Toronto’s MaRS Centre for Impact Investing is a powerful hub where entrepreneurship and funding come together.
As a research centre, incubator and accelerator for impact startups, MaRS is stimulating the emergence of a new business culture that combines profit and social benefits. We talked with Adam Spence, associate director, a few days before his arrival in Montreal.
Can you explain what MaRS does?
Our mission is to close the gap between what individuals need and what the various levels of government offer them. We work with an extensive network of partners to help entrepreneurs launch and develop their social innovation initiatives, whether they’re private companies or not-for-profit organizations. We give entrepreneurs what they need most – a home with access to an extensive network and solid sources of funding. We set up mentoring sessions between these organizations and successful entrepreneurs so they can develop their market intelligence, but also find the capital they need to advance their ventures. Last but not least, our objective is to help them optimize their social impact.
What are some of the Centre’s major achievements since its inception?
Since we were founded in 2000, we have successfully injected over a billion dollars in funding for social innovation ventures, thanks in particular to support from partners such as Cisco, CIBC and the Ontario government. This is a great accomplishment, but also proof that social innovation isn’t simply a fad, but a truly viable alternative for the future.
We’ve also prompted the federal government to change its position on social innovation, by making it realize this is an area of investment with great potential. Supporting this type of economy has become one of the priorities of the current federal government. Of course, we’re also very proud of the success of organizations that have gone through our financing programs. There’s Morgan Solar, for example, which has become a market leader in solar technology, and Lucky Iron Fish, which is dedicated to fighting iron deficiency, a problem that affects over 20% of the world’s population.
We are also proud of our recent expansion to Quebec, especially with respect to Impact8, an investment-readiness program launched in partnership with Esplanade, to help high-potential social ventures attract funding and scale their impact.
How is what you do relevant for “traditional” businesses?
We’ve always been interested in fostering connections between big businesses, SMBs, startups and not-for-profit organizations. For “traditional” businesses, establishing a partnership with us, and in general, connecting to the world of social innovation, is an opportunity for them to transform their organizational culture and their values. This in turn can help transform their business philosophy, potentially bringing it closer to the philosophy held by certified B Corps. It also gives them an opportunity to get more in step with the demand from consumers who are increasingly looking to build relationships with responsible companies that have a positive impact on their environment.
What’s your view on the status of social innovation in Canada today?
Social innovation has never been so strong in Canada! Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia are doing a fantastic job at developing this new vision across Canada. Bigger and bigger investors are starting to commit to financing social innovation ventures – and not just in the large urban centres. The new federal government is fully onboard with this too, having committed to advancing the social innovation agenda in Canada and making it a priority of its economic policy. Another piece of excellent news is the announcement recently made during the Global Social Economy Forum that Montreal will be getting a Maison de l’innovation sociale, similar to other social innovation hubs elsewhere in Canada.