MaRS could easily respond to critics: "It's not me, it's you!"
Is it possible that all of the entrepreneurial handwringing over at www.StartUpNorth.ca and in our blog comment section about MaRS is merely a metaphor for the tongue-in-cheek “it’s not me, it’s you” line?
Has anyone considered perhaps that the core “issue” isn’t the MaRS management team, or the price of its real estate, or the quality of the labs, but the expectation of the ecosystem itself? That most entrepreneurs think of MaRS as an incubator, when it sees itself as one big, honking community centre for every Tom, Dick and Harry Science that needs some downtown space to evangelize whatever is hot that week? Is that their fault, or ours?
MaRS is definitely a physical testament to the Provincial government’s alleged interest and commitment to the Innovation Economy, despite cutting its funding for Labour-sponsored funds, OVCF and OETF (see prior posts “Northleaf’s Venture Catalyst Fund gets to work” Feb. 27-14 and “Ontario government puts $250M Emerging Technology Fund on ice” June 21-12) over the past seven years. But is MaRS deserving of all the criticism? That depends.
Just look at the events MaRS is putting on over the balance of this month, and you get the sense that its not entirely focused on, you know, stuff that’s useful to an entrepreneur with a mission to grow revenue:
Government’s Role in Social Impact Bonds: Re-modelling social impact – MaRS Global Leadership
What’s the Deal? Social Impact Bonds Investor Insights Webinar
MaRS Entrepreneurship Programs hosts a special information session with Futurpreneur Canada (formerly Canadian Youth Business Foundation, or CYBF)
TimesTalks Luminato (Two Events) – David Byrne and Rufus Wainwright, Josh Groban and Stephen Oremus from If I Loved You
Digital Transition: Canadian Media Experiments in 2014 – MaRS Market Insights
MaRS Startup Book Club: The End of Competitive Advantage by Rita Gunther McGrath
Future of Learning: Navigating the Digital Ocean
In Conversation with Bill Drayton
Guerrilla Marketing for Your Startup – MaRS Best Practices
The BD Horizon™ Tour
Some of these events may be relevant to helping local entrepreneurs grow their firms, and I recognize that our fund’s focus is a bit more mid-stage than what the MaRS team is spending time with. However, when I look at the tech ecosystem events being promoted in Boston this month by TUGG, for example, you get a sense of the luxuries of other key innovation hubs. And if you didn’t know, Team Boston benefits from no where near the same taxpayer funding of its local incubator space:
Bost Inno’s State of Innovation and first ever #SoGood Awards.
BOS/Techjam: Support five great TUGG organizations in Nonprofit Alley as you connect with 3000 friends
3rd Annual Innovation District Baggo Tournament Hosted by fama PR
2014 Entrepreneur Games
Unpitch Boston: Join 24 of Boston’s best VCs to get feedback on your concept
Tech + Nonprofit Matchup
This was just a random look at what’s on the horizon this month at MaRS versus Boston. In Boston, they are getting entrepreneurs together with VCs. At MaRS, you get to learn about social impact bonds, for example, whatever that means in our local context.
Having toured the latter City’s incubator during the past 18 months, I can assure you that it probably qualifies as “B” office space that was otherwise lying fallow. From what I’ve seen in Boston (and Chicago), AAA real estate space isn’t perceived as being core to growing start-up companies.
Rather, it’s the focus and intent of the people at the pointy end of the stick. It’s the mandate of the organization. It’s about growing companies, helping them find mentors and funding. And then watching the job creation happen. Being a hub, not an edifice.
The former CEO of Superbuild (a Provincial agency), David Lindsay, shared his MaRS recollections over the weekend on my Facebook page, and they give you some insight into how it all got started:
I’m still a supporter of the concept of an incubator and I like the original site but, if I understand you correctly, more attention to the activity of innovation and less attention to the shiny real estate is your thesis. I agree. I was at SuperBuild when the first pitch for this project came from John Evans and the other very dedicated private sector philanthropists. My comment to them over and over again was that this is a wonderful concept, but this specific proposal sounds more like a real estate transaction to prevent the old historic site from becoming condos than about creating an incubator. I kept asking how the incubator activity would work inside this new building. They would respond by mentioning Porter’s cluster economics and that bringing together smart people from Bay Street and University Avenue would organically create deals in the coffee shops and hallways of the building. Yes that is part of the concept of an incubator, but can you fill a whole building with this type of activity? At the time there was empty floor space in the Hydro building across the street and I wondered why we couldn’t just start this incubator concept with a floor in the curved space at OPG and grow the incubator activity over time… I wonder who occupies that floor space at OPG now?
If folks around the Liberal Cabinet table are being honest, the vision of MaRS was to commercialize — or at least scale — the medical R&D being done by the nearby hospitals, universities and research labs. That’s even the genesis of the MaRS name, to state the obvious. Here’s the intro from Wikkipedia of all places:
MaRS Discovery District is a not-for-profit corporation founded in Toronto in 2000. Its stated goal is to commercialize publicly funded medical research and other technologies with the help of local private enterprises and as such is a public-private partnership.
As a physical site for incredibly worthwhile activities like Grand Challenges Canada, MaRS is perfect. In a country as rich as Canada, there should be a home for work such as that being undertaken by the Sandra Rotman Centre. These missions are absolutely in keeping with the vision of the original proponents of MaRS; but they certainly didn’t drive the argument for MaRS Phase II (see prior post “No surprise in MaRS scandal” May 30-14).
If you are going to try to bring health solutions “to scale, where they are most urgently needed”, being physically close to UHN and the University of Toronto is essential as the people who are key to Toronto’s health field move effortlessly between UHN and the University classroom and back to a research lab. That’s not necessarily so for a CEO “client” of an IT or Clean Tech incubator, which is why Xtreme Labs and QuickPlay media wouldn’t have dreamed about setting up shop within MaRS’ physical constellation.
Perhaps the taxpayer need not sell the MaRS real estate and start over, as I recommended yesterday. That would be a black eye for the current government, should they still be in office next week. I suspect it would be more practical to let MaRS return to its medical research roots, and let someone (and something) else be the driving force for the Communitech-like incubator that Toronto so desperately needs. Somewhere other than the corner of University and College. With a Board and management team that looks more like Communitech, and not the Royal Bank of Canada (of which I’m a happy shareholder).
Should Tim Hudak win the election, the Ontario Innovation ecosystem may quickly find out that when he says there are no sacred cows, that extends to OVCF, OETF, OCE, MaRS too. One can expect the new Premier to be sympathetic to another cliché. That one being: “Lead, Follow, or Get Out Of The Way.” Much like the mantra of most company Founders in Ontario. What will that mean for MaRS? Time will tell.
Many entrepreneurs are distraught about what MaRS has become over the past decade, but that blame is best laid at the doorstep of the government, rather than the original MaRS visionaries. The Provincial Cabinet allocated the capital where they saw fit, over the advice of many in the actual tech ecosystem. The Wynne government’s $500 million real estate bailout of a building we didn’t ask for, while starving OVCF and shuttering OETF, is proof of that thesis.