OCRI well on the way to MaRS

t-patterson.jpg By Tony Patterson

This piece was first published in September 2006, just after Ontario put out $46 million in grants for various tech initiatives, "a smidgeon of which comes to OCRI." The money was to be dispensed by OCE and MaRS. What follows is the gist of what could be foreseen five years ago:

Then the premier of the province, The Honourable Dalton McGuinty, was given an award as "personailty of the year", partly for promoting research and innovation in Ontario. This honour, bestowed by by an obscure British financial publication, seems to have come the Premier's way because he named himself head of the new provincial ministry of research and innovation. A senior bureaucrat, whose continued employment depends on anonymity, allowed as how "McGuinty spoke in Chicago and there just happened to be a reporter there from the magazine."

Ontario is beginning to be taken seriously as a place where technological innovation happens. Perhaps most important, Ontario is beginning to take itself seriously in this regard. That's why it has MaRS.

And that's why it's circling around OCRI. The marketing mavens who have the ear of the premier are whispering, "branding, branding, we've got to put an Ontario brand on S&T and then deliver it internationally."

"Neat idea," says the Premier. "How do we do that?"

That's the $500,000 RFP that PR companies, ad agencioes and branding consultants are anxiously awaiting.

The $350 million Medical and Related Sciences Discovery District (MaRS) was started three years ago as "a world-class research and development facility that will accelerate the commercialization of innovative academic research in areas such as biotechnology, medical devices and genetics."

MaRS is largely a real estate and tech startup incubation facility, but it will not have escaped your notice that 'commercialization' is a big part of its mission.

There are those who argue that MaRS was set up to deal with medical technology, biotech, pharmatech, life sciences. Maybe so. But they snuck in that 'Related Sciences' tag and that innocent decision may prove the ultimate consideration.

There isn't much in the world of science that can't be related to medicine in some way. Artificial hearts are engineered, skin is made of natural and synthetic materials, energies are applied in various ways. Anything that doesn't have an obvious connection to medicine can be made to connect with enough creative thinking.

MaRS is a newboy on the block. But it's the right block. Hasn't done much yet. Hard to find (try googling it). Still it has become the darling of provincial politicians because it's new, it's sexy, it's in Toronto and it has a great sound to it.

As Ontario tries to build on its growing reputation for innovation, what should the centrepiece be? How should Ontario brand itself as a place to come for innovative products and processes?

I often muse on the odd place that OCRI has assumed locally. I'm sure not one in twenty people in Ottawa could tell you what OCRI is the acronym for (Ontario Centre for Research and Innovation, reborn a decade ago from Ottawa-Carleton Research Institute). If they do know, they wonder why that should be the name for Ottawa's economic development agency, which is what it has evolved into.

OCRI's people will argue that the name has great resonance, particularly abroad. It has been in use since 1984. It has been heavily promoted. OCRI has a solid reputation internationally as an essential part of the infrastructure that helped create Silicon Valley North. It developed networks within tech clusters and then ways for the various clusters to interact. It initiated non-competitive R&D test facilities that companies and government agencies could share. It has been innovative and it has inspired many copy-cat organizations.

OCRI is local. The name is known in Tokyo and Bangalore and San Jose as shorthand for a tech community. Probably not one in twenty thousand away from here could say what it stands for. But they likely know it's "Ottawa something."

MaRS, on the other hand, is neither local nor really specific. It could be something planetary. It could be anything and anywhere, which of course is just the blank sheet that branding experts like to work with. Give them enough money, they can make it mean whatever Ontario wants.

"Ontario, Canada, is an innovative place."

"How do you know?"

"Ontario has MaRS."

"Ahhh so."

That's the objective. MaRS Photonics has a real ring to it. MaRS Materials and Manufacturing. MaRS Energy.

And OCRI can say farewell to its proud titular heritage. Hello MaRS Ottawa.

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