Back when the idea was hatched, more than two years ago, now, Kurtis McBride had never so much as refinished a basement.

Here he is, $55 million in renovations later, and Catalyst137 has been transformed from a former tire and footwear warehouse into the largest space for hardware manufacturing and development in the world – 475,000 square feet of repurposed frontier on Kitchener’s Glasgow Street. How big is big? Imagine 1.3 kilometers of window; 12 acres of concrete polish, another 12 acres of parking, all of it capable of accomodating 2,000 employees. If the options were to go big or go home, it’s clear which McBride chose.

“It was an experience to see it all come together,” McBride, the facility’s managing partner, says. “It was pretty jaw dropping.”
The Catalyst137 facility is now all-but complete and 75 per cent leased, and the brand concept – build a facility where the makers of big stuff, particularly IoT stuff, could play and work – is intact.

“For the most part it’s executing the way we envisioned,” says McBride. As for the remaining 25 per cent, “we have three large leases we’re working on now that will get us fairly close to the finish line.”

Companies like Toyota, Sigmapoint, Swift Labs, and even Kik, the Waterloo-based messaging app and cryptocurrency company, are a few of the companies that have taken space as tenants, joining anchor-tenant Miovision, the smart intersection and IoT company headed and co-founded by McBride. Miovision has leased 100,000 square feet in Catalyst137, or 20 per cent of the total.

In fact, it was Miovision’s need for new digs that got the Catalyst137 ball rolling – that and its employees’ wish to locate close to the downtown core.

McBride wanted to keep Miovision’s manufacturing housed in the same facility as the rest of the company and additionally keep it all contained on one floor plate. The employees wanted the vibe of downtown and access to bike trails.

“I looked at all that and thought, ‘I don’t think this building exists.’”

Large-footprint facilities tended to be located out in the fringe of Kitchener and Waterloo. Existing downtown space was not only too small, but didn’t have the parking that employees had become accustomed to at their previous facility on Manitou Drive.

But at Miovision, McBride has a mantra: ‘complacency is not an option.’ His employees turned the phrase on him in the search for space that would accommodate all their needs. “Fair,” he thought.

“So we went out and sort of looked at the world through a different lens and said, what are the places [near the downtown] we could create that would meet all these criteria?”

Catalyst137 (Communitech photo: Sara Jalali)

The giant warehouse at 137 Glasgow was identified. Local developer Voisin Capital and Toronto-based real estate company Osmington Inc., jumped aboard as partners.

“The rest is history.”

Well, not quite.

The space was too large for Miovision’s needs. But McBride figured that if a company like his needed that type of space, others might, too.

“The hypothesis was that Miovision was not unique,” said McBride.

“There are at least as many hardware companies as software companies, maybe more, or hardware-enabled software companies like us. So, we thought, maybe our need to be downtown with parking and a place to drive trucks up to, maybe that’s not a unique need but a generalized need.”

Three hundred people promptly showed up to an information session and the project quickly got a green light.

But the construction process was by no means routine.

During the winter of 2016-17, “we ripped the roof off and dug holes for servicing, trenching, and the electricity was off because it was wet. Water was pouring in on a muddy pit. There was no roof. I call that the ‘coal mine era,’ ” says McBride with a laugh.

“That lasted three or four months. I’d take people through and try to convince them this was Grade A office [space].” The raised eyebrows of his potential tenants suggested they weren’t quite believers.

“That was the darkest period, of trying to convince people this would ever be a thing.”

And now it’s … a big thing.

“I love taking people from being disbelievers to believers,” says McBride. “Then the next time you bring them something crazy, they may not believe you, but they’re at least less disbelieving.”

The building has the expected amenities you’d associate with a warehouse – loading docks, high ceilings and the like – but it also has small, tastefully decorated alcoves suitable for discussions and meetings, and innovative restaurant space.

It additionally features a 7,000-square-foot event area in the front lobby which “we give away for free” to the larger community, says McBride.

The aim, he says, is for the event space to help “break down silos,” and give Waterloo Region’s tech players and arts players an opportunity to mingle.

“It’s not just [for] tech events. We had a poetry slam contest here. We’ve had an art gallery event. We had awards for students who were doing architectural design competitions.

“I hope, by providing free space, there’s a reason for us all to collide and learn there is a lot of cool stuff going on in Kitchener.”

Some of it under a very, very large roof.

Article by Craig Daniels.

Video by Sara Jalali.

Drone footage by Grip Films Inc.

More on Catalyst137:

Communitech is a partner of Startup HERE Toronto.  This article originally appeared on their site.