MaRS Discovery District ─ How we Wove Innovation into Toronto’s Fabric

Ilse Treurnichtby Ilse Treurnicht, CEO, MaRS Discovery District

Anyone looking at the MaRS Centre would conclude that its founders were big thinkers. Opened in 2005, it’s an architecturally inspiring space that has become the busy intersection of Toronto’s renowned Discovery District.

Every day, more than 2,500 people from the worlds of science and technology, entrepreneurship and business, as well as investors and the innovation community come to work at the 750,000-square-foot complex. And we’re still growing. By the fall of 2013, MaRS will more than double in size to become one of the world’s largest urban innovation hubs, commercializing research and accelerating the growth of startups in life sciences, ICT, cleantech and social enterprise. MaRS is also an active member of the Ontario Network of Excellence (ONE), a regional platform that supports the fast growth of technology ventures in over a dozen communities across the province.

What influenced the MaRS founders in their decision to weave innovation into Toronto’s fabric? A key element was their deep understanding of the city’s rich ecosystem of talented students, accomplished academics and researchers, ambitious entrepreneurs, seasoned business mentors and industry leaders, as well as policy-makers, professionals and investors. Today, that understanding informs best-in-class approaches to city building around the world, as noted by Daniel Isenberg in “Planting Entrepreneurial Innovation in Inner Cities.”

They also had the foresight to draw on examples of innovation hubs with similar ambitions and proven results, namely Boston’s Kendall Square and the innovation epicentres anchored by MIT, Harvard, etc. And why not? By any standard, Boston’s impact on bringing discoveries to market, building disruptive companies, advancing innovation and wealth creation has been breathtaking. For many years, it has ranked at or near the top of the world’s most innovative cities. A 2009 study, Entrepreneurial Impact: The Role of MIT, estimated that a total of 33,600 companies have been founded over the years by living MIT alumni, of which 25,800 (76%) still exist, employing about 3.3 million people and generating annual worldwide revenues of $2 trillion, the equivalent of the eleventh-largest economy in the world.

It’s little wonder that 12 years ago during the BIO conference in Boston, a Toronto delegation visited Kendall Square and was inspired. When interviewed about the making of MaRS, Dr. Cal Stiller, part of this Boston delegation and one of MaRS’ founding members, recalled walking through the square, saying, “Ontario must have Kendall Square.” He praised it for its ideal location, situated between the academic and financial interests in Boston, the “perfect garden” in which biotech companies could grow.

Fast forward to today. BIO and MaRS have returned to Boston, and a lot has happened in the intervening years:

  • Construction on our Phase 2 facility is speeding along, with completion of the 20-storey facility slated for the fall of next year. This is a complex project due to its size, urban location (on a very busy corner), demanding technical specifications (power, air handling, specialized labs, etc.), environmental performance targets and cost constraints. It’s also a fabulous boost to Ontario’s innovation community and a great development for Toronto’s Discovery District. As far as we know, this is the largest building of its kind under development in North America — 780,000 usable square feet of fully flexible office/lab space – convergence infrastructure designed for 21st-century innovation.
  • Our programs for startups and young companies are humming — be they practical entrepreneurship education (in person and online), market intelligence briefings, hands-on advisory services or access to risk capital:
    • Today, more than 1,300 young companies use MaRS’ advisory services.
    • In 2011 alone, MaRS clients raised more than $277 million in third-party capital.
    • Last year, MaRS portfolio companies created 1,500 direct new jobs.
  • Our sister organization, MaRS Innovation – which brings academic discoveries to market – is actively bundling and developing intellectual property assets emerging from 15 Toronto academic institutions (four universities, nine research and teaching hospitals, and two research institutes) for startups and industry partnerships.
  • Through MaRS EXCITE, we’re leveraging Ontario’s capacity as a leader in post-market health technology assessment. A global first, this partnership between the healthcare system, industry, academia, clinicians and government is aimed at improving health outcomes by getting better medical devices to market faster.
  • To answer the demands of the vibrant digital media startup community in Toronto, we’ve just launched JOLT, a new accelerator for building high-growth web and mobile companies.
  • On the cleantech front, we recently announced the MaRS Cleantech Fund LP, a private venture fund to grow early-stage companies that target this large and growing global market.

This year we are intensely focused on accelerating the growth of promising companies in our innovation community. These companies are critical to the future of Ontario and Canada since young, high-growth firms create the majority of new jobs in modern economies, build new industries and drive exports. MaRS remains absolutely committed to doing everything we can to help them succeed, and with our expanding platform, we’re positioned to make a significant contribution.

So much has happened since that first trip to Boston in 2000. We’ve studied the successes of Kendall Square and continue to learn from other leading innovation centres. The world is a very competitive place, but it also offers extraordinary opportunities. Our work is to build an effective launchpad and partnerships that will help Ontario entrepreneurs with breakthrough ideas succeed in this marketplace.

Twitter: @MaRSDD, @IlseTreurnicht

Categories: Bio economy and clean tech, Digital Media, Health Technology, Pharmaceutical, Water Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The opinions posted in this blog are not those of the Ontario government nor its staff, but those of the guest blogger.

3 Responses to “MaRS Discovery District ─ How we Wove Innovation into Toronto’s Fabric”

  1. MaRS employee

    07/28/2012 @ 2:54 am

    Ilse, how come your salary is over half a million ) per Ontario Salary Disclosure) plus the unreported 200K? How is this boosting economy and helping to cut down the poverty in Toronto alone?
    Have you checked Greg Boutin’s posts about MaRs? Worth reading.

  2. Concerned citizen

    12/02/2012 @ 17:22 pm

    This is a real concern for tax payers, while it might be possible to justify Ilse’s salary but how can we justify that an HR manager at Mars makes 198k plus 20% bonus ?!!!! Who on earth is giving a way such salaries!!! For a 50 employee public organization to give away such huge sum to HR manager how can anyone justify that!!! I was told that by an employee of Mars on the go train to barrie, even hewas very bitter about it…what about us!!!!

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