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“It’s not what we can do alone, it’s what we can do in partnership”

New MaRS CEO Alison Nankivell knows that to be truly transformative and create social, environmental and economic impact at scale, collaboration is key.

Anywhere you look — wildfires that smoldered throughout the winter, lengthy hospital wait times, Canada’s slumping productivity levels — the message is clear. The need for innovative solutions has never been greater. But it’s one thing to come up with a promising idea to address the climate crisis or help speed up diagnosis. It’s far harder to translate that into a market-ready product. To finesse the technology, raise capital and find customers in this challenging economy, “people have to collaborate on a much deeper level,” says new MaRS CEO Alison Nankivell.

That’s something Nankivell learned first-hand, having spent more than two decades supporting and nurturing emerging talent. Most recently at BDC Capital, she oversaw investments in venture capital and growth funds, mentored its VC and fund managers and led the company’s global expansion. The bulk of her career has been in international markets — she worked for more than a dozen years building EDC’s Canadian and Asian private equity and venture capital fund investment platform and serving as a China economic analyst and editor for the Economist Intelligence Unit while living in Beijing and Hong Kong. (She’s fluent in Mandarin as well as French.)

This global perspective has shown her the challenges companies face in emerging markets and why a place like MaRS is vital to a startup’s journey.

Here, Nankivell shares her outlook on what it takes to build a successful company, where Canada could have a competitive edge and what excites her most about her new role.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing Canadian innovators today?

We’re in an interesting time. Many startups and venture capital fund managers started after the global financial crisis in 2007 and 2008 — they’ve never seen a down period. Success is defined by those who know how to make that difficult transition from a small company into a large company, and all of the organizational and management changes that come with that. To do that you need to learn how to navigate difficult economic cycles.

I am a big believer that tough times build resilient companies. But, growth is harder now. There’s far more global competition than before. We really have to look around and benchmark ourselves against global competitors. We shouldn’t look at it with fear — we should look at it with excitement.

So how can places like MaRS help build category-leading companies?

The world is blending — it’s much harder to categorize things, which means people have to collaborate on a much deeper level. It’s not about what MaRS can do alone; it’s about what MaRS can do in partnership with others to best support the startup journey. There is an even greater focus now on a community approach in how the innovation ecosystem partners and stakeholders can help ensure companies reach a level of sustainability and navigate through these tough times. Even at an earlier stage — whether you’re a scientist sitting in a lab or a grad student trying to figure out how to build a company, you really need to connect into a network like MaRS to have impact.

Where can Canada have a competitive edge?

Canada does punch above its weight in climate solutions — we have 13 companies in the top 100 this year. Canada could be at the forefront of material sciences. Self-driving labs — where machine learning is moving the experimentation forward — can enable materials discovery at an accelerated pace.

It’s also important to look at some of our most existential challenges on the climate side, such as critical and rare earth mineral shortage and battery supply chains that are overly reliant on China. There’s a lot of potential in both energy storage and energy generation.

But it can be much harder to scale deep-tech companies — it takes much more of a village around them to understand how you build those transformative companies.

Where do you see MaRS having the biggest impact?

There is a critical role for MaRS to be much more of an ambassador globally. Everyone is still gearing up slowly post-COVID. Years ago, I used to take Asian venture capital fund managers who were visiting Canada to MaRS, because MaRS is this exceptional platform and hub where they could get a sense of how there’s a real critical mass of interesting activity — it’s place where you can meet other like-minded corporates, venture capital funds, startups and understand what academics or researchers are doing.

Innovation is so diffuse now. We need to deepen that sense of connection particularly in areas where we might have commonalities like in energy transition, climate or mining technologies, and look to developed and emerging markets, such as Australia and Indonesia, and learn from each other. I also see the most incredible companies popping up in the middle of central, eastern and western Canada. It’s important to share our learnings and our best practices to help all players across Canada.

You’ve been deeply involved in building out strategic environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives. What changes would you like to see in the innovation community?

The environmental aspect touches all companies — not just cleantech companies. There’s been some resistance about the environmental piece of ESG because they feel it’s not relevant to them. They think “I’m just a software company, what kind of environmental footprint do I have?” not realizing computing’s energy footprint. As more and more companies shift to being more AI intensive — their energy use, water use through supply chains, where they are securing their chips from and how they’re managing their data — there’s just a lot of issues there.

Startups grow quickly. A five- or 10-employee company might think it’s too small to address these issues, but it can develop into a 100-person company and have no ESG policy. Suddenly, you can find yourself in a difficult situation when your customer is asking for your Scope 3 emissions and you have no idea.

I’ve been pushing this in the industry because I could see it coming like a train right at us. Regulation is coming. Europeans are well ahead of us. In the United States, large corporations need to report on this information. It takes years to develop a policy framework and then start reporting on it. Anybody who aspires to be a pre-IPO company better start thinking about this. Some people think of ESG as some nice-to-have but it’s risk mitigation. It’s good management. By building those capabilities we’re going to get better at managing risks.

You can tell that I am a little passionate about this.

What excites you most about starting your new role at MaRS?

It’s like this great canvas upon which we’re all collectively making this great work of creativity that is going to contribute to the betterment of Canada. We can use those powers of innovation to solve some of society’s greatest challenges. How can you not get excited working on that every day?

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MaRS Discovery District
MaRS is the world's largest urban innovation hub in Toronto that supports startups in the health, cleantech, fintech, and enterprise sectors. When MaRS opened in 2005 this concept of urban innovation was an untested theory. Today, it’s reshaping cities around the world. MaRS has been at the forefront of a wave of change that extends from Melbourne to Amsterdam and runs through San Francisco, London, Medellín, Los Angeles, Paris and New York. These global cities are now striving to create what we have in Toronto: a dense innovation district that co-locates universities, startups, corporates and investors. In this increasingly competitive landscape, scale matters more than ever – the best talent is attracted to the brightest innovation hotspots.

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