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15 May 2017

Building a bridge from Toronto to Seoul – and back again

Rafi Hofstein provides an insight into how the collaboration between Mars Innovation and KHIDI was forged and what the partnership's impact will be.

Author: Rafi Hofstein, president and chief executive at Mars Innovation

Good ideas inspire us all. But good ideas do not always become reality. At Mars Innovation, we strive to make sure they do. For nearly 10 years now we have built a reputation as the bridge between the very best ideas among emerging technologies and today's marketplace. That means recognising what is truly innovative and, in turn, mentoring and advancing that ingenuity from an academic to a corporate setting.

Now, a new bridge is being built – a novel collaboration in biomedical and healthcare innovation and commercialisation between Mars Innovation and the Korean Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI), which will provide an important gateway for Ontario innovations into South Korea and Asia. See below for a summary of these two organisations.

Last summer, we hosted a delegation from KHIDI in Toronto to present some of our most promising portfolio companies and technologies. That visit led to a series of discussions around the potential for, and feasibility of, creating a commercialisation structure in South Korea modelled on the unique approach that Mars Innovation has taken to commercialisation, and which approach KHIDI wished to emulate, with the aim of commercialising research from its 10 affiliated hospitals.

The idea appealed to both organisations as there are many similarities between the two – both are affiliated with superior scientific and academic clusters, both have access to the highest level of outstanding research, both are funded to a certain degree by their respective governments, and governments in both Canada and South Korea have, as one of their stated policy objectives, a strong and vibrant innovation and commercialisation industry.

Late last year, in connection with Ontario Premier Wynne’s trade mission to Korea, a memorandum of understanding was signed by KHIDI and Mars Innovation, and just this past month further meetings took place in Seoul, coinciding with Bio Korea 2017, to put in place mechanisms for continued collaboration, and to take the first steps towards launching the partnership.

Mars Innovation met senior Korean government officials at both the municipal and national level to enhance science and technology collaborations, and explore new initiatives. We also met a number of local venture capital firms to strengthen investment and innovation collaboration around a new fund and to facilitate investments in Ontario.

Leading up to the trip, KHIDI implemented a competitive process to identify projects of high commercial potential from within its membership. Each of the researchers selected by KHIDI identified a researcher as a collaborator, all of whom represent one of Mars Innovation’s member institutions. These researchers accompanied us on the visit to meet their KHIDI counterparts and to generate further leads. The four research projects chosen by KHIDI are in the areas of stem cell therapy for cancer surgery, tissue regeneration, therapeutic stem cell treatment for Alzheimer's and injectable biomaterials related to spinal cord injury.

Once the program is fully operational, the agreement aims to generate a number of new startups and the attendant highly-skilled jobs.

Since our agreement with KHIDI became public, we have been approached by several similar organisations in other countries that are interested to learn about our unique business model and possible cooperation. This points to the clear need to forge a different path to the marketplace. It is no longer possible for a research institution to work in isolation – moving the promising science of a lab to the pragmatism found in a boardroom is too challenging to go it alone.

The work is intensive. Daunting cost considerations and extended timeframes are commonplace. Ontario, indeed Canada as a whole, has an incredible amount of superb research which unfortunately suffers from the all-too-familiar lack of venture capital or other funding. We believe that one buffer against the high failure rate in the early stages of commercialisation is to be found in vibrant global partnerships and a presence in other international jurisdictions.

These interactions will foster a rich exchange of ideas and accelerate scientific collaborations with the highest commercial potential. In addition to the benefit to individual successful startup companies, such strategic partnerships will expand and enhance both Canada and South Korea’s reputation as global innovation forces, and advance the respective economies by attracting foreign capital and creating high-quality jobs.

In 1893, a young doctor named Oliver Avison left Canada to practise medicine in Korea. Avison immersed himself in his new homeland but was frustrated by the low standard of healthcare at the time. A chance meeting with Louis Severance, who was a founding member of the Standard Oil Trust, led to a large donation to support missionary healthcare in Korea. In 1904, the Severance Hospital was opened as the first Western-style hospital in Seoul, and today, more than 100 years later, it is still thriving as the oldest and largest university hospital. Canada and Korea continue to collaborate on healthcare research, and Mars Innovation is proud and excited to partner KHIDI on this important work. Stay tuned – we are just getting started.


Mars Innovation is a not-for-profit organisation, supported by the federal government of Canada. Its mission is to convert the technologies built on world-leading research from its member institutions into commercially viable startup companies or licensable assets through its suite of commercialisation services, which include business development, company creation and deal-brokering services deals with industry and private investors.

The KHIDI is a government-affiliated institution which performs professional and systematic support to develop the Korean domestic health industry and enhance health services. Since its establishment in 1999, KHIDI has led expansion of healthcare R&D investment and is building the competitiveness of Korea's healthcare industry. KHIDI plays a major role in the industry development as the nation’s only organisation responsible for fostering the health industry.

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