Photo: Founded in 2000, MaRS Discovery District has become the largest urban innovation hub in the world, bringing together over 5,000 educators, researchers, scientists, and entrepreneurs right in the heart of downtown Toronto.

Today’s hubs are no longer just tech-business incubators.

Innovation hubs have come a long way since Silicon Valley began breaking ground in the tech sector decades ago. Today’s hubs are no longer just tech-business incubators — they’re dynamic spaces where entrepreneurs in industries like education, social enterprise, and communications technology can access incubation services, use co-working and lab spaces, and make crucial connections to investors. Thanks to the elastic definition of “innovation hub,” each has the freedom to curate its tenants, develop unique programs and partnerships, and build networks with other local and international hubs according to its focus.

The Canadian Digital Media Network links together 26 of these diverse hubs, from tiny co-working spaces in smaller cities, to downtown Toronto’s massive MaRS Discovery District — the largest urban innovation hub in the world. Canada’s post-secondary institutions also play a major role in building these emergent communities: Innovate Calgary supported 600 community entrepreneurs and received 101 invention disclosures in 2015, while DMZ Innovation Hub at Ryerson University has incubated 256 startups that have collectively raised over $184 million in seed funding and led to 2,364 new jobs.

The corridor connecting Toronto with Kitchener-Waterloo is about the same distance as San Francisco to Palo Alto, and its comparable density of entrepreneurial innovation and venture capital funding has earned it the nickname of Silicon Valley North. At innovation centres like Communitech in the Waterloo Region, varied entrepreneurs work under the same roof — from early-stage ideas in need of funding and mentorship, to major global players looking for creative space to innovate — while Google’s research and development office has just moved in across the street. From within this tech-rich corridor, to the edges of Canada’s coastlines, dozens of new innovation spaces are being built on the foundation of cross-pollination, creativity, and connectivity.

Canadian innovation hubs by the numbers

26: Regional innovation hubs that are part of the Canadian Digital Media Network.

20–25: Desks in a new short-term San Francisco co-working space that will be available to Canadian startups visiting Silicon Valley, thanks to Canada House, an initiative supported by innovation hubs Communitech and MaRS.

10K: Individuals who now commute daily from the Greater Toronto Area to the Waterloo Region.

MaRS Discovery District

An undisputed leader in the urban innovation district trend, MaRS Discovery District is making collaboration possible by bringing educators, researchers, scientists, and entrepreneurs under the same roof.

Once upon a time, the rhetoric surrounding innovation was fixated on solo genius and “light bulb moments.” But today, companies and institutions realize innovation isn’t driven by a singular vision. It’s more about fostering an environment where innovation can happen again and again. And for the past 15 years, the MaRS Discovery District has built a globally recognized new model of open innovation, right in the heart of downtown Toronto.

MaRS is a buzzing, 1.5 million-square-foot brick-and-glass hub where stem cell research labs and social media giants are housed under the same roof. The companies it has supported since inception employ over 5,000 people, have raised $2.6 billion in capital, and generated over $1.3 billion in revenue. “On any given day, there will be over 6,000 people working in the building,” says Karen Mazurkewich, Lead Executive of MaRS Communications and Marketing. “Place matters.”

Founded in 2000 as a non-profit corporation, MaRS’s original mission was to commercialize scientific research. Even though Canada was recognized globally for its research, when an idea became commercial, it was typically bought and taken south to the U.S. Co-founder Dr. John Evans then had the vision to create a downtown centre that would connect the previously segregated fields of technology, finance, academia, health care, and entrepreneurship.

Soon after Evans convened a small group of prominent Canadian business leaders around the idea, it became a reality. Toronto’s University Health Network was looking to sell an entire city block surrounding the historic Toronto General Hospital — where insulin was discovered in 1921 — which was earmarked to be torn down and replaced with a condo development. In a matter of weeks, the group donated $14 million to stop the sale and invest in a new kind of innovation hub.

When MaRS officially opened in 2005, its tenants were a mix of public and private research labs, corporations, venture capital firms, and business development offices. In addition to making collaboration possible among its tenants, MaRS is linked with innovation hubs across Canada and has built partnerships internationally to create a network of “soft landing” spaces for MaRS-supported entrepreneurs travelling in key foreign markets like Silicon Valley and Shanghai.

MaRS would eventually outgrow the old hospital, expanding into an adjunct 20-storey tower in 2014. It has since seen the addition of corporate partners like Facebook, Etsy, Airbnb, and even Johnson & Johnson’s JLABS, a 40,000-square-foot life sciences incubator on the tower’s 13th floor that opened earlier this year. “In the past, traditional pharma companies invested in early-stage companies only when their drug discovery programs were already well-developed,” says Mazurkewich. “Today, big pharma is doing less in-house research, and is looking to engage at a much earlier stage with researchers and developers.”

MaRS has become, in Mazurkewich’s opinion, an “uber-networking centre” thanks to its events programming. From hackathons to conferences to meetups — the regular We Are Wearables meetup is the largest of its kind in North America — MaRS’s model of concentrating research and innovation under one roof within the urban core is now being adopted by cities like New York, Boston, London, and Shanghai. “I think the future of all innovation is about cities that recognize the importance of building up these innovation hubs in their downtown cores where young people want to live and work, and where the universities and research hospitals are,” says Mazurkewich. “You can’t divorce a place like MaRS from the place that it’s a part of.”

92%: Percentage of MaRS-supported accelerating ventures that sought private Canadian financing in 2015 and were successful.

200: Delegations from Asia, Europe, and Latin America that visited MaRS during the 2014 fiscal year alone, including Silicon Valley venture capital firms, the G7’s Social Impact Investment Taskforce, and even the Dutch royal family.

7.4M+: Number of unique views of the resources in the Entrepreneur’s Toolkit, an online compendium of articles, videos, workbooks, and templates to help entrepreneurs launch and grow their startups.

$500K: Potential seed funding provided by MaRS’s Investment Accelerator Fund in companies that have potential to be global leaders and provide economic benefits to Ontario.

11: Investment funds within the MaRS centre alone, alongside four pre-seed funding rounds, one corporate investor, and one angel network.

Notable Canadian innovation hubs


Communitech is the self-described clubhouse for Waterloo’s tech community. The industry-led innovation centre brings together startups, brands, government agencies, academic institutions, incubators, and accelerators to help its community of over 1,000 tech companies succeed.

1997: Year Communitech was founded by a group of Waterloo-based entrepreneurs, including Jim Balsillie of RIM and Tom Jenkins of OpenText.

97%: Percentage of financing growth from 2014 to 2015 in the Waterloo Region, compared to the Canadian average of 5%.

80K: Size in square feet of the Communitech Hub, which houses over 110 startups, two incubators, an accelerator, and innovation space for 11 strategic partners, including companies like Canon, Canadian Tire, and more.

30K: Visitors since the Hub opened its doors in 2010.

1K: Tech companies supported by Communitech.


As North America’s top-ranked university-based incubator, the DMZ at Ryerson University provides entrepreneurs with the resources to grow their startups into successful companies. Operating in the heart of downtown Toronto at Yonge-Dundas Square, the hub is open to any company and helps emerging entrepreneurs connect with customers, advisors, and other entrepreneurs.

32.9K: Total area, in square feet, DMZ occupies over four floors in 10 Dundas Street East, overlooking Yonge-Dundas Square in the heart of downtown Toronto.

80+: Industry-leading advisors available for one-on-one consultations.

256: Startups incubated since DMZ opened in 2010.

$184M: Seed funding raised so far by DMZ startups.

2.364K: Jobs fostered or created by newly formed companies and market-driven research.

Innovate Calgary

Located in the University of Calgary’s main campus, Innovate Calgary supplies technology transfer and business incubator services to researchers, entrepreneurs, and businesses in southern Alberta’s tech sector. Dedicated to the growth of technology commercialization, the organization offers business and technical advice, networking events, and more.

350: Number of events supported in 2015 by Innovate Calgary at the University of Calgary’s Alastair Ross Technology Centre.

#3: Ranking in the Top University Business Incubator in North America list (UBI Index 2015).

2.1K: Discoveries securing 800 patents so far.

30+: Years of experience supporting southern Alberta’s tech community.

71: Number of University of Calgary-incubated companies developed and assisted since the Hub’s inception.


This content was originally published in MaRS Magazine.