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28 June 2017

Building a bridge from Toronto to Seoul – and back again

Comment from Rafi Hofstein, president and chief executive of Mars Innovation

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.

In the summer of 2016, we hosted a delegation from the institute 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 the institute 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 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 Kathleen Wynne’s trade mission to Korea, a memorandum of understanding was signed by the institute 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. 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 with 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, the institute implemented a competitive process to identify projects of high commercial potential. Researchers accompanied us to meet their institute counterparts and generate further leads. The four research projects chosen by the institute are in the areas of stem cell therapy for cancer surgery, tissue regeneration, therapeutic stem cell treatment for Alzheimer’s disease  and injectable biomaterials related to spinal cord injury. Once the program is fully operational, the agreement aims to generate a number of new startups.

Since our agreement with the institute became public, we have been approached by several similar organisations in other countries interested to learn about our 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. In addition to the benefit to individual startup companies, such strategic partnerships will expand and enhance both Canada’s and South Korea’s reputations 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 practice 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 a hundred years later, it is still thriving as the oldest and largest university hospital.

Mars Innovation is a not-for-profit organisation, supported by the Canadian government. Its mission is to convert the technologies built on the research of its member institutions into commercially viable startup companies or licensable assets. The Korean Health Industry Development Institute, is a government-affiliated institution that supports development of the Korea’s health industry. Since its establishment in 1999, it has led expansion of the healthcare R&D investment and helped build competitiveness in Korea’s healthcare industry.

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