MaRS: A Research and Discovery Hub

Realising the market value of intellectual property through commercialisation is becoming a greater priority for universities and governments in Canada. Beginning in late 2004, academic researchers in Toronto's universities and hospital research institutes will have ready access to extensive incubator facilities, venture capital, and commercialisation expertise that is intended to help them turn their ideas into viable businesses.

The Medical and Related Sciences Discovery District (MaRS), which is rising on a muddy plot of land in the midst of Toronto's research and health sciences centre, "was created to address the bottlenecks that exist in the commercialisation process in Canada," thereby accelerating innovation, explains John Cook, president and chief operating officer of the nonprofit MaRS corporation.

MaRS is the brainchild of leaders in Canada's academic, business, and scientific communities who were inspired to create a central facility for all of the major players in the commercialisation process: industry, venture capital, IP and patent lawyers, and funding agencies. The aim is to offer assistance to the spinoff enterprises formed by the local research community. That community is large, including, as it does, two universities, seven hospitals, and more than 30 specialized medical and related sciences research centres--all located in the area recently dubbed the Discovery District by the city of Toronto.

"Canada has a phenomenal pool of intellectual property arising from basic research, but our track record of commercialising this IP is subpar," says Cook. MaRS's founders "realised that if nothing was done to actively improve on the transfer of technology, then foreign companies would continue to buy Canadian IP and use it to generate revenue and jobs" abroad. Without MaRS and other technology clusters like it in Canada, adds Cook, the Canadian public would not see appropriate returns on the governments' increased investment in basic research over the last 5 years.

"As is true for many universities in Canada, [the University of Toronto] has underperformed in the areas of technology transfer and commercialization", comments Professor David Naylor, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the university. He adds that the teaching hospitals, where a considerable amount of the U of T-associated research is housed, have also been concerned with taking great ideas from the bench and into practice. "MaRS offers a wonderful venue to concentrate firepower in these areas," says Naylor, "It will be at once a company incubator and a magnet for early stage venture capital, a centre that sparks convergence of research streams by co-locating start-ups from different fields, and an innovation 'mall' where multiple universities can set up tech transfer offices."

The MaRS corporation has raised about CA$166M over the last 3 years from both the public and private sectors, with contributions of $20M each from the Ontario and federal governments. Phase I of the project, which is expected to be up and running by the fourth quarter of 2004, will occupy about 58,000 square meters of floor space adjacent to the Toronto General Hospital. "It's a great location," says Cook, and not only because of its proximity to existing research and health care facilities. "The sheer size and scale of the project has drawn a lot public attention." Phase II, which will be built on the same site, is expected to open in late 2006; however, the MaRS Centre is waiting for a lead tenant to sign on before construction can begin on the second phase. The rent revenue generated from tenants, which for phase I include the Canadian Medical Discoveries Fund, the University of Toronto's tech transfer office Innovations Foundation (UTIF), local biotech giant MDS Inc., venture capital group RBC Technology Ventures, and the University Health Network (UHN) Microarray Centre, is expected to cover the centre's ongoing operating costs.

"The UHN Microarray Centre will benefit a great deal from being a tenant in the new MaRS building," says Neil Winegarden, head of operations. The building has been custom designed to provide "all of the necessary services of a modern, high-tech laboratory," he explains. More important, he adds, is the fact that all of the scientific expertise needed to advance microarray technology--engineering, biology, chemistry, physics, and informatics--will be brought together in one location. That will render "the interaction between these groups much more efficient," says Winegarden, and help eliminate the barriers that typically impede cross-disciplinary interactions. This setup, he adds, will help the microarray group "push the development of the technology and move ahead of the curve."

When phase I is complete, it will include approximately 5500 square meters of incubator facilities, a third of which will house the labs of high-tech companies and two-thirds of which will be allocated to wet labs. Depending on the size of each one, the MaRS facility could hold anywhere from 50 to 100 new applied research and development companies, as well as the legal, regulatory, and financial support offices, which will occupy the remaining space. Although the economic benefits of a project of this scale are hard to predict, based on the number of employees per square meter at research parks in the United States, Cook estimates that the MaRS Centre could create as many as 6000 full-time positions in basic research, corporate R&D, and commercialisation support within the next few years.

In addition to being a physical centre for commercialisation activities, MaRS is intended to act as a living network for its constituents, linking them to individuals, technology, and research centres across the country that can provide the scientific support that they require and, in doing so, foster research collaborations. The MaRS project was established on the premise that if you create the infrastructure to bring the science, scientists, and the business community closer together, then you generate the impetus to accelerate technology commercialisation in a cluster environment. (For more info on Ontario's biotech clusters, read this Next Wave article.) By creating programs in which scientists are taken out of the lab and given more opportunities for networking--workshops, conferences, networking events, for example--MaRS is hoping to overcome one of the main challenges of commercialising academic research: cultivating a sense of entrepreneurship among academics. "Canada needs more programs that encourage academic scientists to think about turning their ideas into products," Cook says.

The fact that most technology transfer offices at academic institutions are underfinanced and understaffed presents another challenge. By concentrating individuals working for those offices in one place, MaRS hopes to establish conditions in which "spinoff companies can more readily develop," Cook adds. "This move puts UTIF in a commercialization focal point in Toronto and Ontario," says George Adams, president and CEO of UTIF. "By moving into the MaRS Centre, UTIF will contribute its expertise in technology transfer and business incubation to a growing community of professionals dedicated to maximizing the impact of Canadian innovation."

With a concentration of great scientific, entrepreneurial, IP, and business minds in one place, MaRS expects to attract more venture capital to the area and ultimately improve the chances that companies will not only get off the ground but also stay in business. Winegarden says that whether or not they have any direct involvement with the MaRS Centre, the academic community in Toronto is excited about the project, "as it will bring more cutting-edge technologies to the area, meaning greater potential for collaboration and interaction, allowing all groups in the area to benefit, regardless of whether they are actually a tenant of the building."

Naylor agrees. "The University of Toronto committed $5M towards the development of MaRS. For a public University in a tight budget situation to make such an investment, you can well imagine that we see the project as one with great potential!"

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