Before the Heritage Building of the MaRS Discovery District was a modern innovation hub, it was supposed to get knocked down by a wrecking crew.
The old Toronto General Hospital section called “College Wing” at the corner of University and College Ave was no longer needed after a new hospital had been built. Condominiums were set to go up in its place.
Fortunately for many startups today, a group of philanthropists raised the needed cash to buy the historic building. They founded MaRS in 2000, a non-for-profit corporation whose mission was to spearhead the commercialization of more than $1 billion in science and technology research spending.
It’s a huge centre located in the middle of Toronto dedicated to weaving together all the fabrics of Canadian innovation.
“If you think about where it’s located, it’s equidistant between Bay street, the research hospitals, the universities and Queen’s Park, and that was purposeful,” said Joseph Wilson, an advisor at MaRS Education Innovation. “People often call MaRS a convergent centre, meaning all these different people converge to commercialize, create small businesses and help entrepreneurs with their ideas.”
“Phase 1” was completed in 2005, with a focus on science and technology. Today that focus has expanded to advanced materials and engineering; cleantech; information technology, communications and entertainment; life sciences and healthcare; and social innovation (including education).
The organization’s main function is to provide resources- people, programs, physical facilities, funding and networks- to ensure that the hundreds of startups they assist can develop ideas.
In Wilson’s area of education that means tackling an ever-changing sector that has scared investors away for good while attracting others who see it as a new frontier, or a wild west.
Education is in a state of constant flux and it’s not hard to see why people may support or abandon investment. For example, the emergence of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have lead critics to predictions of ghost town campuses in 20 years, as higher education changes into one-way or two-way feeds via the web.
Meanwhile as thousands of tech startups seek to help the kindergarten to Grade 12 market, school boards remain weary about which companies will help them, and which will profit off of them. “This is a very sensitive space to be an entrepreneur,” Wilson told Techvibes. “Some teachers wont let you come into the school if you’re a for-profit company.”
The reality is, there exists great for-profit companies and very poor non-for-profits. “We try to say we don’t care what you are, we want you to do two things, be self sustaining financially (and in the case of a high-growth company, be able to grow) and have a social impact on the education space and we realize that doesn’t preclude either company,” he said.
Wilson and the Education Innovation team at MaRS work with four different “buckets,” or areas of education: K-12, Higher Ed (such as universities), corporate education and self-directed learning (which includes MOOCs or learning apps for kids).
MaRS oversees 140 different teams, some of them for profit, some not-for-profit. Provided to these teams are advisory support, market research, introductions to potential venture capitalists and angel investors and assistance with foundation grants.
The end goal for MaRS is to make Canada a leader in a global education innovation market. The nation is already “very good at education” according to Wilson, the former teacher of five years, but it’s not so good at commercialization. Instead, Canada typically waits for companies from other countries to come and do it for us.
Elevating Canada to a global leader would urge other countries to look here for expertise, creating a new economic tool and a network of companies, consultants and other leaders. “You can imagine that the ministries of economic development and government people are getting excited about this because it’s an untapped source of economic development,” said Wilson.
Lately Wilson has been compiling a public document listing 115 different companies considered part of MaRS’ “education cluster." He said Toronto is a “crazy hotspot in education that has exploded in the last little while.” Included in this list is everything from crowd-based exam marking solutions for professors to wristband technology for kids that measures their galvanic skin response while they answer questions.
Education will remain a constantly changing space for several years, but this is ok with Wilson. “That’s what makes it interesting and worth doing,” he said. “It’s something that has to change and we’re uniquely positioned to be a driver in that change.”