It’s always good to hear about a new building for startups in Waterloo Region.

It’s even better to hear that the people planning the building have an appreciation for the soil beneath it.

That’s certainly the case with the next big project to break ground in Waterloo’s David Johnston Research + Technology Park: the International Business Centre, a 110,000-square-foot facility for startups and companies from abroad, set to open in 2015.

“The big issue here is not about a building,” said Adrian Conrad, president of Cora Developments, which will start construction on the new centre this year. “It’s about growing the tech community in the Region of Waterloo, and what we can do to foster that.”

Conrad knows what everyone familiar with the business culture of Waterloo Region knows – that it is built on a foundation of co-operation, collaboration and collective action; the “barn-raising” ethos that Governor General David Johnston so often cited in speeches when he was president of the University of Waterloo.

Conrad’s father Manfred, a German immigrant who founded Cora in 1978, knows it too. Between father and son, they’ve donated $5 million to UW’s Conrad Centre for Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology (CBET), one of many instances of the family giving back to the community where it has prospered.

In fuelling the innovative entrepreneurship that fills their buildings, the Conrads are among many who have shown the give-before-you-get mentality that people like Brad Feld, one of the world’s most respected tech investors, says is key to the success of any startup community.

The new International Business Centre, just up Hagey Boulevard from the Accelerator Centre and across the traffic circle from SAP, will aim to conjure the same spirit of creative collaboration, Adrian Conrad told me this week.

With him during our chat at the Accelerator Centre was Carol Stewart, manager of the R+T Park, who is also president of the Canadian chapter of the Association of University Research Parks.

Conrad and Stewart told me the new building will be geared specifically to startups that are graduating from the Accelerator Program, and need flexible, transitional space to keep growing beyond the startup phase.

“The focus of the next building is community building,” Conrad said. “We want to have collaborative space; we want to have really cool space; we want space available for startup companies for their next step; their next evolution.”

When companies leave a place like the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo or the Communitech Hub in Kitchener, “they no longer have this collaboration with the people they were growing with, and they really miss that,” he said. “That’s something that’s really important to their success, so we’re looking to really create or duplicate that.”

In addition to office suites ranging from 1,500 to 7,500 square feet, the new centre will feature a pub, event space, collaborative workspace and a patio, among other amenities. Conrad is also looking to build links to the new light rail transit station planned nearby, and to recreation spaces in the research park where workers can blow off steam.

“It’s not just showing up to design software, build something and go home,” he said. “It’s more than that.”

In the same way a once-forlorn patch of downtown Kitchener is being revitalized by the spinoff effects of the Communitech Hub, the International Business Centre should be a step towards enhancing the sense of community of the still-new research park, just a decade old now.

Where many communities have hoped to create entrepreneurial activity out of thin air simply by throwing up some buildings and calling it a research park – prompting derision from the likes of American academic Vivek Wadhwa – Waterloo has had real success.

“We really look at this as a marathon and not a sprint,” Stewart said. “We’re building long-term relationships for the University of Waterloo.”

Currently home to over 50 companies and 3,500 workers, the R+T Park was not a spur-of-the-moment real estate play, but the natural outgrowth of UW’s success at spinning off high-potential technology companies.

That success has been cultivated on the strength of UW’s relationships with community leaders, government and private-sector partners like Cora Developments.

“Many parks come from all over North America and the world to see what our model is here,” Stewart said. “If you look at other research parks, especially in North America, this is quite a quick build-out, and that, I think, is 100-per-cent attributable to working with the private development community.”

With 120 acres of developable land on a 400-acre plot that includes large natural areas, the R+T Park will have filled about 900,000 square feet of its planned 1.2 million square feet of floor space by the time the International Business Centre is finished.

The university retains ownership of the land, but grants long-term leases to developers, and works “to bring in the right partners, companies and projects into the park, that will benefit the companies and the university.”

As manager of all this activity in Waterloo with a window into other research parks through her role with AURP, Stewart has seen what works and what doesn’t.

“You have to have a sense of place and a sense of community,” she said, “but that’s almost the easy part. It’s about the right programming, it’s about the right collaboration among all the partners in the community, and it’s about giving back time.”

In other words, it’s not about the building, but the soil beneath it.

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo is a weekly look at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy
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Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.