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MaRS, after a year

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Judging by the throngs of suits who were sipping Australian wines on its ground floor at a private industry function on Wednesday, the MaRS innovation centre-which marks a year since its opening this week-is many things to many people.

Housed in a new building at College Street and University Avenue, MaRS is not part of U of T, but has received $5 million in funding from the university.

AXS Studio Inc. is one of the young businesses found at MaRS. Run by three graduates of U of T’s Biomedical Communications program, it provides illustrations and animations of medical concepts for biotech firms, pharmaceutical start-ups and television shows. Last fall AXS moved in to the incubator, where it qualifies for reduced rent, specialized facilities and business services.

“We were looking for studio space and they seemed to like what we do,” said Jason Sharpe, who is also a lecturer and research associate at U of T in addition to being a scientific animator at AXS. “It’s a great address to have for the business we’re in,” he said of the Centre. “Clients respond to the fact that we’re in a scientific centre. Geographically we’re located right in the heart of probably the highest concentration of medical research anywhere in the world, so the potential for future projects is enormous.”

At a governing council meeting in 2001 that discussed the $5 million donation to not-for-profit MaRS, U of T’s administration argued that the Centre would encourage applied research, help attract top researchers, and provide jobs and internships for students. Five years later, two of the project’s major supporters at U of T-vice-presidents Heather Munroe-Blum and Adel S. Sedra-have moved on. The acronym “Medical and Related Sciences” has been dropped, indicating a more ambiguous focus. But AXS is going strong, with multiple projects on the go, including CGI work for the Global genetics television show ReGenesis. Elsewhere on their floor, much more is happening.

Claron Technology is also growing, already looking for more space in the building. Claron provides software for CT machines and markets a device for surgical navigation. They use the temperature-controlled room provided at MaRS, and founder Claudio Gatti is grateful for access to pricey market studies.

“This type of environment is a way to basically get R&D, ideas, and sometimes intellectual property from the university and channel it through the commercial channels,” he said. “Absolutely, I think it’s a great idea.”

Only a year ago the ethics of commercialization was a hot topic at U of T. Vioxx was still making headlines, as it became clear that the anti-arthritis drug caused heart attacks. Some blamed thousands of deaths on the drug, and the New England Journal of Medicine accused U of T researcher Claire Bombardier and others of deleting relevant data from their studies on the drug. It’s the sort of affair to make one think twice before putting venture capitalists and drug researchers in the same building, let alone the same networking session. But that’s just what MaRS is doing.

Constab Pharmaceutical Inc. is another incubator tenant working on an anti-cancer drug.

“Our goal is to repeat the Canadian success of Banting and Best in 1921, who discovered a way to produce insulin in a laboratory of the University of Toronto, leading to the treatment of diabetic patients worldwide,” said Stephane Gagne, Constab’s president and CEO, with unabashed ambition.

The CVCA, an industry association for venture capitalists, is a non-incubator tenant attracted by the location.

“The building is very state of the art,” said Lauren Linton, Director of Marketing. “It’s where we should be, because what the CVCA is all about is leading-edge innovation.” The rent, she said, is competitive.

Not all of governing council’s promises have materialized – none of the tenants interviewed employ U of T students, for example. But nowadays there is little or no criticism of the MaRS Centre, perhaps because the university’s $5 million contribution was a one-time donation that governing council need not approve again.

Neither the MaRS foundation nor U of T’s administration made themselves available for interviews for this article.

For the tenants, MaRS is just a great place to do business and find new clients.

“We look at our neighbours as potential clients but also as potential collaborators,” said Sharpe. “There’s a real buzz around MaRS […] there’ a lot going on here so it’s an exciting place to be.”