Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A rendering of the 90,000-square-foot, two-storey Innovation Arena in Kitchener, part of the University of Waterloo’s health sciences downtown campus.Diamond Schmitt Architects

Velocity, the University of Waterloo’s startup incubator, will have a new home as the primary tenant of the soon-to-be-developed Innovation Arena in downtown Kitchener, Ont.

Once the site of the Ontario Seed Company Ltd., which originally opened in 1964, the building will become a place where the seeds of ideas for new products and business solutions are sown.

“The Innovation Arena is about communities coming together to create economic impact,” says Adrien Côté, executive director of Velocity. “It’s a door into the work, thoughts and energy of turning ideas and research into businesses and products with impact.”

Construction on the 90,000-square-foot, two-storey building on the corner of Victoria and Joseph streets, in the city’s Innovation District, began in April.

Made of reinforced concrete and lightweight steel, the derelict industrial building sat vacant for years – an eyesore to passersby.

With Velocity’s lease expiring in the Tannery Building (home of Communitech) across the street, an opportunity arose to take the space and retrofit it from a warehouse into an innovation hub.

The Innovation Arena, which will focus on the life-sciences sector and house a small-business centre, is expected to create 730 skilled jobs, support the development and growth of 135 businesses, and commercialize 150 new health-related products, services or processes.

The development is the latest example in the continuing evolution of Kitchener’s downtown core from an industrial centre filled with factories to a high-tech and health-science hub marked by innovation, including the repurposed GloveBox and the recently expanded Google campus – an anchor tenant of the Innovation District since 2011.

The University of Waterloo founded Velocity in 2008 as a vehicle to support startups by giving them the tools, space and seed money to grow. Since its inception, companies graduating from the business incubator have raised $4.3-billion in funding and created more than 5,000 jobs.

A company will start with one or two people and over its trajectory will grow, so the building needs to have that same loose fit and flexibility.

Michael Szabo, principal at Diamond Schmitt Architects

The Innovation Arena’s larger space will allow Velocity to streamline commercialization, fast-track entrepreneurs and support the global economy. The building is located on the university’s health sciences downtown campus, which includes the School of Pharmacy and McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Medicine, so the facility will also serve as a regional nexus of health innovation.

Nearby are dozens of Velocity alumni businesses, including Vidyard, Nicoya, Faire and ApplyBoard.

P3 business model

With its public-private-sector partnership, the $35-million capital project exemplifies collaborative city building.

The City of Kitchener committed $8.5-million as part of its economic development strategy Make It Kitchener 2.0; the province added $7.5-million; and local angel investor, philanthropist and frequent tech supporter Mike Stork, president of Stork Holdings, donated $1.5-million. Additional financing is expected to come from the private sector.

“Everything that is tech in the Kitchener-Waterloo area evolves predominantly from the University of Waterloo,” explains Mr. Stork, who sold a pair of family-owned companies in 2000 and has been giving back and investing in local startups ever since. “Velocity is an important driver of entrepreneurship in our community.”

Velocity tasked Diamond Schmitt Architects, which is designing the Innovation Arena, with creating a space that is highly functional but also engages the community.

Working with general contractor Melloul-Blamey Construction Ltd., the Toronto-based architecture firm is transforming what is essentially a two-storey, windowless concrete box into a purpose-built facility that reflects the neighbourhood’s heritage.

“Our approach is to upgrade this rudimentary structure and turn it into a high-performing building by insulating it to a high level, providing triple glazing, and then cladding it with a masonry brick that is a contemporary interpretation of that original context it sits in,” explains Michael Szabo, principal at Diamond Schmitt.

Within the 45,000 square feet of Velocity’s new home on the second floor of the Innovation Arena are very structured spaces (labs), as well as the Assembly area – flexible spaces that can accommodate a company’s needs during a launch.

The project’s biggest challenge, according to Mr. Szabo, was addressing the unique needs of startups, typically lean operations with an informal, youthful culture, that ramp up as they go from the seed stage to growth and, finally, commercialization.

“A company will start with one or two people and over its trajectory will grow, so the building needs to have that same loose fit and flexibility to allow for the unpredictable possibilities as these startups launch,” Mr. Szabo says. “We’ve designed the space to provide the base infrastructure and then include an open and fluid area that allows them to evolve.”

The Velocity village

Open this photo in gallery:

Startup incubator Velocity is moving from the nearby Tannery Building to the Innovation Arena into a larger space that is highly functional but also engages the community.Diamond Schmitt Architects

A key design feature to form these community connections is the atrium, a central gathering place for companies to display their work and for Velocity alumni to meet and mentor current members.

“Imagine the space as a village,” Mr. Szabo says. “On one side of the street are all the shops [i.e. startups] and on the other side of the street are labs and free-form manufacturing studios. They are all tied together by this spine down the middle and at the end of the spine is the town square.”

The city’s investment in the Innovation Arena allows it to lease 5,000 square feet of space on the main floor for $1 to be used by the Waterloo Region Small Business Centre.

The rest of the street-level spaces will be leased to like-minded companies and other community organizations that share Velocity’s entrepreneurial spirit. These tenants, being billed as “members in residence,” are still being finalized with a call for applications now open until the end of June.

“The city has a rich urban fabric and a legacy of interesting industrial artifacts,” Mr. Szabo says. “The Innovation Arena turns what was a pretty bleak building into something that is appropriate for the University of Waterloo and an important part of the incremental transformation of the downtown.”

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles