The first-ever MaRS Impact Week — five days of virtual talks, workshops and panels — will focus on technological solutions to climate change, as well as the pandemic’s impact on work and the tech sector, and the role of venture capital investment in positive change.
Yung Wu, CEO of the tech incubator, said that in the years leading up to 2020, MaRS has seen exponential growth in the revenue, capital raised and employee footprint of the ventures and entrepreneurs it represents.
“There’s absolutely an inflection point going on in the innovation economy,” he said.
Though the seeds for Impact Week were planted before the pandemic, Wu believes the topics up for discussion are more important than ever as the recovery from the COVID-19 recession looms.
“We believe, especially in a post-COVID world, the new economy is actually being built on the back of the innovation economy,” he said.
“Post-pandemic, I would say the connection between the innovation economy and the new economy has become even stronger than ever.”
Many of the problems that existed before the pandemic, such as climate change, as well as issues created or exacerbated by the pandemic, can be solved using technology, Wu said.
He pointed to health and the climate as two areas where he believes Canadian companies are already seeing momentum. For example, technology has been key to mitigating the pandemic in terms of contact tracing and rapid testing.
Wu believes health technology will continue to grow post-pandemic, as will technology focused on solutions to the climate crisis.
Canadian companies leading the way in the area of climate solutions include CarbonCure, a company that recycles carbon from the concrete manufacturing process back into the concrete itself; and Ranovus, which is working on reducing the heat footprints of data centres, he said.
“Canada has ruled the energy space, but we should be and could be the future of energy as well,” said Wu.
The conference will have three virtual stages, each with a theme: impact, cleantech and social finance.
Torstar is a media sponsor for the event, which runs Nov. 20 to Dec. 4. It includes speakers from companies such as OpenText, Mitacs and Lane, as well as experts such as Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto, political commentator David Frum and political scientist and author Thomas Homer-Dixon.
One such expert addressing the event is Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington and author of “The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America,” which delves into the history of Silicon Valley.
She’ll discuss whether Silicon Valley is a model that can — or should — be duplicated, and about the role of venture capital funding in positive change and the post-COVID recovery.
Venture capital funding will be a big part of tackling the post-COVID recovery, as well as lasting problems such as climate change, she said, adding government needs to be involved to incentivize the right kind of growth.
“If there are government pools of money that are creating market opportunity, the private money will follow,” she said.
Unlike during the last recession, O’Mara said investment needs to be made in all sectors of the economy to ensure a more equitable recovery.
However, the pandemic has also shown that “software can only do so much,” she said.
“I think the answer is recognizing where the limitations (are).”
O’Mara said COVID has been a big disruption, but added it has also created opportunities — such as the increased flexibility of working from home — that she hopes will create lasting change.
“I think COVID has provided this strange rupture that creates space for change,” she said.
“Change is going to happen. The question is, what is it going to look like?”