Tenants landing on MaRS

Note: This post originally appeared in The Toronto Star.

It turns out there is life on MaRS.

The 20-story medical-and-related-sciences tower at the corner of College Street and University Avenue is now 70 per cent leased and should be almost completely rented out by next spring. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a controversial project that some critics dubbed a white elephant after the Liberal government sunk $395 million into the “discovery district” hub over the years.

“This situation became a political football in the provincial election in 2014,” MaRS chief executive Ilse Treurnicht said Thursday.

“In that context, it was not easy for the government to take a long view,” said Treurnicht, assuring “Ontario’s taxpayers that with today’s announcement we are well on our way to tenanting the MaRS west tower to deliver on our mission.”

Last December, the Liberals gave MaRS, a registered charity designed to foster medical research and innovation, an $86 million “repayable line of credit” even though the new west tower was only 31 per cent leased.

That cash was atop a previous $309 million to MaRS, which consisted of a $224-million loan in 2011, $65 million to buy out the facility’s U.S. developer, Alexandria Real Estate, $4 million in debt-service payments and $16 million for the land. The machinations led to auditor general Bonnie Lysyk criticizing Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government for “high-risk” bailout of MaRS in her 2014 annual report.

But Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure Minister Brad Duguid, acknowledging “it has been a challenging year for all of us,” insisted the Liberals never doubted the research hub could be a success.

“Many said the province should just walk away and . . . we could have done just that. But we didn’t,” said Duguid, admitting the government took a political gamble keeping MaRS afloat.

“It was the right thing to do. Today, we can now confirm that MaRS has attracted a mix of innovative tenants that will help drive research, help drive innovation and help drive commercialization here in Toronto, here in Ontario, here in Canada.”

The University of Toronto—in desperate need of new lab space for researchers working on new drug discovery, infectious diseases and regenerative medicine—has purchased 20 per cent of the new tower.

There are also private-sector tenants paying market rent, including Synaptive Medical, a firm known as “Google Maps for the brain” that helps guide neurosurgery, and LEAGUE, a “digital and wellness” computer platform that focuses on prevention to curb health costs.

Mike Serbinis, LEAGUE founder and the computer whiz behind the Kobo e-reader, said it was “a no-brainer” to launch his latest start-up at MaRS because of its proximity to Toronto’s hospital corridor, U of T’s medical school and Queen’s Park.

“Startups are actually really hard. Most startups fail,” said Serbinis.

“So if I’m going to invest a lot of time, money and, most importantly, energy into creating something out of nothing, I want to do it to win — and to create something great and have impact,” he said, noting MaRS is now the biggest urban tech centre in North America.

“You’ve got a constant parade of investors, entrepreneurs, scientists, researchers (and) press.”

Here are some of the new tenants for the MaRS west tower:

  • Synaptive Medical: A firm specializing in new “visualization technology” that will give surgeons the equivalent of a GPS map of the brain before they start invasive operations. The company started with three employees and should eventually have 500 working at MaRS.
  • LEAGUE: Founded by the people who launched Kobo, the popular Canadian ebook reader company that has since been sold to the Japanese, this is a “digital and wellness” computer platform designed to help with prevention in order to reduce health-care costs.
  • Emerald Technology Ventures: A venture-capital company with three funds that specializes in investing in industrial information-technology, agriculture, water filtration, energy, and companies involved in making advanced materials. The 15-year-old firm has offices in Toronto and Zurich, Switzerland has invested in more than 50 businesses.

To learn more about the tenants in MaRS’ West Tower, read the press release.