Despite time blurring as we go about our busy lives, the ticking over of the annual calendar remains a moment for reflection (and the usual Top 10 lists!). It certainly feels like a meaningful transition for MaRS, on several fronts:

MaRS Phase 2

The most tangible signal of change at MaRS was the restart of construction on MaRS Phase 2 at the corner of College Street and University Avenue. The cranes arrived in early August – a happy day for all of us! With the favourable weather, the building has already reached the 4th floor level, which will contain the Phase 2 atrium connecting the internal ‘main street’ of MaRS to University Avenue. Significant work is also underway to upgrade the Queen’s Park subway station, adding a direct entrance into Phase 2 and a connection to the hospital district concourse.

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 magical development for Toronto’s Discovery District.

Later this month, construction will really accelerate, with the addition of one new floor every 10 days or so – all the way up to the 20th storey.  As far as we know, this is the largest building of its kind under development in North America – 770,000 usable square feet of fully flexible office/lab space, designed for 21st century convergence innovation. With completion slated for the fall of 2013, Phase 2 will double the size of the MaRS Centre to 1.5 million square feet.

The first phase of MaRS is living proof that ‘place’ matters a great deal, especially given that people – and their ideas and money – are more mobile than ever. Toronto is a very attractive global destination in these tumultuous times – and we need to take full advantage of its appeal.

Part of this opportunity involves planning the MaRS community of the future: Which global innovators – thinking of 2020 and beyond – absolutely should be located at MaRS? Which interstitial spaces are likely to yield the biggest breakthroughs? How do we ensure that the ‘place’ anchors a thriving local community, but also catalyzes and connects in relevant ways to a fast-moving global innovation marketplace? Your thoughts and ideas on these and related topics are most welcome.

Phase 2
Phase 2 construction has reached the 4th floor level

Building Canada’s growth companies: Still our core mission

While place matters, and is a huge advantage for MaRS, people and programs matter even more. And here too, we’ve been fortunate.

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. Our own resources are greatly amplified by the skills, experience and networks of almost 100 generous volunteer advisors.

More than 1,000 companies used MaRS advisory services this past year!

How big is our footprint? In a word, massive. More than 1,000 companies used MaRS advisory services this past year. And while the final 2011 numbers aren’t in yet, we expect a significant jump in net new jobs created, third-party investment attracted and revenue growth as the most promising of these companies gain greater and greater traction in the market.

It’s reassuring to see progress across several sectors – a vibrant mobile and online startup community is growing adjacent to ‘big thinking’ social entrepreneurs and a reviving biotech sector (a few sizable financing rounds represent a welcome change from the past few years – finally!). Furthermore, many of our client companies in cleantech, new energy and advanced materials are showing strong gains and garnering international recognition.

Our focus for 2012 is sharply on further accelerating the growth of emerging high potential companies. These companies are essential to the future of Ontario and Canada since young, high-growth firms create the majority of new jobs in modern economies. MaRS remains absolutely committed to doing everything we can to help them succeed, and we’re positioned to make a significant contribution.

Life’s not easy for young companies in this continuing global turmoil. But the quality we’re seeing highlights the enormous potential of the Canadian innovation landscape – a growing cohort of companies with strong teams, differentiated products and services, well-developed business strategies, a bit more capital and smart networks. These ingredients will enable MaRS client companies to compete and win internationally. And in the process, they will create new markets, open exciting new opportunities and create high-quality jobs for Canada’s new economy.

Now that MaRS itself is growing up, we’re adding new programs to accelerate innovation. A few examples follow…


MaRS Commons – Web and mobile startups

In late October, we launched a co-working space, the MaRS Commons, for the large and rapidly growing group of web and mobile client companies that use MaRS services. This space complements the more traditional incubator space (containing separate offices/labs for startups) in the MaRS Centre, bringing the total number of startups physically working in MaRS to over 70. Now operational, the MaRS Commons will also be an informal meeting and program space for community members, entrepreneurs, investors and advisors. We will use it in the coming months to deliver a new suite of acceleration programs to drive the growth of young web/mobile startups.

EXCITE – The health system as an economic driver

EXCITE is a remarkable partnership between the health technology industry (both established, large firms and emerging Ontario companies), government, health system representatives and academic health sciences centres across the province. Launched just before year-end with a call for the first pilot projects, EXCITE will bring Ontario’s outstanding expertise in health technology assessment to the premarket stage of product development. The goal is to better align health technology products with the needs of the health system, and streamline the innovation adoption process. Health care already consumes close to half the provincial budget. It’s essential that we put this multi-billion dollar investment to work for Ontario’s economic benefit. And EXCITE promises to do just that in the years ahead.

Social finance

At MaRS we believe that a culture of innovation and a spirit of entrepreneurship can lift every enterprise, and both are essential if we are to create the future we want. High-growth businesses remain our focus, but we’ve branched out in a measured way to support social entrepreneurship, with some very positive results!

In December 2010, the Task Force on Social Finance delivered at MaRS its report on opportunities for impact investing in Canada. The past year has seen growing interest in this emerging field across the country and internationally. To maintain momentum, we launched the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing in the fall, with founding support from the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the TMX Group.

The Centre is bringing a number of social finance initiatives under one umbrella – among them, the Social Venture Exchange (SVX), the B Corporation registration in Canada and – and will help build tools, investment products and support services. We look forward to working with our Canadian and international partners on advancing this marketplace in the coming year.

Looking ahead

The progress over the past year is a result of the collective effort made by a team of amazing, hard-working people at MaRS. Our community continues to attract wonderfully talented, highly educated and passionately committed individuals. This community is animated and united by a common goal – harnessing innovation and entrepreneurship to build a more successful and prosperous nation.

From all of us, THANK YOU for your support and for helping build the MaRS community. As we like to say, MaRS is where the world is going. We hope you will be part of this shared journey in the year ahead. In the meantime, our best wishes for a healthy and prosperous 2012!

Ilse Treurnicht

Ilse Treurnicht was CEO of MaRS, a 1.5-million-sq.-ft. innovation hub located in Toronto. See more…