MaRS Discovery District is living up to its name and fuelling global innovation in the heart of Toronto.
While some of the country’s most successful financial and consumer technology companies call the downtown hub home, MaRS was first conceived by the late Dr. John Evans to commercialize breakthrough medical discoveries.
Dr. Evans—a businessman and founding dean of McMaster University’s Medical School—and a group of co-founders came up with the concept that would become MaRS: turning a nearly 100-year-old wing of Toronto General Hospital into a nerve centre for groundbreaking innovation. The building came with a legacy too, as it is where the Nobel-prize winning discovery of insulin was made and medical devices like the pacemaker were engineered.
Opened in 2005, MaRS focuses its work on four main sectors: health, cleantech, fintech, and work and learning. A combination of labs, office spaces, common rooms and collaborative areas, MaRS embraces the entire lifecycle of entrepreneurs—from education and incubation to validation in the marketplace.
MaRS is where entrepreneurship and true innovation collide. The 1.5 million-square-foot space is home to 150 companies, totalling 6,000 people who can gain access to early-stage capital, cutting-edge research facilities, top tech talent and a network of advisors. MaRS also houses privately backed funds and tailored startup programs, working with more than 1,000 young, high-growth companies that have collectively generated a multi-billion dollar revenue.
Inside the world’s largest urban innovation hub, companies like BlueRock Therapeutics pioneer regenerative medicines, software providers like Autodesk display how generative design can create the ideal workspace, and medicine companies like Deep Genomics build biologically accurate data-driven AI platforms for geneticists, molecular biologists and chemists.
Every great operation needs a team though, and behind MaRS is a staff of more than 150 people in venture services, corporate innovation, funding and operations.
The original brick facade of the old Toronto General Hospital anchors the centre’s four-storey glass atrium. The light-filled entrance hall serves as more than an impressive welcome to MaRS visitors; it has played host to symphony performances, exhibitions, lectures and receptions.
Just off the main entrance is the CIBC Live Lounge, a colourful, multi-purpose collaborative workspace. The lounge features mixed seating and tables, and is the go-to venue for tenant community events, meetups and other MaRS programming. For larger events, the 4,500-square-foot auditorium on the centre’s lower concourse can fit up to 300 people.
Manulife and John Hancock’s Lab of Forward Thinking, Moneris and IBM are all stationed in the heart of MaRS in an open concept suite meant to bridge the gap between corporate leaders and entrepreneurs.
The Heritage Building houses both scaleable startups and established companies that take up residence in MaRS Commons and District 20. MaRS Commons is a flexible coworking space for growth-stage companies, offering meeting rooms, kitchen space and tech resources. When companies are ready for a more private work set up, a 6,000-square-foot space dubbed District 20 provides pod-like offices with shared common areas.
“We took a site that served medical innovation for 100 years and repurposed it for the next century,” said Ilse Treurnicht, former CEO of MaRS Discovery District.
Inside three office towers is where most innovation happens at MaRS. Designed by B+H Architects, the 20-storey MaRS West Tower is home to established companies such as Facebook, Autodesk and PayPal Canada, and fast-growing startups like League, while Airbnb, Samsung, and Element AI are located in the brick clad College Wing.
The 15-storey Princess Margaret Cancer Research Tower houses state-of-the-art wet labs for research organizations inside the 400,000-square-foot building.
Lastly, the eight-storey South Tower includes labs and offices for rent and the MaRS Incubator on the second and third floor. Adamson Associates Architects designed both the South Tower and the centre’s College Wing.
Sharing experiences, fostering connections and building relationships are all facilitated inside the walls of the MaRS Centre. Beyond offering working space, multi-national corporations have recognized the benefits of setting up shop in an innovation centre, welcoming in the likes of Samsung and Airbnb.
MaRS employees can take advantage of the wide range of conferences, meetups and lectures that are hosted inside the building. The space also offers shower facilities, indoor bike storage and electric vehicle chargers, not to mention direct access from the Queen’s Park subway station.
The hundreds of events hosted at MaRS each year are both inspirational and educational opportunities for employees. Being apart of an innovation ecosystem, MaRS is a career launch pad for employees that rub shoulders with entrepreneurs and industry leaders.
MaRS has formal development programming that employees can tap into, including lunch and learn sessions, an online learning platform and a special lunch-time series called Share It! where employees can share a passion project, experience or even research. MaRS also welcome external presentations from experts that talk about anything from mindfulness meditation or public speaking.
MaRS employees can step up to the plate on the MaRS softball team or Namaste during weekly yoga at noon. Employees can also tap into one of the discounted gym memberships offered by MaRS.
Five years ago, MaRS installed beehives on one of its rooftops that are now home to roughly 50,000 honeybees in the summer months. Part education, part fun, employees interested in urban beekeeping can suit up to get an up close look at the busy MaRS bees.
The centre has an active social committee that organizes potlucks, an annual summer games competition, and a festive holiday party. There’s also classic startup-oriented team-building outings, from trivia nights to axe throwing. MaRS also organizes a day on the green for golfing enthusiasts and newbies alike, probably realizing that a lot of business is done both in offices and on the fairway.
Photos by Matt Odynski
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