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Canada has always had to fight hard to attract talent and investment
Vital to Toronto's life sciences vision is MaRS (derived from Medical and Related Sciences) a non-profit organisation and business centre located in the heart of the city. Its core function is as a biotech incubator and business park, known as MaRS Discovery District. The venture was first established in 2000 to help foster and accelerate the growth of successful Canadian businesses and, after some uncertain times, it is now gathering momentum.
A separate technology transfer office, MaRS Innovation, has also been established that, it is hoped, can be a world beater in its own right (see Turning good ideas into world beaters below).
The location of the MaRS building in central Toronto is important, as it is just a stone's throw away from an existing cluster of universities and academic hospitals.
MaRS has many links with other research-based organisations, including collaborations with three local universities, 10 academic teaching hospitals and the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.
MaRS occupies the Old Toronto general hospital, where insulin was first discovered by Best and Banting in 1921 and then developed for use in human trials. The 21st Century organisation can build on this heritage in patient-focused discovery and development.
Formerly the head of venture capital firm Primaxis, Ilse Treurnicht is chief executive of MaRS Discovery District. She acknowledges the crisis in venture capital funding, and says Canada's sector has always had less access funds through this route than other countries.
This is one of the drivers behind the search for a new approach. Treurnicht says the old models of building biotech and life sciences businesses have to be discarded, as they have failed to build companies with critical mass.
She says MaRS' new 'Convergence Innovation' strategy of bringing science, capital and business together will pay off.
"We call our strategy 'Convergence Innovation' and what we are trying to do is move away from the old linear model of academics struggling in their spare time to build companies or entrepreneurs doing this in a very incremental way.
"It takes time and it has many risk points along the way. So using this Convergence centre model to create a much more dynamic organisation which can help accelerate good ideas towards the commercialisation."
But she says Canada's geography and demographics are always going to be a challenge. "This is a very large country with a small population. If you think in terms of clusters and hub regions, Canada's business hubs are separated geographically, and there is not much in between in terms of people.
"That means we can't try to be a little United States, because we just won't show up on the radar. We have to take a different approach. We have to think about collaboration as our potential competitive advantage - that means using networks and associations to solve problems and build businesses.
"So as new opportunities emerge, we can take them to market faster and hopefully with a higher success rate."
The centre currently accommodates numerous start up companies, as well as those providing legal and financial services to them. AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline also have offices on site. In all, MaRS provides mentoring for over 200 different companies across Ontario, and runs courses on entrepreneurship and preparing products for market.
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Transition Therapeutics is one of the companies based at MaRS, and is an example of a biopharmaceutical company that is taking a new approach to the science and business of drug development.
Now Toronto's MaRS Innovation (MI) has been launched to try to guide and accelerate these promising ideas out of the wilderness and onto the market.
MI is a not-for-profit technology transfer company that will channel all the best ideas to come out of Toronto's renowned academic centres.
In the Toronto and Ontario area there were between 14-16 different technology transfer offices in the different institutions, and MaRS Innovation resolved to bring these interests together into a single entity after industry partners told them it was an inefficient way to do business.
Bringing together the different institutions under one umbrella organisation has been an arduous task for MaRS, but the reward could be considerable for all parties. MI now oversees probably the largest intellectual property pipeline of its kind, representing about $1 billion in annual research spending.
This means MI will be a unified route for all of Toronto's academics and their institutions when they want to develop and commercialise a bright idea.
Most importantly, investors from industry who are looking to collaborate will now be able to deal with just organisation and one IP process.
MI will cover patentable ideas across a broad range of areas, and not just life sciences - the discovery pipeline in physical sciences, information and communication technology, and green technology ('cleantech') will all be funnelled through MI.
MI now represents three universities, 10 academic teaching hospitals and the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research. MaRS Innovation, with support from MaRS and BioDiscovery Toronto, will advance commercialisation through industry partnerships, licensing and company creation.
MI has just announced its first two commercialisation deals with academic partners in the city. The first is with the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital to develop stem cell from umbilical cords to treat cardiovascular disease, diabetes and neurological disorders.
"With the Toronto area identified as a world-leading cluster in stem cell research, we are extremely excited to have identified this technology as our first commercialisation opportunity," said Dr Hofstein.
ts chief executive is Dr Rafi Hofstein. Hofstein has been headhunted from Israel where he was chief executive of Hadasit, the technology transfer company of the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem and chair of the publicly-traded company Hadasit BioHolding.
He brings this considerable experience in technology transfer to what he thinks is a groundbreaking enterprise.
"MaRS Innovation is a unique global initiative, and I must commend the institutional leaders in Toronto for pulling this innovation powerhouse together to strengthen commercialisation output."
He adds: "I believe this is going to modernise the whole notion of tech transfer."
He says the scale and diversity of MaRS Innovation's remit puts it into a league of its own. Other research clusters elsewhere in the world have attempted similar projects before, but have been thwarted by the difficulty in bringing parties together.
MaRS Innovation will also help launch and grow new spin-off companies and incubate them for 2-3 years to ensure a strong commercial footing.
Hofstein says MI will also fund proof of concept trials which will persuade major pharma companies to invest in their development.
"Our partnership with MaRS Innovation on developing methods for using stem cells for diseases such as diabetes will allow us to work towards advancing care for these critical conditions."
The second collaboration is between MI and The University of Toronto (U of T) and involves a novel sustained release formulation of nitric oxide (NO) for applications in wound healing, including diabetic ulcers.
"There are 300 million diabetics worldwide, of which some 15% develop troublesome foot ulcers. This wound healing technology is extremely exciting, making it an early commercialisation opportunity that MaRS Innovation has identified as being a potential win for some 45 million diabetics globally," said Dr Hofstein.
"This is one of many new commercialisation ventures that will be initiated by MaRS Innovation, our partner in commercialisation of research with 13 other academic institutions across the Greater Toronto Area," said Paul Young, U of T's vice-president, Research. "We at U of T are delighted that this innovation from Dr Lee will be taken to the marketplace to the benefit of society and the economy of Ontario and Canada."
By aggregating the leading edge science of its institutional members and being a one-stop commercialisation centre for industry, entrepreneurs and investors, MI could really help put Toronto and Canada on the map.
"MaRS Innovation is deeply committed to facilitating strategic research collaborations with industry partners, strengthening the innovation capacity of Canadian industry through adoption of new technologies, and launching a new generation of robust, high-growth Canadian companies that will become global market leaders," added Dr Hofstein. "We look forward to working closely with all of our institutional members and to continue to jointly announce exciting commercial opportunities."