Shiri Breznitz, director of research at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, speaks at a forum while Derek Newton, U of T’s assistant vice-president, innovation, partnerships and entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurs Aman Thind of Conavi Medical and Deepak Ramachandran of FundThrough look on (photo courtesy of U of T Government Relations Office)

The University of Toronto’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, as well as the talent and networks in the Toronto region, plays a key role in generating and nurturing startup companies – but challenges remain when it comes to scaling those startups into global players. 

That was among the takeaways from a recent policy forum hosted by U of T’s Government Relations Office and Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. 

The forum, part of the New Frontiers for Policymakers series, brought together decision-makers and U of T researchers to discuss how U of T startups’ experience can help inform programs that support companies to grow and scale.

“U of T is inarguably a startup creation engine in Ontario,” said Leah Cowen, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives. “Over the past decade, U of T researchers, clinicians and students have launched over 650 startups and created 10,000 jobs.

“Our researchers are commercializing research at the frontiers of knowledge – from AI and medical devices to legal services and materials discovery. These companies are improving lives, creating jobs and supporting Ontario’s economic growth.” 

Yet, while the U of T ecosystem has created some of Ontario’s fastest-growing companies, as ranked on lists such as MaRS Momentum and Deloitte Technology Fast 50, Canada continues to face challenges when it comes to scaling up companies into global leaders.

Shiri Breznitz, a professor and director of research a the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy in the Faculty of Arts & Science, moderated the conversation between startup and innovation leaders.  

An expert in entrepreneurship, innovation and technology, Breznitz said that despite Ontario’s talent, research and startup generation prowess, investments in research and development, and competitiveness in export markets remain barriers to company growth. 

“Achieving scale-up requires a diverse policy approach,” she said. 

The panellists – which included U of T alumni Aman Thind, who co-founded medical device-maker Conavi Medical Inc., and Deepak Ramachandran, who co-founded AI-powered invoice-financing platform FundThrough – discussed the supports that startups need in order to grow while identifying several barriers to scaling up businesses in Ontario.

They include:

  • Procurement: For medical device companies, it is often difficult to get their product into the health-care system due to regulatory barriers and risk-aversion. By becoming a first or early adopter of homegrown technologies, government and the broader public sector can help local companies grow and stay in Ontario. For example, U of T’s Buy Blue Program allows U of T entities to become the first buyer of products or services developed by new U of T startups at a discounted price.
  • Access to capital: It can be challenging for startups to secure sufficient capital in Ontario, prompting many founders to pursue funding opportunities in the United States. Some of these firms eventually relocate south of the border. For its part, U of T provides founders with exposure to funding and top tier investors through events like “Demo Days,” the more than $100,000 in non-dilutive funding awarded each year during Entrepreneurship Week and the investor-focused Deep Tech Download newsletter. 
  • Access to resources and networks: Navigating government programs and funding opportunities is challenging for startups. Organizations such as MaRS play a valuable role by helping founders identify relevant supports and a path to reach their next milestone. U of T’s 12-plus accelerators provides founders across U of T’s three campuses with a variety of supports, including go-to-market strategies, mentorship, networking events and incubation spaces. 
  • Access to a diverse set of skills: Talent is key to ensuring technology firms remain competitive. And for startups looking to scale, hiring individuals who previously scaled a company and possess strong sales and marketing skills is important. To this end, the university’s Startup Job Board helps startups in the U of T community connect with the talent they need to grow.  

“In recent years, we’ve seen a growing number of students who want to pursue entrepreneurship as a career path,” said Derek Newton, assistant vice-president, innovation, partnerships and entrepreneurship.

U of T offers 200 entrepreneurship-related courses, as well as a free Intellectual Property Education Program, noted Newton, who heads the university’s Innovations & Partnerships Office (IPO), a leader in patenting that files 75 priority patents applications and executing over 40 licensing and option agreements every year.

With support from partners, the university is also investing in more spaces for future entrepreneurs, including the Schwartz Reisman Innovation Campusthe Sam Ibrahim Centre for Inclusive Excellence in Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Leadership and UTM SpinUp – U of T’s first wet lab incubator.  

“U of T is committed to seeing these companies survive and thrive. Understanding what drives successful startup growth has huge implications for Ontario and Canada’s economy,” said Cowen. “This is why we are working to learn from our entrepreneurs and their experiences.”