Science: Go to MaRS

by Dale Sproule

photos by Jill Kitchener

CNMAGGenerations of North American children have been taught that an incubator is a device that keeps eggs warm until they hatch. As we grew older, we learned that sick and premature babies are often kept alive in incubators.

As you and your children learn English and adapt to Canadian culture, you will probably come across a few new definitions for incubator.

In the science of biotechnology, an incubator is equipment used to grow bacteria and micro ? organisms. It is widely used to grow tissue cultures, for everything from skin grafts to stem cell research.

A business incubator provides office space, equipment, mentoring help and sometimes even money to businesses that are just starting-up.

Chickens and Eggs

All of the above definitions could apply to the wider innovation community connected with the MaRS Centre. Located in the heart of Toronto's Discovery District – a 2.5 sq. Kilometre downtown research district, MaRS is a non-profit environment for the birth and development of new ideas. It provides not only office and lab space but also free mentoring assistance to new businesses in science, technology and social innovation.

While there are probably no chickens hatching at MaRS, it wouldn't be at all surprising to find a company working on, say, a vaccine for bird flu. Approximately 20 incubator companies are currently housed at MaRS, including Clera Inc. – which is developing treatments for schizophrenia and depression; AXS Biomedical Animations Studio – a company that creates 3D medical animation for biomedical research and other applications; and Kanata Chemical Technologies (KCT), which has had great success developing catalysts for the chemical industry (catalysts speed up chemical reactions without being changed or consumed in those reactions).

KCT founder and president Kamal Abdur-Rashid came to Canada in 1997 with a degree from the University of the West Indies. "I didn't have the necessary Canadian experience and because of that I wasn't able to find a job," he says.

So, he began in 1998 as a volunteer researcher at the University of Toronto department of chemistry. Then he decided to see if he could start a business based on discoveries he made at the U of T labs. With support from the Mississauga Technology Business Accelerator (MTBA) he started his business, which grew to occupy some state-of-the-art labs at MaRS and is about to take the next step forward by moving its business outside of the protecting and nurturing environment of MaRS.

This is the entire purpose of MaRS, which says on its website (, "We measure our success through the companies that emerge after receiving help from MaRS."
"The resources, the facilities, the training and everything else that MaRS is bringing to the table – we're able to capitalize on that and get off on a very solid footing," says Kamal.

Inside the Incubator

CNMAGRatheesh Subramaniam is a research scientist at Clera, one of many emerging companies housed in the MaRS incubator. Clera is working on an antipsychotic program for the treatment of schizophrenia, based on dopamine receptors, and anti-depressants for the treatment of depression.

Ratheesh has been at Clera since the company began in 2007. His previous employer was also a MaRS tenant and most of his co-workers came from the same company. All of them recognized the value of the many services offered by MaRS.

He says, "MaRS is a one-stop shop for job and information seekers. Here we have many companies – so quite a few job opportunities."

Whether you're looking for work – or you want to start your own business, MaRS is one of the best places to start your search.

"Everybody you talk to in the elevator, the hall, the cafeteria – they are all in the science field – so you can network with one another," says Ratheesh. "MaRS does not just provide research space, they are bringing business people, people with money."

These are the connections that can turn your idea into a profit-making business that employs many people. This is exactly what MaRS is all about. As they say on their website, "MaRS connects the communities of science, business and capital and fosters collaboration among them."

MaRS advisors are able to connect entrepreneurs with private funding opportunities as well as free educational programming and hands-on advisory services. Corporate sponsor CIBC funds an entrepreneurship lecture series, for example.
Ratheesh adds, "Patent people are here as well, so if you have patentable technology, you can talk to them."

Once you start your business, MaRS offers many supports. "When we had the lab space we had the chemical hood that had to be set up so MaRS came and provided people to set up our hood," explains Ratheesh. "They help us dispose of chemical waste, provide water service, fridge and freezer service – so these are all important.
"For smaller companies that have problem buying fridges and freezers, they can use common equipment."

MaRS facilities also include lecture theatres, meeting rooms and an auditorium.

Growing Cultures

CNMAGBacteria and tissue cultures aren't the only cultures that thrive in the MaRS environment. It's also a great place for newcomers from every culture to find employment.

Yang Qu, the Clera research associate who shares an office with Ratheesh, explained, "Before I came I had pretty much prepared for this kind of career."
When she and her husband arrived in 2002 as independent immigrants she had her Bachelor of Engineering degree from China. She received her Master's degree at the University of Waterloo. Research assistant and teaching assistant positions were provided by the department.

"It was enough to pay our education and living expenses," says Yang.

Ratheesh did not have a degree when he came from Sri Lanka. "Back home they have four streams, commerce, arts, bioscience and engineering. I was in the science stream. But it's all age – if you miss the bus, you miss it. When I came here, I was 26 and I was able to get into Carleton University and finish a degree. I borrowed money from the Ontario student assistance program. I got into a co-op program – so that also helped me get a job."

He considers Canadian education very important to his success. When asked about the most valuable training he received, Ratheesh answers without hesitation, "I put the biggest value on language training I got in my first year – otherwise I could have missed out." He adds, "If you want a decent job in your field you have to understand and speak good English so go to ESL classes. In the meantime, get your degree evaluated in Canada."

Yang says, "Those people who get back to school for awhile – after they finish, then they easily get a job in their field."

She adds, "Even for me I'm thinking about what else can I do besides chemistry – because the market is always changing. One day I might not get a chance to do a chemistry job. You always have to keep your eyes open for a chance to improve."
Continuing to improve can make all the difference in your job search, especially if you find the right environment.


Discovery District

Toronto's "Discovery District" is a unique 2.5 square kilometre research park that is fully integrated into Toronto's downtown core.

Home to over 700 biomedical companies, Toronto's Discovery District draws more than a billion dollars per year in to fund vital research and employs more than 80,000 workers. Visit their website at and explore resources including The Toronto BioSource Directory 2008.

Incubators in Other Cities

From the respected and long established (1982) Ottawa Centre for Research and In­novation (OCRI) in Ottawa to the newer Stiller Centre for Technology Commercialization in London, Accelerator Centre in Waterloo and the Innovation Synergy Centre in Markham, there are economic development corporations and incubators in most Ontario cities. And new incubators like The Greater Peterborough Innovation Cluster are being born at an ever increasing rate.

As well, the concept of incubator is always being revised and adapted, giving birth to some interesting hybrids like VeloCity - the University of Waterloo's "dormcubator". This project merges the concepts of student residences and business incubators, bringing mobile communications, web and new media students under the same roof. The residents can work on projects, share ideas and at the end of the school term, even pitch ideas to business people and research specialists, so that the best ideas can keep growing long after school has ended.