In the heart of downtown Toronto, history is being made by innovators creating the technology of the future. From groundbreaking artificial intelligence research to autonomous vehicles to software that maps the human brain, game-changing technology is being developed at MaRS.

"If we weren't investing in the science and technology industries, then we wouldn't have the jobs of tomorrow," explains Salim Teja, President of Venture Services at MaRS. The organization was founded 13 years ago out of a need to accelerate the growth of Canada's tech industry and stay internationally competitive. Its success is self-evident – "Today, we have over 1,200 active companies in our portfolio, so it's a very large ecosystem."

Lift off at MaRS

MaRS is designed to help entrepreneurs transform their ideas and research into business success. As an innovation hub it provides workspaces, mentorship, entrepreneurship education and connections to potential investors. The program is offered free of charge to participants, but because of the demand, they screen "quite rigorously," Teja explains. "We are looking for high growth companies driven by science and technology."

While many companies enter MaRS in the seed stage – there are currently 800 companies in the program working to commercialize their concepts – MaRS also helps more established companies scale. "Our program has evolved to not just work with early stage seed companies, but to help grow and scale companies as well," Teja says. The scale program works with companies generating between $5 million and $50 million in revenue. "In the early days most of our work was around general entrepreneurial education, but now we are actively helping companies build, connecting them with customers, capital and talent, which are the three challenges standing in the way to growth."

A dynamic destination for leaders of the digital economy

MaRS itself has grown considerably, expanding along with the region's start-up scene. Today, the centre is one and a half million square feet, spanning an entire city block. "That makes us the largest urban innovation centre in North America, and one of the largest in the world," says Teja.

As the centre has grown, so have the deals it's brokered with start-ups and investors. According to Teja, MaRS works with over 50 venture capital firms, "signing cheques anywhere from $5 million to $30 million," connecting Toronto start-ups to investors in the Bay Area, New York and Boston.

These start-ups have grown into big business. "Between 2008 and 2017, our companies have raised just over $4.8 billion in capital, generating over $3.1 billion in revenue, and in 2017 they employed over 12,800 people," Teja says.

One homegrown success story has been Synaptive Medical, the creator of the "Google Maps" of brain surgery. "They started here with a team of four or five people and grew to over 200 before they had to leave and find their own home," says Teja. "Now they are selling their devices all over the world."

Over the years, MaRS has become a base not just for start-ups, but companies attracted to innovation in general. Home to the Canadian head offices of Facebook, PayPal, AirBnB, Autodesk and Johnson and Johnson's JLabs, the centre hosts some of the largest innovators in the business world. Both start-ups and Silicon Valley giants have been drawn to an environment rich in cutting-edge artificial intelligence research, which includes the Vector Institute, Borealis AI, Samsung Research America's AI Centre, and the Uber Advanced Technology Group.

The influx of global leaders both from Silicon Valley and the local start-up boom, has made Toronto a dynamic destination for tech companies. "Toronto is becoming globally recognized as a tech hub, people don't realize how quickly we are growing," explains Teja. "Last year we added more tech jobs in Toronto than the San Francisco Bay area, Seattle and Washington, D.C., combined."

A gathering place for top tech minds

MaRS is growing as an event destination as well. In September, it hosted the Elevate Festival to celebrate Canadian innovation in technology. "Last year, we had 5,000 people coming to events with 200 speakers," Teja says. "This year we're hoping to double that."

"I would say MaRS is growing because the start-up community in Canada is growing," explains Teja. While MaRS and Toronto's tech scene have both grown considerably over the past decade, Teja sees room for growth still. "We've benefited a lot from working with start-ups here in Toronto, but I think MaRS has the opportunity to be a platform for all of Canada."

Sector/subsector: 

December 18, 2018

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