Small jobs are making a big splash in London

While major manufacturing jobs come and go, small start-ups are rejuvenating downtown London
By Christopher Clark - Published on February 27, 2017
Innovation works studio in London, Ontario
A variety of business incubators, co-working spaces, shared manufacturing facilities, and digital innovators are fuelling the London economy. (Photo courtesy of Innovation Works)

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As in many communities, the big job headlines in London usually go to the big job stories.

Most recently, it was bad news when nearby CAMI Automotive announced the elimination of more than 600 jobs. Prior to that there was good news when the South Korean Hanwha Group invested a further $45 million in its London HanStone Quartz facility — a move expected to create nearly 100 additional jobs. Not long ago, Dr. Oetker rolled into town, hired 75 people, and started producing 77,000 pizzas a day.

And so it goes: large players opening and closing plants, hiring and firing people, shifting production to and fro.

What gets much less attention is the feverish pace of job creation and business growth happening on a smaller scale throughout the city.

A variety of business incubators, co-working spaces, shared manufacturing facilities, and digital innovators are fuelling the local economy. Many of the new businesses are also helping to enrich downtown by renovating and repurposing old buildings. The individual parts are small, but together they form a powerful economic engine for London.

Until recently, Rakhee Chopra was making her clothing line at home, selling directly to clients with custom orders. When she decided to go full-time, she rented manufacturing space at UnLab, a non-profit workshop in the city’s Old East Village, not far from downtown. She bought two industrial sewing machines and hired two employees.

 “UnLab was perfect to get started. I have space to work and a table for drafting. I could have used their sewing machine, but I wanted to buy my own,” she says. “I’ll be hiring a third person soon.”

Chopra signed a six-month lease with UnLab’s sister organization, 121 Studios, to open a retail space on King Street in the heart of downtown. She will introduce her store and her spring/summer collection of plus-size women’s fashions at a gala fashion show March 9.

“My plan is to get established at 121 and then look for a permanent place after that,” she says, following the lead of others who have used the incubator as a launchpad for further growth.


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In the last year or so, five businesses have left the 121 nest for their own locations. Among them: a healthy breakfast and lunch spot, a bookstore, and two clothing boutiques.

While some businesses, particularly retail, test the waters before moving on to their own spaces, others continue to call 121 home indefinitely. That mix of users was something founder Titus Ferguson hoped to achieve, even as he followed a similar growth plan as some of his tenants.

When it opened in 2014, 121 Studios was in a basement location. Prior to that, Ferguson toiled away at the Research Park at Western University, establishing an early version of the non-profits he runs today.

“This was the goal all along,” he says of his current location, the Novack’s building in downtown London. “We have 3,500 square feet on two levels, so we can accommodate all kinds of events and activities.”

UnLab and 121 Studios operate under Ferguson’s non-profit umbrella organization, UnLondon, which offers workshops and a variety of other initiatives, all with the goal of sparking entrepreneurial creativity in both the digital and non-digital worlds.

Retail leases at 121 run for six months, enough time for a business to assess its viability. The rest of the building is available to members who can come and go as they wish. In addition to monitors and plug-ins for laptops, the space includes a modern recording studio, perfect for voiceovers and podcasts.

“We rent the studio to a lot of organizations, including large ones that need a professional studio from time to time,” says manager Charles Blazevic. A second studio dedicated to virtual-reality development is in the works.

“I like the social aspect of being here rather than working at home,” says Luis Pacheco who runs Pull.design, a design consulting business with clients around the world. “I do video and animation, as well as product design, software, and apps. I started at 121 when it was in the basement spot. This is much better.”

He is waiting for the virtual-reality studio to open because he and another tenant — “a hard-core coding guy,” Pacheco says — plan to team up and develop VR products and apps.

Next door to 121 is Innovation Works, backed by the well-established Pillar Nonprofit Network and with more floor space and financing than its neighbour. Innovation Works purchased the Garvey Building in 2014 and created a thriving co-workspace with dozens of co-tenants.

Two blocks away is the Horton Street tech corridor, home to digital innovators, gaming companies, and cutting-edge designers who are reshaping their corner of downtown and employing thousands of people in the process.

“This is community-led grassroots economic development,” says Ferguson. “These are the kinds of independent businesses we can support — passionate people who point to something and say, ‘I made that.’”

Christopher Clark teaches journalism at Western University.

 

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