For Kamal Hassan, the walk to his office each morning is often the best networking opportunity of the day.
Mr Hassan, chief executive of SkyMeter, which specialises in pay-as-you-go insurance, parking, roads and measuring vehicle emissions, is among many start-up business leaders in Toronto benefiting from a four-year-old venture to nurture, grow and monetise the city’s medical, science and technology research sectors.
Known as the MaRS Discovery District, the facility brings individuals and companies with innovative ideas together with a roster of high-level advisers and mentors who provide guidance as well as contacts.
“Until I moved into the MaRS building I didn’t appreciate the value of good real estate and what that can do to benefit a company,” Mr Hassan says.
Many see MaRS, which uses an increasingly popular model seen in Singapore, San Francisco and elsewhere, as the ideal direction for research and corporate sectors in Canada, which often compete against larger foreign counterparts.
“We have 33m people across a massive geography so one problem we have is density of ideas, density of capital or density of anything,” says Ilse Treurnicht, chief executive of MaRS. “In this one district you have C$10bn spent on research every year within 10 city blocks, which in Canada is very rare.”
Mr Hassan says he runs into advisers on a regular basis, as well as Canadian and international delegations that MaRS brings in to meet the companies it houses. His company recently signed on to do work for a significant client because of an off-chance hallway meeting.
“We met the guy because he was walking around the building,” Mr Hassan says. “MaRS asks how you purposely create accidental meetings.”
MaRS is linked to 14 nearby academic and research institutions and, by being so close to Canada’s financial hub on Toronto’s Bay Street, hopes to build business models for Canadian research and innovation.
The impetus for MaRS began in 2000 when a group of business leaders bought a decommissioned city centre hospital to prevent it from being turned into condominiums. By 2005 the building had been refurbished to provide 700,000 sq ft of conference space, meeting areas and an incubator space for start-up ventures.
Plans for 750,000 sq ft of further space are on hold due to the recession. But in its current form MaRS has found success relying on private donors, government partnerships and tenant revenue, while drawing in dozens of executives to act as mentors.
A sister organisation, MaRS Innovation, also brings the intellectual property of the nearby academic institutions under one roof to encourage licensing and start-up opportunities.
Before a recent CleanTech Forum in Boston, MaRS provided rigorous advice to the five companies it was bringing to the conference.
“Our presentation was ripped to shreds [by the MaRS advisers],” Mr Hassan says. “The result was when we went down to Boston you saw five presentations from MaRS companies that were significantly higher quality than the other presenters.”
He adds that facilities such as MaRS are crucial for the viability of Canadian companies competing against larger foreign rivals. “MaRS helps overcome some of the handicaps companies face when they come from a smaller country,” Mr Hassan says.
By unifying the medical, science and tech communities and helping them monetise their work, the initiative will also play a part in easing Canada’s long struggle to retain its best and brightest, sometimes lured by opportunities beyond its borders.
Since the days when expatriate Canadian engineers and scientists helped launched the American space programme, fears of a “brain drain” of skilled workers and companies leaving for the US have been a concern for Canadian politicians and businesses.
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