CORPORATE INNOVATION

Making worlds collide at MaRS Discovery District

Jackie Gill - October 25, 2019 Jon Worren, senior director of venture and corporate programs at MaRS Discovery District, makes worlds collide between corporations and startups
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It’s the site of the first successful valve transplant, the world’s first coronary care unit, the first external pacemaker used in open-heart resuscitation and where insulin was first developed and first used.

Today, in those same halls, the tradition of firsts continues. Researchers who engineer human cells, tissues and organs. Dreamers imagining new ways to store, generate and distribute energy. Developers creating new forms of payment using blockchain. New companies starting fresh, and old companies looking for a fresh start.

This is MaRS Discovery District, a not-for-profit innovation hub built on the premise that great things happen when people and ideas collide, says Jon Worren, senior director of venture and corporate programs.

“It’s actually one of the biggest entrepreneurship programming practices in the world that we run here today,” he adds.

With 1.5 million sq. ft. of office, lab, meeting and event space spread between the old Toronto General Hospital heritage building, a glass-roofed atrium and three towers, MaRS combines the brainpower of over 1,200 Canadian science and tech companies, 50-plus corporate partners, about 10 venture capital firms, 250 MaRS staff and about 100 volunteer advisors in one key location in downtown Toronto.

And despite the differences in company size, industries and goals, Worren says they share one thing in common: “It’s all related to innovation.”

The dream: convergence innovation

Building one of the world’s biggest entrepreneurship programs isn’t easy, says Worren, and their journey in growing hasn’t been a straight line. But the idea of spurring innovation by facilitating natural collisions between people with different perspectives was infused from the very beginning.

Founded in 2000 by Dr. John Evans and a group of civic leaders, MaRS originally aimed to help researchers who wanted to commercialize their science. “He kind of thought that we need a place where you can have scientists with great ideas meet capital sources, meet talent, meet business advisors, so that it all can come together,” Worren explains.

Today, they’ve broadened the scope to include companies innovating in four sectors: health, cleantech, fintech and enterprise. But their mission, “to help innovators change the world,” isn’t much different, he adds.

“It’s actually one of the biggest entrepreneurship programming practices in the world that we run here today.”

– Jon Worren, senior director of venture and corporate programs at MaRS

Still, he has seen a real transformation over the 12 years he’s worked there.

In the early days, for example, they used to hold a training series called Entrepreneurship 101. “On Wednesday nights, at six o’clock, there would be 50 people hanging out in the auditorium and somebody from the community would come and share their experiences,” he says.

Back then, entrepreneurship wasn’t what it is today. Fewer people were interested in pursuing it as a career or had the resources to do so, Worren says. “Back then I thought, okay, this is a little bit embarrassing that we’re not able to offer these [speakers] more than 50 people in the audience.”

But within two or three years, it all changed. “Suddenly it became standing room only,” he says.

“We like to say that we teach them to fish rather than give them fish.”

– Jon Worren

With the added popularity and attendance, Worren and his team had to rethink their programming to best serve the large and diverse crowds that flooded in.

They no longer needed to sell the idea of entrepreneurship to attendees – they came in with the desire to start something new already. What they needed was advice and support to make their dreams a reality.

“My job is essentially to help entrepreneurs be successful by providing programming, and with that we mean there’s some form of training or resource to help them be successful,” he says. “And then even after that, how do they as a person evolve to become a better entrepreneur or an executive as their company changes, and the needs of them as a founder actually change as well?”

WATCH: How MaRS designs programming for everyone

That new focus guides the work they do through the 300-400 workshops they hold each year, along with the articles, templates, software, mentorship, advice and connections they provide, Worren says. “We like to say that we teach them to fish rather than give them fish.”

When startups and corporations collide

As senior director of venture and corporate programs, Worren sees two worlds in particular collide on a regular basis: startups and corporations. And both sides have a lot to learn from each other, he says.

He’s seen corporations rekindle innovation that burned out when their businesses grew. “They become a lot more formal, a lot more structured. And with that, their ability to innovate has also almost evaporated, whereas entrepreneurs are obsessed with that. All they think about is how do we become better and more competitive, what do we need to create in order to get there?” he says.

He’s seen startups tap into a network of professional customers and discover how to best work with them, too. “A lot of entrepreneurs have trouble navigating big organizations,” he adds. “You have to understand how they as organizations work, how to sell to them, how to deliver to them, how to be a partner that is valuable to them.”

“[Corporations’] ability to innovate has also almost evaporated, whereas entrepreneurs are obsessed with that.”

– Jon Worren

Startups can also look to those corporate partners to learn how to scale their own organizations – things like how to plan and how to make budgets.

Early on, those collisions happened simply by putting founders and their teams in the same space as corporate partners and waiting for collisions to happen organically. “We thought that would work, but it doesn’t really work,” he says. They needed more direction if the collision was going to prove valuable.

So Worren and his team started deliberately manufacturing opportunities for collision.

For starters, they began looking at the strategy of their corporate partners and the kinds of problems they struggled with, taking stock of their portfolio of startups who work on solutions that might fit, and playing matchmaker.

They also help corporations put together challenge statements that they share with all their entrepreneurial community to crowd-source ideas that might help and co-create the solution.

“I’m very fortunate. I work in an organization where people have big ideas and they dream.”

– Jon Worren

“It’s a different way of organizing it where the corporation sort of, the starting point for the corporation is an outcome,” says Worren. “And we’re looking to our entrepreneurial community to say, what kind of technologies and entrepreneurs would be willing to work towards that outcome.” 

A life of collision

Worren himself is no stranger to worlds colliding.

He grew up in Norway, in a house where both parents were entrepreneurs. Now he helps people just like his parents turn their ideas into reality.

After earning his MBA, he worked in a small, startup-like team within a bigger research company, which helped give him the experience and insight he needed to serve both sides of his portfolio today.

Even the journey that brought him to MaRS comes down to colliding with the right people and opportunities at the right time. As a management consultant, he worked with a few clients who were startups at the innovation hub that would later become his employer.

 “I’m very fortunate. I work in an organization where people have big ideas and they dream.”

DRAFT CARD

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  • Name: MaRS Discovery District
  • Solution: An innovation hub connecting companies in health, cleantech, fintech and enterprise software, at any stage of growth
  • Owners: Yung Wu, CEO
  • Employees: 250
  • Headquarters: Toronto, Ont.
  • Founded: 2000
  • Initial investment: $14 million
  • Contact: [email protected]
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