BETHESDA, Md. – In an effort to accelerate commercialization of academic research, the University of Toronto and affiliated research hospitals plan to open an all-encompassing technology transfer office by the end of this year under the canopy of a single, non-profit corporation, a project official said last week.
The project, which has already consolidated tech-transfer activities from several of the university’s affiliates, also aims to bring together area venture capital firms, biotechnology companies, and university research labs into a single complex as part of a unique model of bioclustering, the official said.
The organizing non-profit corporation, called MaRS (now a standalone moniker that formerly stood for ”Medical and Related Sciences”), was created in 2000 by a group of business and community leaders that were concerned with the performance of Canada, and in particular Toronto, in the “innovation economy,” according to the MaRS website.
Speaking at the University Startups Conference held here last week, MaRS CEO Ilse Treunicht said that the company was founded to take advantage of some $1.3 billion worth of research money – mostly in the life sciences – that was present in a 10-block area of Toronto.
Despite this concentrated research activity, the city was falling far short in commercializing that research into products and services that would provide a return on investment to the area, Treunicht told BTW in an interview following her talk.
“There were things we were concerned with that I think regions around the world struggle with, which is how we convert excellence in science into long-term economic value,” Treunicht said. “Certainly Toronto is no different. The Toronto cluster performs very well in traditional research indices, particularly in the life sciences space, but not so well in any of the tech-transfer and commercialization indices.”
As a result, she said, there was a “high-level decision” by the leadership teams of the University of Toronto and its 11 affiliated research hospitals to create a tech-transfer cluster as opposed to individual institutions continuing with their own tech-transfer activities, many of which were almost non-existent.
Thus MaRS was established. The organization moved into a facility formerly occupied by the Toronto General Hospital across the street from the University of Toronto and in the middle of the Toronto biotech cluster, which it renamed the MaRS Discovery District.
Certainly creating a single complex that combines university tech-transfer offices and incubator space for emerging university spinout companies was nothing new, as many prominent research universities around the world had already established such successful facilities.
But the MaRS model is unique because it houses not only tech-transfer offices and incubator space, but also offices for area VC firms, additional university research labs, and even satellite offices of large established companies.
“Our model is to bring everybody in the food chain together, in the same place,” Treunicht said. “The other difference is that MaRS as an organization has a mission to drive the connections and collaboration between all of those entities. So we have a suite of programs that we offer [to] bring all those players together, and a network structure in place to partner with other organizations. It is not a traditional real estate development by any means, and there is nothing really like it anywhere.”
Treunicht said that the Discovery District currently houses 27 emerging life sciences companies; tech-transfer offices for the University of Toronto, the Hospital for Sick Children, University Health Network, and the University of Waterloo, among others; satellite offices for established companies such as AstraZeneca Canada and Pricewaterhouse Coopers; and offices for research institutes such as the Ontario Genomics Institute and the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.
A full list of current tenants can be seen on the MaRS Discovery District website.
But MaRS has even more ambition: By the end of this year, the complex hopes to house the tech-transfer offices for all 11 of the UT-affiliated research hospitals and, eventually, the tech-transfer offices of the two other major research universities in Toronto, York University and Ryerson University.
As part of this plan, a 900,000-square-foot add-on called Phase II is currently under construction for the additional offices.
Some audience members attending Treunicht’s University Startups presentation were skeptical of MaRS’ ability to integrate the tech-transfer activities of so many academic entities under one roof, as such a model in the US would certainly meet with difficulties due to different entrepreneurial cultures among the schools.
Treunicht admitted that such an integration would not be easy, but also said that many of the offices had an incentive to join because of a relative dearth of tech-transfer activity at their own institutions.
“Our model is to bring everybody in the food chain together, in the same place.”
“Everyone is working on the details of the model, which is obviously complex when you integrate such a large number of institutions,” she said. “I think the challenge that we have is that the affiliated hospitals range in size, and in terms of their internal tech-transfer capacity. The motivator is knowing that in MaRS there is a more neutral platform to collaborate and really share specialized resources; to attract capital; and to attract the right people to take over our spinoffs.”
She added that some collaborative tech-transfer activity has already taken place between current resident institutes that have worked out a template for IP ownership and royalty revenue sharing.
“The revenue-sharing formulas overall are not very different,” she said. “Yes, it will be complex, but it’s manage[d] by motivated people to make it work.”
MaRS already manages a prominent company called Aggregate Therapeutics that may serve as a prime model of IP sharing and pooling tech-transfer resources.
As its name suggests, Aggregate Therapeutics aggregates IP related to the application of stem cells to the area of regenerative medicine from across Canada. Created by the Stem Cell Network, a Canadian National Centers of Excellence stem cell research program, Aggregate was taken over earlier this year by MaRS.
Any institution that conducted stem cell-related research funded by the Stem Cell Network over the last three years negotiated to have its IP controlled by Aggregate Therapeutics, which is using its internal R&D expertise to accelerate those discoveries to market. Each institute is a stakeholder in the company, which maintains research facilities at each of the contributing universities.
“The Aggregate model is fairly unique, and I would say that it is potentially transferable to other emerging areas of technology,” Treunicht said. “That’s really where we’re taking it, into this next phase, to broaden the stem cell capacity into regenerative medicine, so we can add biomaterials and other factors we need.
“As you [might] expect, a lot of it is very early-stage research, so a lot of Aggregate’s work right now is focused on maturing that pipeline of IP to the point where it’s commercializable and able to be bundled to a commercial entity,” she added.
As for the MaRS moniker, Treunicht said that ‘Medical and Related Sciences’ clearly no longer adequately describes what the company is trying to do. “But I think we’ve decided to keep the name as is,” she said. “It already has some recognition, and it is kind of futuristic sounding.”