Note: This post originally appeared in Strategy

Innovation can take varying forms in the market today, but looking outside the walls of one’s own organization for inspiration can be daunting.

MaRS Discovery District, a 1.5 million-square-foot hub in Toronto, works with innovators to help scale their startups internationally, within the sectors of Cleantech, Health and Information & Communications Technology. Earlier this month, it kicked off a new cluster under the ICT umbrella dedicated to retail and digital commerce.

To support the startups, MaRS facilitates connections to corporate players, venture capitalists, advisors, mentors and industry experts, as well as talent, while also fostering a community around innovation by hosting meetups and events, explains Sue McGill, who leads innovation for consumer technology at MaRS.

The new Retail & Digital Commerce cluster will focus on startups that work in areas such as: data, analytics and AI; 3D printing and intelligent packaging; AR and affective tech enhancing consumer interaction; wearables and connected devices; plus on-demand delivery platforms and loyalty-related social and mobile tech. (Previously, MaRS’ scope was more general, looking at information and communications technology broadly, but over a year ago, narrowed its focus to hone in on specific industries, including financial and education tech.)

With the aim to help high-growth ventures execute internationally, right now the cluster has 50 startups on board in varying stages of development, but accepts applicants on a rolling basis. Among its roster are companies like web-rooming platform Trideit, which allows consumers to browse items online and reserve an appointment to try them and purchase in store, and Rubikloud, which brings together a retailer’s various data sources to provide a holistic approach.

Sue McGill
Sue McGill, innovation lead of consumer technology at MaRS, speaks at the Retail & Digital Commerce cluster launch.

On the corporate side, partners include Procter & Gamble, Home Depot and Indigo, which typically participate for a number of reasons, according to McGill. Among them is the desire to connect with the ventures solving problems relevant to them. The goal is then for the companies to partner and develop pilots so the ventures can get feedback and validation around the solution they’re proposing, prior to scaling internationally, she says.

There’s no one-size-fits-all model on how these pilots work, but the recent Connect My Data program saw startups from MaRS’ clean technology and energy sectors partner with London Hydro to roll out new apps to help residential and corporate consumers manage their energy use. It’s part of the Green Button initiative (based on an American program) that has seen MaRS and the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario form a working group with the energy industry to implement a standard for customers to access data from their electric utilities.

For the brand partners joining MaRS, it’s also about tapping into the pipeline of innovation, with MaRS acting as curator of sorts.  McGill points to these companies’ desire to identify trends and support the startup community; align their own strategy and nurture an internal culture of entrepreneurship.

Additionally, MaRS looks to foster relationships with agencies and system integrators working in the area of supply chain.

Overall MaRS aims to stay on top of emerging innovation, and based on the momentum it saw around retail and e-comm in the market, wanted to dive into that growing market for its latest cluster.

And broadly, a critical mass is developing around entrepreneurship and innovation, McGill says.

“Companies are starting to get it and they’re being proactive about their innovation strategy and recognizing they can’t just rely on innovation to happen inside their companies, they have to keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening out there on the edge. And we are that bridge to that edge to keep them informed.”

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Tanya Kostiw

Tanya Kostiw is a writer with Strategy Magazine.