Happy Birthday to MaRS! Toronto’s urban innovation centre turns five years old
Toronto, September 27, 2010 – When the first employees walked into the MaRS Centre on the official opening day five years ago this week, they had to manoeuvre around dozens of construction workers putting finishing touches on all corners of the complex. However, from the beginning MaRS was a testament to the extraordinary leadership of its Founders and the civic entrepreneurship of its community, one that had transformed a fading downtown landmark into an ambitious modern innovation hub.
From raising money to landing a great mix of tenants, a small group of volunteers and a handful of staff had been working tirelessly to build MaRS for more than five years. For Founder Dr. John Evans, his relationship with this iconic urban space had begun long before then.
“I started my medical internship in the Toronto General Hospital, now the MaRS Heritage Building. Our quarters were on the fourth floor and I essentially lived there during those internship years. After spending so much time in the building, I came to love it,” recalls Dr. Evans. “When the University Health Network decided to sell the building, it only made sense to transform it into a place that could take advantage of the placement of Toronto’s research institutions, teaching hospitals and universities.”
The founding vision – of a large-scale downtown innovation centre that could connect and catalyze science, business and capital to harness greater commercial results from Canada’s research strength – was now becoming a reality. And a new era had begun under the leadership of CEO Dr. Ilse Treurnicht.
“Five years ago, the animation of MaRS really began with the hiring of Ilse Treurnicht. Her outstanding leadership has brought the vision of the Founders to life – the MaRS Centre is now a thriving community of ideas and discovery, entrepreneurship and rapidly growing businesses,” says Dr. Evans. “Given how far we have come in five years, I am very excited about the future of MaRS.”
The MaRS Centre has changed in many ways since the front doors on College Street opened in 2005. More than 2,000 people, representing over 65 tenants, come to work at the Centre every day, and many more come to participate in workshops and programs. On any given day, Canada’s leading researchers unravel the mysteries of biology in state-of-the-art labs throughout the Toronto Medical Discovery Tower and the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research; early-stage science and technology companies put business plans into action in the MaRS Incubator; organizations across the innovation spectrum grow their businesses in the Heritage Building—the original brick façade of the old Toronto General Hospital. From the earliest of start-ups to some of the biggest names in Canadian business, all call the MaRS Centre home.
The MaRS Centre has also become a place where communities gather. Since opening, it has welcomed many scientific, business and community leaders from across Canada and around the world, from Nobel Laureates to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Swedish Royal couple, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr. to actor Michael J. Fox and musician Bryan Adams. In 2010 alone, the Centre hosted more than 1,000 events—including art exhibits, a citizenship ceremony and a broad range of workshops and conferences on everything from social entrepreneurship to bioinformatics. And tenants of the MaRS Centre are part of one of the most vibrant workplace communities in Toronto, enjoying monthly pub nights, access to business-building programs and special events (like the one held this morning to celebrate the MaRS Centre’s fifth birthday).
In addition to operating the MaRS Centre, the MaRS team’s focus is on working with entrepreneurs to build the next generation of Canadian growth companies. MaRS Advisory Services provides business mentorship to more than 500 emerging companies in life sciences and health care, information technology, communications and entertainment, cleantech as well as social-purpose businesses. These companies are located across Ontario, with only a small group situated in the MaRS Incubator. They draw on the experience and global networks of the MaRS team of advisors, which includes more than 50 seasoned volunteers. MaRS also offers a broad suite of entrepreneurship education programs, both in person and online, a market intelligence service, and a range of targeted programs designed to accelerate access to customers, partners, talent and investors in Canada and beyond.
“When I consider the pace of development at MaRS – from a dusty cavernous building to a thriving hub with excellent programs and support for young entrepreneurs, with a growing portfolio of promising companies hitting important milestones in the market – I’m incredibly proud of our hard-working team and grateful for the commitment of our volunteers and stakeholders,” says MaRS CEO Ilse Treurnicht. “MaRS is a very special place, because its mission matters. The Centre anchors and engages a much wider community that contributes to and participates in our programs, our services, our networks and our events. That’s part of the magic of MaRS: you never know who you’re going to run into but it’s going to be an interesting and enriching experience.”
MaRS wasn’t always the hub of activity that it is today. Nina Gazzola, MaRS’ Director of Operations and MaRS’ very first employee, remembers the early days: “When the MaRS Centre first opened, there were still as many construction workers on site as there were tenants in the building!”
As MaRS’ first tenants unpacked their offices, they had to contend with dust, renovations and regular fire alarm tests. But for the companies who moved in right away, the constant construction was worth it. Transition Therapeutics was the first tenant to move into the Heritage Building in 2005. CEO Tony Cruz says, “From the beginning, the MaRS Centre has been a great environment for building a business. It builds a presence for science and innovation in Toronto, and for people who are visiting, it shows that Toronto and Ontario are serious about building this kind of platform. We thought that it was important to be located in this district—it builds confidence for the people who work here. And it certainly helps that there’s always something going on at MaRS.”
About MaRS Discovery District
MaRS Discovery District (www.marsdd.com) is a large scale, mission driven innovation centre located in Toronto and networked across Ontario, focused on building Canada’s next generation of technology companies. MaRS works closely with entrepreneurs to grow and scale their ventures into global market leaders in life sciences and health care, information, communications and digital media technologies, cleantech, advanced materials and engineering, as well as innovative social purpose business.
MaRS Discovery District