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New Alliances Emerge to Tackle Tough Problems

woman researcher in white lab coat and glasses
woman researcher in white lab coat and glasses
Yung Wu

Yung Wu

CEO, MaRS Discovery District

From climate change to health care, the challenges we face require innovative new coalitions.

Imagine being able to repair damaged organs by printing replacement human tissues. In November, scientists at Toronto’s McEwen Stem Cell Institute announced a partnership to do just that. Working with Aspect Biosystems, a Vancouver biotech company, they’re developing a way to “bioprint” functional tissues that could eventually be implanted into patients to treat liver disease.

It’s a milestone for Medicine by Design, a University of Toronto organization that aims to accelerate progress in regenerative medicine by cross-pollinating ideas among academia, health care institutions, and industry. Using an approach based on a design studio, it brings multidisciplinary teams together to collaborate freely. Medicine by Design has been instrumental in charting the first-ever map of the liver at the cellular level and is now playing a leading role in the Human Cell Atlas, an international effort to map every cell in the human body. 

There’s a growing realization that technical advancements can only go so far when it comes to tackling complex issues like providing health care to an aging population, dealing with climate change, and addressing inequality. The biggest hurdles lie in getting new innovations into widespread use — this is something that only collaboration among government, academia and industry can solve. 

This is how the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine is working to bridge the commercialization gap for cell and gene therapies. Its team focuses on key bottlenecks to accelerate the translation of scientific discovery into marketable products for patients. 

And that’s the approach we’re taking at my own organization, where we launched Mission from MaRS to support ten scaling businesses that we believe can be Canada’s climate champions. These include StormFisher, which turns organic waste into biogas and fertilizers, and Flash Forest, which is on track to use drones to plant one billion trees by 2028. Mission from MaRS has curated teams of experts to troubleshoot the issues these businesses cannot solve alone: outdated regulations, overly risk-averse investors or cumbersome government procurement processes. With more than 50 industry experts from such organizations as OMERS, Maple Leaf Foods, RBC, KPMG, and Shopify, the coalitions are working to clear stumbling blocks from the cleantech companies’ routes to market so they can start mitigating climate change at scale.     

Will it work? The early signs are promising. In December, Mission from MaRS signed an accelerated procurement process with the City of Toronto, which will support Canadian innovation and help Canada’s largest city reach its net-zero targets. 

Canada also has a solid track record of creating winning partnerships to build on. MaRS IAF, which started as an experiment in combining government seed funding with a management team of venture capitalists, has become one of Canada’s most active seed-stage investment funds. Since 2008, it has supported 175 ventures, leading to $1.7 billion in follow-on funding and more than 5,500 new jobs. MaRS IAF combines a government mandate with a private-sector mindset and is housed in a non-profit organization. That unique perspective has helped it nurture such standout companies as Mindbridge, ACTO, and Nicoya. Based on that success, this January it spun out Graphite Ventures, a new $100-million investment fund that will be able to write even bigger cheques to support promising ventures. 

One of the unfortunate side effects of tech’s growth in recent years has been a myopic focus on individual founders with big egos — successful and brilliant in their own right, but imperfect when it comes to creating a repeatable playbook. As the innovation economy matures, it’s clear that ecosystems are a far better foundation and catalyst from which to create repeatable success. Building coalitions and forging partnerships may lack the glamour of playing by your own rules, but it is more effective at creating lasting change. Truly impactful innovation is a team sport. 

This article was supported by MaRS Discovery District.

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