How do you COVID-proof a massive tech campus?

MaRS Centre employees are working to keep North America’s largest urban innovation hub — and the general public — safe from the outbreak.

How do you COVID-proof a massive tech campus?

On March 23, Premier Doug Ford expanded Ontario’s state of emergency, calling for the shutdown of all businesses that fall outside the province’s definition of “essential workplaces.” In response, MaRS, North America’s largest tech hub, has closed the vast majority of its 1.5-million-square-foot campus and services, representing more than 120 tenants and their 6,000 employees.

But for MaRS Centre tenants Public Health Ontario (PHO) and the University Health Network (UHN), work is busier than ever — testing COVID-19 samples, discovering new treatments, helping patients recover — with the hopes of swiftly ending the pandemic. And that means a small but dedicated team of MaRS cleaning, security and operations staff must still come to work every day to keep the building and the general public safe and secure.

“As a close partner of all levels of government, it’s our duty to serve Ontarians by serving these special tenants,” says Randal Froebelius, vice president of MaRS real estate. “Both organizations need work environments free from chaos and distraction.”

To that end, the MaRS team has provided additional 24/7 workers to receive and protect samples, as well as guard and maintain the hub’s many wet and dry labs. Froebelius says that PHO and UHN chose to be MaRS Centre tenants for the building’s unmatched infrastructure: state-of-the-art facilities and high-level security, as well as proximity to the University of Toronto and the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

“A lot of our tenants are relieved we stayed open,” says Nina Gazzola, vice president of the MaRS Centre. Because just as scientists around the world race for a coronavirus cure, researchers inside the MaRS Centre continue to fight humanity’s greatest illnesses. The innovation hub is home to dozens of wet and dry labs, some of them focused on growing human organs, others looking for the cure to cancer. And if this work is to be protected, so too must the facilities. (Tenants can still access the building via key card, but have been asked to stay home unless absolutely necessary.) Then there’s the MaRS Centre’s early-stage startup tenants, companies that can’t afford to walk away from work. “We’re not trying to be heroes by keeping things running, we’re just trying to help, while advocating for things like social distancing,” Gazzola says.

Paying MaRS hourly workers has also been a priority for the real estate department. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced an $82-billion COVID-19 stimulus package, which includes income support, wage subsidies and tax deferrals, the measure will not be enough to protect everyone. MaRS, for its part, is a registered non-profit with social responsibility at the core of its mandate. So, that’s why Froebelius has taken this crisis as an opportunity to help the community, but also to tackle the backlog — fixing things that were, until now, low-priority, preventative maintenance work and, of course, extra cleaning and security.

Stress and uncertainty are high, but so is a familiar sense of duty and resolve. The building was actually under construction during the 2003 SARS outbreak, with that pandemic bringing many lessons for MaRS and the broader health community. “MaRS is literally connected to the UHN, and some of the hospitals are our tenants,” Froebelius says. “We’ve taken advice and strategies from them about rapid response.” And it’s something Froebelius continues to share on weekly calls with his North American colleagues, property managers from Florida to Philadelphia looking for advice in this strange time.

“Our decision to stay open, however limited the capacity, was a difficult and complex one, but ultimately the right thing to do,” says Gazzola. She believes much of what makes the MaRS Centre special is that it’s a place people want to be. Startups, investors, delegations, current and would-be tenants — even curious people strolling in from the street — love visiting MaRS to work and play; to advance discovery; to sip on a coffee and read a book; to meet, exchange ideas and be inspired.

“You know, the things that make life worth living,” Gazzola says. “That’s why people will want to come back.”

Members of the Canadian tech community are working tirelessly to bring the COVID-19 crisis to a decisive end. Read their stories in the MaRS magazine.