Bringing business, scientists together
It’s glass and steel, wired and wireless . . . . and headed by a Rhodes scholar
The land alone cost $30 million. Add another $185 million for construction, double that for outfitting the place and you’re looking at close to $400 million to create Toronto’s monumental R&D temple — phase one.
It’s all about ensuring that intellectual capital created in Canada gets developed in Canada.
Today, light will angle through the glass atrium high above onto granite floors below that are echoing to the sound of scientists moving in to MaRS. The Medical and Related Sciences centre is huge, but what’s going on here is even bigger.
After decades of dismal efforts to commercialize research, Toronto’s scientific and business communities have come together to make a grand statement about their global aspirations. The complex will be vast and has evolved from a vision articulated five years ago by Dr. John Evans, a former president of the University of Toronto who was horrified when he heard that the historic site of Toronto General Hospital on College St. was going to be sold for condos.
Instead, there followed a backbreaking fundraising effort and complex negotiations with the University Health Network which owned the land, and conceptualizion of MaRS. Officially opening today, it has involved a cast of thousands. The centre’s chief executive officer, who was charged with actualizing the dream, is Ilse Treurnicht, a multi- tasking former CEO at Primaxis, the Royal Bank venture- capital firm, who also has a Ph. D in chemistry, is a Rhodes Scholar, and been part of a number of start- up companies.“ is a platform to commercialize scientific discoveries, to create a globally significant centre that attracts the best people, bringing together science, business and capital
under one roof,” explains Treurnicht.
“ The amazing thing is
that not only is the centre full, it’s full of the
Across from her office, on the other side of the interior “ street,” stand the restored brick walls of the original Toronto General Hospital which opened in 1913 — where Banting and Best gave free in-
sulin to diabetics over 80 years ago.
Located at 101 College St., on the south side between University Avenue and Elizabeth St., this is now the “ Heritage Building” and central entrance of the 700,000- square- foot behemoth that is MaRS.
Yes it’s big, “ very un- Canadian, the rapidity with which it’s happening, the scale of the ambition, the global play,” says Dale Martin, who leads the MaRS real estate group that’s building and leasing the space. “ We’ve got over 50 organizations moving in, from start- ups to NPS Pharma ( formerly called Allelix), Merck Frosst, RBC Technology Ventures, the Canadian Medical Discoveries Fund, MDS Sciex, Heenan Blaikie, Ogilvy Renault . . . ”
Treurnicht, from her place at the helm, is keenly aware of the potential of MaRS multiple players — and amazed to find herself in the right place, at the right time, given the twists and turns of her complex life. Her husband is David Naylor, president- designate of the University of Toronto; the parents of four children, they’re selling their house and moving into U of T’s official residence
Raised in Johannesburg, the second of three children, Treurnicht’s first language was Afrikaans. South Africa was in the grip of apartheid and her extended family “ spanned the political spectrum,” she says. A competitive track and field athlete, she and her teammates were banned from international events because of the boycott against South Africa. On student council at the University of Stellenbosch, she was active “ on the reform side of council.”
After the 1976 Soweto riots — in which South African police killed more than 600 people — she wanted to “ have an experience outside. That’s one reason I applied for a Rhodes Scholarship.” Her parents couldn’t afford to educate her abroad.
In 1979 at the age of 23, armed with a master’s degree in chemistry, she left South Africa for Oxford University. “ I loved Oxford. It was a magical time. The graduate student population was phenomenally international.” Among nine women to integrate a men’s college, she arrived with a bicycle and a suitcase — “ the only possessions I had.” She thought she’d get into sports medicine, she started rowing — a popular sport at Oxford — but did her Ph. D in chemistry, spending a lot of time “ in a smelly lab,” doing research on new kinds of plastics. Then she met another ambitious Rhodes scholar, David Naylor, out of Woodstock, Ont., where his father owned the local movie theatre.
Their connection was “ instant,” she says. When he went back to Canada, “ I came here to do my post- doc, to see if I could survive the winters. It was fine.” They had four children — two girls now 18 and 16, two boys who are 12 and 13. “ It wasn’t possible to do everything at once,” she says. “ David had a big job as CEO of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences.” So Treurnicht “ took a detour” to run a consulting business from home. An adept multi-tasker, she worked with young companies and large industry associations, ran research programs, helped raise capital — and kept the home fires burning.
Then, after 10 years of consulting, “ I was ready to get involved in a more team- based environment.” When Naylor became Dean of Medicine at U of T, she joined Primaxis Technology Ventures Inc. as president and CEO — and first employee. It was 1999, just as the tech boom was soaring to unsustainable heights.
Primaxis had a $55 million fund to invest in wireless, semiconductor, photonics, telecommunications, IT, advanced materials and manufacturing. Among its investors were RBC Technology Ventures, Ohiobased Battelle, one of the world’s largest R&D funds, the UK’s BTG and Dupont Canada.
“ It’s still too early to tell,” how the Primaxis portfolio of a dozen companies will do, she says, “ but they raised over $500 million mostly from outside Canada. They had all the classic challenges of start- ups, and they’re now in the harvesting phase.”
“ There is terrific innovation in Canada,” she says. At MaRS, she hopes to be “ hands- on. I absolutely love start- ups, I admire the energy and passion of entrepreneurs.”
Ultimately, she says, “ it’s all about people, talent, connectivity. We’ve all seen great technologies go nowhere. I think back on early- stage companies I worked with in the 1980s — there was no MaRS, no place to go for information, networking, market research. Now we’re here.
‘‘ The baby companies in our incubator space will co-exist with more mature companies. There is nothing like this in the world, to have all this in proximity to the enormous research engine ( of Toronto’s hospitals and universities), close to the financial district, on the subway line, in the heart of this multicultural city.
‘‘ That’s where the magic is, and we want the community to take ownership of this remarkable serendipity engine, this convergence place.” The bottom line, for Treurnicht, is “ the whole notion of collaboration. One of our competitive strengths will be our ability to collaborate.” And yes, this being Canada, Tim Horton’s will open in the basement food court on Oct. 1.
Architect’s rendering shows how completed MaRS complex will look. Renovation of old Toronto General Hospital, in brown, was part of first construction phase. Ilse Treurnicht, MaRS CEO, riding the escalator in phase one’s atrium. The facility’s research...