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Allyson Hewitt
VP, Impact - MaRS Discovery District
Part of the Spotlight on Toronto’s Tech & Innovation Ecosystem

Innovating Solutions for the World

Takeaways

  1. Toronto is the fourth largest and fastest growing tech market in North America featuring dozens of incubators and accelerators.
  2. Consumers, employees and investors increasingly want companies that are driven be a social or environmental purpose, and Toronto is unique to foreign investors looking to innovate in the social impact space.
  3. Canada has unparalleled talent, world class universities, amazing labs and facilities, and innovative spaces for people to come together and design new approaches to complex problems.

Action

Canada needs to apply systems thinking to its innovation ecosystems to achieve the most amount of impact and to attract foreign investors. By working together, innovation hubs across the country can create a resilient economy that will thrive after the pandemic and be prepared for the next major crisis.


How would you characterize Toronto’s economy? What are its strengths, weaknesses and biggest opportunities looking forward? 

The City of Toronto released its annual employment survey earlier this year and it showed that Toronto’s tech sector is absolutely booming despite all the challenges we are facing. Total employment for 2019 was about 60,400 jobs, which represent about a 16% increase from the year before. 

Toronto is a pretty amazing city. Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America, it is the headquarters for all of Canada’s major businesses and our biggest strength, as our slogan says, is our diversity. It really is something that we are incredibly proud of, with over 50% of our population being foreign born.

We have world renowned universities like the University of Toronto, which is right across from MaRS, with about 90,000 students, and it is home to world leading researchers like Geoffrey Hinton—some people call him the Godfather of artificial intelligence. This is really thanks to institutions like the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR); they have about 150 Canadian research chairs, which are bringing dozens of international academics to Toronto. 

There are lots of amazing advantages here and it really is a moment in time for the tech sector in Toronto.


How would describe Toronto’s innovation ecosystem? What are its main components?

I really do believe that diversity is our strength, and from a recruiting perspective, the cultural diversity of people in the Toronto region is a real attractor, and it is a differentiator from Silicon Valley. 

About 63% of US employers have indicated they are increasing their staffing in Canada and North America, having added over 80,000 jobs in the past few years. But given that we are the fourth largest tech market, we are the fastest growing market. We see dozens of business incubators and accelerators popping up to support startups in tech, manufacturing, food production, and fashion. 

What we have at MaRS is something pretty unique—it is the largest urban innovation centre in North America—at about 1.5 million square feet. During non-COVID times, about 6,000 people work there every day and we are home to about 1,400 startups. Our whole premise is how to take the divergent thinking of people like intellectual property lawyers, innovators in the fields of health, fintech, cleantech and enterprise, and bring them all together for convergent action. Divergent thinking, convergent action—it is a really unique model, and it is something that we are really proud of.


Does Toronto’s strong innovation ecosystem shield the city to some of the impacts of COVID-19? What are the main opportunities for investment attraction in the Toronto economy? 

A while ago, Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Alphabet, was visiting Toronto. He was at a conference, and I had an opportunity to ask him a question. I said, “How do we not become Silicon North or Silicon Lite? What does Toronto have to offer particularly for foreign investors that Silicon Valley does not?” 

He said, “Are you kidding me? You have one of the most liveable cities in the world,” and although we have challenges with our housing prices, if you look globally, it is still relatively affordable. 

It is a completely liveable city with lots of green spaces and shorter commute times. We have healthcare that makes our country, let alone our city, incredibly attractive. When you look at that combined with the world-class universities that are all around us, you can see how people absolutely understand why Toronto is a destination for foreign direct investment (FDI).

In the work that I spend a lot of my time in, the social impact sector, we are seeing four things happen. Number one, employees want to work for companies that are mission driven. Secondly, customers are demanding it. Thirdly, we see an entire wave of shareholder activism and fourthly, it is an enabler of innovation if you look at your products and services with a social or environmental impact lens. 

“The best performing companies are those that have a social or environmental impact or purpose at the core of what they are doing.”

The data is so clear that the best performing companies are those that have a social or environmental impact or purpose at the core of what they are doing. Foreign direct investment is understanding that in a way we have not before—because of groups like BlackRock and their callout around impact investing—so this makes Toronto incredibly unique and I completely understand why FDI wants to come here.


What are the goals of the MaRS Solutions Lab? How does cultivating social entrepreneurship make the city more attractive to foreign investors?

MaRS is very fortunate, because several years ago we were able to look around the world and see some interesting trends and determine ways to make sure that Canada takes advantage of them. 

One of the trends that we saw was this concept of labs—but not just medical labs—labs to solve complex social challenges. We set up something called the MaRS Solutions Lab, with an investment from an anonymous philanthropic donor, to try to get this program off the ground. 

What we are uniquely capable of doing at MaRS—and I think this is the secret to all this—is create a neutral space where different people with different viewpoints can come together and have honest discussions about how they see problems. 

Right now, we are living in an incredibly polarized world and we are seeing that more than ever in the US, but we also see it here in Canada. We do not have enough spaces for people to come together to deeply understand the issues we are facing, to look at it from different perspectives and get to new outcomes using design thinking and systems thinking. The Solutions Lab is deeply involved in that work. 

We started off when Uber was trying to come into Toronto, and we avoided a lot of the challenges that other cities had because we actually had people from the sharing economy in the same room as the regulators and the incumbent industries. Imagine sitting there with the Hilton Hotel and the Airbnb reps, the Uber reps and the taxi industry, and then the City of Toronto wrapped around that.

At MaRS, we try to look at what the startup bringing in the disruption world and how to get the adoption by legacy industries so they can come together—and it is not always a big conflict. A lot of the work of the Solutions Lab is how to get our incumbent agencies to adopt technologies in ways that they have not got the mindset or the ability to do. The Solutions Lab is really leading that work in issues like how to rethink procurement so that we procure locally. In an era of COVID-19, we saw that there were challenges when the US denied us personal protective equipment and ventilators. We do not want to be in that situation again, so we want to understand supply chain differently; we want to work with all of the players to make sure that Canada is able to be independent and self-sufficient while recognizing our connections globally. 


What has been the involvement of Canadian as well as foreign companies in the work of the lab? 

We have a lot of Canadian headquarters here, but their head office is often somewhere else. 

I am currently working with HSBC on something called the Mission from MaRS, and the first Mission from MaRS is on climate action. We are working primarily with their head office, which is in the United Kingdom, and there they have to understand what is happening globally, so they have set up a platform. But because of our expertise in cleantech—we have about 250 cleantech ventures at MaRS—they wanted to come after us in Toronto to augment the work they are doing globally and help revise their platform to make it relevant. They are also very excited about what we are doing not only to promote the cleantech ventures but to understand the barriers to scaling, addressing those barriers at a policy level, and working with adoption partners, which are the legacy industries.


What relationships does MaRS foster with foreign companies and what other organizations play a key role in the city’s innovation and business ecosystem?

Within Ontario, we are lucky to have regional innovation centres. We really understand that it is not Toronto against Waterloo—it is how to build an ecosystem so that Canada is well-positioned globally to become an attractor for others in this space. 

By thinking as a system, we can understand that sometimes Communitech will offer something that MaRS cannot and vice versa. We really like to think about making that navigation system easier to the venture no matter where they are for when foreign direct investment comes into Canada. We think about what this means for the system, our city, our province and our country as well. 

“If it is Toronto, Waterloo, Vancouver and Montreal working together, that is how Canada wins and that is how we become an attractor for foreign direct investment.”

It is a systems thinking approach that takes us to a whole new level of impact. Those who are competing against each other lose. If it is Silicon Valley against New York, the US loses. If it is Toronto, Waterloo, Vancouver and Montreal working together, that is how Canada wins and that is how we become an attractor for foreign direct investment. 


What would you say to investors looking to establish themselves in Toronto? What are Toronto’s key competitive advantages?

Canada is an amazing place for companies to do business. We have talent that is unparalleled; we have world class universities; we have amazing labs and facilities; and we have beautiful buildings that are creating spaces for people to come together and think differently. 

“Resilience demands diversity and resilience demands innovation.”

The only way we are going to survive in an era of COVID-19—and we know the next crisis is coming—is to be resilient. Resilience demands diversity and resilience demands innovation, and I cannot imagine anywhere else in the world where you can get the kind of talent and innovation approach than you can in Canada. 

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Allyson Hewitt
VP, Impact - MaRS Discovery District

Bio: Allyson Hewitt is the VP, Impact at MaRS Disocery District where she works with ventures to increase their social impact and economic sustainability. She leads the MaRS Solutions Lab, designed to tackle complex social and environmental challenges, and has developed the social innovation programs at MaRS. Allyson is the Social Entrepreneur in Residence at the Conrad Centre at the University of Waterloo

Organization Profile: MaRS Discovery District is an innovation district in Toronto that supports over 1,400 Canadian science and tech companies that are tackling society’s greatest challenges. The district sits adjacent to the University of Toronto and spans nearly 1.5 million square feet. It helps startups through every stage of growth and focuses on cleantech, health, fintech and enterprise software.