In Conversation: Dr Ilse Treurnicht
10 May 2018 at 8:55 am
Dr Ilse Treurnicht is the former CEO of Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, who led the team that transformed the former hospital site into one of the world’s largest urban innovation hubs.
Treurnicht’s career spans scientific research, technology startups and growth companies, commercialisation of academic discoveries, venture capital, innovation consulting and policy development.
She is acknowledged as one of Canada’s most successful female innovators and international leaders on improving economic prosperity.
She recently ended a 12-year run as the head of Toronto’s MaRS hub, during which time she oversaw the development of the not for profit from a raw startup to a leading urban innovation hub.
The MaRS Discovery District leads change by bringing together educators, researchers, entrepreneurs, business leaders, investors and policymakers under one roof.
It was designed to facilitate new approaches to collaboration, support innovators and entrepreneurs to succeed in global markets, as well as improving outcomes by bridging the gap between invention and adoption.
According to Treurnicht innovation can sometimes be hard for people to grasp, but “in a nutshell” it’s about new and better ways of doing things that are of value to us.
“In our competitive knowledge economy, it is vital for progress,” she says.
“Innovation needs to be incorporated in every sector to not only grow our economy but also address the needs of local communities – socially, culturally and environmentally.”
Treurnicht is visiting Australia as part of the Adelaide Thinkers in Residence program, which is delivered by the Don Dunstan Foundation and focuses on growing jobs in the purpose economy – the fastest growing section of the South Australian economy.
As Adelaide’s latest “thinker”, she hopes to help inform the future development of innovation districts in South Australia – including the emerging one at the old Royal Adelaide Hospital site – and foster greater opportunities for cross-sector collaboration.
Here she talks to Pro Bono News about bringing the concept of MaRS to life and seeing it develop into a thriving innovation ecosystem, the coalitions of the willing and why South Australia has an extraordinary opportunity.
How has your time in Adelaide been?
It’s been terrific. A little bit jam packed, lots of interactions with different stakeholders. Obviously part of the goal is to get a good understanding of how the ecosystem works and that means there’s lots of touch points and so on. But it has been really very, very interesting and very informative and people have been really generous with their time and their ideas and sharing their experiences. So very good and the weather’s been wonderful.
As part of the Thinkers in Residence Program you gave an oration on Building The Future On Purpose: A Vision for Inclusive Growth. What did you talk about?
The Thinker in Residence program is focused on growing the purpose economy and the Don Dunstan Foundation has been thinking about what that means and using, I think, different thinkers to catalyse that conversation. Part of this inquiry has really been how do we think about innovation as we perceive it and the purpose economy. We know those two worlds operate a little bit in separate ecosystems, but how can we use the levers of innovation, whether it’s excellence in research or breakthroughs in technology or talent or place or capital, policy, to obviously drive economic prosperity but also to benefit society more broadly. That’s the theme.
And because there’s just so much interest in the MaRS story and journey, in the context of the development of the old Royal Adelaide Hospital site, I’ll talk a little bit about how that project could catalyse a conversation, and trying to make sure that the purpose piece stays in that conversation.
You mentioned using the levers of innovation. How can innovative thinking be integrated so it is at the heart of everything?
I think part of it is being driven by reality. Particularly for developed countries like Australia and Canada we’re in a low growth environment. And so thinking about growth just through traditional channels is not necessarily going to give us a result. We also obviously are seeing the impact of growing inequality, and potentially with waves of automation coming through the workforce potential significant dislocation. The question is, how do you rethink the way innovation generates value for the communities in which we live and how can we have more people participate and broaden our view of innovation to not only drive growth and profit but actually also benefit community and make sure that it maintains the health of our planet.
And that thinking is often in that intersection between the purpose economy. I think it’s a really interesting opportunity to think about it as not just a watered down or wishy-washy view of innovation but to think about it with exactly the same entrepreneurial underpinnings and sense of urgency and importance of scale and all of those levers. And think about it as much more ambitious and potentially impactful, over the longer term view, of how innovation can fuel growth and sustainability.
Looking back at your journey at the helm of MaRS, how were you able to take the initial idea and turn it into a model that is recognised world-wide?
It’s been interesting just sort of looking at the project here and it has made me reflect on some of the aspects of the journey that have been a little bit lost in my memory and trying to tease out what are the things that actually made a profound difference.
I think the most extraordinary part about the MaRS story is how the founders of MaRS, when that old hospital site in downtown Toronto became available in the year 2000, had this really incredibly ambitious vision of taking it as a 100-year-old site that brought insulin to patients and repurposing it for the next century, in a way that was relevant to the innovation economy of the next century. And it was a really big idea.
They felt it had to be done at global scale. There was the notion that we needed to bring the research engine of our top academic institutions into closer proximity to business. But at the time honestly there was absolutely no language to describe it. There weren’t any incubators. The ecosystem for startups was very nascent. Today of course we have a very robust set of examples plus much more thinking around what innovation precincts are, what innovation hubs are, how they collaborate with established companies, how you build programming and all of that sort of stuff. But when the founders were talking about MaRS, people didn’t know what they were talking about and it was this huge big thing. At the same time I think the power of that was that it did inspire people and brought a whole broad range of stakeholders to kind of rally behind the idea. And the credibility of that group of original founders, who were really sort of civic entrepreneurs, allowed us to kind of iterate on the strategy and really build a dedicated execution machine and sort of learn as we evolved, in a kind of a neutral space which allowed for everyone to become part of this kind of platform and ecosystem.
And you know at various stages you saw the maturing of parts of that ecosystem and the gears kind of engaging with each other, which of course then started to lift the performance for the whole community. But I think the most profound thing was the ambition of the original idea and it just launched with people who absolutely wanted to do something extraordinary not just for Canada but for the world. And I think that created a lot of room for the subsequent experimentation and figuring it out, because there certainly wasn’t a recipe book to follow.
Where is MaRS at now?
Now we’re at this amazing place where the physical infrastructure – which was developed in two phases and contains very specialised infrastructure also for science-based enterprises – is now fully developed. The centre is absolutely full, we could fill another one and the community has really matured around the centre, in other parts of the city and that region. And it thinks of itself more as a cohesive connected region now.
So the next phase is how do you make sure that this organism is really connected to the outside world. Because I think Canada, like Australia, has very similar economic challenges particularly from the point of view of innovation which is large geographies, not too many people but wonderful assets including the quality of our educational institutions, the quality of people. But we need to be quite intentional in accessing those international markets where most of the growth is happening so that we can get our solutions out there and do it in a way that benefits our local ecosystem.
So it’s been a long and exciting journey. It had flag posts along the way, certainly challenges along the way but it feels that the first phase of it is now very, very solid and it can actually deliver on that original vision which is to bring the capacity to keep reinventing your economy and your innovation ecosystem, time and time again because it’s actually centered on innovation, it’s not some baked model that becomes static once you get to a certain point.
How did you successfully unite so many diverse parties to support that one big idea?
I always talk about how it was coalitions of the willing. You know the idea was very compelling. It was not tangible for people because it wasn’t something you could point to necessarily elsewhere. But once a few key players not only got excited about it but actually activated their own actions and said “We need to move there, we believe that this is the right thing to do”. They became incredibly invested in also building the ecosystem.
So I think it was one step at a time. There’s no shortcut in these things, but starting with that group who really believes, allows you to create the concentric circles of influence and then just putting collaboration at the core of everything you do. Inside the walls of the MaRS centre, but also MaRS as a collaborative platform that connects to a whole bunch of other things, that supports a whole bunch of young companies that are not actually physically located on MaRS. So it becomes a vessel from which you can reach out and connect to the rest of the community. But we had to also build our own tool sets and our own capabilities in terms of particularly doing these multi-sector collaborations with researchers, big companies, small companies, regulators, investors and so on.
But it was at the heart, from the beginning perceived as an entity whose job it was to facilitate new forms of collaboration, partly because in the global context we’re small and it’s not about competing with each other. It’s actually mobilising everything, we’ve got to be successful in the world that is increasingly competitive and moving faster and faster.
A lot has changed since you started MaRS. What advice are you giving to Adelaide which is in that early stage of the journey?
I think obviously just sharing some of the practical ways in which the community came together at the creation of MaRS and some of the intentionality around assembling the different stages of the innovation cycle, making sure that we had some core capabilities around high performance computing and so on in the centre that could feed both companies as well as research. And some of those, but also just the structure of a dedicated non-profit whose job it was to deliver on the mission rather than sort of assuming that if you just co-locate people magic will happen.
But I think my main message is just that, and I honestly feel this very tangibly, is the location and the size of the extraordinary location that Adelaide has directly adjacent to its universities, right in the core of the city, with all these creative industries around it and the green belt in what is essentially a very liveable city is a really incredible opportunity to do something that is quite a kind of a big step.
And from our experience I’m just encouraging people to be bold and to take that leap of faith but also to make sure that they dedicate the right resources and set up some of those foundational elements in a way that will enable success in the future. But it’s just an extraordinary opportunity. Not many cities have a space like that of that size available right in the core of their city.
You have said you feel like MaRS has come to the end of that particular phase of its journey which is partly why it is the right time for you to move on. What is next for you?
Well I think I’m sort of coming to the end of my recovery phase but it’s been really wonderful.
It was such an all-consuming project that I feel like I have had no time to think about anything else for 13 years, but I’m really intentionally using this a little bit to reflect on that journey and and thinking about how can I put that to use in the next exciting project.
It’s honestly wonderful to have the chance to do some of this international work, just partly because you meet all kinds of other people and get inspired by other contexts and ideas and so I’m enjoying this brief interlude, which is a novelty I’ve never had such a thing and I’m sure I’ll very soon go back to rolling up my sleeves and getting up to my eyeballs in something. I’m not very good at dabbling on the surface.
When you look back at the MaRS journey and everything you have achieved what stands out as the thing you are most proud of?
It’s funny it’s sometimes not the big tangible accomplishments of beautiful buildings or you know a magnificent amount of capital raised which become the tangible ways that people look at MaRS and interpret its success. But I think one of the very fundamental things about Toronto and Canada, but Toronto in particular which is often called the world’s most diverse city, we really try to think about diversity as the thing that’s supercharges innovation. We know that people are the most important ingredient but if you can really tap into the diversity of ideas and experiences and perceptions and creativity of people in a diverse city like Toronto, incredible things can happen. So we’ve been very intentional in trying to foster that.
Personally I’ve been very committed to bringing more women into the innovation ecosystem in particular into the high growth young company realm. And I think the thing that makes me the happiest about MaRS today is walking in there and just seeing the incredible diversity of people working side by side and being part of an innovation system that is inclusive and excited about what’s possible because all these people are participating. That’s magical and honestly I think that’s what will fuel it into the future if we can keep that flame alive.