The first thing you notice when you step through the large glass doors from the grand plaza and into the central atrium is the sweeping six stories of glass walls and hanging balconies connecting the brick façade of the front walls to a warren of small offices with Venetian blinds alternating open and closed.
Banks of escalators go up to the offices and down, taking the lunchtime throngs into a basement food court. Huge doors ahead open to a studio-like ballroom, with stages, chairs and wall mounted cameras poised for any possible configuration of events. The doors of offices to one side carry the names of major banks and the crests of numerous universities and hospitals.
Imagine the mating of the of Connecticut’s Convention Center with UConn’s on-campus incubator. That would describe this building. I am standing in the lobby of the three year old MaRS innovation center in downtown Toronto Ontario.
The $400 million first phase of what will soon be a $1.3 billion project is likely to result in the largest incubator/innovation investment in North America. This is truly major league.
I have long suggested that one needed to travel to Cambridge, England or perhaps Singapore to understand the scale of commitment that the race for innovation excellence in the global marketplace is driving regions to reach for. The good news is that Toronto is just an hour away from Bradley even in a small plane, so all development leaders can spend a day or two taking notes on what the future will look like.
The challenge for all of us (across the lower 48 and not just Connecticut) is to understand how greater Toronto, with fewer than six million people is able to find the political consensus to pour more than a billion dollars into three buildings and make a very grand and operationally significant statement about this region’s commitment to create a system to promote innovation and commercialization.
This experiment and the culture of opportunity rising in Toronto is fascinating from many points of view. Consider this: every university in Ontario is being invited to put part of their office of commercialization into the center and share a common team of experts to analyze their intellectual property. Strategic combinations of ideas and rapid presentation to people with money becomes a lot easier. Venture capitalists, tech councils and major banks are all being encouraged to move key offices to the center.
Best of all, the MaRS center provides about 100 incubator suites for a range of companies – from wet labs to offices for software companies. Everyone is linked with a digital video communications system and collaboration software designed to offer virtual connections with hundreds of companies and labs not in the center but connected through a variety of links and relationships.
Finally, one of the driving forces is the sharing of research space and facilities of three of Toronto’s largest hospitals and medical research operations. Bringing together researchers from the various institutions with staff from major pharmaceutical companies is expected to build collaborations that will lead to even more companies for the adjacent incubator center.
Between the University of Connecticut, CCSU, CCAT, CTC, Science Park, CURE and others, are we doing similar things here? Absolutely. In fact, it provides a strong vote of confidence to the idea behind the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology new shared office and innovation center about to open at 222 Pitkin St., East Hartford and in which the Technology Council plans to be a tenant.
Still, it is both breathtaking and inspiring to see some place not too much bigger than us put 100 times the resources into something – building the culture and institutions of innovation –that we all know is important. Something else a culture of innovation can bring a region: One million Chinese and Indians in the metro area – the largest concentrations of either in North America, and many are highly talented technology workers attracted by the commitment of the region to building an economy they can relate to. Because of reasonable immigration policies and the comfort of a critical mass that makes people feel at home far from home, America companies – IBM more recently – are putting R&D centers in the metro area to serve as a base to work with centers in China and India.
A recent feature in Forbes highlighted Connecticut’s slipping to 31st among states as a good place for business growth. But we all know this misses the point that we can still be a center for new businesses that do not need low cost labor or energy, Toronto is no cheap place to live, but like Connecticut, it works well, has a great quality of life, and most importantly, it wants to be a contender.
Connecticut is well positioned to use Toronto as a model for the global role we can play given our position near New York and our ability, as a small system where everyone knows everyone else, to encourage our institutions to work together for common goals. Coming on the heels of the groundbreaking trip of our corporate leadership to Amsterdam and Europe (direct from our own airport) earlier this month, let’s organize the next trip to the other international destination from Bradley and visit an exciting blueprint for innovation-based growth.
President & CEO
Connecticut Technology Council