Bring­ing busi­ness, sci­en­tists to­gether

It’s glass and steel, wired and wire­less . . . . and headed by a Rhodes scholar

Toronto Star - - Business - JUDY STEED FEA­TURE WRITER

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

right peo­ple.”

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...

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