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Business | Technology

The surprising ingredient needed for a globally competitive innovation hub

4 Oct 2023, by Amy Sarcevic

Much of the value underpinning innovation hubs is the physical proximity they give to each piece of the ecosystem in which budding entrepreneurs are trying to get ahead.

In just one building or site, fledgling technologists can typically access financiers, advisers, scientists and hands-on mentors, often within walking distance.

Dr Cory Mulvihill, Chief of Staff at the world’s largest urban innovation hub, MaRS Discovery District, says the proximity a hub has to outside infrastructure is also important; and has played a role in his hub’s unparalleled success.

“One of the key advantages we had when setting up MaRS at the start of the millennium, was its geographical location,” he said.

“Just a few blocks away we have five of the world’s leading hospitals, and the University of Toronto, which is Canada’s best higher education centre.”

In fact, Dr Mulvihill believes proximity to such infrastructure can often make or break a hub’s success.

“Many cities have tried to complete a similar organisation [to MaRS Discovery Centre], but their hubs haven’t been central enough, so they haven’t gone on to achieve the same scale.”

He believes the reason centrality matters is simple.

“We have thought about this extensively and sought feedback from our partners and it seems to boil down to basic logistics. For example, if a lecturer at the university wants to launch a business, then it’s easier if they can walk across the street to our hub, after work or in between lectures.”

Psychologically, distance is also a barrier for some people, Dr Mulvihill highlighted.

“If people think something is far, they are less likely to go – particularly in [MaRS’s host city] Toronto where the default method of transportation is public transport, which can make journeys feel longer and less convenient.

“That’s why I believe the hub concept is so effective. It removes the physical distance from all the things people need to make their business a success. If you can locate hubs within walking distance to the people that will use them, that’s a double win.”

Unparalleled success

Indeed, despite a global uptick in hub development, MaRS’s success remains largely unrivalled. Covering 1.5 million square feet, the hub currently supports 1400 companies in their pursuit of global markets.

Initially helping people start companies from scratch, the hub now primarily helps those who are deep into research or clinical trials become fully-fledged companies, with revenues in excess of $60 million.

It does this through free, direct advisory services and contact facilitation.

“We help people figure out their business model, sales and marketing strategy, and connect them to resources they might need in their business.

In turn, they can translate their research into commercialisable, patient-impacting treatment methods or technologies,” Dr Mulvihill said.

The company also has a strong venture capital (VC) portfolio, which it launched to help fill in the gaps of capital markets.

“The largest portion of our VC portfolio is the Investment Accelerator Fund (IAF), in which we partner with government. This originated soon after the 2008 financial crisis, when there was a huge gap in seed stage capital.

“We have now run the program for many years, not just providing investment dollars but also strategic support. We introduce people to the right investors and give everyone their best shot of a successful pitch.”

MaRS’s onsite conference centre is also a drawcard, hosting the hub’s two annual signature events and a range of third party forums.

“Our events centre is fairly large and brings what we do to life. It helps us stand out on the global stage,” Dr Mulvihill said.

Purpose built design

Alongside its proximity to key infrastructure, Dr Mulvihill says the hub thrives thanks to its purpose built design.

“Our physical space has been key to our success. The building is purpose built to house laboratory infrastructure, which is a huge drawcard in Canada and the US. Many technology entrepreneurs here cite lack of access to labs as a key impediment when starting a company, given the large upfront capital costs typically required.

“When people think of the origins of big technological change, they commonly think of the brilliant young person tinkering in their parents’ garage. This is true in many instances, but when it comes to companies that have achieved scale, there are essential infrastructure needs.

“For example, high speed, high capacity internet connections and reliable cooling capacity to those with significant computing needs. Laboratory environments require enhanced air handling, adequate measures to secure their facilities, and reliable backups in case of electricity supply interruptions.”

Further insight

Sharing more insights into MaRS’s business model and strategy, Cory Mulvihill is due to present at the National Health and Innovation Precincts Summit, hosted by Informa Connect.

This year’s event will be held 6-7 December at the Aerial UTS Function Centre.

Learn more and register your place here.

About Cory Mulvihill

Dr Cory Mulvihill is Chief of Staff at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto Canada, where he leads executive governance functions and a variety of initiatives, including Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Dr Mulvihill previously led ecosystem development work at MaRS, strengthening its role as a globally recognized generator of positive socioeconomic impact. In prior roles, he led MaRS’ relations with top national and global jurisdictions of innovation and policy and public affairs.

He is also co-founder of Canada’s Global Innovation Cluster for Advanced Manufacturing and the Innovation Economy Council.


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