Terry Stepien, president of Sybase iAnywhere, moved the firm to the University of Waterloo's Research and Technology Park as one of its first tenants in 2005 (seen above). SHERYL NADLER

Chris Atchison

Special to Globe and Mail UpdatePublished on Tuesday, Sep. 21, 2010 10:19AM EDTLast updated on Tuesday, Sep. 21, 2010 10:25AM EDT

When Terry Stepien, president of Sybase iAnywhere, moved the firm to the University of Waterloo’s Research and Technology Park as one of its first tenants in 2005, he was merely hoping for better access to the school’s legions of software developers.

Unbeknownst to Mr. Stepien, moving the database management software firm, a subsidiary of Sybase Inc., to the 120-acre park would provide a plethora of business benefits beyond those he’d envisioned – namely, access to an entire community of like-minded tech companies.

“The real estate has to be there, you have to have that in place, but it’s only one of about a dozen ingredients you have to have to make one of these parks work,” Mr. Stepien says.

As the demand for skilled workers in knowledge-based industries grows, high-tech firms such as Sybase are being joined by scores of other leading Canadian and international companies clamouring for space on any of the 25 university campus-based or affiliated research parks across the country.

Universities, on the other hand, are looking for ways to remain sustainable by producing relevant research and workers trained to meet industry’s needs.

To the chagrin of some academic purists, these research parks blur the lines separating academia from corporate Canada. Optimists say the parks provide a way for the two sides to share ideas and flourish.

Either way, they offer a unique atmosphere for business. As the saying goes, once you’ve seen one research park, you’ve seen one – each has its own features.

Parks do, however, share some traits. They are typically funded in part by federal, provincial and local governments, along with the private sector. Buildings are usually built and operated by the universities, or, as in the University of Waterloo’s case, by developers who negotiate long-term land leases with the school.

In almost every instance, universities pick the tenants to ensure an ideal mix—often a combination of large and smaller firms who stay for as little as a year or, as in Sybase’s case, half a decade or more. They are likely to be focused on research and development with a handful of complementary service providers such as law firms thrown in the mix.

The 10-building University of Waterloo park hosts more than 50 companies including BlackBerry maker Research In Motion, search-engine behemoth Google and enterprise content management software-maker Open Text Corp., along with about 25 startups.

Many of the buildings have been built to reflect the innovative and dynamic nature of their occupants, says Laird Robertson, a principal at Toronto-based Robertson Simmons Architects.

The Robertson Simmons-designed Accelerator Centre, for example, was decorated with exposed and unfinished elements to convey the idea of change and constant innovation. Movable partitions allow suites to be configured as tenants change or grow.

But the question remains: Why put a business on university-owned land when equivalent space exists elsewhere?

The answer is the availability of talent.

“I listen to C-level executives from Canada and the U.S. explain what their pain is, and every meeting is the same,” says Carol Stewart, business development manager for the University of Waterloo Research and Technology Park, and president of the Canadian Association of University Research Parks. “It’s about finding talent,” she adds of the tech and engineering all-stars these tenants so desperately seek.

Tenants at parks such as Waterloo’s can easily tap the school’s world-renowned co-op program, plucking students out of university to save recruiting costs.

“About 95 per cent of our development team in Waterloo are University of Waterloo graduates,” Mr. Stepien says of the roughly 120 co-op students accepted by his 350-person firm each year.

Then there’s access to cutting-edge research. Sybase’s staffers regularly attend university-programmed seminars and work with researchers from the school.

Another benefit lies in the very community that a research park creates and nurtures. Mr. Stepien points out that with RIM and Open Text on Sybase’s doorstep, new business opportunities are constantly emerging.

For Kevin McBride, the University of Waterloo park helped kick-start his traffic data software firm, Miovision Technologies Inc., in 2006.

Mr. McBride and his two engineering partners rented space and tapped free seminars at the Accelerator Centre, which provides training on everything from human resources to financial management.

The company left the park for a larger location in nearby Kitchener in 2008, but Mr. McBride has only good things to say about the experience.

“Our sales are up about 2,400 per cent since we left, and I’d definitely say the business structures we started setting up when we were in that building were largely to credit for that.”

For developers, building in such parks has both risks and benefits. While the university retains control of the land and tenant mix, developers enjoy favourable long-term lease agreements and can build on land without worrying about costly infrastructure development.

Skeptical developers need only take note of the high occupancy rates at his park and others across the country for evidence of their potential, explains Dale Gann, president of the University of Victoria’s Vancouver Island Technology Park.

“The reason why developers would consider working with a park that’s run by a university is that we have the power of place, this common community of like-minded individuals co-located on a physical asset that’s a very advantageous space for companies and their people,” he explains. “Like building universities was in the past, this is the next part of the continuum. I definitely see more of this trend in the future.”

Although the unsubsidized rents at the University of Waterloo’s park start at market rates of $18 to $20 a square foot, Ms. Stewart estimates that the 120-acre space – which will cap out at 15 buildings and 1.7 million square feet for up to 10,000 people when phase one of the project is completed over the next few years – will generate about $2-million in annual revenue for the university.

While the rental income is meagre compared with that generated by some commercial developments, she says the park’s success will be judged on its ability to help further the university’s status as one of North America’s leading research and development hubs.

“This is an extension of what the university’s been doing for the past 50 years, so this is a natural for us,” she says. “We don’t see this is a money maker, but can it contribute to the university’s long-term sustainability? I think so. It’s all about relationships.”

And if Mr. Stepien is right, the nurturing of those relationships will only grow as Canada continues to shift to a knowledge-based economy.

“If you can get that focus and that collaboration going between the university and industry, it’s good for all parties involved, but it’s a challenge to do it,” he says.

“Waterloo had that culture of working with industry in place, allowing the park to flourish much faster because there wasn’t as big a gap between what industry was thinking and what the university was doing.”

Special to The Globe and Mail