Women in B2B: Landing on MaRS with Ilse Treurnicht

Ilse Treunicht
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This is the second instalment of our new profile series on B2Bnn: Women in B2B, sponsored by SqueezeCMM. With these profiles, you’ll learn about the careers and business goals of inspiring female leaders in the B2B industry. 

Ilse Treurnicht has always been intrigued by what she calls “the intersection of business, finance, breakthrough discovery and research, as well as public policy.”

Treurnicht is the CEO of the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. She oversees operations and development of the Centre, along with its extensive network of innovation and entrepreneurship programs. With MaRS since 2005, Treurnicht believes business acceleration happens when creative collaborations are forged between various partners; the Centre is uniquely placed to facilitate and develop those partnerships for greater business opportunities, both in Canada and abroad.

“Bringing together innovators from all different disciplines and all different backgrounds into a place where they come to work, and they build new forms of collaboration so that everybody’s effort accelerates, is a very powerful concept,” she explains. “It multiplies all the connections each of us might have at scale, and opens up so many new possibilities and intersections between disciplines, in areas that may not normally bump into each other.”

MaRS (which stands for Medical and Related Sciences) opened in 2005 within the former College wing of Toronto General Hospital, with its primary focus (at the time) on revolutionizing research in the life sciences field. Its initiatives have since expanded, and it supports a range of companies across a number of varied sectors. It offers a range of useful tools for all kinds of business, including funding, venture services, systems change, and facilities. The Centre supports Canadian businesses through its backing of more than one thousand ventures across a wide range of sectors, including cleantech, health, and information and communications technology.

The Centre’s connection with the B2B community is especially important, Treurnicht notes. “I think, increasingly, B2B firms are no different from most firms in the sense that they are facing extraordinary challenges and opportunities as a result of accelerating technology innovation, globalization, changes in demographics, consumers wanting to use products and services differently and their business models being fundamentally changed,” she explains. “There’s a need for established firms, whether Canadian or international, to connect more effectively to new ideas, to talent, to emerging technological platforms.”

MaRS is uniquely placed to connect not only businesses with other businesses and people, but with potentially useful ideas. “We work with about 1,000 startups across our priority sectors; we can work with established firms to really understand where their needs are, what they’re looking for, and make sure that they, in an efficient way, get connected, not only to not just a talent pipeline but a set of ideas that are gaining traction.”

Part of the goal of MaRS is to create what Treurnicht terms “critical connections” across those varying sectors. “We’ve doubled down into specific sub-clusters — retail and digital commerce, financial technology, energy and so on — to build deep partnerships with corporate partners so that we can more effectively help to connect those companies.”

Treurnicht notes that a fundamental element of innovation is serendipity, a quality that is amplified as more chances for success are cultivated, particularly through the Centre’s efforts to curate a “pipeline of new emergent innovation and identify those ones that have the most potential, and really double down on making sure they succeed not just in Canada but around the world.”

This international approach is especially vital for new businesses. “Our goal is to help them not just start and grow in a robust way, but also to get to scale, and that is (done) almost always through partnerships with customers,” Treurnicht explains, “building relationships with investors both locally and internationally, and hiring talent. One of the big challenges for Canadian companies is our local market is small, so these companies have to be global companies almost from the day they’re born.”

Treurnicht, who was President & CEO of Primaxis Technology Ventures prior to joining MaRS, has had the opportunity to work across what she terms “the continuum of innovation, the entire life cycle.” Having started her career in technology and science, Treurnicht has been able to take technology out of what she calls “the academic centre” and connect it with younger, newer firms keen to partner with larger organizations. “I’ve always been intrigued by the intersection of business, finance, breakthrough discovery and research as well as public policy, “ she explains.

Enter MaRS, a “neutral place, that’s not academe, that’s not business, that’s not government, but can bring all the actors together — not to have a nice conversation but to actually do something. I believe that’s fundamental to the challenge that we all have.”

Missed the first Women in B2B profile? Learn more about Manulife Financial’s Sandi Jones

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