High-tech (and prehistoric) tenant bringing life to MaRS

Note: This post originally appeared in The Toronto Star. Story by Robert Benzie.

Move from King St. by Autodesk, a maker of 3D software used to design everything from plastic dinosaurs to easy chairs, is good news for taxpayers the firm will be paying rent on two floors of the partially empty Queen’s Park complex.

Dinosaurs and monsters are landing on MaRS.

But there is nothing prehistoric or scary about what’s next for the once-troubled medical and related sciences complex at the corner of College Street and University Avenue.

Autodesk—the high-tech company whose computer-aided design software created the images in films as disparate as Jurassic Park and Birdman—will announce Wednesday it is moving into the MaRS Discovery District.

“We see our design tools being used in many new places that we never really thought of—like in medicine, health-care, clean tech, city planning, and … in super-advanced manufacturing,” said Gordon Kurtenbach, senior director of research at Autodesk, one of the world’s largest 3D software firms.

“Our job is to understand and … explore future technology trends and to invent new tech,” said Kurtenbach. “Given that lineup it’s great for … the Autodesk office here to be part of that whole ecosystem there at the MaRS Discovery District.”

The company is a leader in digital prototype manufacturing and earlier this year worked with University of Toronto researchers to devise cheaper ways of making prosthetic limb sockets using 3D printers.

Kurtenbach said moving from King St. E. to MaRS—which is close to U of T, Queen’s Park, and Toronto’s downtown teaching hospitals—“is a real opportunity for us to interact with the community there.”

The company will have 250 to 300 employees on the second and third floors of the 20-story MaRS west tower, once derided as a white elephant, as well as the street-level “jewel box” on the northwest corner of the building to promote its technology.

Rendering of Autodesk street-level design sandbox at MaRS
In addition to two floors of office space, Autodesk is taking over two floors of office space, as well as a unique street-level design sandbox and event space.

“We definitely want to have a visible profile there, but we also want to make—not only a showcase—but sort of a living gallery lab,” he said.

“We’ve had really great success in San Francisco on the pier, where we have this building called Pier 9, where we have an artists-in-residence program and scholars-in-residence program. We’re going to do something like that in the jewel box.”

That’s a far cry from when the underutilized street-level space was temporarily used last summer as a tenants’ lounge with table tennis and foosball tables.

Ilse Treurnicht, the chief executive officer of MaRS, said Autodesk’s move is the latest chapter in the comeback story for the West Tower, which will be 84 per cent leased with additional new tenants on the horizon.

“Their impact will span everything from touching researchers … to startups. Their design capability is so unique in how they can map complex systems and then … design interventions or solutions for those,” said Treurnicht of the firm.

“Even as we think about how we bring innovation into the health-care system, the energy system, there’s something very powerful about that,” she added.

Given that the Liberal government has sunk $395 million into MaRS over the years—including an $86 million repayable line of credit last December when the west tower was less than a third leased—there is some good news for taxpayers.

“There’s no government incentive in attracting Autodesk,” said Treurnicht. “They’re paying market-rate for MaRS.”

By the numbers

  • 19 — The current streak of consecutive Academy Award winners for best visual effects using Autodesk software.
  • 84% — The amount of space in the MaRS west tower that is now leased.
  • 5,574 square metres — The size of area leased by Autodesk.
  • $395M — The amount of public money in MaRS, including a $224 million loan in 2011 and $65 million to buy out its U.S. developer, Alexandria Real Estate.