to house more than 35 tenants. One of them, software maker Sonrai Security, has realized significant benefits from spending the past 18 years in the park. “We have done research-related projects with UNB on several occasions,” says Sandy Bird, Sonrai’s co-founder and chief technology officer. “We also leverage the UNB co-op program and often hire graduates, which is one of the key reasons to be close to the university.”

Sonrai is far from alone in reaping these benefits. “This is a very influential innovation district,” says Larry Shaw, the chief executive officer of Ignite Fredericton, the non-profit that owns Knowledge Park. “There are over 60 research organizations within two kilometres of UNB.”

The university’s retail leases, however, have been more contentious. Protests erupted in 2007 and 2009 when plans for a retail complex on a preserved woodlot were announced. Now, the woodlot area is again tagged for development, with UNB recently announcing a $37-million Cyber Park on a 4.5-hectare parcel. Designed to house cybersecurity companies in a disaster-resilient building, the four-storey, 135,000-square-foot structure is slated for completion in late 2020.

UniverCity, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C.

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Simon Fraser's UniverCity development is home to a main street lined with shops and services.

Born of a 1998 land swap between SFU and the City of Burnaby, the 65-hectare UniverCity community continues to thrive atop Burnaby Mountain.

Late last year, plans for a 12,000-square-foot SFU Art Museum were announced as part of the mixed-use community’s new East Gateway project. Located near the UniverCity Town Centre, the East Gateway is slated to be a new hub for the campus, with a roomy outdoor plaza, new institutional and mixed-use buildings, student residences and public spaces.

Then there’s the Burnaby Mountain District Energy Utility, a $33-million biomass project backed by SFU and its Community Trust in partnership with Corix Multi-Utility Services Inc. Recently approved by the B.C. Utilities Commission, the wood waste-fuelled plant aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at SFU Burnaby’s campus and UniverCity by 85 per cent.

The longer-term UniverCity plan calls for 4,500-plus residential units in two distinct neighbourhoods to the south and east of the SFU campus. Connected by a network of pedestrian paths, each neighbourhood is slated to have its own elementary school, public park, commercial core and community facilities. Although the land is still owned by SFU, serviced and subdivided parcels are available to developers through 99-year leases.

As well as thriving as a community, UniverCity also provides a lucrative revenue stream for SFU. With a balance of more than $40-million, the Community Trust’s endowment fund helps supports research projects.

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