When I tell people I work at MaRS, I usually get a doubletake—unless, I’m talking to someone with an understanding of the Toronto-based innovation hub that supports 1,400-plus startups throughout Canada. In 2017 alone, close to 13,000 jobs were created by ventures we supported and in the last decade, MaRS-supported companies have contributed $11.6 billion to Canada’s GDP.
The MaRS acronym was coined from our original focus on medical and related sciences back in 2005. Since then, our mandate has expanded, as well as our name: MaRS Discovery District. We support all technology startups, with a particular emphasis on those in cleantech, health, fintech and enterprise software. We work with the most promising new companies across the country, to help them grow, create jobs and provide solutions for the challenges we face today and in the future.
When is a startup a startup?
The word startup has countless definitions. To many, the word conjures up images of people working out of their basements or garages. To us, it includes any company that hasn’t yet reached the IPO (initial public offering) stage—whether you’re in your 15th year or have annual revenues in excess of $500 million. In fact, close to half of our startups are generating more than $1 million in annual recurring revenue, while the top 100 are inching towards the $1-billion mark. Whether they’re in start, grow or scale mode, we provide them with advisory support and access to talent, introductions to investors, as well as connections to partners.
The tech effect
While we’re on the subject of definitions, the term technology could also use some clarification. When most people think of technology, they envision the likes of Facebook, Google and so on. And yes, technology is a vertical (a niche) to be sure, but it’s also horizontal, cutting a wide swath across countless industries. Advanced manufacturing, the environment, agriculture and aquaculture, healthcare, finance … you name the sector, and chances are, technology is having a major impact on it. In fact, technology is often the catalyst that’s enabling growth in most of the mega verticals.
One of my tasks at MaRS involves helping later-stage companies explore new market opportunities to find customers. We help them prioritize which markets to enter, so they can identify their pilot market. This is key because it should be similar to the markets in which you want to scale. In essence, it informs your road forward.
When we think of going global, we don’t include the United States. To most Canadian tech startups, the U.S. is akin to their domestic market. Going global means getting into Europe, Asia Pacific and Latin America. In looking at any international market, it’s critical to evaluate the competition. Oftentimes, the companies we support are developing emerging technologies that don’t necessarily have a like-for-like competitor. But chances are, there’ll be some type of competitor out there, offering an alternate or similar solution, and competing for the same share of wallet.
We assist startups in evaluating their competition by helping them get answers to these fundamental questions:
- Who are they serving?
- How are they positioned?
- How good is their product?
- Is the market growing and can your competitors’ market share be quantified?
- Is the demand pie growing, or are you going to have to take a slice from the existing one?
4 tools to help you size up the competition
There are a number of resources that can help tech companies get a bead on the players already operating in international markets. Fair warning: some of these resources come with a hefty price tag. But if you’re a member of MaRS, these tools are available to you absolutely free. In fact, there are 17 regional innovation centres located throughout Ontario—MaRS is one—that are funded by the provincial Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade. Become a member of any of these hubs and you’ll typically enjoy free access to these incredible tools.
Keep in mind, searching on these databases isn’t your typical Google search. These are bespoke, world-class, proprietary databases that are populated with intelligence gathered by experts in all of the different jurisdictions.
- Crunchbase: Provides a search platform to find prospects, investments, investors and market research.
- IBISWorld: Accelerates business decision-making by providing insights and analysis on thousands of global industries.
- Gartner: Provides the most respected technology database out there, and offers insights, strategic advice and practical tools to achieve your mission-critical priorities.
- PitchBook: Lets you research and analyze companies, deals, funds, investors and service providers across the entire private investment lifecycle.
The innovation imperative
If I can offer one piece of advice to Canadian companies looking to go global, it’s this: embrace innovation. Innovation isn’t a business activity. It’s a mindset. It’s a cornerstone that should be embedded into your company’s foundation from Day 1 and the lifeblood that needs to flow within your entire organization, throughout its lifecycle.
You can fuel your innovation agenda in a variety of ways. It starts with the learnings accrued through activities in your local market. It’s enhanced by your experiences in international markets. In many ways, being centred in Canada provides a leg-up over other jurisdictions for the simple reason that we speak two official languages. Diversity of thought, culture and experiences—and yes, language—leads to human-centred solutions with widespread, meaningful applications, rather than just innovation for its own sake.
And remember: innovation isn’t always measured in leaps and bounds. Oftentimes, small, incremental steps can lead to huge impacts when adopted on a larger scale.
Interested in learning about the MaRS and EDC partnership? We’re helping Canadian science and technology companies with global potential to validate new market opportunities and expand internationally through a program called the International Solutions Suite. As an example of what this program will provide, check out the newly launched United Kingdom Country Guide.