MaRS DD & Canadian AI

Written by Charlie Wood
Emerging technology Investment Point of view Ventures

In my role as General Partner here at IAG Firemark Ventures, I get to spend most of my time focussed on what’s happening in the world of technology and startups. A lot of our focus is around artificial intelligence. We’re looking at all kinds of innovative companies and how they can impact the future of our organisation and how we serve our customers. AI is a big space. There’s a lot going on. We’re looking at how disciplines such as voice analytics and computer visioning can work behind the scenes to improve processes, create scalability and greater efficiency. We’re looking at how movement data can teach us more about our customers and their behaviours. How smart apps and platforms can assist us in informing our customers of significant events – such as hail storms or potentially dangerous situations. Ultimately, we’re all about making our customers’ world a safer place.

Recently I was on the road in North America and spent some time in Toronto. From Australia it’s easy to think that Toronto is just another big city “over there” – but it’s actually the Canadian Silicon Valley in many regards. And when you look more closely you’ll see how impressive the technology / innovation scene is there – especially when it comes to AI success stories and a great place to incubate new businesses.

At the hub of it all is MaRS DD. Medical and Related Sciences Discovery District. A impressive 1.5 million square feet of research labs and technology offices in downtown Toronto. MaRS DD is a not-for-profit corporation founded in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 2000. Its stated goal is to commercialise publicly funded medical research and other technologies with the help of local private enterprises and as such is a public-private partnership.[1] As part of its mission MaRS says, “MaRS helps create successful global businesses from Canada’s science, technology and social innovation”.

There’s an exceptional story that they are very proud of at MaRS. Early med tech’ pioneers Banting & Best discovered and purified insulin for the first time in the building which now forms the Heritage Building of MaRS. This Nobel prize winning work formed the basis for the modern treatment of diabetes. It’s a good story – innovation in their blood – literally.

At present there are some 1,300 high growth ventures in the ecosystem – either fully resident or supported. There are also some big names resident there too – such as Facebook and PayPal who call it their Canadian HQ.

It’s not just big – it’s also very successful. The model they have seems to be the right blend of talent, capital and technology. There are entrepreneurs, corporates, researchers, start-ups and investors all under the one roof. VCs reside there right next to some of the companies they support. You can grab a coffee and walk from Real Ventures to Element AI in about 10 seconds. This kind of proximity and presence is working well – on both sides.

MaRS seems to have two specific strengths – Regenerative Medicine and Artificial Intelligence. Seeing as my day job is to look for innovative AI companies it made sense for me to battle the cold (-20c) and hang out there for a few days. There are a number of high profile companies and entrepreneurs right there – The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, The Vector Institute, Borealis AI and Element AI for starters. Geoffrey Hinton “godfather of AI” at the University of Toronto is in the ecosystem there and his company is driving strategies for the long term economic growth with AI in the region. (And note that folks such as Real Ventures are on the board too). It’s a great example of the components of a tech’ ecosystem all working together and supporting each other towards a common set of goals.

MaRS supports ventures that improve lives. They have four specific sectors / vertical programs:

• Cleantech

• Enterprise

• Fintech

• Health

Each of these is run by a senior team of managers who drive the programs, support the start-ups and seemingly do whatever it takes make their companies a success – and at scale. The teams provide advisory support, connection to capital and talent as well as key market intelligence and data insights (via a partnership with Gartner). They also work to accelerate and support immigration requests and processes. Whilst I was there I heard first hand from a CEO how MaRS had helped get their people (international recruitment) working visas and relocation paperwork in a very short timeframe. They offer a talent accelerator to help companies hire and retain talent. They call it the “magnetic north” with significant recruitment of scarce talent coming from India, USA, China, Brazil and France. Something that would be very much welcomed in the tech ecosystem here in Australia. In fact, Toronto is North America’s fastest from market for tech jobs…adding more net new jobs than Seattle, New York, Washington and the Bay area combined. Yep, I paused to think about that when I heard it too.

On the capital front there are the resident VCs but there’s also the MaRS funds themselves (six). Responsible in some way for about 30 exits in recent times and almost a billion dollars of follow on funding. 65% of MaRS supported ventures have serial founders, 50% have foreign born founders and 25% have female founders. It’s a great intersection of the components and ethos to nurture innovation for the long term.

So what can we do in Australia to create our own MaRSDD? Is there something unattainable in scale they have? Some unfair advantage? Well not really we don’t have an excuse. Australia and Canada are comparable in terms of population and GDP. We always sit at number 11 and 12 on most lists of economic measures globally. As cities we’re mostly huddled up on one border – them with the USA and us with the Ocean. Alright they do have a pretty big market to sell their products and services to just over the lake but so do we…we’ve got two thirds of the world’s population just to the north and practically on the same time zone. We have some great incubators, accelerators and programs in Australia.

At IAG we support Stone & Chalk (the fintech focussed incubator)…but what more can we do? Reading my own summary of MaRS it’s obvious I’m a big fan and having spent time there I got a feeling that yes, it’s very impressive, forward thinking and very grown up. But that’s not something we can’t be here. If we think about just Sydney for a moment, and as the plans and programs start to take shape for the Sydney Innovation and Research Technology Precinct, let’s all lean in and see what we can learn from MaRSDD to make a success obsessed ecosystem of our own. As General Partner at a significant Australian Corporate VC I think I know what role I want to play.

Many thanks to Roy Kao (Managing Director MaRS Fintech) and his team for being my hosts and also to Janet Bannister and my old friend Marcel LeBrun (of Real Ventures) for making so many introductions. I’ll be back – but not during the polar vortex again – that was a bit chilly to be honest.

Founded – May 31, 2000
Type – Charitable trust
Focus – Technology transfer, commercialization
Location – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Method – Consultancy, market research, venture capital
Key people – Yung Wu, CEO
Website –

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