This Canadian innovation hub is driving economic growth

Monday, 01 April 2019


    Toronto's MaRs Discovery District, one of the world's largest innovation hubs for startups, is creating a thriving community for entrepreneurs.

    Mars Discovery District in Toronto is one of the world’s largest urban innovation hubs. It is designed as a space — both physical and virtual — where startups that want to scale and have impact, corporates that want to help them, researchers and academics, venture funds and entrepreneurs experience the serendipitous collisions that fuel innovative growth.

    But MaRS is very picky about who it accepts; the executive meets bi-weekly to decide who’s in, and who’s out. The first hurdle to clear is to be focused on one of MaRS’ four areas of interest — cleantech, fintech, health and enterprise. Krista Jones, managing director of the enterprise group at MaRS, explains that the curated approach ensures that, “we focus not on innovation for the sake of innovation, but innovation at scale, with impact”.

    Speaking at the Spark Festival’s National Future Work Summit in Sydney, Jones acknowledges MaRS’ pickiness hasn’t always made it popular. “When we first started this, we had corporates coming in... we were calling them ‘innovation voyeurs’ or ‘tourists’ because they were not actively engaging in the community,” she says. “We have had companies paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to be in our building and have asked them to leave, and not renewed their tenancy, because they were not a good ecosystem partner. The most valuable thing for an entrepreneur is not a dollar of capital, it’s an introduction.”

    Today, the MaRS-based corporates who have the tick of approval to deliver those introductions include Autodesk, Facebook, Johnson & Johnson and PayPal, all of which play a critical role in providing market access startups need to grow and scale.

    Overcoming challenges

    Established in 2000 as a not-for-profit, with substantial government support and a private board, MaRS became operational in 2005. “We are a venture capital firm, we are a real estate developer, we are a government-funded program,” she says. “Our structure is challenging.”

    But so was Canada’s problem — and it’s one that should resonate for Australia. “Canada was creating IP (intellectual property) on par with the rest of the world, but we were not commercialising it,” says Jones. “People were taking our IP and our people. With MaRS, we set out to create an infrastructure to bring the world to Canada — to take the IP and create the businesses here to support the economy.”

    It’s led to a vibrant ecosystem for Toronto, which in 2017 added 28,900 technology jobs. About 1300 ventures are currently associated with MaRS, about 150 of which are housed in MaRS’ flagship building — the old Toronto General Hospital — while the rest are spread throughout Canada and the rest of the world.

    Experienced leadership

    “We have been lucky our board is experienced,” says Jones. “The chair for years was the CEO of one of the biggest banks in Canada. From the beginning, that established group of influential people who sit on our board with the CEO and CFO have created the right level of governance.”

    Today, the MaRS board is chaired by Annette Verschuren, who has corporate, not-for-profit and government advisory experience. The board is studded with directors drawn from corporate, finance, and academia. Yung Wu, a serial entrepreneur and investor, was appointed CEO in 2017.

    Diversity is important according to Jones. “More than 50 per cent of the executive are immigrants to Canada; 50 per cent female.” She adds that MaRS makes a “purposeful” attempt to reflect that reality across the MaRS ecosystem.

    “MaRS’ mission attracts really strong leaders,” says Jones. “We have a very flat organisation and broad leadership set — not all of whom agree with one another. We believe in collisions in the ecosystem, and collisions among ourselves.”

    Finding the right talent is critical according to Jones, who stresses it should be a focus for directors of businesses seeking to boost their innovation credentials.

    “The ones doing the best are the ones who have elevated the people role in their organisations,” she says. “In the past, boards didn’t really deal with people issues except for executive compensation or succession planning. Now we’re seeing organisations bringing people onto the board who actually understand the people level and technology — not just as an R&D tool, but for talent enablement. The boards that are most successful bring those two elements to bear, which demands fortitude from board level as it’s not really something they’re familiar with.”

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