Makerspace North reinvents incubator model for Ottawa makers and entrepreneurs

Adam Wilk
Adam Wilk, director of Makerspace North. Photo by Craig Lord

A hub for Ottawa’s crafters and creators is finding its way to profit through a new model that carves up the industrial site into personal workshops for entrepreneurs.

Makerspace North, an office and warehouse space in the upper bays of the City Centre industrial complex, has spent the past year subdividing some of its space into discrete cubes for individuals or startups making products from soap to art to furniture.

In addition to a myriad of individual entrepreneurs and makers, tenants include the Ottawa Tool Library, artists and crafters including CNC Ottawa and the Aletheia Guild and software companies such as mobile game developer Magmic.

The 19,000-square-foot space includes about 11,000 square feet of warehouse space, with the remainder available in offices for more traditional co-working demands. Roughly 50 per cent of the space is currently occupied.

Makerspace North is owned by John Criswick, the serial Ottawa entrepreneur behind Beduin Communications, Magmic, Top Shelf Distillers and the downtown Mercury Lounge.

The site has always welcomed Ottawa’s creative types, but the new model – which sees a wider array of tenants pay a set price based on square footage, rather than a monthly membership fee to access communal tools and services – has finally pushed the company into the black. In late 2019, Makerspace North recorded its first profitable month after roughly five years in operation.

Adam Wilk, Makerspace North’s new director, says the people working throughout the busy industrial space are, in fact, the business’s secret sauce.

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A series of newly erected office cubes for makers and entrepreneurs in Makerspace North. Photo by Craig Lord

A new maker model

Wilk knows the power of the local maker community first-hand.

He first joined Makerspace North in 2015 when he needed a workspace to craft leather journals for his business. Wilk found success in the space for numerous years following a kickstarter campaign and credits the community at Makerspace North with providing him the support he needed to secure large commercial orders for his books.

When that business wound down, an opportunity came up to set a new path for Makerspace North as a whole. Wilk now sees the facility as a hybrid between traditional co-working spaces and the company’s makerspace roots.

“The co-working model is not new. And the makerspace model is not new either. But we don't fit into either,” Wilk says.

Co-working spaces are great for entrepreneurs looking for a desk to work at while networking with fellow business owners, Wilk says, but they don’t provide a regular place to get “messy.” Creative types that make their businesses on experimentation and physically crafting their products often need workspaces that are more permanent and allow for a noisier process.

“We’re like a garage space. We actually give people a slice (of the space) and they can do whatever they need to do,” Wilk says. “They make it their own, they outfit it, they meet their neighbours, they take pride in it.”

While organizations such as Invest Ottawa and the University of Ottawa have made moves to embrace the maker movement with their own on-site workshops and resources aimed at startups, Wilk argues that Makerspace North is about more than just access to tools and workshops. The tenants working at the site have all bought into the same idea of freely sharing their expertise in a co-operative setting, he says.

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The interior of a workshop at Makerspace North. Photo by Craig Lord

Many of Makerspace North’s tenants would not qualify for grants or accelerator programs run through other organizations in the city, Wilk says. Some businesses don’t pay full price for their space but contribute in other ways, perhaps by doing a shift at reception or offering services to other tenants.

While Wilk gives props to those other organizations – he says he ran his business through Invest Ottawa’s programming with great results – he adds that there’s a market in Ottawa for entrepreneurs who don’t fit their moulds and do not work well in such formal programs.

“Where they seem to be missing the mark is they don't really have the soul or the community of people there to start from. Our big differentiator is that everyone here – our 30-plus tenants, now – wants to be here and help each other. And it's that grassroots energy that drives everything.”

One of the manifestations of this co-operative attitude is an escape room built late last year out of two empty offices at the back of Makerspace North. Wilk says building an escape room was something he’d always dreamed of, and when he pitched the idea to other tenants, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

The room, which opened in October, was stocked with props, puzzles and decor built entirely in-house on a thin budget. Before heading into the room, participants would be given a tour of the warehouse as well to showcase the tenants at Makerspace North – a peek behind the curtain of what goes into building an escape experience. Escape room enthusiasts showed up in droves as well, as the room was fully booked in the first two months of operation.

Wilk would like to see Makerspace North become more of a community hub for creatives in Ottawa. If the company’s profitable trajectory continues, the future could see an expansion or a second location, he says.